As transgender identities, social spaces and movements for liberation have developed over the past 150 years there has been a sharpening of the confrontation between bourgeois ideological constructions of gender and how gender is defined, largely, by ordinary, embodied people.
In its crudest form, dominant ideologies of gender claim that there is a fixed and necessary connection between one’s biological body and one’s social being. According to this gender essentialist view women are nurturing, sensitive, emotional, caring and apt mothers not because of social environments that have crafted this construction of womanhood, but simply because of women’s biological bodies.
Those whose, perhaps, liberal leanings draw them away from the crudest formulations of gender essentialsm are still influenced by its conclusions through ideas such as the ‘sexed brain’ or a commitment to the existence of quintessentially male and female behaviour.
The history of gender variance across the globe, as Leslie Feinberg documents in Transgender Warriors, in itself rips at the foundations of essentialist conceptions of gender. From two-spirit people of the American First Nations, to Victorian cross-dressers Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park of London’s historical theatrical scene, to the balls of black New York, the global practice of gender and identity fundamentally contradicts the essentialist, gendered expectations forced upon bodies, almost always from birth.
Despite the diverse reality of gendered and non-gendered embodiment, essentialist ideologies remain very resilient. Your average global citizen and almost all global systems, deny the fact that someone with a penis could also be a woman: the link between one’s biology and one’s gendered social expression is deemed a historical, immutable fact. It has only been through social struggle, challenges from below and reluctant concessions from above that gender variant and non-binary gender identity has become more visible.
The Severing of Sex from Gender
Historically, materialist feminists have fought vigorously to sever the fixed link between sex (biology) and gender (social being). They argue that one’s gender – that is, the way one behaves, dresses, talks, views oneself, views the world and is seen by others – is a complex result of social identity, relations, expectations and conditioning. In short, it is a social construction. Women are caring, nurturing mothers by social, not biological, impulse.
Early proponents of these arguments viewed sex as a category – marked by XX chromosomes, breasts, oestrogen, being able to biologically reproduce – as having a biological rootedness (though this, as will be explored, was problematized by later theorists). By contrast, gender was theorised as the purely social state of being that is then mapped onto sex. This type of argument became known as the sex/gender distinction and it is from this starting point that some materialist feminists progressed Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman” from a discussion about ‘being’ vs. ‘becoming’ to one about ‘nature’ vs. ‘society’.
Out of the sex/gender distinction materialist feminism flourished and theorists began viewing gender not as a natural category, but instead as a category that is given the appearance of naturalness. Gender essentialists argued that if women’s social being is fixed by biology and women’s oppression characterises that social being, then women’s oppression must also be fixed by biology.
The sex/gender distinction led to a radically different conclusion. If gender as a social category is a construction, crafted historically by powerful men, then its appearance as natural is a clever gimmick mobilised by essentialist ideology to naturalise oppression. Women’s oppression is not natural, then, but its appearance as such is precisely the ideological ballast needed to justify its continuation.
As materialist feminist Monique Wittig argued in her seminal 1980 essay One Is Not Born a Woman:
…by admitting that there is a “natural” division between women and men, we naturalize history, we assume that “men” and “women” have always existed and will always exist. Not only do we naturalize history, but also consequently we naturalize the social phenomena which express our oppression, making change impossible.
Marxists have also argued that our human nature and social being is shaped by the world around us and is therefore subject to change, shift and divergence. Marx in the Communist Manifesto writes:
…man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life.
It is in this space – in the gap between the biology of the body and the social construction of self – that non-binary gender identities are born and explained. It is in this space that gender essentialist ideology collapses.
The Influence of Society on Nature
The sex/gender distinction posits a sharp dichotomy between biology (sex) and social being (gender). It’s worth pointing out that both modern gender theorists and scientists are questioning whether the sex/gender distinction actually accounts for the ways in which nature is shaped by society.
First, the actualisation of biological potentials is heavily influenced by social environment. There is at least some evidence to suggest that in matriarchal Native American societies the expectation of physical strength fell on women. This created societies where people with female bodies were the ones who managed the more physical tasks for maintaining the community and, as a result, were championed as the stronger sex.
