As a feminist I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about gender. I have generally seen gender as an oppressive social construct that tries to put us in neat little pink and blue boxes. So, you like lipstick and dresses and hair extensions, you must belong over here with the girls, and you like guns and fighting and football, come over here and settle in with the boys. For most of us it is a simple binary: male or female, tick this box or that, like it or not.
I have resisted those neat little boxes for as long as I can remember. Four years younger than my brother, I made sure that I was always first in the icy cold sea, highest up the tree and stubbornly held my own in the rough and tumble of sibling ‘play fights’. I remember feeling it was desperately unfair when my Mum told me that I wasn’t allowed to walk around with my top off any more because it wasn’t “appropriate” at the tender age of 11, despite the fact that I didn’t manage to grow breasts until I was at least 14. I couldn’t understand why my brother was allowed to walk home on his own at night whereas I was encouraged to see the sodium lit streets as a no go zone for the lone female and hence a curtailer of my adolescent freedom. It wasn’t as if the streets were safe for my brother – he always seemed to be getting beaten up and was even car jacked by one of his ‘friends’ at one point, and yet, he didn’t seem to be subjected to the same curfew. I resented having to join the Brownies and learn to be a “hostess” while my brother mastered the art of tying knots and lighting fires, so I joined the Air Cadets and learnt how to shoot a semi-automatic and build a bivouac.
Perhaps because I had an older brother, I never really felt any different to him. I knew I was a girl because I had a vagina and was told that’s what I was, but I always thought I was as good as any boy and refused to feel inferior. I never really questioned my gender in any conscious way but I did question the way that society seemed to treat us differently. My father, a violent and bigoted patriarch, seemed to personify what was wrong with the world, so it’s not difficult to see how I quickly became concerned with social justice and grew to oppose oppression in all its forms.
After studying politics at ‘A’ level I thought that my University days would be filled with protests and sit-ins but was depressed to find myself in an apolitical middle class playground full of privileged kids rebelling before they settled down to a sensible career in finance. I sought out the nearest activists I could find, and spent a few years concerning myself with animal rights and running round fields trying to sab hunts. Feminism was a theory I had learnt about at college but I couldn’t see any feminists anywhere at the University of Nottingham. I felt like the only feminist in the village, shaved my hair off and got a (mistaken) reputation for being a militant lesbian. After I left I was lucky enough to land a job working for a Women’s Drug Service and was depressed to find that there weren’t many feminists there either, just dedicated women doing their day job.
It wasn’t until the recent resurgence in feminism that we are privileged to be experiencing, that I finally became an active feminist. I found other feminists through the power of the internet and started to organise and attend actual meetings with passionate engaged women who wanted to make a difference. At last, I had found a feminist community and I have watched with excitement and awe as the movement has started to swell and gain inspiring momentum. In joining the growing feminist community however, I have also become aware of the conflicts and schisms, the fights and the arguments. I attended the Women’s Conference in Nottingham last year and was shocked and confused to find it become the centre of a storm over sex work. I saw the arguments on Twitter that ensued that didn’t seem to reflect the reality of what had happened, and began to realise that there was another side to being a feminist: a darker side where women were more concerned with fighting each other than fighting the patriarchy. And then I discovered the trans debate.
If you are new to the world of internet feminism then you’d be forgiven for thinking that there is an actual war between radical feminists and the trans community. My interest was initially sparked by a particularly vicious article written by Julie Burchill in which she denounced trans women as “bed wetters in bad wigs” and the ensuing controversy. I began to think about gender even more and tried to figure out what I thought. I attended a workshop run by a person who identifies as gender queer and realised that we had a lot in common. I wasn’t sure I agreed with their stance that sex is socially constructed, but I really wanted to understand the other side of the story.
And I tried, I really did. The thing is, the distinction between sex and gender is a bit of a holy cow for many feminists and is pretty much the bedrock of my feminist thinking. I have always felt pretty androgynous and don’t really have an innate sense of my own gender. I consider my identity as a woman partly biological sex and partly social construct ie. this one seems to have female bits, put it in a dress, tell it it’s a girl, and in 15 years we’ll have a woman. The social construct bit is important because it means that there’s some flexibilty – my sex doesn’t have to dictate the way I perform my gender. The distinction between sex and gender has meant freedom from the oppression of gender roles for many, many women who understood that it meant they were free to step outside the box. Our ‘femaleness’ does not mean that we are programmed to enjoy musicals and manicures any more than farting and football.
Whilst in the middle of all this thinking, I then had a bit of a drunken argument with a very clever friend of mine who has thought more deeply about this stuff than I ever could, and she insisted that I was thinking from a place of ‘cis privilege’. I had only just learnt that I was apparently ‘cis’ gendered and wasn’t ready to concede that this gave me any advantages just yet. I continued to think.
I couldn’t get away from the fact that when trans people talk of having been born in the wrong body, they seemed to be referring to this innate sense of their own gender that I simply don’t possess. When questioned about it, some trans people fall into what I see as gender stereotypes, saying that they always preferred playing with dolls and wearing dresses to playing outside, and I couldn’t really see how this refusal to conform to gender norms was any different from my own experience. The vital difference seemed to be that I problematised patriarchal society, whereas they problematised themselves, their own bodies. I was worried about the implications this has for feminism – if gender is innate, does this mean that we have to get back inside those boxes after all?
And then recently, something began to shift. I had another argument and I read a few more articles and realised that the idea that sex is a spectrum rather than a binary isn’t quite so far out as I first thought (even Andrea Dworkin agrees apparently). I still think that biological sex should not be as relevant to society as it currently is but I also understand that for some people it can feel like a prison. I get pissed off by the fact that as a cis gendered woman I had to puke my guts up for 9 months when I had hyperemesis in pregnancy, bleed from my genitals far too frequently for anyone’s liking and have the joys of menopause waving at me from the horizon, but I feel lucky that I have never felt like a stranger in my own body. It is hard for me to take on board that the feminist ideas that I have found so liberating are considered to be oppressive by others, but I am trying.
Nowadays, I am beginning to construct a new view of sex and gender that sees both as a spectrum, and am starting to understand that perhaps it is a lot more complicated than I first thought. It’s a work in progress, but I am confident that out there somewhere, there might just be some common ground beyond the binary.
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The Burchill affair wasn’t “interesting” to trans people; it was traumatic. Your clever friend was right.
On the subject of the “trapped in the wrong body” trope, that isn’t something that many of us identify with at all:
Thanks for your comments. I am continually trying to learn and refine my thinking on this issue so I appreciate your feedback.
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