Bigger than a hexadecimal: some notes on the gender binary

One of the arguments made by trans-exclusionary feminists that can sound convincing, at least at first, concerns the question of gender essentialism: after all, if the categories of “man” and “woman” as we understand them are social constructs imposed by patriarchy, then how can we say that trans women are women or trans men are men, when really no one is “naturally” a woman or a man?

Once we start paying attention to things that trans people actually say, rather than just the things that trans-exclusionary feminists attribute to them, the picture becomes more complicated, as it turns out that it’s totally possible for people to advocate for trans acceptance while also arguing against gender essentialism. Still, the question of how we can make life more comfortable for people having to navigate the categories imposed by patriarchy, while also critiquing those categories themselves and fighting against any attempt to naturalise them, is an interesting and important one, and thoughtful contributions on the subject are always welcome.

For this reason, I was intrigued to see a recent article by Jane Clare Jones titled “A Note on ‘Smashing the Binary’”. To the author’s credit, she does manage to observe that, in contrast to the picture painted by many trans-exclusionary feminists, many trans people and their allies actually oppose the gender binary; unfortunately, she then manages to get everything else so completely arse-about-face that she comes across as actually wanting to preserve gender roles, appealing to some kind of innate feminine essence (and so presumably an innate masculine one as well).

Jones’ starting point is to observe that “trans ideology – and its associated arguments and rhetoric – is what we might call a ‘scavenger’ or ‘magpie’ discourse. My sense is basically that it’s reverse engineered – a set of central claims fashioned to achieve political objectives, which have then been backfilled with whatever bits and bats of argument were needed to appeal to the woke, give succour to misogynists, and create the general impression that it makes some kind of sense. Although I don’t think the entire discourse is academic – we have no clear, or complete, academic genealogy for its development – it is certainly true that many of these bits and bats come from the academy.”

I’d say that feminism, or “gay ideology”, could probably be described in much the same terms, because that’s the nature of any politics that starts off from lived experience rather than being called into being by the ideas of Great (Wo)Men. To say that a form of politics originates outside the academy and then borrows those academic ideas that seem relevant or useful is hardly the stinging criticism she seems to want it to be, although I can appreciate that it may be bruising to the egos of academics.

Introducing what she sees as the central mistake of intersectional and trans-inclusive feminists, Jones tells the reader that “The whole point of binaries is that they are conceptual discursive oppositions laid on top of natural differences. The effect of laying a binary on top of a difference is that it effectively denies being to, or erases, the inferior pole of the binary, because the inferior term in defined only as a negative mirror-image of the superior term, and is not granted reality, or given worth, in itself. The remedy for this… is to insist on the reality of both parts of a natural difference.”

This skates in a thoroughly confusing fashion over what it is that the “natural difference” consists of. Are we talking here about biological characteristics, so that the fact of some people having XX chromosomes and ovaries is erased and not granted reality? Or are we talking about the social categories constructed around those biological facts, since those are surely the things that trans people threaten?

After all, an argument about which toilet someone should use, or what services they should be able to access when experiencing domestic violence, is not a biological argument about, say, whether they can give birth or not, or what types of cancer they’re at risk of, but an argument about which social category they fit into. Similarly, wanting to stake an argument solely “on the reality of both parts of a natural difference” seems like shaky ground for a trans-exclusionary feminism, since there are significant biological differences between, say, trans people who’re taking hormones and have had surgery and trans people who aren’t taking hormones and haven’t had surgery, or between cis women who have gone through the menopause and ones who haven’t, but few feminists want to claim these biological differences as being crucial dividing lines, or to “insist on the reality of both parts” of those differences. Of course, that’s fine, and no-one should have to, but the choice to insist on some biological differences as being politically significant while passing over others is precisely that, a social/political choice, not just some automatic recognition of the reality of a natural difference.

This line of argument becomes even more dubious when we consider that Jones explicitly links the construction of gender and racial binaries together: “a process by which the white male subject defines his others – women, and the non-white – as an inferior negation of himself”. So, if, as Jones says, the process of binary othering is how racial hierarchies are constructed, and the way to undo the binary “is to insist on the reality of both parts of a natural difference”, then the best way to fight racism must be insisting on the innate biological differences between the races. Get your skull-measuring tools out everyone, it’s time to endorse 19th-century race science to own the intersectionalists.

To say that this approach is nonsense is not to deny that, say, some people are likely to have darker skin, lighter hair, greater genetic risk of sickle cell anaemia, or blue eyes, but that these “natural differences” do not have any innate meaning outside of the systems imposed by colonialism and racism, which once again shows the importance of distinguishing between biological differences and social categories, not collapsing one into the other.

