Tag Archives: Gender Construction

When people are sharing hate speech and they don’t even know it

From what I’ve seen, the Anarchist Federation are generally pretty right on, including when it comes to trans inclusion, but sometimes people get things drastically wrong and then you get a sticker like this, which is kinda hate speech:

[image: a picture of two women holding a knife to a man's throat. text reads: abolish gender]

I turned up at a meeting recently and saw a pile of these in a space I generally feel safe. A space that signed up to the Safer Space Guidelines our local trans community drew up. Seeing this really threw me, especially amongst other stickers I could totally get behind. It reminded me of how far we still have to go.

People asked me what was up and I could not articulate it, afraid that without a shared understanding of the issues, I would come across as an apologist for misogyny. I’m writing this to try and make the issues clear.

First of all, though as a pacifist I’m not fond of the image, it isn’t that I find problematic. Women having violent revenge fantasies about overpowering men in the context of male oppression are just that – fantasies. The image is symbolic, I get that. If the text had said “smash patriarchy” I would be fine. Even though I know some whiny person who doesn’t understand about structural inequality will come along and talk about “misandry” or “reverse sexism”, I’m not about to censor or tone police women’s anger. It’s just a picture showing the depths of women’s justifiable rage.

But the text calls for people to “abolish gender” and that’s the hate-speechy bit. Because let’s be clear, gender is many, many things and only one of those is an axis of oppression.

Gender is Two-spirit people, Bakla, Hijiras, and the many hundreds of ways cultures all over the world explore and express the complexity of gender, in defiance of binary, colonialist narratives. Abolishing Two-spirit people isn’t ending oppression, it is oppression. And it’s colonisation, as Lola Phoenix explains here*.

Gender is also butches, femmes, demigirls, genderqueer & genderfluid folk, trans men, trans women, non-binary people, people who are agender, bigender, pangender, transgender. . .

In other words, there is a rich diversity of how people enact and experience gender across the globe and to abolish it would be to abolish us.

This is a particularly violent threat in the context of most gender abolitionists’ insistence on maintaining the legal and social categories “men and women”, which if you haven’t read my previous blogs, is still gender but gender abolitionists don’t always see it as such.

So, to recap, “abolish gender”, one tenet of second wave radical feminism, seeks to abolish diverse cultural identities and communities while remaining silent on sex assignment. Sex assignment is a non-consensual process. In it children are forced, without their permission and with physical violence in the case of many intersex children, into a legal and social category, according to the shape of their genitalia. These categories are not neutral, they are classed – one oppresses the other. This process of sex assignment gives birth to the existence of gender as class.

Abolish gender as a class structure by all means, although the only way I can see to do that is to abolish sex assignment. But there is a huge difference between ending a non-consensual practice committed against children and forcing adults to end their own cultural, consensual and autonomous practices around gender.

I do not want to be abolished. Yes, I wish I had not been assigned female at birth. Yes, I understand that assignment has massively altered my experience of gender. Yes, I understand that both my female assignment and my male socialisation have been subject to the influence of gender inequality. But I do not believe that there is anything remotely wrong with being transgender and I believe even in a utopia aspects of gender would still manifest, even if differently than in this dystopic world.

Yes, I want to smash patriarchy, but please don’t smash me in the process.

To explore this subject in greater depth, I have set up a workshop in Nottingham on 20th August

*ETA: This is a nice accessible piece on the subject, but there’s much more out there. The workshop seeks to collate the words of POC, which are not always given platforms. A good place to start if you’re up for a longer read is decolonizing trans/gender 101 by b. binaohan

Gender Segregation – For your own good?

I am reposting this from April 8 because it isn’t showing up in the sidebar.

TW for discussion of violence and abuse, including sexual abuse

A long time ago, I was vulnerably housed, living in a hostel in a city down South. Next door to me lived a couple, a really tall older man and a young adult man who had dwarfism. I’m going to call the smaller guy Paul, although his real name has disappeared from my head. I’ll never forget his story, though.

People have always told me their life stories – I guess I have that kind of face. Paul’s was pretty tragic – a childhood of terrible neglect and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It was hard to hear – the worst thing I’d ever heard at the time, which given  the things I’d heard and experienced is saying a lot.