Further, the actual categorisation of biological bodies into male and female has a social rather than ontological significance. What do I mean by this? There is a reason why society goes to such pains to group together sex characteristics such as genitals and hormones and categorises these biologies as ‘male’ and ‘female’. Yet, it does not make any effort to group together people with a certain foot and hand size and split the world into named and defined groups on that basis. There is no social significance to your foot and hand size, hence we don’t have any use in categorising human beings in that way.
On the other hand, certain sex characteristics play important roles in biological reproduction. Biological reproduction certainly takes on powerful social significance as the process essential to reproducing labour power, familial units and consenting citizens. It’s this social fact that creates the historical impulse to split our language, definitions and understanding of self into ‘male’ and ‘female’.
Most importantly, perhaps, the scientific community is increasingly coming to the realisation (several decades after LGBT and queer activists, mind) that human bodies do not actually split neatly into our defined categories of male and female. Some people with XX chromosomes have penises. Some people with XY chromosomes can bear healthy children. Some people with a mix of XX and XY chromosomes have ambiguous genitalia.
This biological variance is known as intersexuality. Whilst often pejoratively conceived of as a series of medical conditions or ‘disorders’, in reality all people exist on a spectrum of biological variance. Lots of women grow beards, some have deep voices, or naturally produce high levels of testosterone. Some men have breasts, thick hips and can sing soprano.
There is a wealth of natural human biological variation that cuts across the strict confines of ‘male’ and ‘female’. In conjunction with this, there are millions of people on the planet who cannot be classified as either biologically male or female. Sex, then, becomes a spectrum; not a dichotomy. The insistence, despite this complex and beautiful landscape, that sex is a strict biological dichotomy becomes exposed as an ideological construct, not an ontological reality that exists in nature outside of our conceptualisation of it.
This is not to say that sex – and its markers – are simply ‘made up’. It is a biological reality that some bodies can produce children and others cannot. It is a historical fact that these bodies have been and are oppressed by a global system of capitalist patriarchy. However, what I am arguing is that our biological features and capacities have a fundamentally social interpretation, meaning and value. How we choose to categorise bodies is rooted in social relations, not the holy commune of biology. In this way sex is socially constructed, but it is absolutely real. Yet in its realness, not even sex – with its basis in the biology of bodies – is a fixed or immutable category of nature.
It’s for this reason that despite being assigned male at birth Janet Mock can say “I was born a baby, not a boy”. And she’d be right; the move to assign a baby with a penis as a boy is not a simple statement of biological fact, but a loaded ideological ascription.
Gender Essentialism Re-loaded
Despite this, gender essentialist ideology persists and in fact under neo-liberal capitalism we are witnessing it’s (re)rise.
This is partly due to a right-wing backlash against the gains made by proponents of women’s, gender and sexual liberation. In Poland the Church is leading a crusade against a phantom enemy: the “ideology of gender”. One of Poland’s leading Bishops is on record saying: “the ideology of gender presents a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined”. Pope Francis argued that transgender rights present a similar threat to humanity as do nuclear weapons. And in France a similar phantom enemy, the “theory of gender”, is constructed with no consensus over what this theory is, but deep right-wing agreement that by opposing it gender norms, familial relations and heterosexuality are being defended. Right-wing backlashes around the world are sharpening as the unprecedented visibility of transgender movements penetrates popular consciousness and culture.
However, neo-liberal capitalism has a more pernicious side, if this wasn’t pernicious enough. As governments move to shift the burden of the social reproduction of working classes away from the state and onto familial units, women (constructed as being the arbiters of care giving and domesticity) are increasingly picking up this labour. Termed austerity, this re-configuring of the state is accompanied by an ideological push to reinforce gender roles and the family. In the summer of 2014 then Prime Minister David Cameron could not have been more honest when he said that “nothing matters more than family”.
The impact of gender essentialism can also be seen in the strategies capitalism uses to organise women’s labour. Tithi Bhattacharya’s writing on Export Processing Zones in ‘Explaining Gender Violence in the Neo-liberal Era’ is instructive to highlighting this. Export Processing Zones are ‘economic zones’ where the labour laws of the associated country do not apply. They are, as a consequence, at once a work place but simultaneously a private space that mimics the home by being “shielded from social and state scrutiny”. Just like in the home women are subjected to essentialised expectations of their role, value and behaviour that exists alongside sexual and physical violence. Both are mobilised with the sole purpose of keeping these women workers’ labour cheap and their bodies and minds obedient and productive.
