Socialization Arguments Are Transmisogyny

Trigger warnings: anti-gay slurs, transmisogyny, self-harm.

I am exhausted. I am so tired of hearing the same old tired arguments from TERFs and from DFAB trans people who throw trans women under the bus in exchange for less violence on themselves (will henceforth be categorized in the acronym TERF). TERFs invoke the ‘socialization’ argument in order to call trans women “men” and to give DFAB trans people a nudge and a wink, that they’re really only female. DFAB trans people invoke it to gain access to women’s spaces, resources, shelters, and more at the direct expense of trans women. On both accounts, the goal is to other trans women.

TERFs willfully misuse the word ‘socialization’ to misgender trans women and treat us as malicious “men,” saying trans women are and have been perpetrators of male violence, because us trans women pre-coming out and pre-transition must experience malehood and therefore male privilege. They generally base this off how we are read when we are younger, meaning read as male and treated as such. While I understand why folks argue this, it relies on omitting a few things: a key aspect of socialization called response, what privilege actually is, and, naturally, the lived experiences of trans women. Not just this, but the socialization argument also relies on a caricature of trans women as men in dresses. but it also perpetuates the myth of shared girlhood, which has already been disassembled by women of color particularly along with fellow trans women. As Reed puts it, “There is no singular, universal woman’s narrative. There are as many stories and experiences as there are women.”

And she’s right. What experience of womanhood is experienced by all women? You probably don’t have to think very hard to see that this really is impossible, and for shared girlhood to be a thing, it needs to ignore that us women are multifaceted. As I pointed out earlier, TERFs believe trans women have male privilege. What they don’t understand is that one can receive benefits from privilege without actually having said privilege. In regards to transness, this is often referred to as cis-read privilege (which is conditional), sometimes called “passing” privilege. When it comes to privilege, I use Toni D’orsay’s five-step test to privilege:

  • Membership: I am a member of a social group that is dominant through no action of my own, nor through being mistaken for a member of that social group.
  • Stigma: I do not have stigma attached to me along that axis of oppression
  • Innocence: I am not looked to as the cause of problems in a social group.
  • Worthiness: I am presumed worthy of a social group’s trust and wealth.
  • Competence: I am expected to be skillful, successful, and autonomous.

To have privilege, one must be a member of a certain group, and trans women are not a part of the dominant gender groups in both cisness and maleness. We might be mistaken as members for these groups, but we are not in truth either. Benefiting from privilege is not the same thing as possessing that privilege, as D’orsay puts it. However, TERFs insist that trans women, because they were likely read and treated as males growing up, never internalized the messages of womanhood. They must have internalized the messages of boyhood. Trans women, therefore, cannot truly be women. While trans women might receive some practical benefits from being read as male, that does not mean we’ve all internalized boyhood. Once again, we see TERFs relying on the myth of shared girlhood, that women across all social positionings receive these messages in the same way. It assumes whiteness, it assumes a certain class status, it assumes one is able-bodied, it assumes one is neurotypical, it assumes a particular geographic location, it assumes every privileged category outside of ‘woman.’ It also assumes a major lack of agency in regards to all women, not just trans women.

And when trans women point this out, the moving goalposts fallacy comes up in attempts to show that us trans women don’t really understand womanhood and can, in fact, never understand it. Moving goalposts is a logical fallacy that is also known as “raising the bar.” It dismisses evidence made for a specific claim, and then demands some other (often greater) evidence. There was an initial goal, but then the goalposts are moved to exclude the attempt made. You know when Charlie Brown attempts to kick the football while Lucy holds it, and says she promises to hold it in place, but every time he tries, she moves the football away? And Charlie hurts himself, Lucy mocks him, and then he has to get another running start, maybe further back this time around? Moving goalposts is exactly that.

The bar is always raised for trans women, and it gets raised to an impossible standard just to say trans women are men. “You don’t have breasts so you can’t be a woman.” Some cis women don’t have breasts, and some trans women do have breasts. “But trans women’s breasts are fake.” What does that even mean, a “natural” boob? One that develops from hormones? Some cis women have to take hormones or have cosmetic surgery for their breasts. “You do a lot of boy things.” There aren’t women who do things marked as masculine? Tomboys don’t exist? “Your assertiveness shows your maleness.” Again, are there no assertive women? Is the category ‘woman’ marked by passiveness? Sounds pretty patriarchal to me. “You’re too muscular.” Some cis women have defined muscles. “You can’t give birth.” There are cis women who can’t give birth. “You have a penis, and so you can never experience womanhood.” Some trans women have vaginas. It appears that when you tell trans women who they are, you’re also telling other women who they are. Women must fit a certain standard in order to be “real,” and what’s that require? It requires policing, and nothing about that is radical or progressive. In fact, it is downright misogynistic.

I said earlier that TERFs omit a key aspect of socialization called response along with the lived experiences of trans women. By omitting these things, TERFS gain a monopoly on the “female narrative,” because they never have to have trans women in the conversation at all. I will counter this by discussing socialization.

Socialization: What It Actually Is

Socialization is the process which prepares human beings to function in social life. It is how new folks are prepared to become members of an existing group and to think, feel, and act in ways this group considers appropriate. What this looks like will vary from culture to culture, family to family, etc. (Think back to the myth of shared girlhood again) It is also important to know that all of us are still being socialized. As a society shifts and changes, so do the social environments we move through. And so to get a better look at socialization, we need to talk about it in three parts.

The three major aspects of socialization are as follows: context, content and processes, and response. Context simply refers to specific locations/time periods in which we are socialized, ie at work, childhood, school, with friends, informal environments, traveling, and more.

