In the late 90s The Fast Show used to feature a recurrent sketch in which a group of men and one woman would be brainstorming for ideas. The punchline was always the same: the woman would be the one to find the solution but no one would seem to hear it until a man repeated it using slightly different words, having not quite understood it, whereupon he’d be treated like a total genius.

I think things are a bit like that in feminism these days. We have decades of serious scholarship and wonderful ideas but unfortunately most of it has come from not just from women, but from stupid old cis women (a bit like your mum, but more bigoted). That can’t be any good, can it? Best repackage it to make it seem more clever and authoritative. Best say it’s coming from someone with a deeper, more meaningful understanding of sex and gender. Best pretend it’s all new, all the better to continue pissing from a great height onto the very people we claim to be liberating. (more…)

Yesterday Buzzfeed published a spoof guide to contemporary feminist terminology. As a contemporary feminist, how I laughed. Laughed and laughed and laughed. Then, after about half a second’s laughing, I thought “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if someone wrote an actual guide to some actual feminism? One that actually mentions male oppressors and doesn’t spend half the time focussed on which feminists hold unacceptable views?” So despite being female and therefore crap, I decided to give it a go.

Gender (noun):

  1. Oppressive hierarchy, situating adult human males (as the construct “man”) at the top, adult human females (as the construct “woman”) at the bottom.
  2. Nebulous thing that makes you want to wear certain clothes, have certain ideas, do certain activities, adopt certain mannerisms etc. Otherwise known as “being a person”.

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I can’t remember when I first realised my son was a person. I guess as a mother you always know these things. Right from the moment he was first placed in my arms I sense there was something person-y about him, almost as though he might be an individual with his own consciousness, fully capable of developing a sense of himself which was not inextricably linked to gender stereotypes. Quite why this should be, I couldn’t say, but now that he’s older, I believe more and more that I was right. Nonetheless, like any mother, I have moments when I still wonder if I’m failing him.

From an early age my son has liked things. Some of them have been pink and some of them have been blue and some of them have been other colours. He has also liked activities, some of them boisterous and aggressive, some of them gentle and caring. Sometimes he goes through phases of liking more pink things than blue things, or doing more gentle things than aggressive things. A more attentive mother might have sat down with an excel spreadsheet, listed the number of boy activities and preferences in one column, the number of girl ones in another, and come up with a suitable gender for such a child. I never did this. I just looked at him and thought “ah, a male person, albeit one growing up in a world full of crappy categories arbitrarily linked to sex difference. Oh well, we’ll do our best to ignore them”. (more…)

This morning @FeministPics tweeted a newspaper report on the fascinating story of Harriet Capon, who spent two years presenting as a boy. When asked to explain herself, Capon claimed her motivations were economic:

I am one of a family of six. My mother, I regret to say, is in very precarious health, and about two years ago I started thinking seriously about how I could add to the household income to the best advantage. Of course everyone knows that a man can make more money than a woman in industrial employment. I cogitated for a long time, and finally I decided to become a ‘man’.

All of this took place a century ago. There was no Equal Pay Act, no anti-sexual harassment legislation, no maternity leave, none of the safety nets for which feminists have fought long and hard. Capon’s assumption – that if one wanted to make money in industrial employment, it was easier to be a man, even easier than it is today – was absolutely correct.

A short while after @FeministPics put out the report a tweet from another twitter user appeared, mentioning “Charles Capon, #trans boy for 2yrs during WWI”. It referred to the same story, only now it was presented in a completely different light. Suddenly it is suggested that Capon acted, not in response to a gender hierarchy which values males more than females, but because she was indeed one of the ‘higher value’ individuals. I’ve rarely seen a clearer example of neoliberal identity politics being privileged over economic, social and political oppression. Given the pitifully low status of women and girls the world over, this matters. (more…)

I knew my sons were boys four months before they were born. For each, a penis was visible on the twenty week scan. They were not, shall we say, “modest”, which is just as well, because I wanted to know in advance. I wanted to be able to prepare myself, by which I do not mean purchase a vat of blue paint and a range of suitably gendered toys. I wanted to know what, in a viciously gendered world, we’d be up against: the conditioning that tells my children to be violent, unfeeling, dominant, unable to admit to vulnerabilities, or the conditioning that tells my children they must be passive, self-effacing, nurturing, mere objects for the purpose of another’s self-definition. I wanted to have time to think about how to protect them (but there’s never enough time for that).

