Category Archives: Gender

The Intersection of Intersex and Trans Issues

The Intersex Issue is a big theme in sex/gender ontology discussions because intersex conditions often throw a wrench in the easily-classifiable-sex-binary enterprise.  Intersex conditions are medical conditions that make someone difficult to classify as either biogentically “male” or “female” by the usual metrics of chromosome karyotype, genital morphology, gonadal tissue, and perhaps sex hormone profile for those later in life.  An intersex person can, for example, have a “male” karyotype of XY and have female sex organs and produce enough estrogens and other hormones to develop female secondary sex characteristics.  Such intersex people can live a relatively normal life (for lack of a better term) as long as they can outwardly pass for one or the other typical sexual anatomy and body morphology.  However, some intersex people have conditions render them not merely as having anatomies incongruent with the expectations of genetics or other features, but as individuals who don’t fit easily into one category or the other.  Some may have ambiguous genitalia—genital morphology that is something “in between” a penis and scrotum on the one hand and a vulva on the other.  In some extremely rare cases, intersex people can have both.  They can also have all kinds of karyotypes beyond XX and XY, and genetic chimera are individuals who have some cells with one karyotype and other cells with another.  Intersex conditions are relatively common in the scheme of things, perhaps as much as 1 in 1000 people.  Any time you’re in a shopping mall, the statistics suggest that you’re probably shopping with a few people with some kind of intersex condition.  They may not even be aware of their condition themselves.

The Intersex Issue seems like a huge win for those espousing ontologies of sex and gender that are not binary and not contingent upon things such as genital morphology, karyotype, or hormone profile.  If things aren’t so cut and dry, then it demonstrates that society has been perfectly fine all along accepting XY folks as women and people with pseudo-vulvas and gynemastia (female breast tissue) and XXY karyotypes as men, so what’s the big deal with allowing unambiguously male people to live as women and unambiguously female people to live as men and either to live as another gender category altogether (i.e., a nonbinary gender identity)?  What’s the point of hanging onto something that was never true in the first place? And by something that was never true in the first place, I mean specifically that certain anatomical and genetic features necessarily force you into a specific sexed/gendered existence along a reproductively male/female binary.

Despite how compelling the Intersex Issue is in supporting ontologies of sex and gender that allow for the consideration of trans men as being unequivocally men and trans women as being unequivocally women, there seem to be people still taking issue with this.  In my time observing arguments between Twitter mutuals and TERFs, I’ve noticed a particular person often shows up whenever the discussion of the ontology of sex and gender moves to the Intersex Issue. This person claims to be intersex and uses this as a cudgel: “I’m intersex.  Don’t use my issues to support your ‘transgenderism’.  You are appropriating my struggle.”  The only thing being appropriated here is left-wing language, but I’m not writing this to “own” this person in particular.  TERFs are just trolls.  I’m writing this for the victims of their abuse and those still on the fence who might be compelled by such a response.  I want to say that I wholeheartedly disagree with such a take, even though the take is obviously given in bad faith anyway and is just meant as a “gotcha” to silence trans women seeking to justify their view of gender by using the Intersex Issue as a point of discussion.

Being intersex and being trans are not mutually exclusive issues because intersex trans women exist (and intersex nonbinary people and trans men, for that matter).  Someone can be intersex and desire not to live as the gender assigned to them.  They may still have to see a psychologist and an endocrinologist, have to undergo surgeries and hormone replacement therapy, and have to struggle with convincing some people that they are a gender that may not line up with certain aspects of their body morphologies that defy gendered expectations of how they “should” look or sound.