“The content and process of socialization is like the play, the lines, and the actors. It includes the structure of the socializing activity—how intense and prolonged it is, who does it, how it is done, whether it is a total experience or only a partial process, how aware the individual is of alternatives, and how attractive those alternatives are. Content refers specifically to what is passed from member to novice. Processes are those interactions that convey to new members how they are to speak, behave, think, and even feel.” (source)

Response is just that: how somebody responds to these messages they’re being bombarded with, which means what? That this person has a self-concept, is self-aware. They have an idea of themselves (regardless of how well others think they know it) and whether or not they agree with the messages being sent to them, and then how they deal with that connection/disconnection. This one is key.

The response one needs to be elaborated on a bit more. Nobody internalizes all messages sent to them the same way (which is, again, why there are so many different expressions of womanhood). In fact, some are outright rejected, and that’s because folks know a message is not about them. TERFs often act like folks have no agency within these structures, that people, particularly women in this case, are more stone tablets to have their identities engraved upon them. That sounds pretty darn misogynistic, doesn’t it? Seems to be a pattern in TERF rhetoric. Acting like women don’t have agency over their own experiences sounds exactly like what patriarchy says about women. Which brings me to the next bit, another sociological concept TERFs seem to omit on the regular: Structure and Agency.

Structure refers to the recurrent, patterned arrangements (think back to the content and processes + context aspects of socialization) which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available. This means how systems of oppression and privilege operate in our lives and influence our experiences. Agency means the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

Structure and Agency together is the interaction between individuals and the structures they’re working within. That means that all facets of identity are at play here, because we as individuals are multifaceted. Based on how you comprehend yourself, and your relationship to these messages broadcasted to you in an innumerable amount of ways by social environments, that is how you are socialized.

In other words, I wasn’t raised as a male. I was a trans girl who had cis norms imposed on her. I was responding to these “you are male” messages as a trans girl. And because of that disconnect, I committed varying forms of violence against myself. I self-harmed, I abused drugs and alcohol, I starved myself, and more. Others recognized that disconnect and bullied me for “being a faggot.” I will not lie about how that disconnect also resulted in violence against others in the form of lashing out verbally and getting into fist fights with men who bullied me. I know how TERFs will frame this. They will say my lashing out is a result of my maleness, not a reaction to abuse and violence I faced as a young trans girl. That, in itself, is a form of transmisogynistic violence, because you are calling a trans woman a man.

And I know they will still call me a man based on the fact that I have a penis, and they will do the same to trans women who have had bottom surgery by saying they once had a penis. Defining genders based on sex characteristics is exactly what patriarchy does, but suddenly it’s alright for these so-called feminists to do so because the very existence of trans women is just too scary to think about. So instead of acknowledging trans women as we are: women, these folks buy into a white supremacist notion of gender, ignoring sex for what it is.

Sex Is Social Construction

For this section, I believe it’d be best to define what a social construction is exactly:

“Social constructs are the by-products of people interacting with each other. They are the products of communal creation and understanding of reality around them, and they are based in the notion that things are not universal and based in an understanding of them as having an essential quality that transcends time and space. […] Social constructions are the ways in which people collectively participate in the construction of their perceived social reality; the manner by which social phenomena are created, institutionalized, known, and made into tradition by humans. […] The social construction of reality is an ongoing, dynamic process that is reproduced by people acting on their interpretations and their knowledge of it. Social constructs must be constantly maintained and re-affirmed in order to persist, and often the tools by which this happens, themselves are part of the way in which that happens. […] Social Constructs are how Structure is created, in other words.  They are the concepts, ideas, and thoughts that are shared, communicated, and accepted in a way that becomes part of what everyone accepts.” (source)

And part of what everyone has accepted (the dominant narrative in other words) is this: When it comes to one’s sex, there are five criteria that are looked at by biologists when analyzing sex characteristics: chromosomes, gonads, genitals, secondary sex characteristics, and hormones. (Note: This is how it operates generally in Western culture, and it may vary more or less outside of this context.) These criteria are often viewed as immutable and static, and this immutability has been used historically by white settlers to impose their conception of gender on Indigenous people. This isn’t to say that sex as an immutable part of gender has ceased being discussed as such. It still is, as I’ve pointed out in the first section. That’s not news to anybody. What might be news is how this is currently practiced on people whose bodies don’t match up with these conventional ideas of “sex.”

“But one of the most important moments in the sex assignment process happens in the first hours after birth. The case of those considered “intersex” can be illustrative here. Suppose a child is born in a western country who has ovaries on the inside, but a penis on the outside. Alternatively, suppose a child is born with labia and a vagina, but also with testes (once again, these cases are not so uncommon; intersex individuals account for around 2% of all births, and in some regions of the world this rate is considerably higher). The first thing that typically happens is that this situation is declared to be a medical emergency. Think about this for a second. Intersex “conditions” present few if any health risks. There is of course a social stigma associated with any appearance of not fitting rigidly into one of the two sex classes. Yet there is also a social stigma associated with being gay, and we don’t consider homosexuality a “condition” or a “disorder” that needs to be medically treated. Moreover, the treatments used to “correct” intersex characteristics sometimes carry substantial risks, and the long-term effects they have are still relatively ill-researched. The motivation behind “correcting” intersex characteristics is thus not one related to the health of the child, it is entirely one of enforcing the sex binary. Any variance from the rigidly defined “male” and “female” classes is an emergency that must be snuffed out as soon as possible.” (source)

So really, what actually constitutes a “male” or “female” body? Does somebody need to have a certain number of sex characteristics in order to fit into this binary? Is it chromosomes? Is it hormones? Is it something about gonads, maybe genitalia? Or, are the strict categorizations of “male” and “female” bodies not as useful as some might think? As this same piece argues, gender is not based on sex assignment. Rather, the reverse is true: sex assignment is based on gender. The construction of sex is but one other way to impose gender roles upon people while denying the variance in bodies. Sex has been constructed so that it serves the ends of a white patriarchy. TERFs are then reinforcing this same exact structure when they police the borders of womanhood by invoking gender essentialism (by way of biology and socialization) to exclude trans women. Their approach is nothing short of white supremacist, colonial feminism, and transmisogyny naturally follows from that approach. TERFs actually challenge nothing about patriarchy, but they reinforce the same oppressive tenets they claim to combat: misogyny, white supremacy, and more. The feminism of TERFs might as well be called patriarchal feminism.

