Friday, January 19, 2007

Why race is not sex.

This is a response to the way that race is used as an analogy to argue that transwomen are not women because, just as one cannot change one's race, one cannot change one's sex. (And let me apologize in advance, should I say anything someone else has said first that I didn't know about.)

First of all, the vast majority of humans are born members of a sex. We are then assigned a gender on the basis of our genitals, and the gender roles that follow are socially constructed (we know this because they differ historically and culturally). But we are born into bodies that are sexed.

We are not born with a race. The race that we are assigned is socially constructed (we know this because racial categorizations differ historically and culturally). Our bodies do not hold essential racial truths. For example, people who are considered to be Black can have light skin, European features, straight hair, or blue eyes - or all of these at the same time. There are no essential racial charateristics that hold true for all Black people, or for all people of any racial group.

Further - in the early part of the 1800s, the Irish came to America and found that there was a racial caste system. Guess where they fit in? They were not white. They were called the Black Irish, Smoked Irish, N------ turned inside out. They were not thought of as property (as were enslaved Blacks), and so they were thought of by white Americans as lower on the racial status ladder than enslaved Blacks. The Irish were the ones who were brought in when you had really dangerous and unpleasant work to do, because if an Irish worker died, well, at least he wasn't anyone's property. Italians and Hungarians, as well, were not considered white when they first got here. That all of these groups (and more) are considered white today just proves that notions of race are social, not essential.

Moreover, there are anti-whiteness activists who argue that, indeed, it is not only possible for whites to reject their whiteness, it is obligatory. They see whiteness, not as a simple social category, but as a category that affords privilege and power at the disadvantage of those who do not get these same benefits. They see whiteness and the belief in whiteness as buttressing the entire racist project - and they suggest that one way to undermine systematic racism is for whites to refuse to be perceived as white (by, for example, telling people that they are Black).

How well this works in individual situations depends on those situations - but at the very least, it does make people who think they're white, THINK.

So what does this have to do with sex and gender, you ask? Well, as race is not immutable, it is not a good analogy to make when one is trying to justify reserving sexual identity for those born with certain body parts. There are and have been societies in which one's genitals do not determine one's gender - one's role in the community does. In this society, as well, sex does not always determine gender. For example, in the queer community, there are any number of genders, regardless of sex. Butch and femme are just two genders, available to both men and women.

But let's say that we apply the definition of "woman" to only those people who are born with certain female body parts. What happens to the term if transwomen, then, are allowed to claim it?

Well, what does happen? When I was in college and transphobic, I felt really upset at the idea that (as I saw it then) some man could be part of my community, that he could claim my gender identity and experiences. And this was upsetting to me, in no small part because I was just claiming my feminist and my women's space.

I don't remember what it was that turned me around. Possibly it was that I met some transgendered people and it was no longer a theoretical issue any longer. Interestingly enough, only *one* of the transgendered folks I know has ever acted in ways that ever brought out the "man taking over women's space" demon that I thought I had exorcised. (And that was still just bigotry on my part, as I've known lots of women who've been just as insistent about their issues as this one transwoman has been.) Meanwhile, of the lesbian separatists and the radical feminists I've known? Lots and lots have shouted down other women, silenced men and women and lesbians and bisexuals. And you know what that tells me? That behavior isn't gender-based or genital-based. A person can be an asshat regardless of whether s/he pees standing up or sitting down.

My assessment: the anti-trans stuff I've been reading in the feminist blogosphere is born of fear and anger. Both exist for very rational reasons. Being a woman, being subjected to all kinds of assault on a regular basis, justify fear and anger. But - not toward all members of a group indiscriminately.

There also two other fears involved here. The first is that, if we open the door and let everyone into our movement, we will not be safe. We do not believe that we are capable of working in coalition without risking ourselves. Indeed, there is always risk in coaltion, but refusing to move forward and stagnating (by which I mean reproducing the same feminist theory that's been coming out of certain portions of the feminist movement for the last thirty-five years) is not a good place to be.

The second fear is that, if we let everyone in, then we will have to change ourselves, and that might mean setting aside some of our feminist theory so that we can work with people who are significantly different from us. We might have to work with people we hate! And what kind of movement would that be?! Anti-porn activists working with prostitutes to fight domestic violence? Transmen working with radical feminists on Take Back the Night? Lesbians and Trade Unionists fighting for decent pay? Well, why the hell not?

And finally, there is this: if *anyone* can call themselves a woman, then what does that mean for the integrity of the definition that applies to biological women? Or, alternately, if a woman who sleeps with men can call herself a lesbian, then what does a woman who is completely devoted to women and would never think of sleeping with a man call herself? ...Or...if same-sex couples get married, then what does that do to the meaning of marriage for heterosexuals?

(I'm actually more sympathetic to the desire to claim identity labels and to keep the definitions somewhat "pure" than I sound here - but it's hard to avoid taking this argument to its natural conclusions.)