So what do intersex people need?  They need unique medical care.  They need the freedom to live as they feel suits them best.  They need a society that recognizes them so that they can receive this medical care and have the legal right to be who they are without discrimination.  They also need a society that is more welcoming of them and compassionate, a society full of people who accept them so that they don’t feel like foreigners in their own lands, some kind of sex/gender outcasts looked upon with amusement, suspicion, or even hatred.  If this sounds remarkably like the things transgender folks needs, it’s because it is.  Intersex folks may not have the exact same struggle with gender and sex that transgender people have, but they can have broadly similar needs.  It’s not hard to imagine why the TERFs of Twitter can only seem to find one token intersex person to agree with them: anyone who has ever dealt with intersex conditions and the dysphoria often associated with at least some of them would obviously sympathize with any trans person!

So to that token Twitter rando and all the people who tag them into every conversation in order to score some rhetorical points over the trans women they abuse, no, you are not allowed to speak for intersex people.  Intersex issues intersect with trans issues, and this is especially true when you consider that lots of intersex people are also trans (and some trans people may be intersex without knowing it).  The struggles of intersex people, trans people—and yes, intersex trans people too—cannot be dismissed so easily by people who are just looking to score rhetorical points in their profoundly disturbing and malevolent quest to hurt trans women in any way they can.

Don’t appropriate the struggle of intersex folks to give yourself ammunition to spew your venom at trans women.

A Plain Jane Theory of Sex Differances, Or: Jonesing for Some Sexy Oppression

In this scene, Jane Clare Jones, our star bigot, our astro-TERF attempts to Clarefy sex and sex-based oppression. I, a brainless rube, become confused, certainly on account of my brainlessness, and ask for further Clarefication. Jones obliges, to little effect. Our brainless rube is just too brainless.

Roll cameras! Action!

Skip the dinner and small talk: Jones wants to begin with sex. A little forward for my liking, but let’s role with it. Sex is not just “a very complex mix of chromosomes, hormones, and genitals.”[1] It has much more to do with “gametes and reproductive function.” It’s true! Sex is the system of categorisation we use to understand whether two individuals can productively copulate to produce viable offspring. XY/XX, testosterone/estradiol, penis/vagina, sperm/egg, nurturing mother/deadbeat dad. Sex is a binary. It is . . . wait, Sex isn’t a binary? “THAT IS NOT A FUCKING BINARY,” says Jones.

Okay, so what’s a binary? “A binary,” she says, “is a conceptual hierarchy which is formed by taking a term with a dominant positive value and creating a subordinate value by negating the privileged qualities of the dominant term.” Male/female (sex, that is) is not a binary. Masculine/Feminine (sex(?), that is) is a binary. Glad we Clared that up. Oh no, wait, I sexed it. Masculine/Feminine is gender. Okay, got it. Gender is the “ur-binary, to the extent that ALL of the binary pairs which structure Western thought . . . are gendered.” Sex, on the other hand, is not a binary because it is a “natural difference.” Apparently we in the West didn’t realise this at first because our thought “is so thoroughly gendered that [we] are incapable of thinking the difference ‘male/female’ without thinking it’s (sic) cultural hierarchisation . . .”

Good, good. Now that we know that sex is just a difference between individuals on account of their reproductive function and that there is no hierarchy granted on those grounds, we know what the cause of women’s oppression is: it is the cultural hierarchy of masculine over feminine, of man over woman. So trans women, as women, are oppressed just like cis women, for both are tokens of the same cultural type. They wear their hair long, care needlessly about their figure, read romance novels instead of build motors, and all the other things that women do that are not predicated on their reproductive function. To solve this oppression, then, we need  . . . Huh? What? Oh no: I’ve gone and gendered it up again. “You are committed to an ideology,” she says, “that means you can’t recognise . . . that female people are oppressed qua female people—that is, on the basis of their sex.” Now I’m confused.

