In response to Bruce Jenner's coming out as a woman on Friday, everybody's favorite evangelical troll, Owen Strachan, wrote, "Transgender ideology makes sense in a feminist culture, for the seeds of feminism are rejection of God’s design. To push against nature in a preliminary sense is to prepare the ground for a much greater overhaul, one that secular feminism can only cheer in the end."
One of the common arguments against feminism is that we want to erase all gender distinctions altogether – we want women to become men and men to become women and have no meaningful distinctions between them. This argument is frequently used by conservatives to argue against the genuine identity of transgender people. But in some strains of feminism, gender abolitionism is the word of the day. I balk at this, because a genderless society is far from what I envision when I envision an equal and liberated just world.
Radical feminism, which I spoke about on Friday, tends to run on a platform of “gender abolition,” wherein gender, as a social concept, is erased entirely. There is no male and female or in between – there’s just humans.
Which sounds good, ideologically. We’re all just humans, and who we are as a gender shouldn’t have bearing on job prospects, wages, or perception in the public sphere.
But that’s not how the world works, and functioning based off an ideal frequently ends up simply reinforcing the oppressions. Radical feminism, by preaching gender abolitionism, is necessarily preaching a world in which femininity is disparaged and the male is the default.
Let me unpack what that means.
Being bisexual, the act of coming out is never quite done. I’m constantly saying in interviews, in discussions with friends, in everyday situations. And I inevitably get the response from very well-meaning heterosexual friends that it doesn’t matter, they still love me, I’m still human and that’s what’s important.
Each of these sentiments can be reassuring – it’s a relief to hear people say that they still love me when I announce something about me that’s gotten people kicked out of their homes and beaten and killed. I appreciate that acceptance.
But there’s also a little twinge of unhappiness that comes along with the whole “it doesn’t matter to me” thing. The thing is, it should matter. This is part of who I am – I know you mean that it doesn’t change how much you love me or your level of respect for me as a person. But I also feel a little bit erased that that this huge part of my life is deemed as something that “doesn’t matter.” It is an essential part of me – it’s not the whole, just as nothing adequately covers the whole of a person. But it’s still there, it’s still part of my identity, and it’s not something that can be swept under the rug.
How I interact with the world does change as the result of my bisexuality, and it helps to have that affirmed and appreciated instead of being told, “it doesn’t change you.”
My bisexuality is one small example of this, but we see larger repetitions of the “it doesn’t matter” trope playing out in response to people coming out as transgender or non-binary. Something essential about their identity is being revealed, and it dishonors their struggle and their story to dismiss it with a well-meaning but unthinking, “That doesn’t matter to me. You’re still you.”
When a trans woman friend of mine came out as trans a couple of years ago, my immediate response was to use her new name, to affirm her identity as a woman, and to tell her that I’m happy she’s figuring out and coming to terms with this important part of her life. The love is still there, and the subtle shift is the assertion that I understand how much this coming out process matters and how much this identity is life.
Gender abolitionism, in the radical feminists’ world, removes that love and grace and acceptance from the conversation. It says that gender doesn’t really matter in any substantial way, and that gender is a meaningless construct. As a result, the response to a transgender person coming out is void of affirmation of identity and instead is met with questions – questions about why they want to be a woman or a man, why they feel these expressions of gender are so important. Often, it also comes with accusations of reinforcing the binary of genders using gender stereotypes.
Instead of pretending that gender doesn’t actually exist, instead of living as though it’s a social construct, transgender and non-binary people are a threat to the ideology of abolishing gender. It is as though by having a conversation about gender that moves beyond male and female, we are automatically injecting patriarchal sexism into the conversation. By recognizing that people’s gender identities have a profound effect on how they see themselves in interaction with a larger world, it is we trans-inclusive feminists who are holding the movement back, at least in the eyes of the radfem.
But gender abolitionism does not and cannot take place in a vacuum. We achieve equality and revolution not through pretending that gender doesn’t affect our lives in negative or positive ways, or by rejecting the feminine because it is associated with subservience.
Just as colorblindness in society actually allows racism to go unchecked by making the default white, genderblindness and gender abolitionism diverts the discussion of sexism toward people who are failing to perform the default male attributes well enough.
Colorblindness creates a world in which people of color who talk about their race and their gender and their different experiences are “the real racists” by actually talking about race.
Genderblindness has the same effect – people who acknowledge gender as a real thing that has real impact on the ways people interact become “the real sexists,” catering to a simplistic patriarchy in which men are oppressors and women are the oppressed, full stop.
And naturally these two forms of oppression intersect in the lives of women of color who get the brunt of being blamed for both the racism they experience and the sexism or transmisogyny. Those on the margins become helpless dupes in the patriarchy, unable to be as “enlightened” as the radical feminists who don’t “see gender.”
Ironically, not “seeing” gender is precisely what the patriarchal meritocracy wants. It wants us to believe that we exist in this ideological world where gender is invisible. “I treat all my employees the same,” claims the male boss with female employees, a statement which easily translates to, “I treat them all like men.”
And radical feminists want that – by pretending gender doesn’t exist or that its status as a social construct is purely theoretical and therefore if we just learn to “see beyond” the biologically defined characteristics of the body, we’d all be able to see “human” instead of woman.
All this does is neglect the ways in which my womanhood does affect my world and the ways in which well-meaning gender-blind people forget who I am. We still live in a heavily gendered society, and not all of that gendering is de facto bad. Bringing a diversity of experiences to the table, defined by gender or race or sexuality or what have you, is deeply important for making actual progressive movement in a world that is deeply sexist, racist, and patriarchal.
Gender abolitionism affirms a world in which the default is male and the feminine is disparaged as subservient and negative. Feminism, on the other hand, affirms the beauty of the feminine and the necessary contributions differing perspectives bring to a wide-open field.