Below is my contribution, as part of a panel discussion on Gender Identity that took place on March 18th 2017 in North London.
“First of all, I would like to thank the organisers of DDA, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this fascinating debate. I only hope that I can play my part and do the subject matter at hand, some sort of honour and duty.
I have been asked to speak for the proposition, that gender is a given, and I hope to do so by looking at it, through the prism of socialisation, gender, feminist and queer theory. I am by no means an expert in this though, so if I have made any assumptions, that are incorrect, then I will not take it a wry to be corrected.
When we come into this world, we are unformed and malleable, as to whom we are. In that sense, we are subject to not just our parents’ thoughts and wishes, but also to what societies, expectations of us.
Let me add, that I regard gender as being chosen, only, in the sense that when we are born, the gender standard is not only that of a binary, but is also one that assumes that tradition is immutable. But tradition is only tradition because ideas are not challenged and put under scrutiny. In and of itself, the duality of genders in Western society is not a negative thing.
But the insistence that this is all that is and can be, leads to social conservatism. We are only at the very start of understanding both trans and non-binary trans issues, in wider societies.
We can see this, no more starkly than in the debate around trans people. This is not something that the black community can look on with cool disinterest. There is still a deep misunderstanding; much less acceptance of homosexuality in our community, and that is long before we get onto the issue of our trans sisters and brothers.
I want to stress, that what I call ‘gender rigidity’, is something that cuts across communities, and politics. There are many feminist groups and activists who are hostile to trans people. They are commonly called TERFS (TERF is an acronym for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist). According to Rationalwiki, “Trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF; also Trans women exclusionary feminism or TWEF [note 1]) is a subgroup of radical feminism characterized by transphobia, especially transmisogyny, [note 2] and hostility to the third wave of feminism. They believe that the only real women™ are those born with a vagina and XX chromosomes [note 3] They wish to completely enforce the classic gender binary, supporting gender essentialism”.
It seems that trans exclusionary feminists, share the view, that when it comes to humanity, god/the goddess/mother nature, made man and women, who should only be man and woman, in that they can never feel to be anything other than that. This is a stance, that any a religious fundamentalist would nod in agreement with.
I must say, that I find, such a stance bewildering, when you consider that religious and social conservatives are not the natural allies of progressives. But, even if one can leave such considerations aside, it was not so long ago, that both secular and religious authorities would quote both scripture and science as “proof’, that black people were not human. This has also of course applied to what society saw as a woman’s worth.
The question of gender, as a given, is viewed by many trans people with understandable suspicion. The nearest example contemporary example that one can find to it, is the (thankfully) discredited “gay conversion therapy”.From the 60’s onwards, there were, throughout Western Europe at least, attempts to “cure” people of being gay or lesbian. As Stonewall, a LGBTQ charity that in its own words, “Was founded in 1989 by a small group of people who had been active in the struggle against Section 28 of the Local Government Act” notes
“Conversion therapy (or ‘cure’ therapy or reparative therapy) refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to reduce or stop same-sex attraction or to suppress a person’s gender identity. It is based on an assumption that being lesbian, gay, bi or trans is a mental illness that can be ‘cured’. These therapies are both unethical and harmful. In the UK, all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies, as well as the NHS, have concluded that conversion therapy is dangerous and have condemned it by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (PDF). We are working to make sure that this covers gender identity too”. http://www.stonewall.org.uk/conversion-therapy
In the cases that I have listed, such as the historical legacy of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, the key part is that of being “real”. There is a song, by a British band from the 70’s, called ‘The Who’, and one of their tracks is called “Who are you?” That question, concerning gender identity is asked in a number of ways, whether with genuine enquiry or interrogative disdain.
For trans people, if we stick within the current parameters of what gender being a given, is, the fear (which also applies to gay people) then, is that they are malfunctioning, that they need fixing, that they are not human, that they are not “real’. But for many trans people, the only thing that is ‘broken’ is the fact that they feel trapped in the wrong gender identity.
