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

A response to Glosswitch's piece about how she experiences gender as a trap.

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.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt