Speculum

#GenderWeek: Non-binary gender makes me free, not a traitor

By CN Lester

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

Ideas of genders outside of the strict female/male binary are enjoying unprecedented levels of attention at the moment – in mainstream media outlets, feminist websites, LGBT and student campaigns, popularised and disseminated through social media platforms Twitter and Tumblr. Genderqueer, agender, neutrois, bigender, gender-fluid, androgynous – a wash of varied and various nomenclature that some group under the label ‘non-binary’.

I’ve been out as transgender and androgynous/genderqueer for half my life, and an ardent feminist since before I knew that there was a word for it. I have yet to meet a person with a ‘non-standard’ gender who isn’t a feminist and/or womanist. Trans feminist pioneer Leslie Feinberg is cited by many of my peers as an inspiration, and many of us found hope for a world that included us in the works of Judith Butler, Jack Halberstram and Del la Grace Volcano.

But, for a certain subset of feminists, an acceptance and celebration of gender variance is counted as antithetical to the core values of feminism itself. As someone who was assigned a ‘girl’ at birth there are some who have called me a traitor for my refusal to call myself female; who argue that people not comfortable with designating themselves women or men (or solely women or men) are upholding sexist stereotypes. That, even if we had a valid point in terms our personal lives, we’re taking up vital space, time and attention that should be spent on the ‘real’ issues. That we should stop being divisive.

I can see, in an oppositional, binary-entrenched way, the way I must seem to them. But I can’t condone it. For me, being genderqueer and being feminist are wound around each other in a way that I couldn’t untangle, even if I wanted to. And I think that that symbiotic relationship can only serve to help feminism as a whole, if we let it.

1. Gender plurality frees us from an immutable, ahistorical idea of gender

One of the main stumbling blocks I’ve found to spreading an awareness of the possibility of freedom from a patriarchal system is the widespread sophistry that “it’s just the way it is”. “Boys will be boys”, “it’s always been this way”. But an examination of the history of the gendered categories we use, an awareness of new terms springing into existence, an acknowledgement of cultural differences in how we classify women, men, both and neither, shows us that change is possible. That change has always been possible. That there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to human diversity – but that we’re always inventing new ways of seeing, new ways of understanding our cultures.

‘Gender’ is such a nebulous concept –  a word to describe individual variation, a hierarchical system of punishment and reward, a way to name the self to the self. The more we can recognise just how vast and changeable that concept is, the more we can explode the limitations patriarchy places on us.  

2. If some of us are non-binary, we are all non-binary

There’s a reason why I hesitate to use the term ‘non-binary’ to describe only those who are not men and women – because if the binary cannot include us all, then it cannot include us all. It is never to say that everyone should call themselves genderqueer or agender – but it is to say that each person’s individual experience of what makes them a man, or a woman, or something else, is valid. What a person’s body and life means to them must be approached as real – we can’t attempt to apply a standard meaning to unique and dynamic experiences. We seek commonality – but only through an acceptance of diversity, not an erasing of it. 

3. We can catalogue the full extent of misogynistic oppression and abuse

Patriarchy, overwhelmingly, hurts women the most – but misogyny harms nearly everyone. Naming the problem is the first step to solving it – and we cannot solve the problem of patriarchy, or kyriarchy, without acknowledging the extent of its damage. The idea of a binary gender system has been used to punish, to brutalise, to silence; naming its crimes and attempting to heal the destruction caused helps us to move forward in a better way, towards a better system of understanding. 

4. Self-determinism + dismantling of oppressive systems = feminism in action

When asked to define feminism, some feminists say “it’s about choice”. I agree, but think the sentence needs finishing. “Feminism is about choice – and the creation of a society that allows all compassionate choices”. To come out as a non-standard gender is not just to celebrate self-determinism, but to strike a blow at a patriarchy that denies us freedom and justice, along gendered lines. It might be a personal blow – it might, through activism, through visibility, be a blow on a wider scale.

The question is not “should feminism allow gender plurality?” – we are already here, deeply embedded in the feminist movement, and have been for a long time. Better, I think, is the question is: “where can we go from here – as women, men and everybody else – and how can we use what we’ve learnt as individuals for the benefit of us all?”