At any rate, it's 2007. It's time to stop reinventing the wheel and start getting on with the job.

~climbing down from soapbox~


Kelsey said...

First of all, the vast majority of humans are born members of a sex...But we are born into bodies that are sexed.

I basically agree with your conclusion, but I'm generally of the opinion the degree to which biological sex is a firm category is really overstated. It is highly constructed, to the point where people think I'm a little nutty to even question it. But that's because the man/woman binary is so ingrained that it's really difficult for people to even begin to look at it critically. There's nothing biologically that absolutely indicates man or woman, just a continuum (admittedly heavily weighted on either side) of traits that we associate with men and women. Even chromosomally, there are variations (not to mention that it's likely that everyone who has done chromosome research has gone in with the assumption that there are two biological sexes and, thus, will be looking for evidence that supports binary and difference, not variation or commonality between the sexes). In the animal world, many species have more than two sexes, but scientist still insist on referring to them as male and female ("That's not a third sex…that's just a small male who has a completely different role in the reproductive process than either the large male or the female).

So, yeah, I basically agree with you. But race and sex are alike in that they're both kind of made up.

evilcityjane said...

Do you think that if transgender women came to be more widely accepted as "true" women, we would see sex/gender as more of a social construct than we do now? And maybe if that happened we would increasingly perceive race as a social construct too, considering that so many parallels are - mistakenly or not - drawn between sex and race? (in the case you are referring to, the argument being that if you can't change one, you can't change the other).

I don't know. I am realizing how much I don't know, even though I consider myself a feminist.

BTW, I do agree that race is a social construct - I just wonder if we (as a society) have gotten far away from a general awareness of that fact.

Plain(s)feminist said...

That's why I hedged by saying "the vast majority" - I think it's something like 2% of the population that are born with "ambiguous" genitals and chromosomal "abnormalities", but for the most part, sex, unlike gender, is biological. Gender is completely invented, however.

Good questions - I don't know. Academically, it's understood that race is a social construct, but as it obviously has real and lasting meaning, knowing this and acting on it are two totally different things. I do think, though, that w/re to sex and gender, this is exactly the fear: if transwomen are accepted as "real" women, it blurs the boundaries between the sexes and it brings into focus how socially constructed much of our thinking about sex and gender is. This, then, threatens feminisms and other politics that are based on the notions of essential differences between men and women.

Anonymous said...

"Meanwhile, of the lesbian separatists and the radical feminists I've known? Lots and lots have shouted down other women, silenced men and women and lesbians and bisexuals. And you know what that tells me?"

Personally, and I'm a weird one and very much on the outskirts, but I think this kind of thing just sort of happens any time identity becomes the foremost thing in your mind.

I mean, I'm thinking here of some of the models of sexual orientation... eh. I don't know the name for these theories. I wish I could think of it now, and link to them. If anyone knows what I'm talking about and can give the term, it'd be truly helpful.

But that say you start out questioning, "I might be queer", and then you decide you are, and then there's a stage where you're really loud and proud and sticking up for yourself and hiding nothing and fiercely defending yourself, an then after that comes acceptance, and actually you calm down and aren't so immersed in those issues any more.

I think the same happens with feminism, particularly with bougie white feminism. You read all this stuff and you want to belong, to fight for women, to claim your space -- and you lose sight of all the fault lines.

I know it's only recently for me that I'm realizing that I have some very different views than what I see as feminist canon on sexuality, on strategies for repro rights, etc. because I am also a woman with a disability. And the issues around sexuality for us are not so much objectification/being overriden by male desire as invisibility/erasure of our desire even existing, and on repro rights are not so much access to abortion as concerns about prenatal testing in an ableist world, and about support for wwd who choose to get pregnant and (gasp!) bring people like us into the world or (gasp!) assume we can CARE FOR CHILDREN, even with our supposedly stunted bodies or minds.

And so I think a lot of women come to feminism with the thought or the hope that all women will face the same struggles and need the same things, and "women's space" will provide them all. But the problem is that as it begins to become truly clear that this isn't the case, women get shouted down or driven out on the assumption that everyone ELSE has the same needs, and it's just that pesky transwoman/WOC/WWD/bisexual/straight woman that doesn't get it and shouldn't be so goddamn destructive and keep derailing the whole movement!

When of course what we should be asking is "oh, how can we be YOUR sister, too?"

SallySunshine said...

Amen sister!
I've never understood why certain feminists are so uptight. I've read some of the blog posts out there lately too that have ripped transgendered persons to shreds. What's the point? The same type of complaining comes from those feminists who want to argue about make up and whether a man should open the door for a woman or not. What a waste of time! This really makes the movement look infantile. There are greater issues such as domestic violence, equal pay for women, and rape to focus on. These petty arguments about whether a transgendered MTF should or should not be allowed to use the women's bathroom are really tiring- let's move on.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Trin - Absolutely. And you wrote about that so generously - I've been wanting to say something similar but couldn't think of a way to say it without it coming across like, "kids! I know this is all very exciting to you because it's still new to you, but grow up already!" But I think you're right - people who are newly politicized (me as an undergrad in Women's Studies, for example) see their politics as not only a way to solve the problems of the world, but as THE ONLY way to solve the problems. And also, for a lot of us, the movement is healing on a personal level, a way to fight back against oppression, etc.