My sons are boys because they have penises. They are neither female nor intersex. They are male. They are not boys in the gendered sense of the word: their character, emotional life, intellect and world view are not shaped by the fact that they have magic boy brains. I am not, however, naïve; I know that much of what is shaping their experience as human beings comes from the fact that others believe such boy brains exist and will treat my children accordingly. This is why, as a feminist, I am against what gender is and does. It might be a hierarchy which implicitly positions my sons at the top, on the arbitrary basis of reproductive difference, but it is one that harms them, too. They are unique, creative, wonderful little people, not “a gender” (what is that, anyhow? How many genders would we need to allow them to be utterly individual? 7 billion? What, you mean like having no genders at all? Don’t be such a bigot!). (more…)

Laurie Penny has a colouring book:

It’s called Finding Gender, and it was sent to me by an activist who knows how much I love social justice and felt-tip pens. In the book, a small child and a robot go on marvellous adventures, and children and nostalgic adults get to scribble on their clothes and costumes, their hair and toys. It’s an ordinary colouring book in every respect, apart from the fact that the child isn’t identifiably male or female. Neither is the robot. The person with the crayons gets to decide what they’re wearing, whether they’re boys or girls, or both or neither.

It sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? I wonder if there are other books in the series. Finding Class, for instance, where the child isn’t identifiably rich or poor and the person with the crayons gets to decide whether he or she has a pony and a yacht or a half-eaten bag of chips. It’s such a wheeze when an oppressive, abusive hierarchy can be reduced to a few self-indulgent, superfluous stereotypes. You could almost – almost – convince a child that they get to define their own place in a classist, misogynist social structure. As for adults … well, you’d hope most would have a sense that this isn’t quite how things work.. (more…)

In response to yesterday’s post I have received a lot of well-meaning messages informing me that “gender is not a binary”. This is, I assume, to disabuse me of the foolish notion that there’s only boring old male and female. I am reliably informed (as if I didn’t know it already) that there is plenty more in-between. Hence we don’t need to panic about gender itself oppressing people. There’s enough to go round! Don’t fear it, queer it! Everything is awesome! etc.

I am not convinced by this argument, not because I have any doubts about the number of gender identities currently on offer. There are loads. It’s like being in an Eastern Bloc country just after the Fall of Communism – look at the choice! No more shall we join a uniform stream of Men and Women trudging miserably out of the People Factory. We’re free at last! (Or at least we would be if it wasn’t for those pesky TERFs still clinging on to their Stalinist views on gender equality.) Gender is not a binary – it’s not! That Facebook drop-down provides all the empirical evidence we need. The trouble is, it might not be a binary, but it sure as hell is a hierarchy. (more…)

Most women hate their bodies. This is one of those boring facts that everyone knows and no one bothers to change. We half-heartedly order women to “love themselves” and “embrace their curves.” We encourage them to watch Dove adverts so that they may campaign for Real Beauty (while also worrying about ugly underarms). We eventually tell them fuck it, beauty is empowerment, why not embrace your self-hatred? Whatever we do, it’s not all that important since at the end of the day it’s all vanity. Hate away.