Paul’s companion was his “saviour” – someone who showed him love he had never known, but it soon became clear that this older man had a temper and was violent – sometimes I was called into the aftermath of blood, bruises, tears and apologies. They clearly loved each other, but I could see that what Paul had now was only good compared to the horror of his past – he was still being abused, and he was terribly vulnerable.

A journey towards separatism

Forward fast a few years and I’d pretty much become a lesbian separatist – I’d come out the other side of therapy for my own abuse from cis men, and I’d figured out the safest kind of world is a world without men in it, at least for me (okay, I admit that later I learned women weren’t as safe to be with as I’d hoped, but that’s another story for another time). Back then I worked for women-only domestic violence services, and I firmly believed they need to stay women-only (note: for me, that always included trans women).

But then the UK funding climate changed and the service I worked for started to work with men, amid resistance from myself and other workers.

[Image: a crying woman cowers in front of a man's clenched fist]

But that work with male survivors changed me. It turns out there are other Pauls in the world, that male/female is not the only axis of oppression that exists. I discovered that sometimes women really do abuse vulnerable men, that as well as being a man, someone can be queer or elderly or young or disabled or little or a person of colour or economically vulnerable. And most importantly, I discovered that despite the power imbalance, women and men are not fundamentally different and our experiences of abuse and trauma are not fundamentally different. I discovered gender as a continuum, and human experience as a continuum, and began to free myself from the simplistic, convenient, and binary models I had clung to.

Back then, we would say “yeah, but men should set up their own services, women shouldn’t have to look after men, it isn’t their job”, and that works so well as an argument when I think of this group of people “men” with the attached picture I have of someone able and white and well-muscled. But it sounds callous, if I’m honest, when I think of someone like Paul. Really? Not the job of an able, middle class professional being paid by taxpayers money to care about a vulnerable, homeless abuse survivor with dwarfism? That sounds a little different, doesn’t it?

I’m not suggesting that Paul didn’t have male privilege, far from it. I am simply suggesting male privilege is not the only privilege there is, and that he lacked many others.

At the same time, I felt uneasy – a service with “women” in the title helping men was a bit like Cadbury’s making gravy. The whole thing needed a bit of a rethink. Because “domestic violence” had become synonymous with women, and heterosexual women at that, it had coalesced around one particular form of oppression – sexism. Ageism, ableism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, classism and poverty (etc) were not getting a look-in or being treated as equally serious oppressions.

Perhaps this is because women’s organising does benefit from potentially having the weight of half the world’s population behind it. Women are not a minority, and maybe that’s an advantage they have over other oppressed groups. It’s helped them be the only oppressed group that’s consistently able to create publicly funded separate spaces.

Some time later still, I went to work for a mixed gender sexual abuse survivors service, and some of my feminist friends were angry with me – they did not believe there was such thing as a genuine male abuse survivor, they honestly thought that men could only be perpetrators. I was shocked, but I also understood – in a world where separatism had created a bubble in which we never heard about male survivors, it was easy to disbelieve their existence. What we saw more often was male perpetrators manipulating and abusing by playing the victim, a common story.

But by now my eyes had been painfully opened – male survivors do exist, male survivors of abuse by women exist. Even though the power structure between men and women is very unequal, on an individual level there are variations, and other power structures at play. For example, boys under 7 sexually assaulted by female relatives and then labelled as “seducers” based on their maleness have their child/adult power inequality erased.

My own history and the work I did was raising complex questions about gender, trauma and abuse that I needed to explore. I went and did an MA with a particular focus on gender and trauma. That journey led to me coming out as a non-binary transgender person, but it also opened my eyes to the many layers in the stories we tell ourselves about violence against women.

“For your own good”

Gender segregation – in domestic violence services, prisons, toilets, and other women only spaces is supposedly for women’s own good. We have to keep women and men separate because it’s thought impossible to expect the same standard of non-violence from men as from women. This constant threat of violence and micro-aggressions is part of what keeps women oppressed, even to the point where feminists argue for single-sex education so girls can “do better” despite the fact our country is ruled by an ex-boys’ school elite. Gender segregation keeps women out of power and yet it’s still seen to be in their interests.