I’m Jonesing for a Clarefication here! She obliges: “Male people commit violence . . . because of the structure of patriarchal gender.” Yeah, so men think women are weak and passive and emotional and irrational, and that these characteristics are worse, so they abuse and rape them, they pay them less, they don’t grant them political power, and so on. I got that. So when do we get to the sex? Jones says that “women are oppressed on the basis of their sex.” Okay . . . I realise that reproductive function sets women back in their careers because of child-bearing, and financially in other ways because feminine hygiene products cost money, but what about all the more heinous stuff? Women are raped. Women are catcalled and harassed. These are truly terrible. Trans women get raped too. Quite frequently. They get catcalled and harassed. But they can’t bear children. Rape and harassment have little to do with reproductive function. They are cultural signifiers of power. Cis women don’t have that power. Neither do trans women. Both are oppressed. Now, there are certainly avenues of oppression that cis women face that trans women don’t. Absolutely. But there are likewise avenues of oppression that trans women face that cis women don’t. Trans women face much higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. They live shorter lives. They have more difficulty accessing medical care and have higher rates of disease as a result.

“Stop it with your baseless hierarchy of suffering lady!” Oh no, I’ve made her angry! “You think playing people’s wounds off against each other is going to get us somewhere good, you dangerous idiot???” Wow, okay, rude. I didn’t know I was being dangerous. All suffering is important. I just wanted to know, Dr. Jones, how cis women are oppressed on account of their sex when all of the major threats arise from their gender. I mean, trans men, though female, often don’t face the same threats that cis women, or even trans women, do. So please, Clarefy. Please.

Here we go: Trans women, she says, “are male people who are performing femininity in a way that violates the first rule of patriarchal masculinity.” Uh, sure. But I’m a fairly gracile man. I wear nail polish and sew. I’ve never been catcalled. Not even once. Nor raped. That’s not even a common thing for more effeminate men than me, or at least not nearly as common as it is for cis women or trans women. And why do these two explanations, that trans women don’t live up to the masculine standard, and that cis women have a female reproductive role, happen to explain the same phenomena? What are the chances of that?! Especially since many men don’t have x-ray vision and can’t see that trans women happen to have testes and a Y-chromosome. Like, I know men are attentive and discerning, but I didn’t know we could see hidden, invisible things!

So is that all? Is there nothing else? No? Okay. OKAY!!

Gender and sex are inextricably bound. They are not coextensive; they vary. But they are nevertheless joined like weights by a string, one heavier and one lighter. They shift around with time but at different rates. And yet no one can control either. They both stand independent of us to a large extent. Neither can just be wished away.

But what that means then is that trans women are women. They may differ from cis women in some ways of course: this, after all, is what the “trans” signifies. But their oppression is women’s oppression. Their oppression can be ameliorated by abolishing gender. And what that means is that we don’t demonise them, we don’t add further avenues to their intersection. We accept them and listen to them and support them as we ought to accept and listen and support cis women. But as our support for black women differs from white, disabled women differs from abled, lesbian women differs from straight, so too must our support for trans women differ from cis. Jones, in her infinite smugness, just doesn’t get that.

BOOM!

(Do I get a Prince?)

That’s a wrap! Good job, everyone; let’s get this to the cutting room.

 

Notes

[1] All quotations are from Jane Clare Jones, https://janeclarejones.com/2018/11/20/burble-burble-intersex-burble-social-construct-burble-burble-trans-women-are-women-sally-hines-on-womans-hour/

A Response to Stock

Kathleen Stock published an article earlier this month on why she believes self identification isn’t sufficient to legally consider one a woman. Her primary objection is that allowing gender reassignment based on self identification without medical certification would harm those she considers to be the original occupants of the category woman.

Stock claims that it’s clear that women only spaces such as changing rooms, hostels, and prisons should be based on sex category, which she thinks is necessary for female* protection. But this is not clear. The only reasoning she provides is that most trans women don’t have bottom surgery, and that many have a sexual orientation towards females. Both of these should be rejected. The latter is straight up homophobic, and in fact has been used against lesbian cis women as well. If anything should be clear, it’s that attraction to women in itself doesn’t harm women. The former implies that male violence towards women stems at least partly from biology, or at best that we should discriminate against people based on sharing any similarities in physical features with groups more likely to commit violence, regardless if there’s any evidence that they themselves are a risk, and to date, there is little evidence to support the idea that trans women are at more risk to commit violence towards women. The only evidence given by those who do believe that trans women are more prone towards violence are anecdotes, some of which are difficult to even confirm if true or not. While there are few studies, there has been one (oddly popularized by TERFs) showing that trans women aren’t more of a risk than cis women. There has also been a study done comparing crime reports among cities that adopted trans friendly policies for public restrooms and those who hadn’t, showing that there was no difference in crime. We can also look to Ireland, which has allowed trans people to legally change their gender based on self declaration since 2015. Even if we were to agree that separation is necessary if there was a risk, we have no sufficient reason to believe there is one.

