Genderqueer Feminism: transcript from a panel on trans*

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a panel on trans* organised by Gender & Sexuality Talks London, alongside Leng Montgomery, Paris Lees and Campbell X. We all had a great evening, and it was good to see ample opportunity for audience participation in the discussion. Here is a transcript of my speech:

            “I identify as genderqueer; this is an umbrella term that is generally understood to mean any gender identity outside of the culturally recognised genders, male and female. I also describe myself as trans male, as whilst I do not identify as a man as such, this describes the direction of my gender experience: that I was designated female at birth and now have some level of male identification. However, this is just my version of genderqueer, as it can have potentially infinite interpretations.

                As a genderqueer person who is strongly committed to both trans liberation and feminism, I would like to use this opportunity to discuss and hopefully dispel some misconceptions I have observed about trans politics within feminism. You may well be familiar with some radical feminists’ extreme hostility to trans identities, which have overwhelmingly focused on trans women. Many women of trans experience have challenged this, demonstrating that the particular form of gendered oppression that focuses on trans women, sometimes termed ‘transmisogyny’, is a function of general misogyny, as it is a reaction to the perceived inferiority of femaleness, hence is an important cause for all feminists, whether cis or trans. As such, I am not going to focus on this strain within feminism, as that is not my experience, and many trans women have expressed this far better than I ever could, however I have included some links to articles on transmisogyny and trans feminism on the hand out that I would encourage you to have a look at if you are not familiar with these arguments.

                Instead, I am going to address a particular misconception about genderqueer identities that I have come across in feminist discourse, which is that rather than critiquing and dismantling male power, genderqueer politics aims to take a ‘short cut’ to ending gendered oppression by simply eliminating traditional gender categories. This view is typified by a speech by Joan Scanlon and Debbie Cameron to the London Feminist Network in 2010, where they claimed that whilst feminists such as themselves would argue that the answer to gendered oppression is to overthrow male power, we are caricatured as arguing that the answer is, “‘Genderqueer’: women and men reject the binary system, identify as ‘gender outlaws’ (e.g. queer, trans) and demand recognition for a range of gender identities”. They also claim that we believe that the gender binary affects everyone equally and do not recognise the dynamic of female subordination and the perceived superiority of masculinity and maleness. I would like to challenge this straw man of genderqueer politics, and, as a feminist who believes there is much to be salvaged from radical feminism’s structural analysis of gender relations, argue that for from being incompatible, trans, genderqueer and feminist political objectives are in fact intrinsically linked.

                One of the major components of this misconception, which I think accounts for many of the different manifestations of transphobia, is a fundamental misunderstanding about why people transition. It is wrongly believed that we transition in order to express our masculinity or femininity; that we actually reinforce gender norms, by believing, for example, that in order to be masculine one must be a man, that we do not realise one can be gender non-conforming within their birth assigned sex. Whilst this is more often levelled at binary identified trans men and women, genderqueer people are sometimes accused of doing so implicitly for everyone else, as we are assumed to have such hubris to think we are the only ones to have a mixture of feminine and masculine coded traits, behaviours and interests, thus must be genderqueer in order to embrace our full, complex selves. Yet we of course recognise that having a range of gendered traits is true of everyone, and it is not necessary to be genderqueer in order to express them. Rather than to make some misguided political statement (or to access spaces or gain privielege, as trans people are also often accused of), we generally transition in order to reflect and express a deep, subconscious and intrinsic inclination. For me, I present, identify and ‘perform’ my gender as I do because that is the only way for me to make sense of myself and my place in the world; it is not a case of not wanting to be female, but that when I look in the mirror, I simply cannot see a female person. Gender dysphora is not merely about not liking your body, but not recognising it as your own. Transitioning allows you to do so. However, whilst I am not genderqueer in order to make a political statement about smashing the gender binary, I do try to take advantage of the particular insights in to gender dynamics that my experience affords me to try to challenge some oppressive ideas around gender.

                To come back to the misconception that we have no interest in or critique of misogyny and male power, I would like to briefly talk about some concepts popularised by Julia Serano in her book, ‘Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity’, which is widely regarded as a fundamental and foremost text on transmisogyny. Serano identifies two kinds of seixm; the first is oppositional sexism, that is, the belief that there are two rigid, separate, ‘opposite’ genders. This is the kind that radical feminists suggest is the only kind we care about. The second kind is traditional sexism, which is the idea that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity, the kind that radical feminists emphasise. Serano argues that together they created gendered oppression.