As it relates to trans issues, in the here and now, then, I think we should consider why it is, that so many people are biological determinists. By that I mean, that in the case of being a trans woman, those opposed, link being “real”, to a woman’s bodily functions, such as having periods, giving birth. Many biological determinists think that this is a trump card they have pulled out of the pack.
That is to ignore the fact however that trans woman can have periods, of a sort. Alaina Kailyn on OCTOBER 6, 2016 wrote an article called, ‘Trans Girl Periods. Yes, that’s right. No, I’m being Serious. Just read the damn article’ on the blog, ‘On Wednesdays we Wear Capes’. She said “I don’t have a uterus so I don’t bleed, but I take hormones and have a hormonal cycle. At the end of the cycle it gives me the usual PMS symptoms including abdominal cramps, bloating, headache, moodiness, and occasionally breast soreness and increased discharge.
These symptoms are what I term my Period. It’s not a “Menstrual Period” because I have no uterine lining to shed, so it’s just a period of symptoms. The cramping is caused by the abdominal wall and intestinal muscles seizing, which means I also get period shits when they get bad. Hooray!” and also that
“Well, since I inject hormones instead of creating all of them naturally, tracking my period is a way to make sure my hormone levels are cycling at about the same rate. That way I can adjust dosages on the fly if things get out of whack. It’s also nice to know what’s going on with my body, it is nicer living in those rhythms and knowing when things will probably start”. http://www.onwednesdays.net/trans-girl-periods
Concerning giving birth, as a sign of being a real woman, one of the problems with that, is the assertion that a woman’s status, is uniquely tied up with her fertility and genitalia. One, could, if one wished, point to women, that have children by surrogacy. In those cases, does that make females, who cannot or whom do not want to bare children, less of a “woman”?
To take this a stage further, for trans people that are female to male, does it make them less of a man? I can use the example of the 17th and 8th century operatic Castrati here, who though being born male, through being gelded, was not regarded as operating in the same sphere as men. In ‘WHY CASTRATI MADE BETTER LOVERS’, Tony Perrottet, said in the online mag ‘The Smart Set’, that “ For Europe’s high society women, the obvious benefit of built-in contraception made castrati ideal targets for discreet affairs.
Soon popular songs and pamphlets began suggesting that castration actually enhanced a man’s sexual performance, as the lack of sensation ensured extra endurance; stories spread of the castrati as considerate lovers, whose attention was entirely focused on the woman.
As one groupie eagerly put it, the best of the singers enjoyed “a spirit in no wise dulled, and a growth of hair that differs not from other men.” When the most handsome castrato of all, Farinelli, visited London in 1734, a poem written by an anonymous female admirer derided local men as “Bragging Boasters” whose enthusiasm “expires too fast, While F—–lli stands it to the last.”” http://thesmartset.com/article0806070116
The main point here is that in conventional terms, castrati were not ‘real’ men, in that they were socially and biologically, non-conforming. Society was, nonetheless, able to adapt to this new phenomenon in general, the male gender was chosen for them, but they did not fulfill the role that the gender, was expected to.
To return back to Alaina briefly, concerning gender being a given she says; “Even though science now tells us that most people actually exist somewhere between what could be termed “pure male” or “pure female” as en utero hormonal fluctuations affect most fetuses, most people are comfortable identifying on one side of the spectrum or the other. This is why it’s important to me to say assigned at birth, it is an acknowledgement that gender is not clear.
That is why I do not say that I was male or born male. You could argue that I was born Trans, but definitely not male. This is the reality I knew when I was four years old. I was born female. I had a penis, (never wanted it but it was there.) These are not contradictory statements. Trans women are not men who decided to become women; we are women who were forced to live as men until we could find a way to express the truth of whom we are.”
