The Severing of Sex from Gender
As transgender identities, social spaces and movements have developed over the past 150 years there’s been a sharpening of the confrontation between bourgeois ideological constructions of gender and how gender is defined by ordinary people.
In its crudest form, dominant ideology claims that there is a fixed and necessary connection between one’s biological body (sex) and one’s social being (gender). According to this gender essentialist view women are nurturing, sensitive, emotional, caring and apt mothers not because social environments have created this dominant construction of womanhood, but because of women’s biology.
The history of gender variance across the globe, as Leslie Feinberg documents in Transgender Warriors, is enough to cast doubt on the essentialist view of gender. From two-spirit people of the American First Nations, to cross-dressers such as Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park (also known as Stella and Fanny; two cross-dressers who lived as women in Victorian London’s theatrical scene) the practice of gender and how people identify themselves has often diverged from essentialist ideology.
Despite this, essentialist ideology remains very resilient. It has only been through social movements and challenges from below that gender variant and non-binary gender identity has become more visible and accepted. Even today your average person denies the fact that someone with a penis could also be a woman because the link between one’s biology and one’s gendered social expression is deemed fixed.
Historically, materialist feminists have fought vigorously to sever the fixed link between sex (biology) and gender (social being). They argue that one’s gender – that is, the way one behaves, dresses, talks, views oneself, views the world and is seen by others – is a complex result of social identity, relations, expectations and conditioning. In short, it is a social construction. Women are caring, nurturing mothers by social not biological impulse. Early proponents of these arguments viewed sex (XX chromosomes, breasts, oestrogen, being able to reproduce) as having a biological rootedness (though this, as will be explored later, was a claim problematized by theorists such as Judith Butler). This type of argument became known as the sex/gender distinction and it is from this starting point that some materialist feminists developed Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman” from a discussion about ‘being’ vs. ‘becoming’ to one about ‘nature’ vs. ‘society’.
Out of the sex/gender distinction materialist feminism flourished and theorists began viewing gender not as a natural category, but instead as a category that is given the appearance of naturalness. Gender essentialists argued that if women’s social being is fixed and women’s oppression characterises that social being, then women’s oppression must also be fixed. The sex/gender distinction led to a radically different conclusion. If gender as a social category is a construction then its appearance as natural is a clever gimmick mobilised by essentialist ideology to naturalise oppression.
As materialist feminist Monique Wittig argued in her seminal 1980 essay ‘One Is Not Born a Woman’:
…by admitting that there is a “natural” division between women and men, we naturalize history, we assume that “men” and “women” have always existed and will always exist. Not only do we naturalize history, but also consequently we naturalize the social phenomena which express our oppression, making change impossible.
Marxists have also argued that our human nature and social being is shaped by the world around us and is therefore subject to change. Marx in the Communist Manifesto writes:
…man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life.
It is in this space – in the gap between the biology of the body and the social construction of self – that non-binary gender identities are born and explained and gender essentialist ideology undermined.
The Influence of Society on Nature
The sex/gender distinction posits a sharp dichotomy between biology (sex) and social being (gender). It’s worth pointing out that both gender theorists and scientists are questioning whether the sex/gender distinction actually accounts for the ways in which nature is shaped by society.
First of all, the realisation of biological potentials is shaped by social environment. There is at least some evidence to suggest that in matriarchal Native American societies the expectation of physical strength fell on women. Lo and behold the people with female bodies were the ones who dealt with the more physical social tasks and were championed as the stronger sex.
Further, the actual categorisation of biological bodies into male and female has a social rather than ontological significance. There is a reason why society goes to such pains to group together sex characteristics such as genitals and hormones and categorises these biologies as male and female. Yet, it does not make an effort to group together people with a certain foot and hand size and split the world into groups on that basis. There is no social significance to your foot and hand size, hence we don’t have any use in categorising human beings in that way. On the other hand, certain sex characteristics play important roles in biological reproduction; a process which certainly does take on serious social significance. It’s this social fact that creates the impulse to split the world into male and female.
Most importantly though, the scientific community is coming to the realisation (several decades after LGBT and queer activists, mind) that human bodies do not split neatly into male and female. Some people with XX chromosomes have penises. Some people with XY chromosomes can bear healthy children. Some people with a mix of XX and XY chromosomes have ambiguous genitalia. Known as intersexuality, unfortunately most of us still tend to see these variations in sex as abnormalities. A better way to understand them is as natural human variation. Scientists are beginning to realise there are millions of people on the planet who cannot be classified as either biologically male or female. Sex, then, is a spectrum not a dichotomy. The insistence that sex is a strict biological dichotomy – you are either male or female – is continually being exposed as the ideological construct (as opposed to biological reality) that it actually is.
This is not to say that sex simply is a social construct; it is a biological reality that some bodies can produce children and others cannot. However what I am saying is that our biological features and capacities have a fundamentally social interpretation, meaning and value. Hence not even sex – with its basis in the biology – is a fixed or immutable part of nature.
It’s for this reason that despite being assigned male at birth Janet Mock can say “I was born a baby, not a boy”. And she’d be right; the move to assign a baby with a penis as a boy is not a simple statement of biological fact, but a loaded ideological ascription.
Gender Essentialism Re-loaded
Despite this, gender essentialist ideology persists and in fact under neo-liberal capitalism we are witnessing it’s (re)rise.