CN Lester is a musician, writer and activist, whose second full length alternative album Aether is out now. Follow @cnlester

Photo: Social Vella

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28 thoughts on “#GenderWeek: Non-binary gender makes me free, not a traitor

  1. Calling Bullshit

    You say: “I have yet to meet a person with a ‘non-standard’ gender who isn’t a feminist and/or womanist.” I say: I have yet to meet a feminist or a womanist who HAS a “standard gender.” A refusal to accept the “standard gender” is at the heart of feminism. What are your beliefs about the women that you are distancing yourself from? What is it that they are that you are not? What is a woman, anyway?

    Reply
  2. Calling Bullshit

    “Gender’ is such a nebulous concept – a word to describe individual variation, a hierarchical system of punishment and reward, a way to name the self to the self. The more we can recognise just how vast and changeable that concept is, the more we can explode the limitations patriarchy places on us. ”

    Great! But please explain how redefining “gender” as a “nebulous concept” that’s completely personal to the individual is going to explode “limitations” suffered by women like rape, inequality, health disparities, domestic violence, lack of political representation, reproductive oppression.

    Reply
  3. Susan B Journey

    The problem is you. You don’t have the intellectual depth (or perhaps the willingness) to actually understand and articulate the criticisms you have received. Instead, you’re regurgitating a half-baked pudding of nonsensical, child-like rebuttals to arguments you haven’t even bothered to TRY to understand.

    Sex does not equal gender. Start there, for goodness sakes. It’s Feminism 101.

    Real feminists don’t try to obfuscate their femaleness (reproductive sex) under a heap of nonsense about gender (social construct) because it’s 1) A waste of fucking time, and 2) It inevitably ends up with women like you prioritizing your gender playmates and your ANTI-feminist role-playing games over the life-and-death struggles of females against patriarchal oppression.

    If you had bothered to learn to understand the difference between sex and gender – that real feminists understand that females have been oppressed under patriarchy for thousands of years BECAUSE OF OUR SEX, not because of our “gender” – then you could perhaps manage an intelligent conversation on the subject of gender (hint: it’s a tool of the patriarchy, nothing more, nothing less.)

    Instead, people like you – with these lame, muzzyheaded ideas about begin genderqueer, non-binary, etc. – steeped in your self-indulgence and ignorance – are completely missing the point of feminism.

    THE POINT OF FEMINISM IS LIBERATING FEMALES FROM PATRIARCHAL OPPRESSION. Period. The end. I don’t give a fuck how others perceive your super-cool, transgressive gender choices. Why would I? I care that millions of baby girls are being sex-selectively aborted this year because they are FEMALE. I care that billions of women will be raped in our lifetimes because we are FEMALE. I care that girls in Muslim countries are having their clitorises hacked off with dirty broken glass because they are FEMALE. I care that FEMALES are still considered chattel (male property) in much of the world. I care that FEMALES are still fighting for basic reproductive healthcare, a living wage, freedom from being battered within their families and on the streets every day of the week in the U.S. and everywhere else on Earth.

    While people like you are playing with your appearance in the mirror and writing in your journals about how clever you are at playing gender games, FEMALES are being raped by MALES every day – at last measure in the U.S. 95% of rape victims were FEMALE and 95% of rapists were MALE.

    SEX matters. This post-modern obsession with “naming the self to the self” is some of the most self-indulgent nonsense that has ever squatted on the coattails of “feminism”. It’s not feminism. It’s narcissistic clap-trap and it’s derailing feminism to a hideous degree. If you want to play games in the mirror while baby girls are being raped and then thrown in the garbage for the “crime” of being female, feel free. Just don’t insult the rest of us by calling it feminism.

    Reply
    1. Commenter

      Please do the author the courtesy of defining ‘reproductive sex’ before launching into a tirade of abuse about how they’ve ignored it?

      Reply
    2. Seriously?

      “females (sic) have been oppressed under patriarchy for thousands of years BECAUSE OF OUR SEX, not because of our “gender” ”
      Actually no, we’ve been oppressed because of our perceived gender, and the conflation of gender and sex. It’s the conflation of gender and sex and the imposed limits on what that can mean that is a tool of the patriarchy. The idea of gender as separate from sex (and as decidedly unconstrained) has nothing to do with patriarchy and everything to do with liberation.