What confounds me though is the women who've been in the movement for a long time and who still have this same sort of inward focus. I think that in great part it's due to the loss of so many women's and lesbian spaces, which was happening simultaneously to the expansion of "lesbian and gay" titles to include bi/trans/etc. That fear of being erased and losing that space is real and justified, and I'm sympathetic to that.

I'm NOT sympathetic to the notion that we have a right to associate with those whom we want to associate with, and this is a contradiction I can't resolve. I'm for women-only space - I just think it shouldn't exclude transwomen. I'm against male fraternities based on their histories of misogyny disguised as male bonding. I'm for MichFest, but I've never been because of their exclusion of transwomen. And I'm also not thrilled with the pushes to diversify groups that don't want bis/trans/etc. to be part (not that I've never done this, however).

Anyway, this "I love being with women and I should be allowed to be with only women" stuff is something I both relate to and appreciate and also see as very very uncomfortably similar to "I love being with white people and I should be allowed to be with only white people." I can't help but come away from that with a bad taste in my mouth.

Anonymous said...

plainsfeminist --

Yes. Yes. There's something really... invigorating? about being with people like you and being away from people who wouldn't understand. Who assume. Who encroach on your space without even meaning to. And this is a lot of women's experience with men, even men they love. I know that as a bi woman, sometimes I'm boggled at the things that come from men I love, men who understand a lot about feminism -- or are even just people who love me and who I know care and listen to me when I talk about women's issues that matter to me.

It can be nice, very nice, to get away from all of that.

I just think -- and this is me, and where I am, so I'm not trying to tell other women to feel the same -- that those spaces really should be looked at not as political solutions or as keystones for solutions but as vacations. Places to let down your hair and feel safe and secure and proud, but places you will have to eventually leave.

Because I think when we get too attached to isolating ourselves, even for REALLY REALLY VALID REASONS, it encourages us to develop a mindset that makes it eventually very hard for us to let in others who have needs for similar space (witness the MichFest craziness about "women born women.")

I mean, I know that one thing I really love, as someone who is very deeply into SM and very involved in the community, is just to go to a club every now and then and just be immersed in people like me, with no fear of some other feminist being offended by my arousal or my smile or the people I associate with there or whatever.

And that's all great. But what's not great is not caring about those other people and not respecting their experiences and the things that makes them uneasy about what I do (or the bad experiences they have had with power in sexual relationships, which are very, very real.) I have to come back out into a world where my identity isn't the be all and end all. Even a world where some people are scared of it. I have to be mature enough to handle it.

And I find that starts to get more and more difficult if I start trying to invest that, or any one of my identities, with too much importance. There's a lot about women, women's culture, feminist consciousness and sisterhood that is beautiful and strong and a very real tool to fix the world. There's a lot in leather culture -- the celebration of many kinds of body and many forms of desire, the emphasis not just on thin sexual consent but on enthusiastic desire -- that also informs my views of how to change the world. Same with disability rights and disability culture.

But all of those things are a piece of me, a part of a big tapestry. Wedging myself into one and only one -- and damn have I done this, more than once -- just does no justice to who I am or to who anyone else is.

Kelsey said...

So how would you define "woman"?

Plain(s)feminist said...

So how would you define "woman"?

Oh, Lord! I don't know - because of that 2% of intersexed people, and then transgendered people, and then biological women who maybe don't fit common definitions (don't have a vagina and/or uterus, or maybe have xxy chromosomes)... I can't think of a good way to define the term. But I still think the majority of the population is clearly biologically male or female, even if a minority makes a clear definition difficult.

Kelsey said...

That's kind of what I'm saying -- there are clearing more than 2% that don't fit any perfect definition, making biological sex more of a gradiant (with, admittedly, some heaving concentrations in certain areas) than a binary.

Anna said...

Generally if someone tells me she is a woman I believe her. Self-definition is enough for me.

On a totally unrelated note, the term "biological woman" has always squicked me out a little bit.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Yeah..."biological woman" sounds like a machine of some sort. But "born woman" makes everyone else sound artificial.

Kelsey said...

Maybe it's hard to find a good term because the idea is so darn constructed ;)

Anonymous said...

Doesn't allowing men to identify as women reinforce the gender role dichotomy? Take, for example a man claiming to be a woman "inside" because he felt he had "feminine traits" (what are those traits other than upheld gender role stereotypes?) and having terribly invasive sex change surgery?

When are we going to simply identify as human beings and not be so driven by these gender constructs as to need modify our bodies to fit them?