What I have tried to get across is that the conventional choices concerning gender tend to be made, in that they conform to our parent’s wishes. It is taken as read, that the binary norm is going to be prevalent. Robin McKie writing in the Guardian, on August 15th 2010 noted that, “The belief has become widespread, particularly in the wake of the publication of international bestsellers such as John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus that stress the innate differences between the minds of men and women.
But now a growing number of scientists are challenging the pseudo-science of “neurosexism”, as they call it, and are raising concerns about its implications. These researchers argue that by telling parents that boys have poor chances of acquiring good verbal skills and girls have little prospect of developing mathematical prowess, serious and unjustified obstacles are being placed in the paths of children’s education.
In fact, there are no major neurological differences between the sexes, says Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender, which will be published by Icon next month. There may be slight variations in the brains of women and men, added Fine, a researcher at Melbourne University, but the wiring is soft, not hard. “It is flexible, malleable and changeable,” she said.
In short, our intellects are not prisoners of our genders or our genes and those who claim otherwise are merely coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility. It is a case backed by Lise Eliot, an associate professor based at the Chicago Medical School. “All the mounting evidence indicates these ideas about hard-wired differences between male and female brains are wrong,” she told the Observer.”” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/aug/15/girls-boys-think-same-way
Isabella Crespi, from the Department of Sociology, Catholic University of Milan, Italy wrote a paper for the Marie Curie organisation, titled ‘SOCIALIZATION AND GENDER ROLES WITHIN THE FAMILY: A STUDY ON ADOLESCENTS AND THEIR PARENTS IN GREAT BRITAIN’
In the abstract, for it, she notes that “The way we are, behave and think is the final product of socialization. Since the moment we are born, we are being moulded into the being society wants us to be. Through socialization we also learn what is appropriate and improper for both genders.
The vast literature on this topic has pointed out a consolidation of the debate. It allows us to identify important problematic bonds relative to the achievement of their gender identity throughout their adolescence and to build reciprocity and complementarities between the sexes and the valorisation of fundamental contexts such as family.
Socialization is a relational process between adolescents and parents and its objective is to build identity [in this case gender identity]. If the topic of gender is extremely important for the overview of sociological studies, it is even more important if it is seen from an intergenerational point of view speaking about gender socialization”. http://www.mariecurie.org/annals/volume3/crespi.pdf
Isabella tells us, in ‘1 1 SOCIETY AND GENDER ROLES’ that “According to psychologists such as Sandra Bem , one cognitive process that seems nearly inevitable in humans is to divide people into groups. We can partition these groups on the basis of race, age, religion, and so forth.
However, most of the times we split humanity on the basis of gender. The first thing we instantly determine, when meeting someone new, is their gender. This process of categorizing others in terms of gender is both habitual and automatic. It’s nearly impossible to suppress the tendency to split the world in half, using gender as the great divider.
When we divide the world into two groups, males and females, we tend to consider all males similar, all females similar, and the two categories of “males” and “females” very different from each other. In real life, the characteristics of women and men tend to overlap. Unfortunately, however, gender polarization often creates an artificial gap between women and men and gender roles that are very difficult to change in time”.
Concerning the gender stereotypes for males and females, Isabella Crespi points out that “Stereotypes are representative of a society’s collective knowledge of customs, myths, ideas, religions, and sciences . It is within this knowledge that an individual develops a stereotype or a belief about a certain group. Social psychologists feel that the stereotype is one part of an individual ’ s social knowledge”. http://www.mariecurie.org/annals/volume3/crespi.pdf
Also, that “The culture of an individual influences stereotypes through information that is received from indirect sources such as parents, peers, teachers, political and religious leaders, and the mass media”. http://www.mariecurie.org/annals/volume3/crespi.pdf
Concerning both gender and socialisation, we can do worse than look at Marx, for his views on this subject.