Jones touches on the erasure necessary to binary oppositions, but fails to grasp what it actually means. Binaries are bad not just because they’re hierarchical, but because they deny everything outside those hierarchical categories. If the binary insists that everyone is either X or Y, and that X is superior to Y, then insisting that X people and Y people are naturally different but equal might be a slight improvement, but it doesn’t get any closer to dealing a reality where some people might be X in some ways and Y in others, or might indeed be A, B, C, gamma or theta. To “insist on the reality of both parts of a natural difference” – so, saying that some people are European, and others are African, and both are equally good – is still to reproduce the erasures imposed by colonialism. It obviously doesn’t offer much to, say, Asians or indigenous Australians, but even just talking about Africans, to group them together as “the other pole” is still to deny the existence and diversity of pre-colonial-binary identities.

Of course, Jones could object that she actually wants “to spend a lot of time thinking through what [colonised people] are”, and that this effort would really mean understanding and respecting the full range and complexity of these identities, but if we’re talking about pre/non-colonial cultures, then again we’re back to social categories, not biological differences. And again, in such a case we’d be looking at a range of social identities that don’t fit neatly within a binary, which in turn sounds an awful lot like the dreaded “trans ideology”.

Jones tells us that “this is where it goes completely, utterly off the rails for the woke. Instead of granting reality to both sides of the difference, and working to move our discursive structures away from the way our culture codes those differences, trans ideology has decided to try and abolish the difference itself.” We can at least agree that someone has gone completely off the rails here. Is “trans ideology” really trying to “abolish [biological] difference” itself? Because that’s a big claim, and one that stands very much at odds with the trans-exclusionary party line that accuses trans people of precisely paying too much attention to biological difference, and urging people to change their bodies rather than just accepting themselves, a claim neatly illustrated by this image hosted at Fair Play for Women:

If we’re talking about “natural differences” rather than social/cultural categories, it’d be worth explaining how exactly “trans ideology” is trying to do away with them – does Jones seriously think that there’s people out there working on a masterplan that will end up with everyone having the same genitalia, and either no-one or everyone being able to give birth? Because if so, we’re getting into “turning the friggin’ frogs gay” territory here.

Alternatively, it could be conceded that “trans ideology” isn’t attempting to deny the fact of physical/biological differences, but is undermining the social categories created around those biological differences – in which case, yeah, guilty as charged, that’s precisely why it’s so possible for trans and non-trans feminists to find common ground, because that’s totally in line with classical feminist objectives, as set out by, for instance, that notorious trendy Buzzfeed postmodernist Shulamith Firestone:

“…just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.”

Jones is convinced that it’s everyone else who suffers from “the inability to understand the distinction – and inter-relation – of nature and culture”, insisting that “What can’t be imagined… is that there could be differences which were not made into hierarchies. And so, the story goes, if we want men and women to relate equally to each other, the only possible way could be pretending that men, or actually, really, women – are not.”

As seen above, this supposed mistake is one that was equally common back in the heyday of second-wave radical feminism. Again, the comparison with racial hierarchies and the invention of categories such as whiteness is relevant here – there’s no need to deny that some physical differences exist in order to believe that the undoing of racialised hierarchy will involve the abolition of categories such as “whiteness”.

Jones insists that this is absurd because “the difference between males and females is not made by discourse”, but here we’re slipping between categories again, as is shown by how quickly she’s gone from “men, or actually, really, women” in one sentence to “males and females” in the next. While physical differences exist outside of discourse, the meanings given to those differences – the concepts of “men” and “women” – are socially constructed, as is the decision to give vital weight to some “natural physical differences” while passing over others as being politically irrelevant.

Approaching her closing flourish, Jones tells us that “for those driving this discourse… the whole point of trying to abolish sexual difference is to allow the being of female people to be easily appropriated by male people”. This is one of those moves that may play well with the home crowd, but is deeply, deeply unconvincing, to the point of undermining the whole argument, to anyone who’s ever spent much time around trans people. In passing, I’ll note that I’m still not clear as to whether “the being of female people” is supposed to refer to physical differences or a social category, but that’s OK, since I don’t think Jones was keeping track at this point either.

Anyway, I know that trans-exclusionary feminists really like to argue as if the world consisted of cis people and then trans women, in order to present “trans ideology” as being exclusively the work of people who were assigned male at birth and now identify as female, but as is obvious to anyone who’s ever spent any time around queer/trans-friendly spaces, “actually existing transgenderism” tends be a mix of people who were assigned male at birth and identify as female, people who were assigned female at birth and identify as male, and people who were assigned male or female at birth who identify with non-binary genders, with these last presumably being guilty of “appropriating the being of non-binary people”. If your theory of trans people can’t account for the existence of trans men and non-binary people, then it fails at the very first hurdle. This point is one where open social conservatives, who’re honest about the fact that they’re just opposed to any deviation from patriarchal norms, are probably able to describe reality more accurately than their “gender-critical” allies.

