Gender Policing on the Left
What makes a man, if not for masculinity? What makes a woman, if not for femininity? These questions arise out of modern feminist theory, where scholars first drew a distinction between biological sex (male, female, intersex) and gender (feminity, masculinity, etc), because they saw the latter as a culturally specific construct that varies too widely across time and space to serve as a productive categorization of humanity on its own. By separating masculinity and femininity from male and female they sought to liberate people from the confines of restrictive gender roles and norms that were otherwise forced upon them merely by virtue of the sex they happened to be born into. Today, this separation is an idea that has largely succeeded at becoming the dominant narrative around sex and gender in the developed world. During its rise, this view had to contend with right wing sexism that sought to keep the sexes in their place. Recently, however, this feminist agenda has also begun to face a new threat — this time from the political left.
Gender policing on the left is on the rise due to a recent trend toward reinforcing sexist gender roles in the service of identity politics. This new trend is concerning because it goes against the liberal values of individual freedom that many of us have fought to promote for so long. As a consequence of centering personal identity (how one sees oneself and wishes to be seen by others), the new left has regressed to the pre-feminist social habit of essentializing gender roles and norms. In so doing, the new leftist movement has inadvertently become a mirror image of the old fashioned right wing sexism it so often critiques. Ironically, in seeking to free people from sexism, these efforts have instead reinforced it by inventing a plethora of identity labels for people who do not conform to narrow conceptions of gender roles rather than critiquing the norms. This is not progress. Using my own experiences as an example, I argue instead for a return to a separation of sex and gender, and a rejection of the new identity politics.
A little about me: I am a twenty-something-year-old woman living in Southern Oregon, USA. I am also bisexual. I grew up going back and forth between my divorced parents, who both had their own distinct ideas about gender and my upbringing. While my mother let me stomp around in hiking boots playing rough with the boys, my father instead insisted that I wear pink and “act like a lady.” I knew from hanging out with my mom that I was perfectly capable of enjoying traditional “boy” hobbies, but my dad fixated on raising me to be the perfect cookie-cutter image of what he thought a little girl was supposed to be.
As a result of this experience, I had the opportunity to explore gender in a variety of ways. My fashion has varied from glamorous femme to androgynous to dapper. I have also dated both boys and girls and have worn everything from prom dresses to baggy men’s jeans. However, rather than embracing popular terms like “gender non-conforming” or “fluid,” I have continued to define myself as a woman because I do not believe that any of these behaviors are incongruous with what it means to be a woman. Gender roles and norms are social constructs, part of the fabric of cultural obsessions bisexual playwright William Shakespeare amusingly called “Much Ado About Nothing.” So I have chosen to live by the advice of another great bi wordsmith, Oscar Wilde, who put it more succinctly: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
Today, I run the Southern Oregon chapter of amBi.org, the world’s largest bi social club. A few years ago, amBi sponsored our local Pride festival. I was on the board, and I was Grand Marshall. It was a big deal for bi people to have amBi as the official sponsor of Pride that year. It was one of the many positive changes happening in LGBTI circles as bi people gained more visibility and influence.
All in all, participating in the event was a terrific experience for me. It meant a lot of networking and socializing with the queer community. However, it was also during this time that I got my first exposure to what I can only describe as radical transgender philosophy. During one meeting, as has become common practice in LGBTI circles, I introduced myself with my name, pronouns, and sexual orientation. “Kaylee, she/her, bi.” To my astonishment, one of the attendees interjected and proceeded to publicly correct my gender identity. This person insisted that because they had seen me dress feminine before and I was now wearing a more masculine outfit, my gender identity was actually nonbinary or pangender. This seemed to me like a large presumption to spring on somebody one has only briefly met a handful of times. Yet, the speech went on for several minutes, as the person in question lectured me on how gender is not binary, and how if I really appreciated that I couldn’t possibly identify as bisexual. Generously, they would forgive my ignorance if I would agree to henceforth refer to myself as pansexual. I remained silent, fully expecting someone to come to my rescue. Nobody did.
I wish I could say this was a unique experience, but since that day I have experienced similar gender policing over and over again in LGBTI circles. Needless to say, these are not right wing spaces, yet I have continued to encounter this attitude. As I reflect upon these experiences from a feminist perspective, I cannot help but notice that this left wing gender policing relies upon the same sexist ideas as right wing gender policing. Whereas I have chosen to respond to sexist gender roles and norms by rejecting them completely, some people seem to have taken a more conservative approach. They’ve managed to preserve sexist attitudes toward gender by erasing biology and making everything about identity. It is difficult to exaggerate how far removed that mentality is from the feminism of my mother. Whereas many feminists have rejected such limiting gender roles and norms, those now a part of the new left wing instead reinforce them by creating new terms for people who don’t conform. Unfortunately, what they seemingly fail to recognize is that this latter strategy has the unavoidable and problematic consequence of reinforcing sexism against both men and women.
Of course, on the surface the explicit act of gender policing is the problem. People shouldn’t erase my identity, because no one has the right force a label on anyone else. On this point, most of my fellow leftists agree. However, the problem is deeper than that. It is not just that people speak rudely to me. It is that people continue to essentialize sexist gender roles and norms, when they really should be working to unseat them instead. A person’s right to their identity cannot be contingent upon reinforcing sexism. Until the queer community faces this fact, there will be a pointless war between those of us who ascribe to the dominant feminist ideal of distinguishing between sex and gender, and those of us who apparently do not. We owe it to ourselves to work out a way to be both feminist and trans-inclusive. The solution cannot be to redefine feminism so as to tolerate the same sexism it was originally designed to fight against.
I return to the questions posed at the beginning of this essay: What makes a man, if not for masculinity? What makes a woman, if not for femininity? I realize that these questions also present a unique challenge to the trans community, where individuals must then also ask themselves, if not for gender roles and norms, what makes a person trans? Honestly, I do not have all the answers. If you believe you were born in the wrong body, I respect that. I am also sensitive to the fact that not everyone can afford a sex change (or even wants one), and I will, of course, respectfully use whatever pronouns someone asks me to use because I believe in individual liberty. However, because of this belief, I also maintain that a person’s biological sex should have no bearing on social expectations surrounding gender roles and norms. Furthermore, I will take to my grave the right to assert that current roles and norms are sexist cultural constructs. The tension between feminism and the new identity politics isn’t easily resolved (if it were, we would have done so already), but I do feel compelled to point it out. It won’t do any of us a favor to ignore it. In the end, it is up to all of us as a society to come together and find workable solutions that will satisfy everyone.