The cause of so much confusion over the nature of gender is that gender is a construct of unparalleled proximity. Gender is a construct of the private home, of the confines of the bedroom and the kitchen. It’s the construct of intimacy. It’s the construct that must invest in drawing up personal barriers due to the relative impossibility of more traditional barriers. It’s the construct that, by necessity – due to the closeness between “husband and wife” within the private household – creates the most deeply held personal ideology. I’m not talking about a difference in severity here, just a difference in the way it is reproduced.
Class and national oppression are reproduced at a relative distance. The bourgeoisie, the whites, they don’t have as much contact – certainly not as much contact of the intimate kind – with the groups lower on the hierarchy. It is easy to enforce “racial” distinctions without resorting to individual ideology and personal identity as much, because these distinctions are generally enforced across borders – across entire communities, regions, or nations. There is a comparatively clear-cut separation. Entire families are usually racialized the same way, and in the private sphere there isn’t much “mixing” between “races”.
If we imagine a society where the bourgeoisie mixes socially, sexually, personally, and in every other kind of intimate manner, with the proletariat in perfect proportion to the percentage of the population they make up, then this society would be a very different society from our current reality. In our society, the bourgeois live in gated communities, in rich suburbs, or affluent postcodes. They inter-marry with other bourgeois, and create new bourgeois when they reproduce. Social mobility is a myth, class is semi-hereditary, and capitalism is only slightly better than feudalism in this regard. Members of the bourgeoisie don’t have any intimate interaction with the members of the proletariat; if they are to get close and interact with the proletariat, then it isn’t the intimate kind of closeness like the closeness of the family. It’s the sort of closeness of a barked order, of a wage packet, of hiring or firing, of the ownership of the means of production that the proletariat operates.
Gender is another matter entirely. If we imagine a society where men mixed (in both intimate and non-intimate contexts) with women in perfect proportion to the percentage of the population that women make up, and vise-versa, then this society would not be too different from the one we live in. It is considered the ultimate destiny – the sole and divinely ordained purpose – of woman and man to join together, to become one, and create their own private sphere together. Gender isn’t hereditary like class and nation is since the husband and wife are tasked with the extension of themselves and their sphere through the production of new husbands and wives. Effectively, the family functions as a self-replicating unit, constructed from two people of radically different positions in the gender hierarchy, and tasked with the creation new people of differing positions in the very same hierarchy.
So if the division between husbands and wives (and the future husbands and wives they produce) in the family – and ultimately the division between woman and man – can’t be so overtly enforced at a relative distance like class and nation divisions are, then how is gender oppression propagated? What options gain increased importance due to the relative impossibility of others?
The intimacy requires, and enables, that the ratio of the “subjective-coercive” mechanism (coercion in the form of ideology) to the “objective-coercive” mechanism (coercion in the form of force, or the threat thereof; the standard definition of “coercion”) be much greater in gender than it is class or nation. Gender role education makes up one aspect of this “subjective-coercive” mechanism. But for the family unit to function as it currently does, it isn’t enough for the “different genders” to each receive their own specialized education. It needs to go further than that. These gender roles, once learned, must then be put into practice, and for this to happen as it currently does, we have the other aspect to the “subjective-coercive” mechanism: gender identity.
Both aspects heavily rely on each other to function and give each other meaning. Patriarchy needs us to believe that gender and gender roles are inherent to us so that we behave appropriately – not out of service to others, or because we were overtly coerced – but in service to ourselves and our natural inclinations and needs. We must be educated to want out of our own hearts, and to deeply feel, our gender (roles). Our genders and our selves are produced by society; patriarchy is the subject, gender is the verb, we’re the object, and gender identity is the result. For the oppressed to self-police, and really internalize their subjugated role, is a huge win for patriarchy. Likewise, for the oppressors to police themselves and the subjugated, and really internalize their subjugator role, is a huge win for patriarchy.