When I wrote my dissertation, I came across evidence that feminist domestic violence services, in the US at least, were being controlled by an external, ultra-conservative agenda – the message to services, in summary, appeared to be “if you want funding for your shelters, then you must present and perpetuate the ‘women as powerless victims’ narrative” – any hint that women’s position in society is negotiable, changeable, evolving and conditional is erased to create a fixed condition of women as a static underclass. The reality, that some women are strong, violent, unassailable, powerful, has ironically become as unpalatable to the people defending these vital services as it has to the conservatives, and so we feminists working for an end to domestic violence found ourselves shoring up the very thing we wanted to dismantle. In order to support women in the world the way it is, we have given the way the world is an increasing solidity and sense of permanence.

All those years I spent in women’s spaces, I fought for their preservation. Even whilst knowing in my heart that gender isn’t a binary. Whilst knowing that I carried the male gaze and male socialisation into those spaces. That I identified as woman in some ways and man in others. That I myself was capable of both victimhood and violence (I was prone to physically lashing out as a youngster, something that’s hard for me to own up to).

It’s hard not to end up with more questions than answers when trying to think of ways forward. I will continue to stick up for women’s spaces, whilst hoping we evolve away from them. I hope that segregated spaces were a necessary part of the journey, but not where we’re going to end up. I want a world not of assimilation, of “not seeing gender” but of inclusion and anti-oppression, where there is an awareness of inequality and people’s vulnerability, and an empathy for difference in all spaces. This becomes increasingly necessary as we realise that many of the smaller minority groups will never have the resources or traction to create their own safe spaces. And as Audre Lorde famously said, we do not live single-issue lives, so our separation into neat, easy to delineate categories is more problematic than at first appears.

[image: photo of Audre Lorde speaking, with qotation overlaid "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not lead single-issue lives"]

More than anything, though, I would love to see an end to the way we construct and reinforce toxic masculinity. I fear that in this neoliberal world, it may be in some people’s interests to maintain male violence and its function of domination, control and security. It is not mindless – it serves a purpose in keeping our country economically strong and our race in a superior position. Subverting that role in whatever way we can, and that includes breaking down the myths that separate us, is tough, complicated but important work.

Gender Segregation – “For your own good”?

TW for discussion of violence and abuse, including sexual abuse

A long time ago, I was vulnerably housed, living in a hostel in a city down South. Next door to me lived a couple, a really tall older man and a young adult man who had dwarfism. I’m going to call the smaller guy Paul, although his real name has disappeared from my head. I’ll never forget his story, though.

People have always told me their life stories – I guess I have that kind of face. Paul’s was pretty tragic – a childhood of terrible neglect and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It was hard to hear – the worst thing I’d ever heard at the time, which given  the things I’d heard and experienced is saying a lot.

Paul’s companion was his “saviour” – someone who showed him love he had never known, but it soon became clear that this older man had a temper and was violent – sometimes I was called into the aftermath of blood, bruises, tears and apologies. They clearly loved each other, but I could see that what Paul had now was only good compared to the horror of his past – he was still being abused, and he was terribly vulnerable.

A journey towards separatism

Forward fast a few years and I’d pretty much become a lesbian separatist – I’d come out the other side of therapy for my own abuse from cis men, and I’d figured out the safest kind of world is a world without men in it, at least for me (okay, I admit that later I learned women weren’t as safe to be with as I’d hoped, but that’s another story for another time). Back then I worked for women-only domestic violence services, and I firmly believed they need to stay women-only (note: for me, that always included trans women).

But then the UK funding climate changed and the service I worked for started to work with men, amid resistance from myself and other workers.

[Image: a crying woman cowers in front of a man's clenched fist]

But that work with male survivors changed me. It turns out there are other Pauls in the world, that male/female is not the only axis of oppression that exists. I discovered that sometimes women really do abuse vulnerable men, that as well as being a man, someone can be queer or elderly or young or disabled or little or a person of colour or economically vulnerable. And most importantly, I discovered that despite the power imbalance, women and men are not fundamentally different and our experiences of abuse and trauma are not fundamentally different. I discovered gender as a continuum, and human experience as a continuum, and began to free myself from the simplistic, convenient, and binary models I had clung to.

Back then, we would say “yeah, but men should set up their own services, women shouldn’t have to look after men, it isn’t their job”, and that works so well as an argument when I think of this group of people “men” with the attached picture I have of someone able and white and well-muscled. But it sounds callous, if I’m honest, when I think of someone like Paul. Really? Not the job of an able, middle class professional being paid by taxpayers money to care about a vulnerable, homeless abuse survivor with dwarfism? That sounds a little different, doesn’t it?

