It’s surprising how often people seem to assume that respecting people’s gender identity means allowing that everyone has an innate, essential sense of gender that is not shaped by social or cultural factors. (Sidenote: it’s amazing how quickly people become anti-essentialist constructionists about gender once they think that’s a good way to explain what’s wrong/false/delusional about the claims of trans people.) So, for example, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper writes in defense of Germaine Greer:
The doctrine of “gender identity” – the idea that people possess an essential inner gender that is independent both of their sexed body and of the social reality of being treated as a person with such a body – has rapidly been elevated to the status of quasi-religious belief, such that those who do not subscribe to it are seen as not only mistaken and misguided, but dangerous and threatening, and must therefore be silenced.
And Leslie Green, also in defense of Greer, argues that gender is
path dependent. To be a woman is for the pertinent norms and values to apply a result of a certain life history. Being a woman is not only ‘socially constructed’, as they say, it is also constructed by the path from one’s past to one’s present. In our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route: for instance, by having been given a girl’s name, by having been made to wear girl’s clothes, by having been excluded from boys’ activities, by having made certain adaptations to the onset of puberty, and by having been seen and evaluated in specific ways. That is why the social significance of being a penis-free person is different for those who never had a penis than it is for those who used to have one and then cut it off.
Curiously, neither Reilly-Cooper nor Green engage with any of the rich literature on gender identity or trans feminism. There are many different and nuanced views defended within that literature, and I won’t make any attempt to summarize it here. What I’ll try to do, instead, is give a brief overview of why, contra what some commentators seem to suggest, there’s no tension between trans-inclusionary feminism, on the one hand, and anti-essentialism or social constructionism, on the other.
- Gender identity isn’t a magical innate thing – Our experience of gender is a combination of many things, including at least gender role, gender expression, and gender identity. Gender role is, roughly, a matter of how you interact with the wider social world, how others react to you, and what norms and expectations are placed on you based on ideas about your gender. Gender identity is, roughly, how you feel about your relationship to gender roles – whether you feel that that gender role that’s been assigned to you is ‘correct’, whether you identify with other people who have been assigned the same gender role, whether people are perceiving your gender the way you’d like them to, and so on. On this way of thinking about things, gender identity is just as contingent, fluid, and socially constructed as gender role. It’s just different than gender role. Biology isn’t destiny, to quote the social constructionist mantra. But just as biology doesn’t determine the way we in fact assign gender roles, it also doesn’t determine how people experience gender identity. Some people identify with the gender role that is commonly associated with the sex characteristics they are born with. Some people identify with a different binary gender role. Some people identify with neither binary gender role. For some people, their gender identification changes and evolves over time. All of this is consistent with gender identity as it is currently experienced being a product of the – contingent, non-essential – ways our society happens to divide itself into genders.
- Essentialist language is often forced on trans people. – As a leftover effect of the diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’ and ‘gender identity disorder’, trans people are often pressured to say essentialist things (they have ‘always known they were a man/woman’, they were ‘born in the wrong body’, etc) to legitimize their experiences and, in some cases, to gain access to medical treatment. That essentialism is very often something cis people are forcing on trans people, not the other way around.
- No one is saying there aren’t any differences between trans people and cis people. – Yes, of course there are differences between trans people and cis people. They’ve had different experiences, in some cases they’ve been socialized in different ways, in some cases they’ve faced different barriers. There will be many differences between my (cis) experience of being a woman and a trans woman’s experience of being a woman. But there will also be many profound differences between my white experience of being a woman and a woman of color’s experience of being a woman. And there will be differences between my experiences as a disabled woman and those of a non-disabled woman, or between my experiences as a somewhat gender non-conforming woman and those of a more traditionally feminine woman. As work on intersectionality has emphasized, there’s no one thing that is ‘the experience of being a woman’. What it’s like to be a woman can be radically different, depending on class, race, nationality, etc. And so yes, of course, there will be differences between the experience of being a cis woman and being a trans woman. That doesn’t mean trans women aren’t ‘really women’. Women are different from each other. The category ‘woman’ is a grab-bag, gerrymandered group, and there are lots of different ways to belong to it.
- Gender can still be ‘path dependent’ – Green might well be right that gender is the result of a lifetime’s worth of social experiences. What he doesn’t make the case for, though, is that this is any sort of challenge to the claim that trans women are women, or that trans men are men. Green seems to assume that, e.g., a trans woman’s experience of gender will basically be the same as a man’s experience of gender up until she decides to undertake a medical process of transition. But this is a very strange thing to assume, given that there is both a large body of psychological evidence and a large body of philosophical literature, feminist literature, and first-person narrative explaining why it’s false. A trans woman’s experience of gender can include so many things – both public and private – that a man’s will not. She might face constant worries of violence and bullying should people discover her gender non-conformity. She might feel intense alienation from her assigned gender roles, or she might deal with intense confusion regarding her own gender identity. She might struggle to learn how to behave in a way that will keep her safe. And so on. All of this can be the process of a lifetime, and none of it is dependent on an operation or hormone therapy. Perhaps gender is ‘path dependent’, as Green suggests. Even so, there are many paths one can take to be a woman, and Green gives no reason to think that a the paths a trans woman might take are for some reason not eligible for womanhood.
- ‘But I don’t get why gender identity is such a big deal’ – Sometimes, lurking in the background of these kind of criticisms of trans feminism is the suggesting that we probably shouldn’t make such a fuss over gender identity. For those who have a relatively limited sense of or feelings toward their own gender identity, it can sometimes be hard to understand why some people think it’s so important. (Insert obligatory grumbling about ‘identity politics gone mad’.) As trans people have argued, though, this may be one way in which we experience cis privilege. Cis people have often never had to care that much or think that much about gender identity, but that’s part of what it is to be cis – we have gender identity everyone expects of us, our gender identity has never been a source of marginalization, fear, discrimination, or shame for us, etc. If the tables were turned, if our gender identity was constantly being challenged, questioned, policed, and harassed, I’m willing to bet it would be a very big deal. This is one of those points at which it really seems to make sense to listen to the experiences of people in marginalized positions. Yeah, the importance of gender identity can be hard to fully understand if you don’t experience it yourself. But trans people and gender queer people have done a really wonderful job of explaining why it matters so much to them – and that literature is out there waiting for cis people to take advantage of. (By way of analogy, I also have very little day-to-day sense of racial identity. But that’s obviously because I’m white, and I take people of color at their word when they emphasize that racial identity matters. Just because people in privileged positions don’t have a particularly good sense of something doesn’t mean it isn’t important.)
- There’s good philosophy being written on this stuff. – Just for starters, I highly recommend Katharine Jenkins, Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept Woman; Talia Bettcher, ‘Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On transphobic violence and the politics of illusion’; Talia Bettcher, Trans Identities and First-Person Authority; Rachel McKinnon, Stereotype Threat and Attributional Ambiguity for Trans Women.