      Is a more nuanced understanding of gender going to immediately and dramatically reduce rape, FGM, misogynistic laws, etc? Probably not.
      Is it going to increase these things? Definitely not.
      Is it going to make life better for many people, of all genders and sexes? Yes

      Is answering yes to the first question a prerequisite for being feminism? Hell no. Patriarchy is ridiculously strong and insidious and any amount of chipping away at it or its tools (without creating other problems) is feminism. Such activities may not have dramatic immediate effects, but in the long term they weaken patriarchy and do have the effects you call for. Unless you spend literally all of your feminist activist time sorting out the problems you mention (and I know that you don’t because I’ve read your comment), I don’t see how you can criticise others for not. The writer of this article appears to be doing a lot more for feminism than you are.

      Reply
      1. Rose

        If women were oppressed for their gender identities and not their sex, how did men know who the trans men were to exempt them from oppression?

        Reply
          1. Rose

            This is like saying Muslim women are targeted for prejudice not because they are Muslim but because they wear a hijab, and they are wrong if they ever say Muslims experience prejudice, because I can put on a hijab and experience some of what they do and I’m not a Muslim, therefore Muslims are obviously not the intended target at all.

      2. Ann

        ‘Actually no, we’ve been oppressed because of our perceived gender, and the conflation of gender and sex. It’s the conflation of gender and sex and the imposed limits on what that can mean that is a tool of the patriarchy. The idea of gender as separate from sex (and as decidedly unconstrained) has nothing to do with patriarchy and everything to do with liberation’

        This is ridiculous. Women are oppressed by men because of our sex. It is enacted upon our physical bodies, not our ‘identities’. Gender is a set of roles and stereotypes imposed upon us as a tool of this oppression. (And if gender has nothing to do with sex then all you have left is socially constructed ideas of what a woman should be. And that is not feminist.). And how would someone be oppressed for a ‘perceived gender’? I’m not even sure what you mean by that or how you think it applies to all of history and cultures around the world where sex roles may be different but the female humans are still the ones receiving the short end of the stick.

        This genderspecial identity playground crap is nothing but useless navelgazing. It does nothing for feminism or liberation. Every female on the earth could identify as something other than ‘woman’ or ‘female’ and guess what? We’d still be oppressed for our sex. Rape would still occur. Our reproductive rights would still be stripped away. We would still be taught that our bodies are gross and dirty. The only thing these identity games serve to do is obfuscate the real issues, as we see here with your attempt to deny the reality of sex based oppression and instead try to pretend that the issue is solely about everyone not agreeing that gender is a super fun dress up game.

        I won’t accept people’s precious identities because they use it as an excuse to ignore reality and shut down discussions of abortion, rape, FGM, etc because ‘dats cissexist’. Because they use it deny to the oppression women face due to our bodies and to deny the socialization we receive from birth. Because they reinforce misogynist concepts; that women are feminine and men are masculine and if you’re ‘in between’ you must not be a man or a woman. None of this makes life better for me. And it doesn’t make life better for all women because individuals fussing over their gender identity and pronouns does nothing useful in reality.

        I don’t have to respect these silly gender identities because identity is not the most special, most important thing on earth. Also because I think it’s stupid. Again, its just navelgazing.

        Reply
        1. Seriously?

          Wow you really should get into the scarecrow construction business; that’s one impressive straw man you’ve produced. I’d like to see some of this evidence of people shutting down such discussions with cries of cissexism, because despite all the time I’ve spent in trans friendly spaces, I’ve yet to see anything approaching it. Everyone I’ve met has been just as disgusted about those things as me, and just as willing to try and stop them. I’ve also yet to meet a trans person or ally who thinks “that women are feminine and men are masculine and if you’re ‘in between’ you must not be a man or a woman.” Like I say, you really should consider a career change, unless you’re already there.

          As for my meaning about people being oppressed for their “perceived gender”, allow me to clarify. Cis-Patriarchy says that if your sex is female then so is your gender. It assigns a bunch of crap to the gender female. It uses said bunch of crap to justify all manner of abuses against anyone it deems to be female. If the entire world believed that there was no link between one’s body and anything else, then a lot of misogyny simply wouldn’t work.