Capitalism the world over benefits from essentialist constructions of gender and the sharpening of gender essentialist ideals today is not just a right-wing backlash, but a conscious neo-liberal strategy. However, alongside this we are seeing the intensification of contradictions between gender essentialist ideology and the lived variability of gender identity brought about by a strengthening movement for trans lives. This brings with it new battlegrounds and opportunities for liberatory struggles and politics.
The Reality of Trans Oppression
It is this analysis that goes some way to explaining the brutal reality of transgender oppression under capitalism today. Working class trans women still represent the most under and unemployed segment of society. While most people in the global North can expect to live past 60, due to high suicide and homicide rates as well as exclusion from adequate health care, trans women often live with an expectation of their life being at risk.
In prisons they often face the worst and most numerous sexual and physical violence from inmates, guards and prison bureaucracies. And gender non-conformity in America is still one of the most common points of entry into the prison industrial complex as well as the basis of the hyper-criminalisation of and police brutality within queer communities.
In a world built on the idea that biological sex determines our social being, trans people exist as an affront to so many of the ideological edifices of a world under capitalism. Trans embodiment, on the one hand, widens the gap between biology and social being. If gender is a social construction then any human – regardless of the sex markers of their body – can be any gender. But on the other hand trans embodiment brings sex and gender closer together by making us aware of the social construction of sex categories; raising the question of whether sex is just gender after all.
These two processes symbiotically tear at the gender roles sitting within the heart of nuclear family units and rip away at the gender essentialist assumptions – materially constituted by care giving labour – forced upon us by social reproduction under capitalism. It is no surprise, then, that trans people face some of the harshest forms of oppression. The very existence of gender variant people provides a glimpse into a world beyond capitalism.
Some people known as trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) draw conclusions from the sex/gender distinction and materialist feminist tradition that ends up serving the conditions of oppression as opposed to offering a strategy to challenge them.
Because gender is constructed in society in a top down way designed to oppress women, radical feminists have often advocated for abolishing gender being the central focus of feminist struggle. This conclusion is predicated on the assumption that if gender as constructed today comes from oppressive social relations then abolishing gender abolishes oppression. They conclude that trans people who find solace, happiness and humanness in basing their subjectivity on gender therefore reinforce oppressive social relations.
This gets things disastrously backwards.
As an example, remember it was slavery as an economic mode of production and the social relations it reproduced that created the need for race and racism. Race and racism was used to square the circle of a burgeoning enlightenment society where every man was created equal but some men were in chains. Race and racism were then used as the ideological framework within which slavery was reinforced, justified and normalised. To have as the basis for anti-slavery, anti-racist struggle the simple abolition of race would have been a recipe for inertia, inaction and, ultimately, the continuation of slavery. The problem was the material organisation of society and economy around slavery.
Similarly the material interests of capitalism in women’s bodies is what reproduces essentialised conceptions of gender and women’s oppression. The problem is not that gender exists per se but that the way it is constructed is done by and for the interests of the exploiting classes and their systems. This isn’t to say a struggle for a new world without the oppression of women wouldn’t throw up expansive questions about moving beyond the idea of gender; but we won’t ever get to that world by simply abolishing gender within the current one.
Liberation as Subjectivity
In our discussions about gender, trans genders and liberation we have to be clear that the problem is not that people want to do gender. The problem is who is constructing our genders, in whose interest and for the reproduction of which systems.
As Judith Butler says in an interview with Trans Advocate:
Some [people] want to be gender-free, but others want to be free really to be a gender that is crucial to who they are.
And that this kind of world is possible should be at the heart of liberation politics; a world where our subjective expressions of being and body are determined by ourselves and only ourselves.
What language we give this may be largely irrelevant, in the end. But approaching this kind of society would require a revolutionary restructuring of the material world. This radical view of liberation, one that in the true spirit of Marxism centers truly freeing our individuality, cuts through a gender essentialist view that tells us our gender expression is tied down by nature and a TERF view that tells us our liberation requires forfeiting our identities. Ultimately, that is what this struggle is; a fight for the freeing of self.