My perceived sex characteristics say nothing about my gender, nor is it already set in stone by an omniscient structure as to how I will receive certain messages that are hurled in my direction by folks who read me incorrectly. These structures are not so deterministic, and if they were, social movements would be mostly non-existent, because social movements are an acknowledgement that these structures aren’t working. Trans women are not men seeking to invade women’s spaces. We have always been around. We did not suddenly appear into existence. And so for you to not repeat this long and brutal history, you need to keep your patriarchy covered hands off my body.

My designation at birth is not my destination.

Your Feminism Is Transmisogyny Repackaged (Repost)

Disclaimer: I am a white trans woman exploring the role of transmisogyny in the colonial history of the United States and how that affects all current forms of feminism. I may experience transmisogyny, but I do not experience the ways in which it intersects with racism, and so my perspective is incomplete. Please keep that in mind as you proceed through this paper.

Trigger and Content Warnings

Before disclosing potential triggers, I wish to point out immediately that two-spirit identity is not a trans identity. In contexts that embraced gender variancy (Indigenous communities in what we now call the United States), there is no such thing as trans or cis. Applying the term ‘transgender’ to two-spirit identity is a colonizing act. In this paper, I will say “perceived as transgender” or “read as trans” or some other variation when referring to two-spirit identities from a Western context. This is also part of the reason I do not use the asterisk when I say trans, as the asterisk includes identities which are not necessarily trans, such as two-spirit identities, intersex people, and cis cross-dressers. I am also aware that some romantic and sexual relationships in Indigenous communities could also be viewed as ‘queer’ from our Western context. This is not an element I am looking into within this essay. I may write about it at a later time, but for the intents and purposes of this essay, I will not delve into that dynamic. Moving forward…

Trigger warnings: Anti-black racism present in an image I use to demonstrate the effects of colonialism and Western thought as they relate to dominance and control of the Other; cissexism, and one transmisogynistic slur to demonstrate how widely accepted transmisogyny is (Janice Raymond’s book).

Content warnings: This essay examines the role of transmisogyny in the United States. I will describe briefly the rationale behind “Americanizing” the Indigenous person, and in writing this essay, I made certain stylistic and wording choices to reflect the toxicity of this rationale.

Both my trigger and content warnings are flexible. If folks reading this essay find something triggering, of which I did not mention in this section, you can send me a message, and I will add it as soon as I can.

Introduction

In this essay, I will be examining closely the still-dominant role of transmisogyny as it relates to whiteness. I will also explain why the only acceptable genders under whiteness are cisgenders. These have enormous implications for contemporary feminism and its work. My perspective as a trans woman is by and large rejected within feminism. I am still viewed as a “man in a dress” who is invading women’s spaces to make it about “himself.” Thank you, Janice Raymond, for writing The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Although transmisogyny is nothing new in feminist spaces, that book helped to perpetuate and reinforce that hate more than any other that came before.

Embracing transmisogyny in feminism, however, goes much, much further back than Janice Raymond’s book. It goes further back than Cathy Brennan, the Stonewall Riots, Gender Identity Watch, and Name The Problem. Transmisogyny is embedded into the history of feminism, but before I can talk about the history, I feel I must illuminate how contemporary feminism still invokes transmisogyny.

Problematizing Understandings And Discourses on Patriarchy Within Feminism

From bell hooks’ essay, “Understanding Patriarchy,” she defines it as “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” Basically, a society organized around the inherent dominance of males. Note, all definitions of patriarchy set up the dichotomy of men vs. women, as the gender binary is inherent to patriarchy. Also notice bell hooks’ use of ‘the weak’ to describe all things feminine.

For patriarchy to function, “the two genders” must perform roles that serve its ends, and for people to perform these roles, they must feel naturally compelled to fulfill them. So gender roles are assigned to “the two genders,” and these genders are assigned to people immediately upon birth, and even pre-birth with ultrasound technology, because under patriarchy, gender is biological and therefore static. Men and women perform specific duties under a patriarchal society as they are assigned to them, and men must always be at the forefront because that is their birthright. Men are taught to control their environment, and women are taught to control their bodies to appease men. Patriarchy packages gender as “this is your lot.” You cannot change it, you cannot disagree with it, and if you attempt to, you will be severely punished and put back into your cage.

But this understanding of patriarchy only encompasses cisgender people. The first giveaway for that is the language of “male” and “female,” because it applies gender to biological sex. This conflation of sex and gender has been used to erase, dismiss, and degender trans people, especially those on the trans feminine spectrum. One of the most common things I hear as a trans woman is, “Right, you identify as a woman, but you’re biologically male” or some other variation therein. My gender is reduced to my genitals, and my genitals then become the definitive feature of my gender. Sounds familiar, right? Gender is being equated with biological sex, and this is a major tenet of patriarchy. So then, if sex is equated with gender, where does this understanding of patriarchy place transgender people exactly? Trans people’s self-concept of their gender does not match up with the external pressures placed on them (assigned sex). Trans people are forever excluded from the binary under patriarchy, because, by definition and history, the binary rejects all non-cis identities. Now let’s get into the history.