          I’m not saying that women are oppressed because they are all gendered in exactly the same way. Across all history and cultures there have been all manner of different ways of gendering people. If women were assumed to all be super scientific rather than bad at science, they would still be oppressed because patriarchy would find some way to use that to oppress them. But that still doesn’t change the fact that women are oppressed through their genders, not their sex.

          Reply
    3. Emily

      I care that millions of baby girls are being sex-selectively aborted this year because they are FEMALE. I care that billions of women will be raped in our lifetimes because we are FEMALE. I care that girls in Muslim countries are having their clitorises hacked off with dirty broken glass because they are FEMALE. I care that FEMALES are still considered chattel (male property) in much of the world. I care that FEMALES are still fighting for basic reproductive healthcare, a living wage, freedom from being battered within their families and on the streets every day of the week in the U.S. and everywhere else on Earth.

      Good. These are terrible things and I care about them too. However, YOU need to explain why, in the face of this urgent need, you choose to spend your time attacking genderqueer and non-binary people. How does CN Lester’s gender identity cause these things or make them worse? How does their gender make it harder for feminists to work against patriarchy?

      Surely, if these things are your priority, it would be quicker and easier to accept genderqueer and non-binary people (and transgender people) as the gender they identify and live in and move onto fighting the real forces of oppression?

      Policing other people’s behaviour and excluding marginalised groups like trans people from feminism while using unrelated patriarchal atrocities to justify your behaviour is far more self-indulgent and ignorant.

      Reply
      1. Jessie

        Yes, feminism is focused on women — not those who imagine that they are women based on fantasy and conjecture. Come on, now, is there no critical thinking here? Do you really believe — REALLY believe — that all there is to being a woman is personal belief? Do you REALLY believe that someone can opt out of being a woman? Or opt in? What else is like that, by the way? Can I opt into being a Latina? Can I identify as Canadian and demand to vote in the next Canadian elections? Can I identify as a bunny rabbit and show up at the vet’s for a checkup? Don’t let men in dresses convince you that their imaginations trump biology. YOU ALREADY KNOW THE TRUTH. Dresses don’t make someone a woman. Lovely, lovely hairpieces do not make someone a woman. Removing a penis does not make someone a woman. You are not obligated to pretend. Many people have stopped pretending. It’s okay, it really is. Oh, and by the way? The white men who claim they are women — many of whom are quite privileged, many of whom have been in the military, many of whom never dreamed they were women until their pornified fantasies told them so — are not marginalized. They are so unmarginalized that they feel entirely entitled to everything — including being female. Including telling actual women that they are WRONG about what a woman is. Have you not noticed their astounding sense of privilege? You are being had.

        Reply
    4. Ruth Pearce

      Hey Susan, maybe you should look into some of the work CN has done to raise money for rape crisis centres, raise awareness of gendered violence, provide supportive environments and structures for vulnerable queer youth etc etc etc before you start accusing them of being self-obsessed.

      Reply
    5. Hex

      You start by insulting the author’s intellect (a very intellectual way of arguing your point, no doubt), and then you quote statistics with no analysis of causal attribution (clever, because that analysis requires understanding gender and that would surely have disrupted your tirade) , and then you make some wonderfully ignorant presumption’s about the author’s lifestyle. Great job sticking it to the patriarchy, I’m glad we have feminists like you.

      Reply
    6. Flow

      You aren’t doing yourself any favors, Susan. Liberating means liberating, id est more freedom, not less. So if we are going to liberate “females” then they must also be free to be males or both/neither. Similarly, “males” must be free to females or both/neither.

      Anything less is just another form of sexism. Feminism 101: biology IS NOT destiny.

      Reply
  4. QED

    “THE POINT OF FEMINISM IS LIBERATING FEMALES FROM PATRIARCHAL OPPRESSION”

    It’s not entirely fair to omit certain aspects of feminism and yet use others selectively, especially with the aim of dumping all over someone. I always thought that feminism, while focused on women’s issues, actually seeks equality between genders, and an end to things that are harmful to equality. Launching a meandering and obscure tirade against trans folk is both ignorant and contradictory, and yes, eminently self-indulgent

    Reply
  5. Dolly

    I don’t even know what to say to this. For a start, ‘All people are non binary’ being presented in a pro trans politics context is hilarious to be brutally honest. I think if I were to identify as non binary, as a female assigned at birth person who doesn’t perfectly fit the female gender role to paraphrase Girl, Interrupted (which was talking about something else, but I still think it’s relevant), I’d be changing the scenery but not the fucking situation. Queer theory sucks.

