On reality, gender and empathy

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.

13 thoughts on “On reality, gender and empathy

  1. Thanks for this piece. I was struck by the condescending tone in Kaveney’s piece as if to put you in ‘your place’. Where have we seen this before? It is refreshing to see pieces that counter the current gaslighting that is going on around this issue.

    1. Thank you. I was in two minds about writing this. On the one hand, I already wrote what I wanted to and don’t see the need to write it again. But on the other I think it is important to stress that no one’s beliefs about gender implicitly overwrite those of another person. This is a nonsense, and I think there is a expectation that cis women comply with the deep condescending belief that they don’t really “understand” themselves, their identity and how oppression operates. That’s what patriarchy thinks of us. I won’t accept it from anyone, man or woman.

      1. I think part of the problem at base is this notion of ‘cis’, as if anyone feels at ease with ‘their’ gender. As if gender should take the possessive pronoun. And further, as if gender is only valid if ‘felt’ but not imposed. In fact, I would say that the postmodern construction of identity today prioritises feeling over logic. While I am happy to sit through someone’s recounting of their feeling gender, I think it is important to note that this contextualisation is not without a historical precent, not without a quite problematic posturing of ‘the woman as natural’. So when we are labeled ‘cis’ to the objection of many women (and men), it is generally because there is not ‘feeling in sync’ with gender. By definition of trans today, most of us are trans. While cis would conversely be a projected ideal of what some fictional woman who dusts the table in a Playboy bunny outfit while reading Marie Claire. Cis is not real except to those who fantasize it. While I am sympathetic to the plights of trans, I can honestly say that their struggle is one we all share to varying degrees.

  2. My original response to your original article on gender:

    In many ways any checklist of cis privilege will match a checklist of misogyny, because in many ways the transphobia directed at trans women is simply misogyny with a homophobic twist PLUS the anger directed at someone perceived by the transphobe to be a man, who has voluntarily elected to be, as the transphobe thinks, the “inferior sex”. Feminist anger at trans women is seriously misplaced.

    Cis is a real word. It fills a real lexical gap. There are women who had to transition – who were identified as male at birth, who usually need hormones and sometimes surgery in order to feel comfortable with their bodies. There are women who – like you and me – were identified as female at birth, and however uncomfortable we felt about our female bodies, we had them.

    The moment when I understood cis privilege was real and applied to me: when I listened to a trans man talking uncomfortably about a regular experience he and I had both had in adolescence. We’d both had gangs wanting to know “are you a boy or a girl”? But I had been able to deal with it – frightened and humiliated though I sometimes was – because I knew, without needing to think about it, that regardless of what I looked like, everything backed up that I was a girl. He didn’t have that backup. That backup is cis privilege.

    I loathed the idea of periods before I had them, I hated them when they showed up, and I’m happy to think that eventually they’ll stop. That’s not “essence of womanhood”: they’re just annoying.

    I share some of your feelings about de-gendering abortion / prochoice campaigns: I am actually fairly sure that prolifers are transphobic enough that they’d be happy to let a trans man have an abortion if he wanted one.

    Your objection to being identified as cisgender, however, reminds me irresistibly of my mother’s objection to being identified as straight after I’d come out to her as a lesbian: she didn’t see why she should be called straight when she was just normal.

    1. What you refer to as privilege sounds a lot like your positing biology versus feeling: “The moment when I understood cis privilege was real and applied to me… because I knew, without needing to think about it, that regardless of what I looked like, everything backed up that I was a girl. He didn’t have that backup. That backup is cis privilege.” I see nothing privileged about having a gang attack or intimidate you. In fact, your interpretation of it being worse to a male person smells a bit misogynist to me. Must woman always carry the burden for males? To compare one as worse is horridly simplistic since you are comparing two violences and trying to render one as better. Just because you ‘were’ a girl and your friend ‘identified as’ a girl does not somehow give her experience more weight or more terror. Try this same scenario with the same gang and the fact that women are shorter than most trans women, less physically strong. I mean we could spin this so many ways to show that women are physically weaker than trans women and are assaulted for this fact alone. This does not make one assault better or worse. They both are equally terrible.