Colonial History of the United States

In pre-colonization times, in what we now know as the United States, a number of tribes embraced gender variancy. The following is a list of terms found in Indigenous languages to describe people with penises/vaginas (PWP/PWV) two-spirits (translation in brackets): Crow: boté, bate, bade; Cree: ayekkwe, a:yahkwew (“split testicles,” i.e., sterile); Lakota: winkte (“would be woman”) Dreams of Double woman; Navajo: nutlys, natli, nadleehi (“he changes,” “being transformed”) , Zuni: lhamana (PWP), katsotse (PWV) (Changing ones: Third and fourth genders in Native North America. p. 214-222), however, and this is not an exhaustive list, and these terms have been largely compiled by people who are not of these communities and backgrounds. They are subject to error and misinterpretation. What is important to note here is the wide array of gender variancy in Indigenous communities, and that gender was not something fixed. The only role biology played was in the language used for certain individual two-spirits (refer back to Zuni terms), not necessarily in the validity of these identities.

But for white Europeans, gender was fixed and very, very important, but in a different sense. In fact, gender was so important that entire societies and institutions were constructed around it. Gender was essential in the survival of their culture, their economics, and more. White Europeans just weren’t satisfied with what power they had, and so felt the need to explore. They had to find new lands in order to expand their empires, as they were in power struggles with neighboring countries. Then came Columbus. The brutal, monstrous, exploitative “explorer” that so many of us learned about when we were younger, though back then he was portrayed as adventurous, brave, and driven. What Columbus started, other white Europeans continued. They colonized the land and people, and they established for themselves a new society.

Before I can dive in deeper, I must first briefly describe how colonization operates. Colonization operates as a mechanism of white supremacy, works on behalf of whiteness, and colonialism is built around white solidarity and consensus, “otherizing” non-white groups, paranoia, defensiveness, and violence. A major tenet of colonialism, and Western culture altogether, is to take and control nature, and so you will see Indigenous people, and people of color broadly, conflated with nature and (trigger warning: anti-Black racism) primality, whereas Western society is conflated with culture, civility, generosity (notice how in this painting, white people are generally in positions of power, standing up, better posture, etc) and divinity/grace. Femininity is also conflated with nature: onetwo, and three, and so in these cases we can see how Western thought could easily be used to create a power relationship over the Other, however that is established. In other words, white Westerners are synonymous with “the right to power,” and everyone else is synonymous with “the need to be ruled.” The Other must be governed by the white Westerners, as that is their birthright. To control and “liberate” the natural, to bring it to civility, and that the Other should be grateful for their generosity and time.

When Columbus came over, he also brought with him the white European conception of gender: the gender binary under patriarchy. And because gender was understood as biological and fixed, any form of gender variancy/non-conformity (especially by those who we would now label as DMAB–designated male at birth) was subject to “correction.” The reasons DMAB people were more subject to “correction” than their DFAB counterparts are as follows: Men are not supposed to embrace femininity from a white Westerner’s point of view; Masculinity (even for those who are DFAB) is embraced so long as it serves the ends of patriarchy; And conceptions of masculinity are built around the values of control and domination of the feminine.

When white settlers started to see unfamiliar presentations of gender, they must have been both disturbed and frightened. Gender variancy could have been seen as Indigenous people taking control of nature, as their genders were not static. They had done something the white settlers seemed incapable of, which challenged their notions of gender and how it operated within the world. “Why would these men wear women’s clothes? Why do they act like women? That is not how men act.” But because Indigenous folk were not white, their conception of gender could not be viewed as correct, as that disrupted white supremacy and male supremacy simultaneously. To preserve and protect their socio-political systems, to preserve their supremacy, it became necessary to instill patriarchy in Indigenous populations. It became necessary to eliminate all gender variancy, specifically those who were perceived as ‘men’ embracing femininity.

To colonize a people, you must not only colonize their bodies, you must also colonize their minds. To colonize their minds, white settlers sought to erase Indigenous traditions, and this was done extremely effectively through the boarding schools. The boarding school system became more formalized under the Grants’ Peace Policy of 1869-1870, which turned over the administration of Indian reservations to Christian denominations. Government funds were set aside in order to erect new schools to be ran by churches and missionary societies (“American Indian Education in the United States: Indoctrination for Subordination to Colonialism,” in Annette Jaimes’ State of Native America). These boarding schools were off-reservation, and the first one, Carlisle, was founded in 1879. The children of Indigenous people were kidnapped from their homes at an early age, not returning until they were young adults. This was justified by colonialist modes of thought and white saviorship, “Kill the Indian in order to save the Man” as well as “Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit” (Americanizing the American Indian: Writings by “Friends of the Indian”).

And so whiteness continued to encroach upon Indigenous conceptions of gender, replacing it with the gender binary by omitting the possibility of gender variancy in the boarding schools. The gender variancy in the Indigenous communities declined, as their children were unable to learn their languages, their cultures, and the roles of two-spirit identities. White Europeans used their elimination of the Indigenous person to implement their own power structure, one that cemented their place at the top. Our nation set up institutions, structures, economic practices, culture, and more to guarantee its immortality, in a sense.

What this says about our context is this: Everything we know about gender today is a complete and utter lie meant to serve the white patriarchy.

