by Shaker Alexmac, a transgender woman studying at the University of Florida.
[Part 2 in an ongoing series. Part 1 is here.]
In this post, mostly drawn from chapter six of Julia Serano's Whipping Girl, I am going to explore gender and sexual diversity and the concept of oppositional sexism. I need to first introduce a new and useful concept: subconscious sex. Serano describes this as the sex we unconsciously feel ourselves to be. Subconscious sex is not to be confused with gender identity, which is the gender that we identify as.
The best way I can describe it is before I realized I was trans, I identified as a male, but my subconscious sex was female. This created cognitive dissonance which caused me pain, but I did not know entirely why. As I came to realize I am trans, it has eased my pain somewhat, but my physical sex still conflicts with my subconscious sex and the only way to get rid of the dissonance is to try and match my physical sex with my subconscious sex. It would be very much harder to change my subconscious sex as it is hardwired in my brain and would involve brain surgery. When you wonder why people go through transition, realize that it is much easier to deal with hate and discrimination from others than to fight your own body.
To fully explore gender and sexual diversity, we must understand gender expression. Serano defines gender expression as whether our presentation, behaviors, interests, and/or affinities are considered masculine or feminine or some combination thereof. So, if a gay man wears eyeliner and doesn't like sports he would be considered to have a feminine gender expression or even worse, be a woman!
Since gender expression is the most outward aspect of gender, it is the part which Serano says "is the most widely commented on, critiqued and regulated aspect of gender." Since it is so highly regulated, some people have proposed that gender itself is entirely a social construct, which is a popular view among some branches of feminism. Unfortunately, this approach has the distinct disadvantage of disappearing trans folk, with trans men becoming confused butches and trans women becoming gender storm troopers (at least if you read The Transsexual Empire).
Oppositional sexism, or gender essentialism, seeks to reduce the diversity of sexuality and gender into two immutable groups: "Men" and "Women," where "Men" are aggressive, immature, attracted to women, and "Women" are emotional, calculating, and attracted to men. Oppositional sexism is a system where men and women are positioned as opposites. Oppositional sexism is more commonly known as the binary gender system. It is why queers are lumped into a group, because we break the system of binaries. Gay men are men who are attracted to men, trans women are women born physically male who seek to fix the problem, butch lesbians act in "masculine" ways. This all ruptures the artificial barrier between the two categories of "man" and "woman." People who violate this system set themselves up for a ton of abuse and ostracism.
Why would people voluntarily set themselves up for abuse? Not everyone is a rebel trying to bring down the system of oppositional sexism; I know I did not choose to be transgender, but as I said earlier, I can't fight against my brain. Social constructionists and gender essentialists can agree on one thing—that transgender people are the kink in their theory and need to be erased.
So, where can trans people fit in? Serano uses the phrase "inclination" to describe these feelings, as a persistent desire, affinity, or urge that predisposes us to a particular gender and sexuality. She then proposes a nifty model called the intrinsic inclination model where subconscious sex, gender expression, and sexual orientation are independently determined inclinations. These inclinations are intrinsic, because they occur mostly subconsciously and remain intact despite social factors that try and change them. These inclinations happen on a continuous range—there aren't two classes ("men" and "women"), but many. The last part is that these inclinations roughly correspond to physical sex and form a series of two overlapping bell curves, so while a majority of men have a typically masculine gender expression, there are also men with feminine gender expression and vice versa. People who differ from the average of these inclinations are just an example of human variation and not freaks or deviants.
I really like this theory; it allows for a large variety of gender and sexual diversity. The biggest problem I can see from it is the biological basis for gender expression. Serano notes this concern in episode 66 of the Transponder podcast. She compares the biological basis of specific gender expression inclination to identical twins. While they are genetically identical, they have different life experiences, preferences in music, and love interests. The exact same biological inclinations can have extremely different results. Humans are incredibly complex and socialization can have a strong influence on how a person turns out. Her model suggests that there are certain inclinations we can't socialize against. The incredibly high incidence of military veterans among male to female trans women, for example, shows how even trans women going through male socialization and pursuing a stereotypically male job, still have a female subconscious sex. They eventually can't fight the gender dissonance any longer and transition into the women they were born as.
Her theory works to breakdown the gender binary, not through denying gender, but recognizing the vast diversity of gender and sexuality, saying that it is all okay. From the woman who loves romance novels and painting her nails to…the man who loves romance novels and painting his nails. We are an incredibly diverse species and should appreciate our diversity. The problem comes from people forcing others to live the way they think is correct—that "women" aren't good at sports, so they shouldn't be allowed to play. This idea should form the core of feminist belief: that people are different—men, women, trans, cis, white, black, able-bodied or disabled—and we are all equal, no one of the infinite options being better or worse than the others (unless that option involves oppressing others).
In my next post, I will address the main thrust of Julia Serano's book, the dismissal of femininity in our culture and what it means for trans women and feminism in general.