      But let’s look at this paradigm from your notion of privilege: for you being an anatomical female is privilege. I disagree. Most of the world’s population would likewise disagree. Being a woman is no picnic, not in terms of access to healthcare, fair wages, freedom of movement, freedom to explore one’s sexuality (as a lesbian I am sure you know that the ratio of lesbian to gay male spaces are infinitesimally small, freedom from condescending comments about one’s looks and intelligence throughout our lives (yes, even in the West), and I could go on here. I am uninterested to hear a one-upmanship of how a trans person suffers MORE because there is no reality that will satisfy a bully. In other words, as one is being harassed, it does not matter if one is being harassed because one is Jewish, black, trans or female–there is no quick-get-out-of-oppression card to play. Being able to say, “Yeah, I am a woman,” does not make the noose disappear..

      As for other annoying parts of womanhood, I don’t think the author was saying that there is an ‘essence of womanhood’–there are simply biological facts to womanhood which you carefully avoid. For instance, we are not ‘identified’ female or male at birth. We are female or male–and well before birth. This fiction that the ‘naming’ is wrong needs to be debunked now (oh, look, I just did). This is absurd as my saying that I was ‘identified’ as human at birth. It sounds good, but it is really a lexical play to take away the facts of science and render this a political game where an invisible force has dealt an unkind hand. In reality, there is science and like it or not, we are born with what we are born with. This is not interpretative such as I was born an iguana but my doctors categorize me as human. There are scientific facts about our bodies. That reality alone is not cause to render ourselves oppressed subjects.

      If your mother doesn’t like the label ‘heterosexual’, so be it. Must we enforce our labels on others? I am sure she like many take heterosexuality as the default sexuality. But these are separate affairs. She has the right not to have a label imposed and you can discuss with her the odd linear logic she implies to sexuality. When people ask me when I knew I was gay, I ask them when they knew they were not? Denying cis is not to denigrate trans persons. It is simply the refusal of a label that implicates the subject in a position of power, of privilege and of complicity with her/his gender. As much as I sympathize with trans persons’s body dysmorphia, their pain does not implicate me in having a seamless relationship with gender. To be blunt, I know of not one human who has a comfortable relationship to gender. Qualify it as you like, but gender experiences are not the possession of one group of people, they are not truer for this group and they certainly are not more problematic. We have all simply made quite diverse choices in how we deal with this discomfort.

      1. I see nothing privileged about having a gang attack or intimidate you.

        Nor do I. That wasn’t my point.

        Both the trans man and I, a butch babydyke, had as teenagers had gangs of other teens attack/intimidate us with the question “are you a boy or a girl”? That’s the same unprivileged situation in both instances. Where my cis privilege came in, I’ve explained.

        Try this same scenario with the same gang and the fact that women are shorter than most trans women, less physically strong. I mean we could spin this so many ways to show that women are physically weaker than trans women and are assaulted for this fact alone.

        I am taller than average – I mean, I am actually slightly taller than the average adult male where I live. I am strong and I am an experienced if a reluctant fighter. I habitually dress in the kind of clothing and wear the kind of shoes that make it easy to run, kick, or fight. So I have a different set of experiences to those of women who are shorter than me, less physically strong than me, and who didn’t spend their childhood in knock-down drag-out fights with her brother. (I was a very enthusiastic fighter for about ten years: that was before I was fourteen, but still.) Does this make me more like a trans woman in your eyes? But I am cisgendered.

        I also have the experience of having to explain to friends, family, and sometimes sexual partners, that when they ask me “do you ever wear women’s clothing?” they should consider that I’m a woman, I choose, buy, and wear this clothing, and therefore I always wear women’s clothing.

        But let’s look at this paradigm from your notion of privilege: for you being an anatomical female is privilege. I disagree. Most of the world’s population would likewise disagree.