 

What This Means for Feminism

Feminism, because it emerged under the white patriarchy, is built upon colonialism, and therefore transmisogyny. This is inescapable and must be addressed. The only acceptable genders under the white patriarchy are cisgenders, as we currently understand them. Gender variancy and non-conformity are not tolerated, unless this is practiced by those who are DFAB–because under the white patriarchy, the only place for DFAB people to go is closer towards masculinity, and masculinity is the ideal. Rosie the Riveter, anybody? She represented strength and productivity. This was embraced by a whole nation (albeit temporarily) because it served white, patriarchal, capitalist interests. It served the military industrial complex. Have we seen that again? Absolutely.

Women can now serve in combat roles. I use the term ‘women’ there very loosely, as I know it only pertains to cis women in this context (and basically every context). Trans women are viewed as men, so they could already serve in combat so long as they kept their trans status hidden. Women in combat are tolerated under our systems because it serves the interests of the hegemony. We’ve also seen it in movies like She’s The Man, Mulan, and others. A takeaway message from these movies is “You can do masculinity so long as it serves men, their structures, their desires, etc.”

Why is this the case? Referring back to the previous section on problematizing patriarchy, feminist frameworks of patriarchy more often than not come down to a dichotomy of men vs. women. Gender in these models is still fixed and biological. Sure, what ‘woman’ and ‘man’ mean in these models can change, but only in a social/cultural sense; biology is still the underlying component in feminist conceptions of womanhood and manhood. No identity that could be considered trans by our society can ever be included in the binary, even so-called binary trans identities. All trans people are Other’d by the current gender system. All trans people are harmed by it.

Feminism claims to be helping in this regard, but frankly, I can’t buy into that. When feminism is predicated on transmisogyny and transphobia broadly, when it is predicated on colonialism and therefore whiteness, then it cannot fully challenge the gender order. If feminism is cis-centric, then these harmful gender systems and ideologies are enabled and, in many ways, affirmed and validated.

 

Conclusion

Any feminism that embraces the dichotomy of men vs. women simultaneously embraces white supremacist colonialism, because that is what our conceptions of patriarchy are built upon. This will forever be the case until transmisogyny is eliminated from feminism to a considerable degree. If there must be some sort of dichotomy set up to understand patriarchy, then I contend it should be patriarchal masculinity vs. all other genders. This is far more inclusive and encompassing than current conceptions. To eliminate transmisogyny, and by extension seriously challenge colonial, Western thought, it is not enough to have trans women and trans feminine people at the table, because the foundations of feminism were built without us in mind. The very foundations of feminism must be shaken, must be challenged altogether. If feminism cannot be shaken, then maybe it’s high-time to start a new movement and academic body, one that centers trans femininity and, more importantly, trans women of color.

 

My Social Justice Praxis: Fuck Equality, I Want Justice

Disclaimer: I’ve been wanting to write this piece specifically for a little while for three reasons: 1) It will be a useful resource to redirect trolls with, 2) I’m honestly kind of tired of feeling compelled to explain my philosophy all the time, which sort of refers back to the previous point, 3) I need to organize my own thoughts for myself. Seriously, my brain can be and is in so many places all at once and I just need to breathe it out in my writing. This post will benefit my mental health, because I become very self-deprecating if I don’t feel I have a grasp on myself, and my emotional health, because writing helps me recenter myself. This is necessarily therapeutic for me, as things have felt especially difficult as of late.

Trigger warning: transmisogynistic slur is used when talking about RuPaul.

As I have said in my post about the differences between representation, visibility, and slandering, “I’m of the position that people are conditioned to perpetuate and defend (by denying the existence of, by rationalizing, by justifying, or by simply not noticing) oppressive systems and the micro-level behaviors (microagressions, etc.) which enable them. For a long while, I figured that if people knew better, then they would actively resist their conditioning because they’re moral, rational people. I’m still of the former, but I’m no longer of the latter. Yes, that means I do not necessarily believe that people are moral and rational.”

We are not moral people because our society does not benefit from our being moral. We are not rational because our society does not benefit from our being rational. Neoliberal economic policies (oversimplified: privatize and deregulate everything!) under capitalism encourage people to act in their own self-interest at all times, even if that means at the expense of others. Hell, especially if it’s at the expense of others. This is taught to us and trained into us by our parents, by the stories we read, by the movies we watch, by advertising, by our educational system, by our political system, and so, so much more.

That’s kind of terrifying, isn’t it? I appear to have a very bleak outlook, and my conception says some really pessimistic, cynical shit about other human beings. If you feel that way, I think you missed something. I present all people’s behaviors in relation to systems. For me, people are symptoms of much larger problems. This does not make oppressive behavior from individuals less harmful, but it is an attempt to refocus my attention to root causes. I can never expect to uproot a tree if I only trim the leaves.

On Equality, Peace, and Justice

In developing as an activist, I used to be all about the idea of equality. I was bombarded with it by all the history books, all the gay marriage stuff, and yadda-yadda. Equality meant that things were perfect for everyone! Equality meant that everyone got shoes, that everyone got to hold hands and sing “Kumbayah.” The whole world would be peaceful, because there would be no more violence! In fact, there would never be conflict either.

Jesus, I was so naive. Very optimistic and hopeful, but seriously misinformed and ignorant. Equality might mean that everyone gets shoes, but I wasn’t wondering whether or not those shoes would fit. You can’t put on shoes that are three sizes too small. Even if you can get your feet in bigger shoes, they might fly off your feet at very inopportune times. In other words, I was not asking the necessary question, “Equality on whose terms?”

