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Women's Bodies

On Gender Binaries

This will be a very short post, because to say what I am wanting to say right now doesn't require a whole lot of words. 

Amp over at Alas linked to a post the brilliant and amazing Yawning Lion of Feh-Muh-Nust wrote recently in which she asked precisely how transitioning from one sex to another is supposed to challenge, disrupt, or end the binary of gender under heteropatriarchy.   I'm referencing the Alas post mostly because it is what is provoking me to write this post, and it doesn't seem quite right not to say that.  I am not going to comment on Amp's post or on the specifics of Yawning Lion's post.

I am just going to say this.  On the day when human beings, of whatever sex, can wake up in the morning and present, live, be any way they choose, without respect to what male heterosupremacy forces on us because we are born male, female or intersex, on that day we will be able to say that there is no gender binary.  I think there is one way and one way only for us to arrive at that destination:  by living any way we want to, presenting any way we like, doing anything we like, and continuing to identify as men or women, not because there is anything essential in or about being a man, or being a woman, but for the opposite reason:  because there is nothing essential in or about being a man or a woman, or about being born male or female.  A man can do, be, look like, present as, dress like, live, in any way he chooses and still be a man.  A woman can do, be, look like, present as, dress like, live in any way she chooses and still be a woman.  When it becomes impossible to determine, on the basis of how people live or present,  whether they are male or female, at that point the concept of gender will be meaningless.  Revolution will be a fait accompli.

So long as there is this idea that presenting or living in a certain way means a person ought to "transition," or ought to "change sex," or ought to "identify as" one sex or another, there will be no revolution.  There will simply continue to be human beings conforming to gender stereotypes and identifying as "men" and "women" on the basis of how male heterosupremacy has defined those stereotypes.

It's just not that complicated.




11 thoughts on “On Gender Binaries

  1. This reminds me of hearing a woman brag about how her boyfriend told her approvingly that she “fucked like a man” and I remember thinking that every way women fucked was by definition “fucking like a woman”. I was once a woman who burned for male approval so I know why it so pleased her to have an alpha raise her from the lowly beta-like tribe of fuckers into the alpha-like tribe of fuckers. A few years earlier I might have responded to such a statement by one of my lovers with the same dog-gets-Scooby-snack way, but now I see the backhanded compliment saying “you fuck like a man” is a to a woman.

    I guess my point with that is mostly that gender hierachies stink and we’re far from a world without human characteristics being rigidly split into the pitifully inadequate binary of mannish or womannish.

    Posted by Sam | April 28, 2006, 4:28 pm
  2. Hear, hear! 🙂 I don’t think it’s anyone’s “duty” to feminism to be anything but themselves. The whole idea that trans people “need” to act like X or Y or else they’re perpetuating the gender binary is ridiculous. (And who says that trans people’s goal is to undermine the gender binary? Isn’t it enough to just want to be comfortable and happy with themselves — which, as far as I can tell, is most people’s reason for transition? No one really has a duty to any larger movements like feminism unless they choose to be involved.) It’s throwing out one set of narrow and rigid gender roles and supplanting it with another. It doesn’t solve anything and alienates those who should be our allies.

    Posted by earlbecke | May 1, 2006, 6:00 pm
  3. A hearty and resounding bah humbug to you, too, piny! I thought this was the day we were going to blog for radical fun, think about why we appreciate each other, kick back, party and so on, and here you are, being a total grouch. Gah.

    You too, Jay Sennett. And nice to meet you, we haven’t had the pleasure yet, I don’t think. :/

    It will be a very long time, if it ever happens, before I debate the feminist politics of transitioning again. I have done that to death, I have paid, in real and material ways, for having argued for and for having defended a currently-unpopular, not-trendy radical feminist, lesbian separatist position, and at some point, you know, it’s just enough.

    But I want to say this to you. I will go to the mat for you, politically– for your civil rights and for your human rights. I will go to the mat for you, defending you, even if I do deeply disagree with you politically about some of these issues. In our online interaction, I will do whatever I can to evidence respect for you; I will not call you out of your name in any way, shape or form, not intentionally. If I flub up, I will sincerely apologize. Where there are efforts underway to enact legislation or ordinances which would discriminate against you, I will fight them in every way I can. I will stand up for you. I will be on your side.