    Reply
  6. Lil Z

    Feminists don’t call you a ‘traitor’ for refusing to identify with womanhood as it is and has been defined in a millennia-old patriarchy. We simply say that this is flawed, anti-feminist politics, and no solution at all to women’s oppression.

    Refusing to identify as a woman because you don’t want to accept gendered limitations on yourself is an individualistic solution to a class problem. It accepts that there is a metaphysical identity called ‘woman’ that is defined by culturally determined sex-role stereotypes and that any female person who doesn’t fit into these stereotypes is not really a woman at all.

    Just like genderists such as CN Lester, fundamentalist Christian women also believe that women are defined by behaviour and appearance norms based on cultural sex roles, and that true women naturally feel and behave in a woman-like way. I don’t call them traitors to the female sex, but I do name their ideology for what it is: antiquated, sexist and fundamentally in opposition to feminist goals.

    Feminists say that there are no natural ways for men or women to think, feel, behave or appear, and a woman can be anything she wants to be. In feminist thought, ‘woman’ is not a limiting role to be freed from. To believe that it is to to give credence to restrictive gender stereotypes and to concede that they are, on some level, true.

    Reply
    1. Morag

      “In feminist thought, ‘woman’ is not a limiting role to be freed from. To believe that it is to to give credence to restrictive gender stereotypes and to concede that they are, on some level, true.”

      Yes!

      It’s so simple. Man and Woman, or–more accurately for this context–male and female, are neutral.

      Yet the genderists are spending so much of their time and energy attempting to deconstruct biological sex and trying to expose sexual dimorphism as a sham. But, the most “womanly” of males and the most “manly” of females are not evidence of anything besides variety. Same with a very small minority of inter-sex people: variety. None of this variety changes the fact that we humans are mammals who reproduce sexually. Ova and sperm. Female and male.

      Yet, again and again, queer theorists return to the level of genitals and gonads and secondary sex characteristics to “interrogate” the crap out of these bodily structures and force them to confess that they are not who they say they are. But sex chromosomes and sexed bodily structures do not create oppression. Hierarchical patriarchal structures create oppression. What is ascribed and superimposed onto those bodies is limiting for everyone, and exploitive, oppressive and violent for girls and women. This is not a horizontal gender “binary” split down the middle.

      Sometimes I think that liberal, queer, trans feminists focus their efforts on denying, obscuring and queering sexed bodies via cosmetic and/or surgical (or even just “ironic”) gender presentations because they are deeply anxious that Freud was right and that “biology IS destiny.” So rebelling against the body, declaring that physical sex is untrue (but that metaphysical gender is true), is a panicked response to this belief in biological destiny.

      But biology-is-destiny is, of course, just one of many ways of saying “the stereotypes are true.” And if the stereotypes are true (let’s not forget that gender roles DO change and adapt to liberal “progress”), then the oppressive structures of patriarchy are justified, and dominance and submission, masters and slaves, are here to stay.

      So, creating more and more gender, and adding more and more colour to a brutal system, is like some slaves demanding a little vacation time–and getting it. The slave is then afforded the chance for a little rest and creative individuation, and returns to work refreshed, ready to serve The Man.

      Reply
    2. Seriously?

      Strangely enough, believing that ‘women’ means something concrete and is inherently limiting is not a pre-requisite to accepting trans (including non-binary) identities. I myself am a cis woman who follows basically no female stereotypes ever; I don’t wear make-up and very rarely shave anything, I frequently wear male coded clothing, I hate shopping and magazines, I don’t care what weight I am, I’d really like to grow a beard, etc. Does this make me genderqueer or similar? Nope because I identify as a woman.