In the 2014 volume 66, issue 2 of the June issue of the Monthly Review, Heather Brown, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Westfield State University, states “Marx was making a dialectical argument directly related to his overall theory of society. In order for society to advance beyond its capitalist form, new social relations would have to be formed that did not rely solely upon a crude, alienated formulation of value.
Human beings would have to become able to see each other as valuable in themselves, rather than as only worth what one individual can provide to another. Women would be especially significant in this regard, since they have tended to be a marginalized group within most, if not all, societies. Thus, men and women would have to reach a point of development where an individual is valued for who they are, rather than any abstract category of man, woman, etc. Moreover, Marx appears to point in the direction of gender as a dynamic rather than static category.
Certainly, Marx never directly made this claim: however, in the 1844 Manuscripts and in The German Ideology, he provided a strong critique of, and alternative to, traditional dualistic views of the nature/society dualism. Instead of nature and society existing as two distinct entities that interact with each other without fundamentally changing the essence of itself or the other, Marx argues that the two are dialectically related. As human beings interact with nature through labor, both the individual and nature is changed.
This occurs because human beings exist as part of nature, and the labor process provides the means for such a temporary unity. Since both nature and society are not static entities, Marx argued that there can be no trans historical notion of what is “natural.” Instead, a concept of “natural” can only be relevant for specific historical circumstances”. https://monthlyreview.org/archives/2014/volume-66-issue-02-june/
The main point to be making here, is that gender and the roles within it, have been influx throughout human history, and never more so, than during the establishment of capitalism. Still, looking at this from a socialist/left wing point of view, I read, an article by Laura Miles, in the ISJ (International Socialism Journal) from 9th January 2014. She said, “Socialists, of course, defend the right of trans people to live freely in their chosen gender but there are serious problems inherent in such an essentialist approach to gender identity.
An alternative view starts by recognising that our biological, chromosomal sex can be thought of as analogous to other physical characteristics that we inherit—skin colour, eye colour, and so on. Most people’s gender identity (their deeply rooted sense of being male or female) will be in accordance with this. However, for trans people there is a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity. For everyone, though, trans and gender-straight (or cisgendered people), our gender is socially constructed in a dialectical relationship with our material circumstances and is to some extent fluid.
People’s self-identification and self-description (including trans people’s) can change and develop over time. There is, a certain fluidity because our identities are structured within given material, historical and cultural frameworks such as the class relations dominant within a given mode of production like capitalism.
It is the material circumstances in which we are required to live under the capitalist system which distort and limit everyone’s gender role and gender identity by seeking to constrain us within a binary gender straitjacket in a system dominated by the ideology of the nuclear family. As a result we are all alienated, to a greater or lesser extent, from each other, from ourselves and from our true humanity.
Trans people are highly motivated to resist that gender straitjacket, which suggests that, while gender identity may not be fixed and unchanging, it is deeply rooted in us; otherwise trans people could presumably be socialised out of our gender variant behaviour and identity. Everyone, after all, is showered in cot-loads of gender conformative reinforcement from the moment of birth. Conversely, this also suggests that in a saner and freer world many different gender expressions and arrangements for living together could be possible outside the nuclear family structure and the gender binary”. http://isj.org.uk/transgender-oppression-and-resistance
Concerning gender, as it relates to the trans issue, it also brings in the issue of what is “real”, of what is “authentic”. In March 2017, Jenni Murray, the editor of Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’, wrote in the Times newspaper that trans women, are not “real”. This was in relation to, as she saw it, the fact that trans women had not lived their lives, as a woman, with the experiences, that this was meant to entail.
I found this very curious, as it is actually replicating the patriarchal notion of what was considered to be “real” to be a woman. So, back in the 18th-20th century, a “real” woman would have a husband, be running a home, have children, so what does this then make women, to day, who have neither?
