Beyond Gender Essentialism

556cd6644ae56e586e4588d8_caitlyn-jenner-bruce-jenner-july-2015-vfI’ve been thinking and reading about gender issues a lot in the last few weeks. Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about gender since I was five years old, wearing a dress that didn’t feel right to me. Today, I read an op-ed in the New York Times, by Elinor Burkett, called “What Makes a Woman?” This basically internecine warfare between some feminists and some trans advocates is sad, unfortunate, and, extremely understandable.

First off, feminists have been fighting for as long as feminism has existed for women especially to have a chance to live whatever lives they want to live, wear whatever they want to wear, and take whatever role, be however it is they want to be. Men have been implicitly (or, for some feminist theorists, explicitly) included in that idea as well. Men should also get to play the roles they want to play, and live the lives they want to live. Men are as bound by our culture’s gender divide as women are.

The rub has come when some folks who were raised as one gender feel deeply (and authentically) like they belong to the other gender. The most recent group of famous trans women, including Janet Mock, Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, have, for their own reasons, chosen a particularly feminine presentation. Presentation is not necessarily related to role, but it is, in our society, a proxy. When you see a woman dressed like Caitlyn Jenner, your enculturated brain thinks about traditional female roles, not male roles, even though dress really has nothing to do with behavior.

And there is the sense that when people feel that they are one gender trapped in a different gender’s body, it somehow reifies the idea that there are only two genders (with their attendant roles), and you have to choose one. And that is an idea that most feminists, for good reason, abhor.

I’m not saying that trans people are actually saying this- in fact, I think it’s likely that most don’t agree with that statement aboveBut that doesn’t change the perception, and it is a part of the conflict.

The deepest part of the conflict, explored in that op-ed, is the idea that the experience of being born a woman is essentially different than being born male and given male privilege. And that even if you become a woman later, it doesn’t change the essential role that a gendered environment plays. She said:

“You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain’ or ‘that’s a boy’s brain,’ ” Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Britain’s Aston University, told The Telegraph last year. The differences between male and female brains are caused by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment, she said.

THE drip, drip, drip of Ms. Jenner’s experience included a hefty dose of male privilege few women could possibly imagine. While young “Bruiser,” as Bruce Jenner was called as a child, was being cheered on toward a university athletic scholarship, few female athletes could dare hope for such largess since universities offered little funding for women’s sports. When Mr. Jenner looked for a job to support himself during his training for the 1976 Olympics, he didn’t have to turn to the meager “Help Wanted – Female” ads in the newspapers, and he could get by on the $9,000 he earned annually, unlike young women whose median pay was little more than half that of men. Tall and strong, he never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night.

Those are realities that shape women’s brains.

Of course, this is all true. However, what the article didn’t say is that the drip, drip, drip of trying to fit into a gender you don’t think matches who you are affects your brain, too.  The experience of not fitting in to gender expectations is as important as the experience of being oppressed for being female. Different, but as important. (And although I don’t identify as trans, that drip, drip, drip has had far more influence on me than the experience of being oppressed because I was born female.)

Ultimately, though, there is this sense of losing something. Another quote from the op-ed:

But as the movement becomes mainstream, it’s growing harder to avoid asking pointed questions about the frequent attacks by some trans leaders on women’s right to define ourselves, our discourse and our bodies. After all, the trans movement isn’t simply echoing African-Americans, Chicanos, gays or women by demanding an end to the violence and discrimination, and to be treated with a full measure of respect. It’s demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves.

Actually, that’s the point, right? Now that men (who were born as women and still have all the equipment) can have babies, it is time to reconceptualize gender. The advance of science means that it may well be that in 50 or 100 years, the chromosomes or genitalia you were born with will have no bearing on your reproductive role or capacity.

Maybe it feels like it’s somehow too soon. Women haven’t fully become equal in our society, so maybe it feels like we’re giving something up. But giving up gender as static, binary, and essential is, in my opinion, the point of feminism, and the only way for everyone regardless of gender to get full inclusion. That probably feels really hard to some feminists, who have fought long and hard for women’s autonomy, agency, and safe space. But I think it’s the only way forward.

 

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