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t hated my body. Really, truly hated it, albeit in a way that I don’t tend to think of as hate (I think of it as “having a shit body” or “being a fat, ugly bitch” or in countless other ways which problematize not my hatred, but my body itself as an offensive object). At times my hatred of my flesh has almost killed me, leading to hospitalisations and force-feedings. I still wish there was less of me. Whatever my size I will always wish to be less. (more…)

Female biology is neither magic nor mysterious. It doesn’t make those in possession of it nurturing, or caring, or motherly. It doesn’t mean we ought to bear children, nor does it mean we can always bear children if we’d like to. Female biology is flawed, inconsistent and, most of all, it is not the sum of us.

It is, however, real. My female reproductive system is as real as my heart or my brain or my lungs. It will exist whether you allow me to name it or not. I am not simply “a female”. I am a person. I am, nevertheless, female. I am neither ashamed nor frightened of this.

Identifying bodies as female is not an oppressive or exclusive act. It is simply a statement of fact, but also one that has political import. If we stop naming female bodies, female bodies will still exist. We will still interpret them and respond to them. We will, without radical changes to our thinking, continue to reject, abuse and punish these bodies just for being what they are. We will not call them female, but we will still call them something: the bodies of breeders, bleeders, post-menopausal non-entities. We will demean their owners by taking away a biological definition and replacing it with a function. We will have decreed “female” far too good a word for that lower class of humans, the fleshy, sinful ones with their blood, discharges and holes. We will have taken a word that articulates the source of their oppression and offered nothing in return.

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Yesterday Paris Lees wrote a blog post on Avery Edison, a trans woman who was being held in a man’s prison in Canada. In it, she described “a culture that punishes difference, blames victims and lacks empathy”:

It’s a disbelief characterised by privilege: the cushy, unquestioned joy of not knowing what it feels like for the other person. To stand there, humiliated, while people you don’t know tell you what they think your gender should be. That you are fake. Inauthentic. Not what you say you are.

Powerful and beautifully expressed, this touches on something that lies at the heart of all movements for social change – this sense that you are not what others define you to be, that you are more human, more real, and as such you deserve more. That your life has a pattern and meaning other than those being imposed on it from above. We all know our realities better than anyone else. We know what forms us and we know what hurts us. We own the context of our own experiences.

I was thinking of this when reading Roz Kaveney’s response to my New Statesman piece on cis identities, gender and womanhood. It’s not a response as such, more a remarkably unfeeling lecture on how to be empathetic. It’s a curious thing, reading that what you believe and feel about yourself isn’t right, and that someone else knows better. It’s not an unfamiliar sensation of course; as a fellow woman, Roz, I’ve had people do this to me all my life. And here’s a gentle reminder, if you’re going to write about empathy again any time soon: the respect I show for your reality doesn’t render mine a poor, second-class version.

Your experiences don’t override mine, filling in the gaps, blotting out the parts no one wants to see. Your understanding of gender is different, but not heightened, not deeper, not more “real”. I am interested in the context it gives to mine, and the extent to which I may need to recalibrate in response; nevertheless, my flexibility doesn’t extend to offering up my own version of womanhood at the altar of your ego.

In a piece filled with kindly, long-suffering explanations of what I “really” think, Kaveney describes how “when someone like Glosswitch, not ill-intentioned and probably not meaningfully describable as transphobic, announces that they are going to talk about gender, alarm bells ring all over the trans* part of the internet”. I know! Just imagine, me, a feminist, having opinions and thoughts about gender! It’s bound to be total crap, right? The whole tone of this sounds disturbingly patriarchal. I picture myself in a Mike Leigh film, a seventies housewife who’s got drunk at a dinner party, my embarrassed husband making excuses for us both: “Don’t mind Glosswitch, she means well but she hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about!” Poor Glosswitch. She does get these “ideas” about womanhood. Don’t hold it against her, eh? She’s not transphobic, after all; well, not “meaningfully describable” as such (wink, wink).

Like all people who mistake projection for empathy, Kaveney seems to suggest she is being kind:

I get that, as a young cis woman, Glosswitch experienced major areas of dysphoria about body and social role; I understand that she thinks, not entirely without justice, that these give her some share of what trans people go through.