      Being gendered as a woman doesn’t restrict me as much as most people, but it does mean something to me, separate from what parts I have. Yes of course it’s something socially constructed, just like so many concepts important to us. And of course it doesn’t mean something concrete, universal and unchanging. But it does mean something. I identify as a woman because, given the limited language I have at my disposal, I believe that is what best describes me. But it’s not what best describes everyone, and it is not how they would describe themselves, and that is okay. My identity does not invalidate theirs, and theirs does not invalidate mine.

      CN Lester doesn’t believe that women are defined by behaviour and appearance norms, they believe that women are defined by whatever the hell they want. If they met me, I’m 100% certain that they would accept that I am a woman without a thought.

      Reply
      1. Lil Z

        ‘Strangely enough, believing that ‘women’ means something concrete and is inherently limiting’

        What is inherently limiting about being a woman, though? If you take away biological sex (which can’t be altered by one’s internal feelings about oneself) and sex-role stereotypes about how women are supposed to act and look, what else is there to the concept? That’s why radical feminists say a woman is simply an adult human female – and there are no natural limits on how adult human females should be or behave.

        I challenge genderists to define ‘woman’ in a way that isn’t completely circular (‘a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman’) and therefore ontologically meaningless, or without referring to stereotypes associated with culturally defined norms for female dress and behaviour.

        CN Lester, Seriously? and any other genderists: How do you define ‘woman’?

        Reply
        1. Seriously?

          I challenge anyone to define ‘beauty’ in a way that isn’t completely circular or without referring to culturally defined norms. Doesn’t stop people using the word, or stop them from meaning something when they do, or stop them from communicating something when they do.

          Also, If you’d actually read my comment you’d have noticed that I don’t think the word woman is inherently limiting, and nor do any of the people you call ‘genderists’.

          Reply
          1. Lil Z

            Dictionary.com does it quite easily:

            Beauty (n): the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).

            All words need commonly understood meanings – that’s how language functions.

            And I noticed you still dodged the question. So you admit, you can’t define woman in a way that isn’t completely circular (and therefore meaningless), or without referring to sex-role stereotypes. Genderists never can.

            And furthermore, if ‘woman’ is so broad a term it can refer to literally anyone and has no ontological meaning, you would have to question why we need a political movement to represent people called ‘women’, or why transwomen are desperate to be included in a category of persons who share no common characteristics or condition and can’t be meaningfully defined – and indeed why genderqueer females feel the need to opt out of it.

        2. harp_r

          If you want a definition of what a woman is, I’d refer you back to your own words: “A woman can be anything she wants to be.”

          Look, trans people and ‘genderists’ are fundamentally on your side. We want all people to be treated equally and have the same options in life regardless of their reproductive capacity, appearance, behaviour, and so on. This includes a rejection of gender stereotypes and a rejection of male dominance. If some people are genuinely happier living as the opposite gender than the one you think they should inhabit, I’m not sure why that’s a problem. Like you, our safety and ability to thrive relies on working to achieve a non-patriarchal society. (The statistics on anti-trans assault and murder rates should make that clear.) Rather than seeing that as a threat, take it as assurance that we have a common goal.

          Do you think men can be feminists? I ask this because if you met me – for instance at any one of the feminist/gender equality groups and forums that I am part of – you would assume that I was a biological male who is actively dedicated to women’s rights campaigns. If you later found out that I have a uterus, would you then decide that I’m a traitor? Or would you instead acknowledge that the reproductive organs I was born with neither support nor undermine my political opinions, and what I do with them is my own choice?

          Reply
  7. Ginnheim

    I read through all these comments and realised: none of this hatred makes any difference to the position of women in society. Radical feminists perceive trans and GQ people as villains, as though the world would be a paradise of sex-equality would it not be for us. Compare women’s position in society now that trans people are on the scene to what it was like before Christine Jorgensen. Maybe that will help you realise that we are not the ones causing inequality. Even if all trans/GQ people were to vanish tomorrow, FGM and sex-selective abortion would very much still exist. Not a single openly-trans person is currently holding office in the UK; we really don’t have the power to oppress anyone.

    Of course, I don’t expect that this realisation will end transphobia amongst feminists; we are too useful a scapegoat for all society’s ills. As Nietzsche puts it, “He who is punished is never he who performed the deed. He is always the scapegoat.”

    Reply

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