    This is all to say, yes, I disagree with you politically when it comes to issues around gender and transitioning, and I cannot with integrity pretend otherwise. I can’t keep silent, I can’t not speak up, use my own voice, register my own view. That’s what feminism is to me. That’s what it is to live out my politics and to use my own one voice.

    That does not mean I don’t see or get your position, that I don’t have respect for you, or most importantly, again, that I won’t fight for you against haters, if and when it comes to that. I will. There is never any justification for discrimination of any kind against any marginalized group, or for hatred of any kind. I will never approve it, endorse it, or ignore it. I give you my word on that.

    I know you’re going to bring up Michigan, and I don’t want to spend a bunch of time talking about this stuff today, so let me just cut to the chase and say what I have to say and get it out of the way. Yes, I have, and I will, also go to the mat in defense of woman-only space. I believe that my people — the people of women — have a right to our own spaces and to define and defend the boundaries of our own spaces. If you argue that with me, and if I decide to engage your arguments, I will defend my own position to the best of my ability and with all the energy I can muster (all the while doing my best not to disrespect you, personally). I believe my position to be an eminently defensible and eminently feminist position.

    Having said all of that, you know what? Those who show up on the Land in August who share your views can expect to receive nothing but courtesy from me. Like a good woman on the Fest boards said about a different issue, “If they’re feelin’ it…” I am not your enemy, just as you are not mine, and I would will never ever argue that you are.

    (Also posted at Feministe)

    Posted by womensspace | May 5, 2006, 7:56 pm
  4. “because there is nothing essential in or about being a man or a woman, or about being born male or female. ”

    but see, there is. females are born with vaginas. males are born with penis’. intersex people are born with both, either, neither, or non-conforming gentials. and each of those sets of genitals might be used sexually. and not everyone born with a specific set are able to use what they have. so they change them, surgically. no. not mutilate, but surgically alter to better suit who they are and how they best interact socially. and being a person with a vagina is not someone you’d want to be if you found yourself in a men’s prison block.

    this is the reality of being transsexual. and the elimination of the gender binary is not going to change the danger that trans people face in prison (which i use merely as one example), or the reality that males and females, essentially, are born with male or female sexual and reproductive organs.

    i don’t expect that you’ll approve this post for publication on your blog, as i know you keep your blog and website essentially women only, and i know you don’t see me as a woman. but i hope you’ll read it, and i hope you’ll try to understand. i’ve done my best to respect you and your positions. i can only hope you’ll return that respect.

    Posted by nexyjo | May 5, 2006, 11:55 pm
  5. You know what, nexyjo? All of those of us who were born with vaginas and vulvas and uteruses and ovaries — ALL of us — are essentially born into a man's prison block with everything that means.  There's no surgical fix for that.  There is only feminist revolution that will ever fix that.

    When I say there is nothing essential about being a man or a woman, I mean that being born into the world with a vagina or a penis or intersex does not "mean" anything about anybody, except that those are the physical characteristics we are born into the world with. We will be called men or women on the basis of our bodies, and male supremacy, heteropatriarchy, will force all sorts of stuff on us, but that is all external. It isn't biological or spiritual or innate or attached to our body parts. It's forced on us.

    The thing is, there IS nothing those of us born with vaginas, uteruses, ovaries and fallopian tubes can do to protect ourselves against the men in the prison we are born into. EXCEPT be feminists and work for a feminist revolution and a new world that doesn't look like a prison to us– because in many ways the world really IS a prison for women. I think the elimination of the gender binary — with everything the gender binary implies, all the crap we have to deal with because of it — will make the world safe for all of us. ALL of us. I think, in fact, it will largely eliminate "the prison," both the concrete one and the metaphorical one.

    I have been, in general, approving posts to this blog so long as they are intelligent and well-intentioned. And sometimes if they're not, if I have something to say to someone who is being an asshole (like that fundie who posted.) Having said all that, I am not up, as I've already posted, to saying much more about this than I already have, so if I stop talking here, it won't be because I don't have anything to say, it will just be that I'm pretty much not up for this right now.


    Posted by womensspace | May 6, 2006, 12:50 pm
  6. “All of those of us who were born with vaginas and vulvas and uteruses and ovaries — ALL of us — are essentially born into a man’s prison block with everything that means. There’s no surgical fix for that. There is only feminist revolution that will ever fix that.”

    we are in total agreement on this.