In examining that question, I thought back to what my history textbooks emphasized. Most victories were about legal and political battles, not about whole system shifts. Victories were essentially more room within the same system, and these victories were always temporary because of the varied forms of repression unique to different struggles. This is because our oppressors do not benefit from system shifts, because system shifts do not leave adequate room for repression and re-seizing control. In fact, in the case of legal and political victories, oppressors likely lost no substantial control from those defeats. (This does not mean political and legal victories aren’t necessary–because they are very necessary–but that’s a piece for a different time.)

This comes back to the idea of “equality,” and whether or not it is a worthy pursuit in anti-oppression work. I believe that the pursuit of equality is very well-meaning, but ultimately futile and dangerous. Any movement smacking on the “equality” slogan is so easily co-opted and manipulated by oppressive forces. This slogan also seems to place an implied emphasis on allyship, and movements that become about building allies more than anything else do not challenge the status quo. These movements, as my friend Trung puts it, are asking for permission. What we see from these movements are easily digestible soundbytes, sexy campaigning, and a whole lot of bandwagoning. HRC anybody? The whole marriage equality movement?

To fight oppression, we all need to acknowledge that our oppressors are much smarter than we give them credit for. Not only this, but our oppressors will do anything to hold their claim to power and control, and I mean anything. It has been demonstrated time after time after time after time after time after time after time. Don’t think for a second that your oppressors won’t kill you if they feel they need to, by way of murder, disenfranchisement, gatekeeping, enacting laws that actively work against you, and more. All forms of oppression seek one thing: Your Annihilation. All forms of privilege on every axis of oppression require an exploited Other. Do you want to pursue “equality” in a system such as this?

I don’t. I have no interest in equality. My goals in activism are focused on justice. Justice, to me, means the same thing as love. Justice is the action which follows a sincere connection with others who are both like and unlike us. Justice is the acknowledgment of power differentials. Justice is holding others accountable for when they cause harm. Justice must always manifest as an action, or it cannot be justice. For different struggles to have solidarity between one another, they must act justly towards each other. Do you see how much rides on the practice of justice? I do not believe there will ever be a world free from violence. I do not believe there will ever be a world free from conflict. I do, however, believe in peace, because peace is not the absence of violence/conflict, it is the presence of just systems. Peace can only be attained through the pursuit of justice, and for justice to be pursued, we must be vigilant of all forms of injustice.

Why Forgive? and Alternatives

Forgiveness is not a necessary part of justice. You do not have to be nice or polite to anyone who has harmed you. You do not have to let anybody back into your life who has harmed you. You are never obligated to swallow the abuse and pain somebody has caused you. Never. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. They are abusers, and you would do better to avoid such people. Don’t trust people who ask you to forgive oppressors. Their stake is in being seen as respectable, being viewed as morally upright in the eyes of their oppressors. They have a distorted view of love, as their love is predicated on the idea of equality, not justice, and what oppressor would ever want to see you as an equal?

And so I wish to introduce the idea of reconciliation. I define reconciliation as the process of coming to a mutual understanding of an injustice, and then moving forward together, apart, or otherwise, but hopefully together at some point. Reconciliation can take many forms: mediation, restorative justice practices, and more. It emphasizes that pain must be felt fully before any kind of repair (or even forgiveness) can commence, and that pain is valid and demands to be heard. The priority must always be with the victim of an injustice, never the offender. The offender is the oppressor, and the oppressor cannot be given leeway.

I can hear some of you now, “Ashley, that’s just really cold-hearted. Don’t you practice mercy?” Nope, I don’t, not in cases that demand justice. The comfort of privileged people (aka oppressors) cannot be given precedence over the safety of marginalized people. I see zero reason to give up any room on that. Why would I compromise that position? That puts power back in the hands of people who benefit from my exploitation. I will not risk that.

Implications for Allyship, Emphasizing Accountability Over Study

People who wish to work in solidarity with folks unlike themselves must understand their position. You are not a part of the community you’re working with. Understand there is difference, acknowledge the power differential you have in regards to this axis of oppression.  For there to be justice, there must also be accountability.

Someone who is considered an ally can be super-knowledgeable when it comes to the history and current realities of another group, but that doesn’t mean they are unpacking their own oppressive behaviors. Awareness does not necessitate self-reflection. It is very easy to think “Trans women experience a high amount of violence” without questioning how you might be complicit in that violence, or how you are complicit in pushing trans women out of your queer/trans spaces, or how your actions contribute to systems built on transmisogyny. You’re not thinking about how you benefit from and practice oppression.

Doing social justice work is not about being a paragon of moral virtue, it’s about building better, and although building better is hard, it’s far easier than being perfect. I purposefully avoided writing “it’s about doing better,” because I feel that makes it more about the individual than the community. What is allyship without being accountable to the community you’re working with? An ally spreading misinformation about the group they’re trying to work in solidarity with is causing harm, and not holding them accountable hurts the marginalized group.

In other words, we all have to go into solidarity work with the knowledge that we’re going to fuck up. If we only study on our own time and never participate, then we can never seriously expect to contribute anything meaningful to solidarity work. It’s basically this mentality: “I’m aware, so I can’t be a part of the problem,” which is so far from the truth. By not participating, even in the smallest ways like challenging your friends’ racism, you’re essentially saying that you’re OK with the way things are. You might not believe that yourself, but your friends now think so, and so does the community you’re working with. Your inaction tells others that you’re fine with the status quo, regardless of your beliefs.

How I View Oppression in The United States

In all my analyses, whether they’re of intra-personal relationships or cultural/systemic things, I frame my lens with two questions: Where am I? and Where does power flow?