Jones goes on to assert that “It is, in fact, the existence of sexual difference that serves as the basis for resisting the patriarchal binary, because it is the existence of sexual difference which grounds the claim that the female has its own being, outside the definition imposed upon it by patriarchal opposition.”

We can agree that to resist the patriarchal binary, there needs to be something outside it, but for this something to be “the female… being” we’d need a bit more clarity about what that actually is. If it’s just physical difference, then I’m unconvinced that simply stating that some people have wombs is going to do that much to bring down the patriarchy; but if we’re talking about something beyond simple physical difference, claiming that “the female being” is some kind of eternal feminine that exists outside of patriarchal categories, then it seems like Jones has arrived at the conclusion that gender essentialism is actually good now, which sets her drastically at odds with the feminist tradition – when 1970s women’s lib marchers raised slogans like “biology is not woman’s destiny”, should they in fact have been telling the world “actually, biology is women’s destiny, but a slightly different one from what patriarchy says it is”?

Jones closes with an oddly telling slip, complaining about how “the appropriation we are resisting [is] caricatured as an act of illegitimate hatred”. If this “appropriation” refers to the existence of trans people, then I’m happy to agree that they are indeed being unfairly caricatured, but I think “resistance to that [supposed] appropriation” is what Jones thinks is being slandered. Then again, why would you expect someone who writes an article about how everyone else can’t understand the difference between nature and culture, and then spends the whole time confusing the two terms, to keep track of what her own sentences are saying?

In closing, Jones’ seeming belief in an eternal feminine essence, prior to and outside of patriarchy, puts her thoroughly at odds with much of the feminist tradition, which has more often been concerned with showing how gender roles are constructed by patriarchy than on insisting on the importance of a feminine essence outside of it. If the critiques of gender advanced by some queer and trans people and their allies are a misogynist conspiracy against “female being”, then the rot must go deeper than that – consider Virginia Woolf way back in the day writing an entire novel about “a male person appropriating the being of female people”, or Shulamith Firestone’s insistence on “the elimination… of the sex distinction itself”:

“to grant that the sexual imbalance of power is biologically based is not to lose our case. We are no longer just animals. And the kingdom of nature does not reign absolute… Thus the ‘natural’ is not necessarily a ‘human’ value. Humanity has begun to transcend Nature.”

Or Monique Wittig’s claim that “it would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for “woman” has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems.”

Or indeed that famous woke misogynist bloke Andrea Dworkin:

“Hormone and chromosome research, attempts to develop new means of human reproduction (life created in, or considerably supported by, the scientist’s laboratory), work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words “male” and “female,” “man” and “woman,” are used only because as yet there are no others.”

Of course, just because the existence of trans and gender-queer people isn’t a misogynist conspiracy against women, that doesn’t mean it’s sufficient to bring down the whole system of gender roles either – only organised collective struggle against patriarchy will do that. The good news is, that work is already ongoing, from things like the Irish abortion referendum, to the defence of domestic violence services threatened by cuts, from the development of a feminist antifascist movement to the massive working-class struggle for equal pay in Glasgow. The divisive, reactionary ideas peddled by the likes of Jones seem likely to remain a minor irritant to that work, but not much else.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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7 Responses to Bigger than a hexadecimal: some notes on the gender binary

  1. Pingback: Bigger than a hexadecimal: some notes on the gender binary — Cautiously pessimistic | Anarchy by the Sea!

  2. This is a far more thoughtful piece than the one it crtiques, a load of pretentious tripe that appears to have been machine-translated into ‘hipster’. I confess I had to ask around what a ‘woke’ was, I’m told it’s an African American term used ironcally by white people. Oh dear.

    When you pick the bones out of it, it’s just metaphysics.


    • Thanks! Yeah, I guess woke is kind of like “right on”, or maybe even “politically correct” in that it’s originally a term of approval but usually used by people taking the piss. The other thing is, reading articles like that, it’s really hard to avoid the suspicion that the author doesn’t actually know any trans people, it’s got the same kind of vibe as when you see someone spouting off about Islam and you can really tell that they’ve never spent much time interacting with any Muslims IRL.

  3. Pingback: On the Being of Female People | Jane Clare Jones

  4. Pingback: Amabsolutely afabulous: again with the gender binary | Cautiously pessimistic

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