On March 13th 2017, Sam Hope, writing in “The Queerness”, about the support given to Jenni Murray’s comment by Chimanda Ngozi Adichi, said, “Things are getting worse for trans people lately. Trump has rolled back trans protections and over here in the UK, people with power and influence seem to be lining up to denounce us. Dame Jenni Murray was no particular surprise given the trans-sceptical nature of many Women’s Hour slots and the BBC’s overall stance towards us. But my hero Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s latest offering is a knife in my heart. From such a wonderful writer and thinker, whose TED talk, The danger of a single story has been a huge influence on my ability to think in pluralistic, intersectional terms, the dull mediocrity of her latest “big” statement, is depressing and laughable.
It approximates to “well, trans women aren’t really like other women, are they?” It seems to say a lot, while saying nothing at all. It also points to how boring and obvious you can be when you hold the privileged position in a debate. Such a contrast to the wonderful eloquence Adichie must reach for when speaking of the condition of African women.
Because it sounds plausible, and nobody has to think too hard, people will nod as if this is her usual level of wisdom. Those of us without such a reach of course have to be much more clever to get people listening and nodding. Trans women are just not the same, claims Adichie, but this applies to many women – white western women do not experience FGM, some women are infertile, not all women have relationships with men, not all women have XX chromosomes.
People try many tricks to “other” trans women, but “woman” is a social construct – there is no such thing as a “real” woman, there is only a word used to describe a social grouping whose edges are ragged and complex” https://thequeerness.com/2017/03/13/et-tu-chimamanda
I think that the above, by Sam Hope, is very important, because it tries to open up the parameters of what a woman is, beyond that of only being biological. For many who call themselves feminists, their opposition to trans women hinges around a number of related issues. One is the perception of “male privilege”. So, lets look at the “male privilege” argument; Kai Cheng Thom is a Chinese trans woman writer, who wrote an article for ‘Every Day Feminism’ on October 4th 2015, titled ‘Still Think Trans Women Have Male Privilege? These 7 Points Prove They Don’t’, said
“The debate is fierce, bitter, and as old second wave feminism: Do trans women experience male privilege? Meaning, do trans women receive, at the expense of cis women, much-needed resources from both within and outside of feminist movements? This argument forms the basis of the exclusion of trans women not only from feminist activism, but also from female-only spaces in general, such as bathrooms and domestic violence shelters.
The idea is that trans women, with our “masculine” bodies and having been “raised as male,” receive all kinds of privilege that cis women don’t, such as relative safety from sexual harassment, social preference in school and the job market, and so on. As a result of this perspective, trans women are often excluded from women-only spaces on the basis that we might be violent, or make cis women uncomfortable, or that we are already served by male institutions. Some well-known feminist writers even go so far as to say that trans women also exhibit male entitlement by stealing the spotlight from and “redefining” cis women’s struggles.
This kind of reasoning is famously associated with the TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) movement. However, it also pervades many mainstream women’s organizations and institutions”. Furthermore, I find that on point two, Kai Cheng Thom makes, a very compelling case, where she says ‘2. Trans Women Are Not ‘Socialized as Men’. “The idea of trans women being socialized as male, is the biggest argument, that TERFs bring out when trying to justify the exclusion of trans women from feminism, and is also the most compelling.
After all, it’s true that trans women are perceived as male at birth, and we are treated as such. However, most trans feminine children experience being treated as male extremely differently from cisgender boys. Cis boys generally do not question or feel discomfort with the way that society treats them. They are able to accept and enjoy their privilege, usually without even noticing it.
Being called boys for them is not accompanied by fear and self-doubt or the feeling, there is something deeply fundamentally wrong with them. Young trans girls, on the other hand, tend to experience being treated as male as disorienting and terrifying, because it teaches us that our identities are revolting to society.
Male socialization, for us, is actually a coded message: You’re not who you think you are. If you try to be anything other than what we say, you’ll be punished. Let me make an analogy: Imagine that you are born with dark hair, but everyone you know–from your parents to your teacher to your friends – tells you that you are blond, starting from the moment of your birth.