If gender identity somehow didn’t exist as an aspect of patriarchy, then patriarchy wouldn’t be as strong. Removing gender identity, we have two options to keep the same level of patriarchy as before: decrease the level of intimacy, or increase the level of the “objective-coercive” mechanism. The relative amount of intimacy is fundamental to the arrangement of patriarchy, so the only thing left to do is to increase the relative amount of the “objective-coercive” mechanism, but an increase in this couldn’t happen with gender identity gone because it’s men who need to enforce the violence (on a relatively intimate level, don’t forget!), and it’s gender identity that helps this happen in the first place.
And yes, just before we continue, let me make it absolutely clear that cis people gender identify just as much as trans people do. The only real difference between the two is that when cis people gender identify, it’s approved by cissexist society. Patriarchy is incredibly invested in making sure that people develop gender identity on it’s own terms, but trans people are a threat to this. We must treat this fact very carefully. We need to figure out how to approach gender identity ultimately being a product of patriarchy without further marginalising trans people. Generally, I think it would be ultra-left (with rightist consequences, like all ultra-leftism) to start pointing this out in everyday political contexts, given that cis people don’t view themselves as having gender identities, and so in their eyes this would be nothing but an attack on trans people. Just like we as communists support bourgeois-democratic revolutions in oppressed nations against imperialism (whilst still acknowledging the need for proletarian revolution), we also support trans people against cissexism and their right to gender identity on the same terms as cis people (whilst still acknowledging that gender/identity would not exist without patriarchy).
For brievity, I’ll call the turning of gender into an identity, whether on a personal or a theoretical level, “the eroticisation of gender”.
Liberal feminists exemplify the eroticisation of gender when they say that women are oppressed because they identify as women. As well as confusing up from down, symptom with cause, and basically mistaking the floor for the ceiling, this is an obvious idealist mistake because of the simple matter that if we waved a magic wand and made every woman in the world stop identifying as women, then patriarchy would not completely disappear!
An identity-based definition of gender falls down in other places, too. Since coming out to others as a trans, I first identified as a woman, then as non-binary, then as a woman again, and then I finally rejected identity. Despite all the changes in my identity, the only thing that actually changed my position in patriarchy was coming out as trans. Identity is a useless way to analyze my experience. Likewise, I used to know a really femme cis gay man. Saying that “he identified as a man” is just a banality. What matters is structural relationships. He wasn’t treated, in a gendered way, like the average man. He was a man, to be sure, but to leave our understanding at “identity” and say that “he identified as a man” doesn’t really mean much, and doesn’t enlighten us to the way that femme cis gay men are treated as atypical men (despite “having the same gender identity as other men”).
So what about radical feminists, when they turn gender into biology? They make some slipshod attempt at materialism and rising above the erotic by saying all women are women because they were “born female” and all men are men because they were “born male”, because that’s what “woman” and “man” is constructed from by patriarchy. As I pointed out earlier, though, they’re just as wrong as the liberals:
[A]n individual person’s “sex”, as decided by society, doesn’t completely determine their relationship to sexism. Designation at birth isn’t some metaphysical essence that’s imparted on someone for life, entirely and necessarily coloring all further social interactions. Designation at birth is of course an incredibly powerful predictor of the ensuing privileges, socialization, and sex education society places upon someone, and this absolutely cannot be denied. But as ever, as with all generalisations, it isn’t correct in every case.
Confusion of the conditions for the creation and development of oppressor and oppressed classes with the conditions for oppression in a mostly individual context is one of the most infuriating aspects of radical feminism. The categories of “DFAB” and “DMAB” developed in tandem with the development of the gender hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean that each individual person’s place in the gender hierarchy is necessarily what one would traditionally expect for a person of their birth designation. To think otherwise is a classic misunderstanding of the relationship between the aggregate and the particular.1
To step around these problems in the two major ways of defining gender, I contend that it’s the gendering that one receives from society that makes the gender. As revolutionaries we need to understand that it harms our project to truly understand and change society if we treat “woman” and “man” as anything other than scientific terms to be used based on an objective assessment of someone’s position in patriarchy. It’s an extremely sad state of affairs that the veil of eroticism has kept us from understanding gender from a power point of view. When we say that someone is petty-bourgeois we don’t look to their identity, but to their relation to production. If we can already do it with other social positions like class, why can’t we do it with gender? Why can’t we look to relation to patriarchy?