        Of course. But what makes you think that this is any better for trans women? Women both cis and trans experience discrimination in terms of access to healthcare, fair wages, freedom of movement, freedom to explore one’s sexuality, freedom from condescending comments about one’s looks and intelligence throughout our lives. Cisgendered women have cis privilege. White women have white privilege. Straight women have heterosexual privilege. Middle- & upper-class women have class privilege. None of this should be news to you, surely?

        I am uninterested to hear a one-upmanship of how a trans person suffers MORE because there is no reality that will satisfy a bully.

        Ah. So, are you also uninterested to hear “one-upmanship” of how black, lesbian, bisexual, working-class, disabled women suffer more than a white straight upper-class able-bodied woman, because in your view anything like that is “bullying”? Do you accept the reality of multiple discrimination?

        In my view, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, all twist together as ugly roots of the same tree, and one cannot deal with any of them effectively separately: but that’s my perspective as a butch dyke.

        For instance, we are not ‘identified’ female or male at birth.

        Well, actually, we are.

        We are female or male–and well before birth.

        Are we? Some babies are born intersex. Some babies have chromosomes that are not XX or XY – and unless you have had your chromosomes scanned, you might be one of those people. And another proportion of babies are either born or become trans* (no one knows whether “nature or nurture” causes cis or trans, and I personally don’t think it important). So the scientific biological reality is that it’s more complicated than your assertion. But we are, at birth, with very few exceptions, identified as male or female: and at that point, the social construct of gender begins to be enforced on the baby depending how it was identified.

        If your mother doesn’t like the label ‘heterosexual’, so be it. Must we enforce our labels on others?

        My mother wanted to be identified by the label “normal”. She wanted me to be “normal”. She did not identify lesbian as “normal”: she identified being heterosexual as “normal”.

        I didn’t bother having arguments with my mother about her being straight: she is straight and wouldn’t have claimed otherwise. I did object to her identifying herself as “normal”, because the point for her of labelling herself as “normal” was that I was not normal.

        Denying cis is not to denigrate trans persons.

        I don’t understand why anyone would want to “deny cis”. For years before I heard “cis”, I wanted a word to describe women who are “not transgender”. Being “not-trans” didn’t sit well with me: I wanted a word. Cis means not-transgender: trans means not-cisgender. I seriously don’t see the problem with this.

        To be blunt, I know of not one human who has a comfortable relationship to gender.

        True. Function of patriarchy. But you do, I daresay, know many humans who are not-transgender. You could go around describing them as “not-transgender”, to distinguish them from the humans who are transgender. Just as you could go around describing the humans who are not attracted to their own gender as “not-gay/not-bi”. On the other hand, there’s a word for this: cisgender. Straight. Much simpler than saying “well, I’m not-transgender and I’m not-gay.”

    2. No, it’s like if your mother refuses to identify as “straight” because she was never particularly attracted to men, but was socially compelled to marry one and have sex with him and bear children, and while she acknowledges that there are women who are lesbians and that she is not a lesbian she does not feel that the state of being attracted to men personally defines her in any meaningful sense. THAT is what it is like.

      The fact that in some situations gender-nonconforming males are treated as bad or worse than a gender-conforming female does not mean that being recognized as a “girl” is -ever- a privilege for female people. Being called a “girl” marks you as a member of a lower social caste. It means you are sex-class. It means you are property. It means you are trophy and reward. It means you are not the hero, not the “I”, not the subject.

      To call someone “cis” is to suggest that there is something fundamental or innate in them which matches this designation. It is to say, “The word ‘girl’/’woman’ matches who you are on the inside, whether you like it or not.” It is to say, “You don’t feel weird enough about your gender to try to pass as a man, so secretly we know society was right about you all along.”

      It would be like saying to your mother, who had been coerced into marriage and forced to bear children, “You’re so privileged for having everybody recognize how much you like being with a man, and being impregnated by a man. You’re so lucky. Tell me you see how much luckier you are than me.”