I’m not suggesting that Paul didn’t have male privilege, far from it. I am simply suggesting male privilege is not the only privilege there is, and that he lacked many others.

At the same time, I felt uneasy – a service with “women” in the title helping men was a bit like Cadbury’s making gravy. The whole thing needed a bit of a rethink. Because “domestic violence” had become synonymous with women, and heterosexual women at that, it had coalesced around one particular form of oppression – sexism. Ageism, ableism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, classism and poverty (etc) were not getting a look-in or being treated as equally serious oppressions.

Perhaps this is because women’s organising does benefit from potentially having the weight of half the world’s population behind it. Women are not a minority, and maybe that’s an advantage they have over other oppressed groups. It’s helped them be the only oppressed group that’s consistently able to create publicly funded separate spaces.

Some time later still, I went to work for a mixed gender sexual abuse survivors service, and some of my feminist friends were angry with me – they did not believe there was such thing as a genuine male abuse survivor, they honestly thought that men could only be perpetrators. I was shocked, but I also understood – in a world where separatism had created a bubble in which we never heard about male survivors, it was easy to disbelieve their existence. What we saw more often was male perpetrators manipulating and abusing by playing the victim, a common story.

But by now my eyes had been painfully opened – male survivors do exist, male survivors of abuse by women exist. Even though the power structure between men and women is very unequal, on an individual level there are variations, and other power structures at play. For example, boys under 7 sexually assaulted by female relatives and then labelled as “seducers” based on their maleness have their child/adult power inequality erased.

My own history and the work I did was raising complex questions about gender, trauma and abuse that I needed to explore. I went and did an MA with a particular focus on gender and trauma. That journey led to me coming out as a non-binary transgender person, but it also opened my eyes to the many layers in the stories we tell ourselves about violence against women.

“For your own good”

Gender segregation – in domestic violence services, prisons, toilets, and other women only spaces is supposedly for women’s own good. We have to keep women and men separate because it’s thought impossible to expect the same standard of non-violence from men as from women. This constant threat of violence and micro-aggressions is part of what keeps women oppressed, even to the point where feminists argue for single-sex education so girls can “do better” despite the fact our country is ruled by an ex-boys’ school elite. Gender segregation keeps women out of power and yet it’s still seen to be in their interests.

When I wrote my dissertation, I came across evidence that feminist domestic violence services, in the US at least, were being controlled by an external, ultra-conservative agenda – the message to services, in summary, appeared to be “if you want funding for your shelters, then you must present and perpetuate the ‘women as powerless victims’ narrative” – any hint that women’s position in society is negotiable, changeable, evolving and conditional is erased to create a fixed condition of women as a static underclass. The reality, that some women are strong, violent, unassailable, powerful, has ironically become as unpalatable to the people defending these vital services as it has to the conservatives, and so we feminists working for an end to domestic violence found ourselves shoring up the very thing we wanted to dismantle. In order to support women in the world the way it is, we have given the way the world is an increasing solidity and sense of permanence.

All those years I spent in women’s spaces, I fought for their preservation. Even whilst knowing in my heart that gender isn’t a binary. Whilst knowing that I carried the male gaze and male socialisation into those spaces. That I identified as woman in some ways and man in others. That I myself was capable of both victimhood and violence (I was prone to physically lashing out as a youngster, something that’s hard for me to own up to).

It’s hard not to end up with more questions than answers when trying to think of ways forward. I will continue to stick up for women’s spaces, whilst hoping we evolve away from them. I hope that segregated spaces were a necessary part of the journey, but not where we’re going to end up. I want a world not of assimilation, of “not seeing gender” but of inclusion and anti-oppression, where there is an awareness of inequality and people’s vulnerability, and an empathy for difference in all spaces. This becomes increasingly necessary as we realise that many of the smaller minority groups will never have the resources or traction to create their own safe spaces. And as Audre Lorde famously said, we do not live single-issue lives, so our separation into neat, easy to delineate categories is more problematic than at first appears.

[image: photo of Audre Lorde speaking, with qotation overlaid "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not lead single-issue lives"]

More than anything, though, I would love to see an end to the way we construct and reinforce toxic masculinity. I fear that in this neoliberal world, it may be in some people’s interests to maintain male violence and its function of domination, control and security. It is not mindless – it serves a purpose in keeping our country economically strong and our race in a superior position. Subverting that role in whatever way we can, and that includes breaking down the myths that separate us, is tough, complicated but important work.