                I do believe that whilst it is not the only form of gendered oppression, oppositional sexism is indeed oppressive in its own right, as it punishes those with exceptional gender traits and as well as harming many who may feel inadequate due to being unable to live up to the stringent demands of their gender role. However, I do not believe that people who may immediately be considered to be ‘gender bending’ are the only ones to be limited by oppositional sexism, nor are we the only ones who challenge gender norms. For example, my dad challenges what people expect of him in his own quiet way; as a heterosexual, working class, Geordie man, people have expectations of his masculinity based on classist conceptions about working class masculinity – that is aggressive, unrefined, and perpetuates homophobia and misogyny. Yet he is very gentle in his manner, works as a nurse and was a single parent, and because of this people frequently think he is gay, as they believe a heterosexual man like him could not be like this. He is never offended by this misconception, but only by the sometimes implicit homophobia of the question. For this reason, I do not think advocating a compulsory ‘genderqueerness’ is the only way to challenge oppositional sexism, nor that we are the only ones for whom it is oppressive. In this way, I believe that overcoming it is important as allowing people to be themselves is a political end in itself.

              Yet challenging oppositional sexism is also important as it informs the framework that fosters traditional sexism. An example of how they relate to each other is that I am regaularly asked whether I am a boy or girl, even when simply getting served in a shop or walking by; indeed people often appear irritated that they do not know where to place me. Reflecting on this, what I believe they really want to know is ‘what is the dynamic here?’ and ‘how do I treat you?’, revealing that all interactions, however superficial and fleeting, are gendered. By refusing to engage with this, I hope that I provoke them to consider why they need to know this and how an interaction could be conducted in a non-gendered way. In this way, challenging oppostional sexism is not only an end in itself, but destabilses the foundations of traditional sexism.

               Yet trans and genderqueer activists also confront traditional sexism more directly. Serano argues that the ridicule and derision that disproportionately affects trans women is not simply due the fact that they are gender non-conforming, but that they embrace their femininity and femaleness, as this is profoundly challenging the idea of the superiority of maleness and masculinity. However, as a genderqueer person of trans male experience, my relationship with androcentrism is more complicated as I do benefit from it in many ways; to go from female to male is perceived as something of an ‘upgrade’, and as I am white, able bodied, and pass as middle class, a male identity comes with unequivocal privilege. Whilst, as I have argued, I did not transition in order to gain these privileges, I do have a responsibility to use my particular experiences and insights to challenge traditional sexism and other forms of oppression, which I try to do by speaking out when I encounter them, including when in a position to hear views that may not be expressed if a woman were present. Yet I also challenge traditional sexism in some ways through my identity as well as trying to do so through my actions. Whilst my gender is somewhat male, I have come to embrace femininity via maleness. Where it had previously felt like a performance of the default, enforced femininity that has been expected of me, the femininity I now express feels authentic, having constructed it on my own terms. As such, many of the slurs I am targeted with, such as ‘sissy, ‘mincer’, or having been laughed at in a shop whilst buying make up and told ‘I hope this isn’t for you!’, are not against female masculinity or gender ambiguity, but male femininity, the particular transgression of being feminine when one is expected to be otherwise. Thus whilst I do not experience femphobia in the way that women experience it, I have my own insights in to the way that femininity is devalued nevertheless.

                   As a trans male person, who is expected to aspire to hyper masculinity, I believe that I can challenge hegemonic masculinity. Genderqueer and gender fluid identities disrupt the stability of maleness and masculinity that male supremacy rests upon, as this shows you can have degrees of maleness, or move in and out of maleness, rather than it being objective and absolute. I also challenge the superiority of hegemonic masculinity and the idea that cis (heterosexual, white, middle class) men are the owners and gatekeepers of masculinity and maleness, by taking on a male identity without seeking or getting their permission to access it, nor trying to emulate their version of masculinity. For example, wearing lipstick is not a failure to properly perform their masculinity, but a clear and intentional rejection of it.

               Finally, some radical feminists have argued that genderqueer identities and trans politics are not only incompatible with feminism but internally inconsistent, as we apparently want to ‘smash the gender binary’ but also believe ourselves to truly and innately be a gender. How can we argue that gender is both an oppression social construct and an authentic, subconscious inclination? I believe that both can be true, as how we categorise gender – the words we use and where we draw the lines – are culturally subjective, yet which of the options open to us we feel inclined towards is not one we can freely choose. So, counter to another radical feminist fallacy, that queer genders are new and gender categories have hitherto been stable, most societies, across time and space, have had some form of gender variance, described and understood in various ways. Indeed, Western Capitalist culture is quite unique in its adherence to gender binaries and suppression of alternatives. Thus had I been born 100 years ago, I may well have identified as a congenital invert, which seems to have encompassed both gender variance and same sex desire; as I am around today, I am genderqueer. Whilst categories: genderqueer, invert, and indeed woman and man, are socially constructed, where we wish to align ourselves within the available options is innate, hence gender can be at once be a social phenomenon without being wholly artificial. Again, this is why I do not believe that everyone can or should be genderqueer if this is not right for them.

               Rather, I believe we can all use the particular insights and experiences our identities afford us, including marginalised and privileged aspects, to challenge oppression and normativity in various forms, without presenting our own as superior to, or more objective and legitimate than others.”

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