What does “look to relation to patriarchy” mean concretely, though? If we accept the fact that sex is a social construct and something that is not necessarily determinant of someone’s gender, but is an institutional basis for gender, then we free ourselves up to simply looking at how someone is treated by patriarchy. What is their place in the hierarchy? Do they possess gendered power or are they a victim of gendered power? Do they face sexual violence or control? What gender roles are forced upon them? Are they the objectifier or the objectified? These are the sorts of questions we should ask, not the arrangement of genitals or identity, but the broad position within patriarchal society as assigned by patriarchal society itself. The relations of oppression are what matter because that’s fundamentally what patriarchy is.
As I’ve said earlier:
When I say “I’m a woman” I’m not saying I innately “feel like a woman” (I don’t think you can ever construct a non-patriarchal justification for that), I’m instead relating myself to other women and our somewhat shared experience as a group under patriarchy. I’m stating that my material interests and experience of the world are aligned with womanhood; my liberation is therefore fundamentally and intimately bound up with other women, and thus as far as I’m concerned, “woman” describes me.1
・ ・ ・
In western society, gender is de jure binary. This statement will raise no objections from anyone. What about de facto, though? If gender isn’t biology, or identity, then as I said, the only thing left that we can define gender with is “one’s relation to the gender hierarchy”. Based on this, taking a look at the positions within current patriarchal society, we come to the inescapable conclusion that western society is de facto a trigender society. What we have are “men”, “women”, and “gender outlaws”.2
(Image credit: based on a sketch by Zoë Meinhof)
No one talks about the gender outlaws. You won’t find any official recognition of them, you won’t find a ‘☣’ symbol (or something) joining ‘F’ and ‘M’ in the list of valid birth certificate stamps. They’re the people that patriarchy has no use for, and doesn’t like to admit to: the outcasts, the “freaks”, the unintelligibles. Going back to the intimacy of gender, and the truly elaborate nature of gender roles, it’s inevitable for there to be those who fall between the cracks. If patriarchy does happen to recognize the gender outlaws, then it’s a recognition of the threat they pose to, or their incompatibility with, the current order. Gender outlaws are the people who must be shoved back into one of the de jure positions: “housewife” or “lumberjack”, “male” or “female”. Failing this they must be exterminated.
Trans women are perhaps the biggest gender outlaws. No one wastes any second of any day telling us that we’re the sex “male” or the gender “man”, yet neither do they ignore any chance to treat us as anything but males or men. Despite the assertion to the contrary on a de jure level by society, trans women are de facto “non men” because we exist as targets for extreme gender oppression. I think that the degree that each trans woman is “trans-gendered” by society is generally the degree that they are gendered “outlaws” by society. The trans women who face more transmisogyny (because they are perceived as more trans and less cis) are more “outlaws” and less “women” than the trans women who face a lower amount of transmisogyny. This also applies to the degree that one deviates from the cult of heterosexuality. Non-heterosexual men and women objectively exist closer to the “outlaw” end of the power structure than heterosexual men and women. Sexuality and gender are very closely related, and queer politics is the politics of the gender outlaws.
What about non-binary trans people, though? What’s their structural relation to patriarchy, where do they fit in this trigender model, and what’s the most accurate descriptive statement about them? I apply the same answer here as with everyone: “their gender is whatever their structural place in patriarchy is”. So if non-binary people are “non-binary”, it’s not because of their identity, but to the degree that they are placed outside of the binary by society (i.e., the degree to which they are gender outlaws). Of course asserting an identity like “agender” can make one a target for being outlawed, but this doesn’t make “agender” really exist from a non-erotic point of view because “agender” is not a discrete way of being gendered and placed into the gender hierarchy by patriarchy. While the vast majority of people saying that they are “women” or “men” engage in every bit as much gender eroticism as non-binary people do, “woman” and “man” coincidentally happen to exist from a non-erotic point of view, and by and large the people who identify as one of the de jure genders also tend to actually be placed into that position within the gender hierarchy by society, just because patriarchy tries hard to cultivate an “appropriate” gender identity in everyone.
