DEFENDING THE "TERF": GENDER AS POLITICAL
Recently, feminists have been critiqued for attempting to make women-only spaces. Inclusion of “minority genders,” including transgender women, into what have been traditionally all-female colleges is now protected under Title IX and hailed as a progressive development. Restricting space to people who have been born women and continue to experience the world as women is considered discriminatory at best and biologically determinist at worst.
People often fail to recognize that “woman” is not a personal identity but a political identity based upon a shared experience of oppression. The purpose of certain women-only spaces is not about excluding those with or without a particular genitalia (we didn’t decide that having vaginas and uteruses made one subordinate; men did) or excluding those with a particular gender identity. This isn’t about how strongly one identifies as a woman, whether one might subsequently be seen and treated as a woman, or whether one is marginalized and disadvantaged by gender hierarchy (for example, gay men are marginalized by patriarchy even though they are men). It is about controlling for the experience of male privilege. In my white-to-Latina example [at the top of the linked post], it would be legitimate to exclude me from certain spaces or even definitions of “Latina” not because I believe in biological determinism but because I understand the power of socialization. This doesn’t mean I identify less with being Latina than others who were “born that way,” or that I may not subsequently experience racial subordination. It means I recognize that what I am is not determined solely by what I want to be, and the fact that I’ve experienced white privilege is not and never has been up to me.
Of course there is an important dis-analogy between race and gender in my white-to-Latina story: transgendered women cannot experience all forms of subordination that women as women face. Most female-born women are capable of becoming pregnant at some point in their lives. For those who cannot, infertility is often considered a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.” Transgendered women do not experience disadvantage by virtue of their reproductive role (they don’t need abortions, for instance), and neither are they considered somehow “defective” by virtue of not being able to fulfill a particular reproductive role (although they might be considered pathological, etc. by virtue of not identifying with their imposed gender).
I’m not denying that transgendered people are subject to social, emotional, and physical violence at absurdly high rates, and that this violence is a product of sexism. I’m also not denying that transgender people feel deeply alienated from their imposed gender identity. Many of us are, because gender, and the accompanying deformation of our bodies from pornographied genitalia to what is considered beautiful is a profound and perverse imposition of identity. It does not reflect our individuality or even some positive notion of social relatedness. It is a function of a deeply pathological and violent social structure.
But this seems to be where some recent developments in “feminist” theory and activism have diverged from their feminist roots. The feminist struggle against heterosexism and gender conformity was not because any self-professed sexual orientation, identity, or gender should be considered equally valid: it was because the disadvantage and violence non-gender conforming and non-heterosexual people experience are the result of patriarchy in which men and the masculine are socially constructed as (sexually) dominant and women and the feminine are socially constructed as the (sexually) subordinate. Feminism does not seek to marginalize or exclude the experience of people not born as women, but to situate these within a systemic and systematic understanding of the functions, mechanisms, and structure of sexual subordination.
Imagining and advocating for a post-racial world is easier for us than advocating for a post-gender world. Perhaps because gender has been with us longer, it cuts deeper, it invades our most intimate relationships and experiences. Unlike with racial subordination, there is no “remainder”: ethnicity (identification with a particular cultural or linguistic tradition) can exist without race (the social construction of an identity based upon one’s racial subordination or privilege), but there is no gender without sexual subordination.