Understanding gender socialisation a little better

Gender is socially constructed – I guess anyone wanting to read a blog with “feminist” in the title is probably going to agree to some extent with that statement. But what exactly does that mean?

I’m going to put my child development head on, and draw from my learning as a children’s counsellor, to help bust through some of the false assumptions that arise about “social construction”.

The most important thing to know about children’s social learning can be exemplified by how to teach a child to say “thank you”. It turns out that one of the best ways to teach them is to say thank you to them, and in front of them, as much as possible. Telling children to say it without modelling it to them, turns out to be a really poor way of teaching them. In other words, children learn best by watching what others do, not by being informed what they should do.

How is this relevant to gender? Because likewise, children learn how to “do” gender via their social interactions, not by being told. So, as many trans people will attest, telling a female-identifying child who was assigned male at birth how to perform her gender, will have less effect on her than you might think – she may be told to “man up” by the people around her, but meanwhile, she is watching the women and girls around her, and as someone who identifies with that gender, she will be influenced by them as much if not more than she will by direct messages about how she should behave.

Trans girls often want to wear pink and purple, for example, because society is modelling to them an image of pink and purple girlhood.

what if I told you

This is why it is important not to make an essentialism out of gender construction. When we argue there is something fundamental and essential in itself about having been raised a boy or girl, we are suggesting that gender socialisation is universal and uniform. This would lead to an absurd conclusion: in a society that treats women as inferior, if childhood socialisation is absolute, strictly follows our (assumed) chromosomes, and is irreversible, then women can never overcome their social programming.

This is nonsense, of course. Our socialisation is varied and changeable, not fundamental. If this were not true, all people would be walking stereotypes of their assigned gender.

As feminists we might be drawn to a compromise position where female socialisation is partial and can be overcome, but male socialisation is insurmountable. But that would simply be bad science.

Trans children also have a very different socialisation experience from cis children because they are often gender non-conforming. Their vulnerability and social exclusion as a result of this is evidenced by the fact a higher proportion of trans children are sexually abused than the already alarming percentage of cis girls. Socially marginalised kids are vulnerable to being targeted by bullies and predators; a trans girl’s childhood is therefore unlikely to be one of typical cis male privilege.

The inequality and misogyny in our society also ensures that assigned male children who are are attuned to women’s social cues rather than men’s will be punished far more severely than “tomboys”. Trans girls and feminine non-binary people often face transmisogynistic violence because of this.

Most trans women I know accept that at times they have benefited from male privilege pre-transition for passing as male, but equally a person with black African heritage and pale skin can pass as white and benefit from white privilege, but this does not make them white. The psychological experience of that person and the impact of the racism that they see in the world will be entirely different than for a white person. We can’t equate one civil rights issue with another, but there is a comparison to be made here with trans women, who experience themselves as women and are bombarded with misogynistic messages they internalise, just like other women.

Why do trans people perceive ourselves the way we do? We don’t know for sure. We suspect it is a hormonal effect, but we have no conclusive proof yet of how or why we exist. But we do exist. That there have been people wanting to live as a gender different from their assigned sex throughout history and across many cultures is a fact we cannot deny. How we understand ourselves is ever-evolving.

Let us settle this – trans people do not experience a socialisation process that is normative for their assigned sex, and very often trans people have a considerable amount of socialisation patterns in common with the opposite sex to the one they were assigned. Because these socialisation patterns bed in very early in our lives, while our brains are still forming, they are very much a part of who we are as people.

Where we get stuck, of course, is that nobody is a walking stereotype, and trans people, just like everyone else, will have a blend of gendered characteristics. Sometimes, it is easy to say that the behaviours that match their assigned sex are more “essential” and those of their identified sex more “performed” but this erases the fact that all people are performing gender, and we are all constantly renegotiating our relationship with the rules of gender handed to us by society. We cannot hold trans people to a higher account than we hold the rest of humanity.

We all need to be constantly questioning and examining our relationship with gender, and the assumptions we make. Trans people are as capable as anyone else of both confounding and perpetuating gender stereotypes. Changing the way we “do” gender is about how we challenge the ideas we advertise and model to all children – we do not need to put trans kids under any special scrutiny as they will simply reflect norms in gender socialisation that all other kids of their identified sex will be experiencing.