Note that when we talk about “non-binary”, it would be eurocentric to attempt to apply that term to societies/contexts that have more than two (de jure) genders. “Non-binary” is only applicable to a society/context where there is a de jure binary to define itself against; it’s a relative term for a relative concept. If a given society had genders X, Y, and Z, then the equivalent term to “non-binary” in that society would be “non-trinary”. All three genders, X, Y, and Z would exist from a non-erotic point of view within that society, just because that’s how people in that society can get gendered, meaning that those genders are objective positions within the gender hierarchy of that society/context. Taking a tri-gender gender system and putting it into a diagram, just for an example, we might end up with something that looks vaguely like the following:
A rough measure of how patriarchal any given society is can be found in the relative size of the “gender outlaw” gender versus officially sanctioned (de jure) genders (this won’t apply in all cases, but should be true in the aggregate). In some societies the de jure genders take up much more space relative to the gender outlaw gender, meaning less people are forced to be outlaws, and more people can exist as one of the less oppressed de jure genders. Other types of less patriarchal societies, instead of having each de jure gender take up more space, will instead have more de jure genders, with the same end result – that the society is more forgiving of gendered difference because the range of non-outlawed positions within the gender hierarchy is larger.
・ ・ ・
Ultimately, turning gender into a subjective matter, making it something based not on society but on oneself and one’s feelings, is nothing but misogyny. “Woman” and “man” are concrete positions within a social hierarchy, but when we eroticise gender we confuse this. We end up obscuring the functioning of patriarchy, naturalizing gender, and falling to bourgeois individualism. Eroticising gender inevitably leads to reformism because if gender is an identity, not a relation to patriarchy, then “gender is an inevitable occurrence because it must have existed before patriarchy”, and so the best we can do is “reform gender, because gender will never disappear”. To justify gender reformism, perhaps the most highly developed gender eroticist, Judith Butler, says:
[G]ender can be very important to us, and some people really love the gender that they have claimed for themselves. If gender is eradicated, so too is an important domain of pleasure for many people. And others have a strong sense of self bound up with their genders, so to get rid of gender would be to shatter their self-hood.3
Using pleasure as a metric for legitimacy under patriarchy is ceeding ground to patriarchy because patriarchy constructs pleasure in its own image. In the manufacturing of consent to patriarchy of the participants, patriarchy requires that women enjoy their own domination. Although most feminists don’t like to admit this, significant numbers – somewhere in the 31% and 57% range – of women have rape fantasies.4 They get themselves off on the idea of male ownership of their bodies. They treat what is perhaps the purest expression of patriarchy as something pleasurable, as erotic, as a nice fuck. Why, then, should we be surprised when people treat gender itself as something similar to a “nice fuck”? When the person-object who’s gendered and acted upon by the patriarchy-subject starts enjoying their own objectification (in both senses of the word), then that’s to be expected because it’s just how intimacy functions.
As MIM quite rightly pointed out:
It’s not possible to say that women and men have had unequal power for centuries and then pretend that much of women’s behavior relative to men is not some kind of adjustment to that inequality.5
In summary, and to switch up Beauvoir’s famous words: One is not born female or woman, nor does one identify as such, but rather, one becomes female and woman.
After writing this, it has been repeatedly brought up that a writer called Kate Bornstein once used the term “gender outlaw” [in a different way!] 30 years ago in some obscure book. I was not aware of this, and am not referencing Bornstein’s work in any way, shape or form. ↩
According to a meta-review of 20 studies. Women’s Erotic Rape Fantasies: An Evaluation of Theory and Research. ↩