Well, actually: no. That’s not what I think. I don’t define my experience of gender solely in relation to people who experience it differently. I don’t see it as a partial, broken-off narrative, useful only if it will earn me the right to take part in a conversation that belongs to someone else. This is my story. Mine. I own it. It is every bit as complete and real as yours, and this is true of every single woman on Earth, cis or trans. This will make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, too, but there we are. That’s empathy for you.

This doesn’t mean gender is arbitrary and meaningless, floating in the ether. It is embedded in all of our lives. We each make our own definitions, form our own versions. That doesn’t mean the totality of these versions is harmless. We can still read its impact. It’s not the case that when beliefs about gender kill women – or cause them not to be born at all – these women don’t really die because hey, that’s not how you see gender operating. This is no more valid than suggesting that racism isn’t that bad, really, because you recognise people of colour are equal to white people. You don’t get to deny the reality of structural inequality just because you simply don’t feel it deep within yourself.

Kaveney writes that “the range of meanings attached to the word gender are attached to a range of actual lived experiences – that is how a living language about sex and equality develops”. I am a linguist. I have PhD in languages. I might not be quoting Butler but I am not a child who needs words explaining to me. I also know that it is naïve in the extreme to pretend that language necessarily develops in a positive direction, becoming more progressive and inclusive. Any development which takes from females the means to articulate the relationship between gender, biology and oppression – and does so at a time of massive structural inequality – is not a positive one. It is, on the contrary, erasing and dangerous. Kaveney would like to suggest that any articulation of the misogyny inherent in reproductive oppression means giving in to “the people who want to abolish women’s reproductive freedom” since they are also erasing trans men. This is disingenuous beyond belief. A denial of the structural roots of oppression is not a move for inclusivity. Misogyny is real. It is no less real when it has an impact on those who do not identify as women.

Of course, like all women, I am used to people talking down to me and feeling, not angry, but disappointed. Often they sound like this:

Some of the time Glosswitch really doesn’t get it – empathy fails all together.

Oh dear :(. The trouble is, empathy isn’t saying what people would like you to say. It is about trying to understand. Kaveney doesn’t like this. You are, it appears, either right or wrong:

What’s also politically dangerous is [Glosswitch’s] assumption that there’s a possible, desirable truce between trans people and those feminists who are trans-exclusionary, or more accurately trans-eliminationist.

God forbid that anyone should operate on the assumption that, in a world in which beliefs about sex and gender oppress us all, we’re most of us trying to do our best. God forbid anyone should try to act in a way that identifies humanity and good faith even in those we disagree with. God forbid that we should hesitate before daring to look at anyone – anyone at all—and say that they are, to quote Lees, “fake. Inauthentic. Not who you say you are.” God forbid that I should believe my reality can stand toe to toe with yours.

I haven’t written this for the benefit of Roz Kaveney, or indeed anyone else. I’ve written it for me, because it makes me feel better to restate that my reality is mine. It’s important to be able to reclaim these things. You can take something from deep within yourself and lay it out for public consumption and it will be there for others to take and put into whatever context they wish. Nonetheless, it’s still yours, whoever you are. It can’t be distorted and shoved back inside you as something else, something you neither knew nor felt.  Anyone at all should be able to empathise with that, at least if they were to try.

Picture the scene: a greasy spoon café on a dark winter’s evening, crowded with people wrapped up against the cold. On a table for four a man sits alone, cradling a cold cup of coffee. He’s wearing a pink wig, an oversized pink dress and a slick of garish pink lipstick. No one around him seems to notice he’s there. The whole thing looks like a photograph straight out of a weekend colour supplement, part of an series of shots depicting the British being  “eccentric” and/or “tolerant”. I say as much to the man at the table. He tells me I should take the photo, then. But I can’t because one of our children has started climbing all over his lap and the moment for pictures has gone.

My partner does not usually wear dresses or make-up. He hasn’t worn them for years. This evening when he put them on it made him feel old and wistful: (more…)

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