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Gender and meaning: how do we talk about sex and equality?

A response to <a href="http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/02/i-dont-feel-i-match-my-gen... piece</a> about how she experiences gender as a trap.

By telling us that “gender is performance” Judith Butler at once enlightened and confused the issue. Photo: hannes.a.schwetz on Flickr via Creative Commons

Empathy is at the same time one of the most useful bridges we have between different types of people and a source of some dangerous misunderstandings. You look at someone else, and find what you have in common, and you say “Oh, I get what that feels like” – to put it crudely, you look at a friend with depression and you remember how once you were sad about a love affair for weeks at a time and you think you understand. You remember how you got over it, and you think they can and should, in a week or two. Your attempt to understand is praiseworthy, but it leads to you becoming even more irritating, and potentially oppressive, than if you hadn’t bothered.

You can even slip into discussing their position in terms of a default rhetoric used by people who have an intention to harm them. Your imperfect empathy with them can become empathy with their oppressors.

The standard internet description of you as “clueless” isn’t accurate – it’s not that you don’t have a clue. Because clearly you do: it’s that you fail to follow that clue through to a useful conclusion. It’s frustrating for everybody, not least because of the possibility that part of what’s going on is a resistance to full empathy, a fear that if you understood too well, you’d lose the privileged position of the observer and become part of the observed.

I remember well the point at which, after years of being a little bit patronising to friends who were clinicallydepressed, I accepted that I wasn’t “just a bit sad sometimes”.

The phrase “check your privilege” gets bandied around as a slogan and a club, but it is useful. Sometimes because checking your privilege means that you remember you have it, and sometimes because it means that, actually, you don’t – or rather, you don’t have it in the particular area under discussion but have it in a lot of other ways. Accepting that I had depression meant also understanding that my education, my ethnicity and so on gave me resources for coping and getting help that others don’t.

All of which is why, 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. (This is not going to be an attack; like her piece, it’s an attempt to get where she is coming from.)

Part of the trouble is always going to be that word gender, a word which bundles up so many meanings and which everyone discussing sexual behaviour and social roles has to use all the time.

We mean, some of us, at different times everything from “a system socially constructed by the evil patriarchy to force oppression onto women from the inside” to “a range of behaviours broadly associated with human beings of one binarily conceived physical sex or another” to “how I personally relate to my physical embodiment as far as sex goes and how that affects my sense of expected behaviour”. And many other things besides – by telling us that “gender is performance” Judith Butler at once enlightened and confused the issue. Short of tagging each possible meaning and the nuances between them with their own punctuation mark, there’s no easy way round.

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. And then, a few sentences later, I see her describing being trans or genderqueer as “another way of maintaining personhood in the face of a dehumanising social code” and it’s not that she is wrong so much as that she is taking one little bit of the truth and making it stand for the whole.

She really thinks, clearly, that people like me transition solely and wholly because “patriarchy-constructed gender” won’t let me express my feels otherwise. She almost got it with the dysphoria stuff, and then lost it again; being trans isn’t about finding a way of expressing your feels, it’s about not having a skin that metaphorically itches all the time. And yes, for a couple of years in my late twenties, I enjoyed a brief period of being a glamorous clothes-horse some of the time, but then I got on with the serious job of being a woman, and a woman writer, with which social roles had less to do than being rigorously honest about everything... My experience of being trans is not everybody’s – Glosswitch certainly doesn’t get that there might be a whole world of differences at play here.

Some of the time Glosswitch really doesn’t get it – empathy fails all together. She’s very concerned that somehow changing the language around reproductive choice and abortion so that it includes and respects trans men and genderqueer people will dilute our concern with free choice. The people who want to abolish women’s reproductive freedome erase trans men, so she should do the same? Doesn’t Glosswitch get that trans men might have additional issues with involuntary pregnancy in addition to the standard ones and that she ought to respect that? Apparently not – which is where her failure fully to get the “sense of physical embodiment” aspect of being trans becomes actively politically dangerous.

What’s also politically dangerous is her assumption that there’s a possible, desirable truce between trans people and those feminists who are trans-exclusionary, or more accurately trans-eliminationist.

Glosswitch talks as if the phrase “waste of pussy” was something trans people say about cis women rather than a phrase associated with straight male rape culture’s attitude to women – I’m not sure why she thinks this. It’s good that she condemns the terrorising of trans people by those feminists through outing and doxxing – I’d like to acknowledge that I asked her to do this, after a TERF plastered the internet with photos of me when young and pretty (in an attempt to prove me to be a fetishist) and she has complied in a thoroughly sisterly way.

What I don’t get is the selective blindness whereby Glosswitch fails to notice that the same women who constantly and vigorously attack trans people’s right to exist are similarly contemptuous not only of sex workers (about which she may agree with them, a bit) but bisexual and heterosexual women. The way forward to the sexually egalitarian future she wants is not through some kind of truce that homogenises and erases difference but by a respect and acceptance that doesn’t iron it out. 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.