If this analogy reminds you of gas lighting (an abuse tactic that works by denying the victim’s perceptions of reality), then you are right on track. Trans women are, from childhood, subjected to a form of emotional abuse that is carried out by an entire society – which might explain why we are vastly more likely to struggle with PTSD, anxiety, and depression”. http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/10/trans-women-male-privilege
In so far, as it relates to PoC, then the gender issue can and does have societal ramifications. For example domestic violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), the practices of those, within our various communities have been (and still to a certain extent are), viewed as either assertions of control over what is seen as the ‘real’ family, and the ‘real’ woman.
Concerning FGM, Alice Walker, the American novelist and feminist, wrote a book called ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’. The main female character Tashi undergoes the ritual of FGM, not long before she has a child in an attempt to remain connected to her African roots. To remain, if you like, “real” and the novel explores what it means to have one’s gender culturally defined and emphasises that, according to Walker, “Torture is not culture.”
Many trans women from Africa would be/are adamant that they are as authentic as women as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi. On BBC Trending, March 16th 2017, Megha Mohan wrote in ‘Why transgender Africans turned against a famous feminist’, that “The interview has sparked a passionate online debate around the world. But specifically among Africans, one of Adichie’s most vocal critics is London-based, Nigerian transgender model Miss Sahhara, who runs an online support community for transgender women called transvalid.org.
“Ahhhhh, I am fuming, these TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) feminists always think they are above all women who don’t fit into their narrative of what a woman should be.” “What happened to being inclusive and tolerant of all women, no matter their life histories?” “I get a lot of online messages from Nigerian trans girls who are there now and they find it so difficult. A nightmare,” “there’s no male privilege for trans women in Africa.”” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-39271690?SThisFB
Finally on privilege, writing for Buzzfeed on March 16th 2017, Morgan M Page, said in an article, ‘Trans Women Shouldn’t Have To Constantly Defend Their Own Womanhood’ that “After Adichie’s comments stirred angry debates online, she released a statement in which she positioned herself as supportive of LGBTQ rights, but reiterated many of the same ideas. She wrote that while she opposes violence against trans women, she still thinks that considering trans women’s experiences as part of women’s experiences more broadly “feels disingenuous” to her.
The spectre of male privilege has long since been a way to deny trans women’s womanhood and basic humanity. Invoking male privilege is often meant to imply that trans women don’t know what it is like to live as “real” women—that we have not suffered the way other women have suffered, that we have not been disenfranchised by patriarchy because of our genders, and that our early experiences allow us access to forms of social power which influence how we move through the world even after we transition.
This argument, beyond hinging all of womanhood on a relatively singular experience of suffering, has often been used to flatten the vast array of different life experiences among trans women and other transfeminine-spectrum people. At worst, it contributes to a culture of violence, harassment, exclusion, and erasure that presents a real threat to the lives and physical safety of the most marginalized among us”. https://www.buzzfeed.com/morganmpage/there-is-no-universal-experience-of-womanhood?utm_term=.jdo7eQG35#.unrGLmWAE
What is a ‘real’ woman, what is a ‘real’ man, what is it to be feminine/masculine, in many ways, are asking the question, what is it to be human. Are we just the sum total of our genitals and whether mum dressed us up in blue/pink? Why must it be, that we continue to think only within the narrow parameters of gender being immutable and bound by biology? If we no longer believe that woman was made from Adam’s rib, if we believe in an open society, in which the freedom to be, is such bountiful coin, that it should make us wastrels and spendthrifts, then let us have the discussion that takes us beyond the sum of our fears.
As Afro-Caribbean’s we have so often confounded the worst expectations of wider society. Therefore I do not think that it is beyond us, to rethink the binary concept of gender is no longer. Otherwise, then if there truly be gods and deities, they would think it only fitting, that we are as Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, “Flies to wanton boys are we to the’ gods, they kill us for their sport””.