    “When I say there is nothing essential about being a man or a woman, I mean that being born into the world with a vagina or a penis or intersex does not “mean” anything about anybody, except that those are the physical characteristics we are born into the world with.”

    i understand that. and when i say that our sex organs are an essential part of being a man or a woman, those sex organs define the type of sex we each can enjoy, or not enjoy. there are certain types of sexual acts that people who possess vaginas can have, that people with penis’ cannot have, as part of their physical essense.

    some people who have one set, may prefer the type of sex that can only happen if they have the other set. i don’t know how this happens, only that it does. and i’ll add that i use the term “prefer” loosely – it’s great deal deeper than a mere preference.

    heart, we are on the same side here – we both want to eliminate the gender binary, we both believe it is a bad thing, and we both do what we can to help destroy it. and yes, we both do things that serve it. you wear high heels, i changed my legal identity to conform with my surgically altered body, and we both wear our hair in stereotypically female long styles.

    “I am not up, as I’ve already posted, to saying much more about this than I already have, so if I stop talking here, it won’t be because I don’t have anything to say, it will just be that I’m pretty much not up for this right now.”

    i can understand why you’d not be up for this discussion. i’ve seen you take part in these types of discussions for years. and i respect your positions, on this and many other issues, and even agree with you on many of them.

    my point here, is to suggest that there are many reasons why trans people might want to “change sex”. conforming to gender roles might be one of them. breaking out of gender roles might be another. but i don’t believe that people who change sex are necessarily conforming to gender stereotypes or enforcing the patriarchy simply by virtue of their transitions. some of us just want to be able to have sex that doesn’t hurt.

    and thanks for listening and responding. that’s more than a lot of other people i’ve encountered would be willing to do.


    Posted by nexyjo | May 6, 2006, 4:05 pm
  7. I’m stashing this post here even though it’s not directly responsive to anything because it’s relevant. I posted it elsewhere earlier and have edited it for here.


    I know what you’re saying when you say feminists sometimes say they are social constructionists, but they don’t really fully understand the theory they think they are applying, and so they get it wrong and in the course of getting it wrong, it becomes evident that they actually are relying on essentialism somehow, i.e., as you suggest, they are careless with notions of “difference,” the implication being that there are biological or essential “differences” between men and women, rather than being careful to frame difference as the *product* or the result of the subordination of one group of people to another.

    I think, though, that people are at least *as* likely to assume essentialism lurks in the arguments of social constructionists when it does not. I see this *way* more often than I see the first problem. I think that in general, most feminists recognize there’s a problem with agreeing that there are biological or essential “differences” between men and women. But so often they get stuck right there without having thought deeply enough about it, such that just discussing the nuts and bolts *of* women’s subordination and the strategies of our liberation, in and of themselves, get challenged as “essentialist.” This is nowhere more evident than in discussions of the need for women-only space. Those of us who feel the need for women-only space do not feel it because of the way we are different from men or for reasons having to do with our biology; we feel it because of what has been done to us — because of how we have been constructed as a subordinated people group — on the basis *of* our biology. If the constructors were to change and we were no longer subordinated, the facts of our (or anyone’s) biology would be irrelevant. Constructors would continue to exist, but they would not subordinating or oppressive constructors. But the moment we start talking about women-only space, there’s the rush to charges of essentialism, when really, the discussion is centered in ideas which are the polar opposite of essentialist.


    I was saying that while I understand the arguments made about social construction, and I think they are interesting, I don’t think they are relevant to this discussion. When we say, “think about the constructors,” that is not to say that beneath the constructors there is essence. I think to the degree the constructors subordinate, to that degree they are destructive. If you eliminate them, you will still have constructors but they will not be subordinating and hence they will not result in the production of categories like “man” and “woman”. Constructors are value-neutral, I’m saying, and are unavoidable unless you live on a desert island somewhere for your whole life, and even then, maybe not! But subordinating constructors are *not* unavoidable. Their elimination is what feminism is all about. Which is why we talk about the reasons for lipstick, makeup, cosmetic surgeries, and so on. We are asking, are these subordinating constructors? Can these things be *other* than subordinating constructors, and if so, under what circumstances?