This is partly due to a right-wing backlash against the gains made by proponents of women’s, gender and sexual liberation. In Poland the Church is leading a crusade against a phantom enemy: the “ideology of gender”. One of Poland’s leading Bishops is on record saying: “the ideology of gender presents a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined”. Just last month Pope Francis argued that transgender rights present a similar threat to humanity as does nuclear weapons. And in France a similar phantom enemy, the “theory of gender”, is constructed with no consensus over what this theory is, but deep right-wing consensus that by opposing it gender norms, family relations and heterosexuality are being defended. Right-wing backlashes around the world are sharpening as the unprecedented visibility of transgender movements penetrates popular consciousness.
However, neo-liberal capitalism has a more pernicious side. As governments move to shift the burden of the social reproduction of the working class away from the state and onto family units, women (constructed as being the arbiters of care giving and domesticity) are picking up this burden. Termed austerity, such policies are accompanied by an ideological push to reinforce gender roles and the family. In summer 2014 Prime Minister David Cameron could not have been more honest when he said that “nothing matters more than family”.
The effects of gender essentialism can also be seen in the construction of women as universally available sex objects; opening women’s bodies to the profit-seeking logics of the market. And as Tithi Bhattacharya writes in ‘Explaining Gender Violence in the Neo-liberal Era’ the mobilisation of violent, sexist and essentialist gender ideology is facilitating the hyper-exploitation of women in Export Processing Zones, thus providing cheap sources of labour for developing countries. In short, capitalism the world over benefits from essentialist constructions of gender and the sharpening of gender essentialist ideals today is not just a right-wing backlash, but a conscious neo-liberal strategy.
In effect what we are seeing is the intensification of contradictions between gender essentialist ideology and the lived variability of gender identity; bringing with it new battlegrounds and opportunities for liberation politics.
The Reality of Trans Oppression
It is this analysis that goes some way to explaining the brutal reality of transgender oppression under capitalism today. Working class transwomen still represent the most under and unemployed segment of society. While most people in the global North can expect to live past 60, due to high suicide and homicide rates as well as denial to adequate health care trans women can expect to live only until their mid-30s. In prisons they face the worst and most numerous forces of sexual and physical violence from inmates, guards and prison bureaucracies. And gender non-conformity in America is still one of the most common points of entry into the prison industrial complex as well as the basis for much police brutality.
In a world built on the idea that biological sex determines our social being, trans people exist as an affront to so many of the ideological edifices of capitalism today. Trans embodiment on the one hand widens the gap between biology and social being, because, if gender is a social construction then any human – regardless of the sex of their body – can be any gender. But on the other hand trans embodiment brings sex and gender closer together by making us privy to the social characteristics at play in sex categorisation.
These two processes symbiotically tear at the gender roles at the heart of the nuclear family and rip away at the gender essentialist practices forced upon us by social reproduction under capitalism. It is no surprise, then, that trans people face some of the harshest forms of oppression. The very existence of gender variant people provides a glimpse into a world that contradicts some of the core sexist principals at the heart of capitalism.
Some people known as trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) draw conclusions from the sex/gender distinction and materialist feminist tradition that ends up serving the conditions of oppression as opposed to offering a strategy to challenge them.
Because gender is constructed in society in a top down, oppressive way TERF strategy dictates that we abolish gender. This conclusion is predicated on the assumption that if gender as constructed today comes from oppressive social relations then abolishing gender abolishes oppression. They conclude that trans people who find solace, happiness and humanness in basing their subjectivity on gender therefore reinforce oppressive social relations.
This gets things disastrously backwards.
It was slavery as an economic mode of production and the social relations it reproduced that created race and racism. Race and racism were then used to reinforce slavery. To lay the basis for a challenge to racism and improve the lives of black slaves it would have been a recipe for inertia, inaction and the continuation of slavery to argue that it was race that needed to be abolished. The problem was slavery.
Similarly the material interests of capitalism in women’s bodies is what reproduces (essentialist) gender and women’s oppression. The problem is not that gender exists but that the way it is constructed is done by and for the interests of the exploiting class.
Imagine the righteous condemnation that would have been unleashed on people who turned to the Black Power movements of the late 60s and 70s and said “Look the problem is the concept of blackness. Stop affirming blackness and your oppression will go away”. In fact people did say that: the reactionaries and liberals who saw the Black Power movement as a threat to be neutralised were the ones who argued for the blunted, idealistic strategy that getting rid of the idea of race will get rid of racial oppression. It is on the broken shoulders of this tradition that the worst transphobic TERFs of today stand.
Liberation as Subjectivity
In our discussions about gender, transgender and liberation we have to be clear that the problem is not that gender exists. The problem is who is constructing our genders and the system that is reproduced by them doing so.
As Judith Butler says in an interview with Trans Advocate:
Some [people] want to be gender-free, but others want to be free really to be a gender that is crucial to who they are.
And that this kind of world is possible should be at the heart of liberation politics; a world where our subjective expressions of being and body (regardless of what they are) are determined by ourselves and only ourselves. This radical view of liberation contradicts a gender essentialist view that tells us our gender expression is necessarily tied to nature or a TERF view that tells us our liberation requires forfeiting our genders.
Smashing oppression means smashing the system and liberating, not restricting, subjectivity. And with hammer and sickle in hand, that is what we have to do, alongside our trans sisters and brothers. Anyone who finds themselves disagreeing will also find themselves on the wrong side of history.