      1. No, it’s like if your mother refuses to identify as “straight” because she was never particularly attracted to men, but was socially compelled to marry one and have sex with him and bear children, and while she acknowledges that there are women who are lesbians and that she is not a lesbian she does not feel that the state of being attracted to men personally defines her in any meaningful sense.

        Well, thank you for explaining my mother to me. I’ll let her know that in your view she she was never particularly attracted to men and only married my father out of “social compulsion”. She will be surprised to know that a total stranger on a blog knows this about her. (Goodness, and all this while I’ve been under the impression that my mother is sexually attracted to men and that she’s homophobic! Great to finally have this explained to me by a total stranger who is so very, very insightful!) /Fe

        I’m sorry I can’t respond to you more seriously, but … good grief.

        1. I was making a generalized extended analogy to demonstrate my point, not talking specifically about YOUR mother. How could you rationally believe that I was talking about YOUR mother as an individual? Good grief indeed.

        2. The /Fe indication at the end of a comment is used on many of the online forums I frequent to indicate “end irony”. I am sorry that you did not pick up on it, or that you didn’t want to consider that your “analogy” didn’t work one bit to illustrate why Glosswitch doesn’t want to identify herself as cis or my mother didn’t want to identify herself as straight. (Neither of them are unusual among people with privilege in not wanting to be identified as members of a category when they have before this been identified merely as “normal”.)

      2. Sarah and Disfasia, thank you for beautifully articulating the problem with the label ‘cis’.

        “To call someone “cis” is to suggest that there is something fundamental or innate in them which matches this designation. It is to say, “The word ‘girl’/’woman’ matches who you are on the inside, whether you like it or not.”

        This is absolutely the central knot of the current (often shamefully hostile) debate between trans and feminist activists at the moment on the Internet. I can’t believe we cannot all find some common ground in the following statement: ‘my gender has been imposed upon me by patriarchy despite my protestations and it has very little to do with my own conception of myself’.

        Please, genuinely, correct me if I am misinterpreting (misinterpreting rather than just simplifying!) one of the key elements of trans discourse. This is also how I feel, and I’m apparently supposed to label myself ‘cis’. (As a side note, whatever else labelling may achieve, it necessarily emphasises difference; an oppressive function that serves only to facilitate discrimination). This is why I think ‘cis’ is unhelpful – because as Sarah and Disfasia much more eloquently put it, it belies the fact that people ‘born into the right body’ can and do still have a great problem with the gender they have been assigned by society – hence feminism!

        1. In that case ‘white’ ‘Non-disabled’ ‘allistic’ ‘rich’ ‘man’ and similar terms emphasis difference and facilitate discrimination, oh wait, no they don’t because you’re talking nonsense.

  3. This was an excellent piece, and much more measured than I would probably be capable of. The current debate over gender and sexuality reminds me a great deal of that around heliocentric models of the solar system back in the day – Copernicus, Galileo, the Vatican…by making gender central and biological sex peripheral, you end up with tremendous, and I would say, unnecessary, confusing, and hurtful-to-women complexity – by making biological sex central, and gender one of many peripheral outcomes of reproductive reality, you get a much simpler system, and one that I feel ACCURATELY reflects social relationships/power dynamics, rather than obscuring them, as I feel trans theorizing does.

    I would be very interested in a historian of science delving into similar scientific scenarios throughout the ages.

    Re: “objection to be identified as cisgender.” It reminds me “irresistibly” of the introduction of the title “Ms.” to refer to women, as opposed to Miss or Mrs (revealing of marital status). Ms. will do just fine, and so will woman, no cis needed, as it implies acceptance of trans THEORY. In the same way, use of Miss and Mrs in reference to women, implies acceptance of patriarchal THEORIES as to women’s appropriate roles in life. Again, NO THANK YOU. And yes, I do equate much of trans theorizing with patriarchal theorizing. I see them as one and the same.

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