Problem and Solution? Transwomen’s Access to Private Women-Only Spaces

Women-Only2The political demand for transwomen’s access to private women-only spaces is predicated on a certain problem-and-solution logic. It can be summarized like this:

The problem is transwomen’s oppression in the form of institutional violence and social marginalization.

The solution to this problem is transwomen’s access to women-only space.

Following this reasoning, trans activists have repeatedly attacked private women-only spaces by insisting that transwomen be granted entrance to them regardless of the organizers’ wishes. Now, I spent three years studying problem solving in law school. During this time, I learned that there are many different ways to skin a cat. I mean, remedy a problem. I also learned that some solutions are better than others. I could spend hours talking about the legal mechanics of specific performance, market alternatives, restitution, injunctions, and monetary and punitive damages. But the bottom line is that the popular movement for trans activism seems to have completely lost sight of logical problem solving.

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An Open Letter to Smith College About Transwomen

Smith College has developed an Admissions Policy Study Group. If you would like to share your own thoughts about the admissions policy with the Study Group, you are encouraged to do so via this web form.

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Dear Smith

Smith College Board of Trustees
College Hall 205
Smith College
Northampton, MA 01060

December 15, 2014

Dear Smith College Board of Trustees and President McCartney,

I am writing this open letter to express my strong and continuing support for Smith College’s female-only admissions policy. As a proud Smithie (’00), an attorney, and a vocal feminist, I have thought long and hard about the issues raised by the campaign for transwomen’s inclusion at Smith on the basis of their “gender identities.”

Ultimately, a theoretical deconstruction of the social category “woman” such that anyone and everyone can identify as a “woman” does not reflect the historical purpose of Smith College or the needs of its students.

Being a woman is not a spiritual or metaphysical experience. It is not a feeling and it is not a performative utterance. Being a woman is a lived experience with material consequences. Smith’s admission policy must reflect some clear limitations on male gender identification, lest the social category “woman” become entirely meaningless.

The slogans “transwomen are women” and “transwomen belong here” sound righteous at first, but on deeper analysis, they are also frustratingly simplistic. The full implications of the proposed policy change must be considered. There is much more at stake than validating identities and proving how open-minded we are.  In this letter, I will attempt to lay out some of the considerations that I believe must be taken into account and propose elements of a reasonable compromise. Continue reading

Social Determinism Versus the Essentialism of “Cis Privilege” Theory

The politics of gender have always implicated the politics of sex. This is because one of two “gendered” social roles are assigned according to the genital “sex” of each individual’s body at birth. The politics of sex and gender are therefore inseparable by social design. This seems an obvious truth, but many people are still seduced by the idea that gender is somehow “programmed from within.” I will explain how the increasingly popular theory of “cisgender” and “cis privilege” takes advantage of our pluralistic ignorance to reinscribe a fundamentally conservative ideology of gender role essentialism.fausto-sterling SOCIAL DETERMINISM

I am fond of using the graphic above to illustrate the mechanics of social role determinism and its relationship to the presence (or absence) of a phallus at birth. The image itself is featured in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Sexing the Body. [i] She provides the following context:

As a teaching tool in their struggle to change the medical practice of infant genital surgery, members of the Intersexual Rights Movement have designed a ‘‘phall-o-meter’’ (shown in figure 3.4), a small ruler that depicts the permissible ranges of phallus size for males and females at birth. It provides a graphic summary of the reasoning behind the decision-making process for assigning gender.

Again, in Fausto-Sterling’s words:

Deciding whether to call a child a boy or a girl, then, employs social definitions of the essential components of gender. Such definitions, as the social psychologist Suzanne Kessler observes in her book Lessons from the Intersexed, are primarily cultural, not biological.

Medical diagnosis of “male” or “female” determines the individual’s social role as “boy” or “girl.” Culture imposes a complex set of values on our bodies, behaviors, moods, and relationships through the process of sex-based (aka “gender”) role socialization. This sex-based division of social labor is externally—not internally— enforced and dictates a very particular set of things about the form of our relationships to others. The picture of the bib below provides an example of the social script for how adult males are expected to relate to their female children, even before the child can feed herself without making a mess.

pink_daddys_little_princess_bib

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Socialization Matters: Why “Identity Libertarianism” is Failed Politics

[first published May 20, 2013 on the Liberation Collective blog]

IDENTITY VERSUS SOCIALIZATION

I want to explore what “woman” means when male-born persons can be “women” just the same as female-born persons.

Most significantly, the term “woman” must be disconnected from the socio-historic context that gives the term coherency in the first place. Without any material or experiential framework “woman’s” origin becomes irrelevant; she can be anything or nothing at all.

When male-born persons can be “women” just the same as female-born persons, the skin-deep veneer of social identity is being substituted for the complex, lifelong process of class-based socialization. This is neoliberal individualist choice-theory masquerading as the politics of liberation.

Identity-as-woman and socialization-as-woman describe very different social experiences. This should be an elementary distinction for anyone interested in the politics of sex and gender.

Identifying as a woman is a form of self-perception. It only requires consciousness of oneself as a social actor and the ability to articulate awareness of this. Identity as a woman can be claimed by anyone.[i]

Socialization as a woman, on the other hand, begins at birth and continues as a lifelong process. It seems to have no beginning and no end, almost as if it were organic or inevitable.[ii]  Socialization takes hold even before a young girl has social consciousness of her own and it operates without her consent. It is the day-by-day experience of learning and internalizing the gender-based norms, rituals, and behaviors that society demands of children born female. Socialization is experientially cumulative; the whole of socialization is greater than the sum of its parts. Aspects of this experience may be approximated, but they cannot be duplicated.

It is therefore inaccurate to insist that identity and socialization are equivalent or interchangeable. Further, deconstructing and eliminating oppression against women is impossible if we refuse to fully examine its origin, social determinants, and class-based operations. Continue reading

A feminist critique of “cisgender”

[first published June 8, 2012 on the Liberation Collective blog]

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Consistent with common usage of the term “cisgender,” the graphic below explains that “…if you identify with the gender you were assigened [sic] at birth, you are cis.”

I cannot find a way to attribute the artist of this drawing. All leads are appreciated.Another Trans 101: Cisgender webpage describes cis this way: “For example, if a doctor said “it’s a boy!” when you were born, and you identify as a man, then you could be described as cisgender.” [i] Likewise, girl-born people who identify as women are also considered cisgender. WBW are cis.

Framing gender as a medically determined assignment may seem like a good start to explaining gendered oppression because it purports to make a distinction between physical sex and gender. Feminism similarly understands masculinity and femininity (e.g., gender) as strictly enforced social constructs neither of which are the “normal” or inevitable result of one’s reproductive sex organs. Feminism and trans theory agree that coercive gender assignments are a significant source of oppression.

On closer inspection of the concept of “cisgender,” however, feminism and trans theory quickly diverge. Feminism does not believe that asking whether an individual identifies with the particular social characteristics and expectations assigned to them at birth is a politically useful way of analyzing or understanding gender. Eliminating gender assignments, by allowing individuals to choose one of two pre-existing gender molds, while continuing to celebrate the existence and naturalism of “gender” itself, is not a progressive social goal that will advance women’s liberation.  Feminism claims that gender is a much more complicated (and sinister) social phenomenon than this popular cis/trans binary has any hope of capturing. Continue reading