By asking “Where am I?” I am asking where the dominant forces are currently positioning me. By “Where does power flow?” I am essentially asking who benefits. Both of my questions are about helping me “follow the money,” so to speak. I believe these are two very pertinent questions to have in mind in any discourse or analysis of oppression and how it works. Too often do individuals in privileged groups argue things like “reverse racism/sexism” because their feelings got hurt this one time by someone who was probably fed up with their bigoted bullshit. But… at the same time, I do see a lot of people in marginalized groups equating oppression with their hurt feelings. This is a very troubling pattern that I believe stems from neoliberalism, and the fact that the United States’ culture focuses on the individual.

Let me be loud and clear, oppression has nothing to do with our feelings. Our feelings might get hurt in oppressive processes or be manipulated, but our feelings being harmed are not required for oppression to be, well, oppression. Hurt feelings are a consequence of oppression, not the basis. This is not to devalue the trauma we experience as marginalized people, nor am I saying they shouldn’t be addressed. All I’m saying is that discourse on oppression should avoid ending at hurt feelings. For oppression to be oppression, it must exist on these three levels: 1) Personal 2) Cultural 3) Systemic. On all levels, the power must flow to the same group consistently at the expense of another group’s access to that same power. Allow me to give an example of each from my own experience.

Personal: A cis person takes up space in a conversation about transgender issues in a classroom setting… while I’m sitting there in the room. When I speak, the cis person talks over me and “corrects me” on my own experience. In this case, I am being positioned as lesser, and the flow of power goes toward the cis person(s) in the room. My agency over my own experience is questioned and seen as illegitimate, and so this opens up opportunities for cis people to continue speaking and hold their power dynamic. (Oppression on the personal level often manifests as microaggressions)

Cultural: The portrayals of trans women in media have gone from gruesome murderers to hopelessly tragic, drug addict sex workers (not that there’s anything wrong with sex work, but given how society positions sex workers, it is viewed as a negative and that is how I’m writing about it). Trans women are seen as deviant, as sexual objects, as kinks for gay/straight men, and as promiscuous. We are constantly sexualized while being seen as false, which is partly where the slur “shemale” comes from. Oh wait, RuPaul had a whole game on his show about that called “shemale or female.” Culturally, I, and all trans women, are positioned as lesser, and because we are culturally viewed and placed as lesser, then who deserves more access to resources? The flow of power, access to resources, and access to wealth then goes to the dominant group. At whose expense? Our expense.

Systemic: There are laws that allow trans people to be fired on the basis of their identity and expression in 32 states. There are laws restricting our access to healthcare, as a number of insurance providers do not cover transitioning processes for trans people who want/need them. Here are dozens of other examples of systemic/institutional oppression of trans people. Trans people broadly are seen as undeserving of these resources, and that reflects the idea that we are lesser. Who benefits from our lack of access to resources? Cis people, the dominant group, as there are now more opportunities, jobs, resources, healthcare services, and security available for cis people at the direct expense of trans people.

In all cases, the dominant group (cis people) benefits at the direct expense of the marginalized group, therefore transgender people are oppressed. In none of these cases did feelings ever come up, because oppression has nothing to do with our feelings. That doesn’t mean our feelings aren’t legitimate, it’s just that they’re never taken into consideration unless they can be manipulated by dominant forces.

Conclusion (aka tl;dr)

I do not promote equality, I promote justice. I do my best to act justly, and that means I have to be accountable to my own community and communities I work in solidarity with. I do not talk about oppression in terms of who got their feelings hurt. I focus on where people are positioned and where power flows. It is not about feelings, it is about exploitation, and given that the United States is a neoliberal, capitalist society, that exploitation manifests most often by economically disenfranchising marginalized groups. Capitalism is far more a tool of oppression than anything else in my mind.

In regards to oppression broadly, I believe that all forms of activism are important, so long as they’re challenging the status quo. Everything we do matters, and in one way or another, we’re all responsible. We can build things better by working together, by learning to work across differences, by learning to unpack the oppressive things we’ve internalized about ourselves and others. We can do so much, but we must be willing to wrestle with some of the hard truths about ourselves. And by doing these things, we inherently pursue justice, and by pursuing justice we are practicing love. Practice love every day.

Gender Is Not Performance

Trigger warning: I use the language oppressors use to degender trans people as a way to reflect how gender is constructed in the United States.

For a little while, I was immersed in queer theory as a lens for understanding myself and the world around me. Given where I was at, it made perfect sense: gender is a performance of cultural fictions. But now, I realize just how incomplete this framework is. I mostly attribute that to how new it is, and as with any other framework, it is always important to problematize where said framework is currently at. For those who don’t know, queer theory emerged in the early 1990’s out of the fields of queer studies and women’s studies. Queer theory is a part of post-structuralism. If you aren’t sure what post-structuralism is, somebody happened to explain it very well in a Yahoo Answers post. That post avoids a ton of jargon and is something I believe to be a great summary of post-structuralism, though I would still recommend further reading at Princeton. If you’re not wanting to read more, here’s a 10-minute, three-part video series that examines it. In other words, you have zero excuse not to have some understanding of post-structuralism before reading on.

That’s a bit of context for you, and in writing this piece, I don’t expect my readers to have a complete (if you read the stuff/watched the video series, the word ‘complete’ should be dripping with irony) understanding of post-structuralism or queer theory. Nothing’s wrong with that, and so I’ll provide the context I feel is most relevant and necessary. I highly recommend being on the lookout for any biases I bring in, such as my whiteness, educational privilege, and class privilege. It is in itself a privilege to engage in theoretical gender discourse, so that needs to be named as well before proceeding.

Gender Cannot Be Performed, Only Expressed

What inspired this piece has been recent conversations I’ve had with friends, where we concluded that saying “gender is performance” is inherently racist and transmisogynistic. Queer theory, not so coincidentally, is a perpetrator of both of these, and because queer theory is such a powerful influencer in queer and trans spaces, I need to address it directly.