    Posted by womensspace | May 9, 2006, 7:53 pm
  8. Hey, nexy, thanks for being so nice in your post. I shouldn't be rude and not respond to it– I just am so burned out on this subject. Argh.

    You know, I know that people who have transitioned do it for all sorts of reasons. I know that trans people who are feminists or allies to feminists do not transition with the deliberate intention of conforming to gender roles, just as, as you say, my long blonde hair and my predilection for insane shoes (most of which just sit in my closet and I never wear them! Maybe I will turn them into some sort of feminist statement, like a sculpture, hee. Hey, a woman in Minneapolis did that– she covered an entire house with women's shoes!) isn't about me deliberately intending to conform to gender roles. What I'm saying, among other things, that no matter what my intention is, when I wear the shoes I actually *am* conforming to gender roles whether it's intentional or no.

    As to transitioning strictly in order to have sex that doesn't hurt, hey, who am I to argue with that? I wouldn't. We're all doing the best we can. But having an operation in order to have sex that doesn't hurt gives rise to a million other questions for me. What is up with a culture that offers to operate on people (and makes a lot of money doing it) so that they can have sex without it hurting? What does it mean that the kind of sex we want to have is impossible (without hurting) unless we get surgeries? (which hurt quite a bit for a while and cost a lot of money). How come we don't instead think about majorly revisioning sexuality, recreating it, re-imagining it? Why do we invariably think that there is something wrong with us and why do we go to patriarchal medicine to fix what we decide is wrong with us? Maybe we could have sex differently that didn't hurt without surgery? Well, you see where I go.

    But having said all that, I don't fault you or anybody for doing what you felt you needed to do. I just think we have to talk a whole lot about these impulses we have, where they come from, why we have them, with an idea to making a new world where we don't feel so compelled to do such drastic things to ourselves. 😦

    I've always appreciated what you've had to say, NexyJo, with possibly a few exceptions when we've both been in the heat of some asinine and useless flame war with the usual characters, where everybody gets a bit immoderate from time to time.

    As to me thinking you aren't a woman, eh, I don't think like that. I just think there are experiences unique to women born female under heteropatriarchy. And you know my thinking about that, no need of me going there at the moment.  Actually, I think you agree with me.  I think you and I, in fact, agree about most things.

    Peace to you, too,

    Posted by womensspace | May 9, 2006, 8:26 pm
  9. Here's a picture of the shoe house.  Kinda fuzzy, but the house is *entirely* covered with shoes.



    Posted by womensspace | May 9, 2006, 9:30 pm
  10. thanks again for taking the time to respond, heart.

    “Maybe we could have sex differently that didn’t hurt without surgery? Well, you see where I go.”

    and this is one of the many reason i so enjoy exchanging thoughts with you – you make me think. i think it’s impossible to take any action, make any decision, outside the context of the culture in which we live. at some point though, some of us get to a place where we realize that life as we know it does have an end, and we have to make a choice that allows us to realize some comfort before that end is upon us.

    i tried for many years to live with the body i was born into, to live inside (and even outside) the social roles that i felt were available to me. some say that because i tried for so long, that makes me “less than”, or at least different than some others who also share this thing we call “trans”. perhaps under different circumstances, i might have been able to come to terms with my birth body and sex. i suppose that’s unknowable at this point.

    yes, i spent a lot of money in my change. more than some, less than others. i certainly was in a position where i could have done more, especially surgically. and i still think about that. but i’m comfortable where i am, and with the body i now have, with just the one surgery i felt i needed. but you’re right – we still need to think more about this culture, and what it is about it that leads us to believe we need to change ourselves.

    yes, we do agree on most things. like the need for us to work on changing our culture. like the need for separate healing space for those with shared experiences. like the need for respect between people of different experiences and cultures. and the option to do some of the things we like, while acknowledging that they may indeed conform to cultural standards with which we don’t want to support.

    and to be perfectly honest, i’d be right behind you in heels, if they didn’t hurt my back so much 🙂

    and as i said, i totally understand why you’d feel burnt out on this topic. please don’t let me compel you to respond. we all need to step back from various topics, sometimes for extended periods.

    and i love the shoe house – gives new meaning to the old fairy tale about the woman who lived in a shoe…


    Posted by nexyjo | May 10, 2006, 3:55 pm


  1. Pingback: Feministe » Trans Responses to Feminist Myths - May 5, 2006

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