She also argues that allowing self identification would harm cis women by granting trans women access to women only resources and protections, assuming that these are in place only for females and ought to be that way. Under common objections to her position, she attempts to refute the claim that trans women are more at risk in certain spaces such as in men’s prisons and face discrimination in the workplace by linking murder rates in various countries, which says nothing about their high risk within those specific contexts. It’s comparable to saying there’s little evidence for female oppression because they have lower overall rates of being murdered compared to males. But even if she were to accept that trans women are abused and mistreated, she believes this isn’t adequate enough to allow them access to women only spaces and resources, saying that instead there should be funding for resources and spaces specifically to trans women. While I would agree that there should be resources specifically for trans people that trans women should have access to, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have access to women’s resources and spaces as well.

I could cite various statistics showing that trans women face similar or higher risks than cis women, but I would agree that this alone doesn’t necessitate allowing access to women’s spaces and resources. Gay men face increased risk of rape and sexual assault in prison as well, however I have yet to see anyone advocating that they be moved to women’s prisons. If we accept segregated spaces based on the fact that one group is oppressed (Stock writes that if females weren’t systematically disadvantaged then self identification would not be an issue), then we would have to show anyone wanting access is oppressed similarly. Statistics are not enough as they can be interpreted in multiple ways. Here, listening to trans women would be vital. Much of feminist theory began with consciousness raising, listening to women, and drawing from their experiences and insights. When one includes trans women in their analysis of women’s oppression, one can easily see that that they are oppressed as women, just like any other woman, especially when one takes into consideration that not all women face oppression as women in the exact same way all the time. Women can face other oppressions, and sometimes those can combine in a way that can’t be separated. Trans women may face transphobia, but this does not exclude them from misogyny, and the two can’t always be separated so the misogyny they face may sometimes differ from the misogyny cis women face. Ignoring differences among women is what harms women. It prevents women from fully analyzing women’s oppression and it leaves many women left behind. Trans women rightfully deserve resources and protections as women, as that is how they are socially situated. It doesn’t matter if females are the majority of women. Nor would it matter if throughout much of history it was only females who were oppressed as women (this is doubtful but most anti trans feminists seem to believe so). Looking towards the past may be helpful, but it would be absurd to ignore what the current conditions are.

*I will be trying to use the word female in this post the same as Stock does. The way she uses it can be argued against, but focusing on that in this post would distract from the main argument.

Trans Women are Women

(Possibly a work in progress)

A common question asked by TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) is “what is a woman?” They often ask this with an answer already in mind, that woman is a adult human female. This is meant to exclude trans women from belonging to women as a class. Since the exclusion of trans women appears to be their primary motivation in how they define women, they reject any other answer, often claiming that the only other answer available is circular and rests only on self definition. This is blatantly false, and one can find other definitions easily even within radical feminism.

While woman and female are commonly used interchangeably, there is no reason to believe that they must share a definition, or that they should. In fact for decades feminists have argued that they mean very different things, with female reflecting biology and woman reflecting gender. There are exceptions as it can be difficult to fully separate the two, but often within feminist circles the thinking is opposite of what TERFs claim, in which female is just another way of referring to one’s gender (social position) rather than the other way around. Catharine MacKinnon and Christine Delphy are two prominent examples of feminists who have such beliefs.