Judith Butler, one of the pioneers of queer theory, characterized gender as something that is practiced/performed. For some people, this practice produces the effect of a static or “normal” gender while obscuring the contradiction and instability of any single person’s gender act. This effect produces what is often considered to be someone’s “true gender”, a narrative that is sustained by “[…] the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them” (Gender Trouble, p. 179).

So what the hell is Butler talking about, right? In short, gender is a social position or status that is assigned to you by others based on obvious physical characteristics (what you’re wearing, apparent sex characteristics, etc.) and behaviors, i.e. “acting girly.” How people position you is based on their frame of reference, which is informed by dominant narratives. Butler would likely argue that people can only perform gender in the way it is presented to them. In the United States, that means the white patriarchy is what’s presenting gender. You can be boy or girl, but wait! If you’re “born a boy,” you can’t do girl stuff. If you’re “born a girl,” you can’t do boy stuff. The white patriarchy does not have any other options, and you can conform to these narratives, or you can experience violence based on non-conformity.

But do you see what the focus is on? The focus in Butler’s work, and too much of queer theory, is focused on how people “do gender.” I bet some, if not most, of you missed how I employed that exact language in talking about what options the white patriarchy offers, and in how I described gender as a social position or status. That’s the problem. It is not about being gender, it is about “doing gender.”

This leaves a lot of room for people to say that “gender isn’t real, just a social construct.” That statement erases the realities that all trans people live. Gender is very real, and to say that gender only exists as a consequence of this particular social construct is reductive and just straight up wrong. Gender is socially constructed, yes, but that’s not all of it. There is a sort of social determinism required for this understanding to make sense, that people only “pick” a gender because it’s been placed in front of them. Gender does not only exist as a consequence.

Gender is a part of that sense of self, else there would be no need for words like transgender and cisgender. Both of these terms acknowledge the individual determination of one’s identity as they defer or match up with conventional ideas of gender. In fact, words for non-binary genders also emerged to reflect this part of one’s internal sense of self. Being trans means that your internal sense of gender disagrees with the gender assigned to you. Being cis means your internal sense of gender agrees with the gender assigned to you. As Toni D’orsay puts it, “Roughly translated, the whole thing means that a Trans person is aware that they are a woman, man, both, or neither, at the same core level as they are aware of themselves as a person, distinct from other people” (Source).

It is impossible merely to perform something that is intrinsically a part of one’s being. Because gender is a part of you, you must be expressing it. And what’s the difference between expression and performance? Performance means the act of doing something (successfully), using knowledge instead of just possessing it. Think acting; think Jared Leto. Expression, on the other hand, means to communicate who you are. Gender is not performance, because gender is not something you take on. It is in part something you take on, because we all live in a gendered world, but more accurately, gender is one aspect by which you understand yourself and move through the world. As my friend voz told me countless times, “You are a self-gendered person operating in a gendered world.”

Given all of that, I will now briefly describe why characterizing gender as performance is both racist and transmisogynistic.

Characterizing Gender as Performance Serves Whiteness

First, it is very important to point at who set up gender in what is now known as the United States: white settlers. Essentially, all things constructed about gender in the United States are eurocentric (read: white). It follows then that this construction of gender serves whiteness: eurocentric beauty standards, the abolition (by way of genocide and boarding schools) of gender systems in Indigenous communities, and a whole lot more all point to this construction of gender serving white people. To say gender is performative gives us white folks a whole lot of room to appropriate, exploit, and devalue “performances” that defer from white patriarchal standards. Why? Because us white people have the “truest” performance of gender, because everyone else in the United States has been forced into our gender system. Our experience of gender is the only legitimate one–now quick! Think of the history of feminism! Never having to acknowledge that gender is a part of someone’s being creates space for us to easily dismiss and/or co-opt other “performances,” especially when they don’t line up with the standards of the white patriarchy. Everything is then ours, because nothing is truly anybody’s in this framework, except for white people. It’s only true and authentic if white people do it. Conceiving of gender as performance energizes whiteness.

Why Characterizing Gender as Performance Is Transmisogynistic

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say “gender performance?” Probably a drag queen, right? Something similar might come to mind if I had said “gender bending.” Why is femininity always seen as mockery? Artificial? Inherently fake? To demonstrate why, makeup is associated with femininity, something people (usually women) put on in order to change the way they look or to enhance features they already have. What is also associated with this? Deception by way of creating a new image. Words that people use to insult folks who wear makeup: fake, plastic. Who is deception associated with most often? Trans feminine people. What’s being energized when gender is conceived as a performance? Transmisogyny, because if femininity is constantly associated with deception, then how could it ever be a legitimate part of someone’s identity? Think about the way that ties into the last section. If nothing is ever a part of someone’s identity and only performance, then it is up for grabs at all times. Trans femininity, in the context of gender as performance, then belongs to everybody else and is presupposed to be weak and submissive. Making sense now? Good.

Conclusion

Do not trust white DFAB queer theory just yet. Gender is not a performance, it is an expression of one’s internal sense of self. To say that gender is performance energizes both whiteness and transmisogyny. The implications perpetuate oppression. Saying that gender is an expression of one’s internal sense of self affirms everybody. However, I do understand that calling something an expression rather than a performance will not suddenly stop oppressors from bending our identities to their whim,  but the moment we begin to build into academia and movements that gender is performative is the moment we accept defeat, and I’m not about to accept that. Not now, not ever, and I implore you don’t either. Do not embrace frameworks that remove your agency. Do not embrace frameworks that imply your identity is artificial. They are nothing more than the same old repackaged as brand new.