Before moving on, I think it’s important to address why the question is important at all. Feminists claim to be fighting for women, as a social group or class. Determining who belongs to such a social group is necessary for feminist analysis and activism as it gives us a way to discover what the issues are and focus on plans of action to rectify them. This is where the issue of self definition comes in if there is nothing to ground it. If woman can mean anything, and anyone can be a woman, there is concern that feminism will be obfuscated; women harmed under patriarchy will then be ignored. I think the fear here is unwarranted. There are many instances of feminist action that do not apply to all women, but are still considered important. Feminists recognize (or should recognize) that women consist of individuals with differences. Ignoring those differences and how misogyny and sexism manifests itself within different contexts does a disservice to women, only fighting for some women rather than all. Classifying women as adult human females may seem like an easy way to address the above fear, but there’s also the concern that doing so hinders feminist analysis and ignores the plight of some women.

This is of course all only within the context of trying to determine who is oppressed and who is oppressing in relation to sex/gender hierarchies. A feminist definition of man and woman isn’t necessarily the only definition available. One could be a woman under a feminist understanding while being another gender in a different context. What I’m most interested in however is the feminist understanding of gender and my focus here will be providing a feminist definition that is inclusive to trans women.

I believe a much better definition of what constitutes a woman is what is implied above. Woman is a social position, that social position being one of subordination within a patriarchal context. Haslanger provides a materialist account of this, in which a person is a woman if they are observed or imagined to have certain physical characteristics related to being female and this is used to mark them as a member of the subordinate gender (woman). I would argue however that markers don’t necessarily need to be physical characteristics even if the case most of the time.

Sveinsdóttir gives a broader account in what she calls a conferralist framework. Here, woman is a conferred property. Similar to Haslanger, this is dependent on perception, but it differs in which physical characteristics are only one of the grounding properties that might be tracked. This, in my view, gives a much better account of our social reality allowing for differences in people’s perceptions of gender.

Using Sveinsdóttir’s framework, we can say that a woman under a feminist context is one that is oppressed as a woman, as that is the grounding property feminists seek to track. What it means to be oppressed as a woman however would differ depending on the context and what is being tracked and conferred by members of the dominant group. The grounding property then could be a number of things including reproductive potential, sexual roles, or even self identification.

I will likely expand on this post with future blog posts, but I hope I have achieved my goal in this post of providing a non-circular definition of woman that is inclusive to trans women and is better suited towards feminist aims than the definition TERFs advocate for.

The Exaggeration of Trans Identities in Ancient and Indigenous Cultures

There’s no question that Western colonialism (and non-Western colonialism, which also exists by the way) was bad and is bad.  I am also not so much of a Western cultural imperialist to suggest that Western culture has, necessarily, been a net benefit to anyone where it has been foisted upon them violently and where it has displaced a native culture.  However, one of the decolonization talking points that has always struck me as odd is the following indictment: if it were not for Western colonialism, the idea of a gender binary would not exist in many cultures today.

I confess to a certain amount of ignorance about a wide array of cultures, both ancient and modern, but this claim has always struck me as specious.  I am not necessarily doubting that some ancient and indigenous cultures have had room for a proverbial “third sex” or a flexibility of gender roles.  There are a few notable examples that come to mind: the Galli priest(esse)s of the ancient Mediterranean and the similar eunuch priest(esse)s of the cult of Atar’atheh in the Levant, the “two-soul” people of certain Native American cultures, the hijra of Indian, the fa’afafine of Samoa, and so forth.  There are some that could be offered as well that are much more of a stretch, like the ergi men of Scandinavian lore, who may better be described as men accused of effeminacy rather than a separate gender identity.  Perhaps even the castrati associated mostly with 16th, 17th, and 18th century operatic male soprano practice could be considered another stretch, depending on how loosely one chooses to define a third sex.  However, were these third sexes really all that common?  Furthermore, when and where they existed, are they at all comparable to the modern notion of transgender and nonbinary identities?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that first question, and I fully admit that I’m not particularly interested in taking the time to track down every possibility.  I feel that most of what I would find may be exaggerated anyway, much like my examples of the ergi and castrati above, both of which can only disingenuously be called gender roles of their own and are not comparable to a third sex or a trans identity.  (And indeed, since castrati are very clearly part of a relatively modern Western European tradition, it would mean that even “the West” has had a messier view of gender than the oppressive and absolute binary which it is blamed for propagating.)  The second question, however, is much easier to answer, and it becomes quite easy to dispute the decolonizer talking point that the West is responsible for a rigid gender binary that is practiced throughout the world.

For one, I think it’s safe to say that most world cultures have practiced a relatively strict gender binary throughout human history, and the examples usually proffered are the exception, not the rule.  Let’s be honest: what percentage of human cultures that have existed have truly had a third (or fourth or fifth) gender role that was an accepted part of their societies?  Is it even ten percent?  Five percent?  Less?  Secondly, how many cultures with additional gender roles gave those roles dignity?  The hijra, for example, have a history of merely being tolerated, an otherwise unwanted part of society that was nevertheless deemed useful in certain kinds of religious rites.  Indeed, it seems that a lot of third sex roles in societies were subject more to toleration than to anything resembling true acceptance, and these people represented the fringe of their society’s generally accepted behavior at best.  Perhaps there’s something to be said for a culture that allows the existence of these folks at all rather than denying or erasing them entirely the way the Protestant West has had a history of doing, but the irony is that it’s probably the progressive West that is now beginning to make strides for those third sex individuals.  (I’m not trying to say that this makes colonization ok by any means, and it’s impossible to know how these cultures would have fared in terms of trans acceptance if they had been allowed to continue uninterrupted.)

It should also be noted that third sex roles can almost never be considered comparable to the modern and mostly Western idea of transgender identities.  For one, many third sex people in such societies seem to have been placed there without their consent, which is no different than being assigned male or female at birth.  If you behaved a certain way or showed certain traits, you were pushed into a role that you may not have wanted in the first place.  Just because there’s more than two gender roles, it doesn’t mean that the gender roles themselves were any less strict or more fluid or that individuals had the right to assert their identities without censure or persecution.  It’s actually kind of comical in its absurdity to imagine a third sex individual being “transgender” themself, i.e., being forced into a third sex identity but wishing they were a man or a woman instead.  Second, the idea of trans identities is still more or less a modern, Western concept.  Many third sex roles are contingent upon certain kinds of social structures (which, by the way, were universally patriarchal despite an additional gender role being added to the society) or even religious beliefs.  In fact, the use of third sex people as priest(esse)s, healers, or prophet(esse)s and mystics seems to make up the bulk of third sex roles I’ve seen proposed by decolonizer folks.  Without intending to be glib, it’s kind of like calling celibate Catholic clergy a third gender simply because their existence is solely predicated upon the completion of religious rites and not on the normal patriarchal binary of fathering and mothering children (i.e., the binary identities of man and woman, respectively, in a strongly patriarchal society).  Were the Galli really a third sex, or just homosexual eunuchs who were tolerated as necessary for the sake of Cybeline rites?  Did such “trans” people as the Galli, if they were indeed such, take on that identity for devout religious purposes, or was the Cybeline cult simply a haven for them to express their gender identities in a society that was otherwise hostile to them?  We can only speculate, and therein lies the problem with many of the proposed examples of historical third sex roles in these societies.

I think the discussion of third sex roles and supposedly nonbinary identities in non-Western cultures leaves us with more questions than answers.  I think it’s pretty clear that the supposedly trans and nonbinary identities found in (a very small amount of) indigenous and pre-modern cultures were not at all comparable to the modern idea of being transgender or nonbinary, and, in the very least, were probably just as restrictive considering the patriarchal cultures in which they existed.  In short, I think the rumors that the sex binary is a particularly Western Protestant invention foisted upon the world, and that the gender constructs of other societies were/are less oppressive (especially to trans-identifying people today, such as they are), are greatly exaggerated . . .