Get your gender essentialism out of my movement

In times of social contraction, activist groups find themselves under extreme pressure — they’re fighting for their lives, and forces in power often try to leverage this by forcing people to scramble for scraps while ignoring the bigger picture. Again and again, I see a ‘unite for the cause’ theme emerging with the argument that this ‘strengthens the movement’ when in fact it does the opposite. At this very moment, we are primed to tell the establishment to go fuck itself — so why should we settle for half measures?

What do I mean when I say ‘unite for the cause’ in quotes? I’m speaking of the tendency to pressure people to collapse boundaries and swallow shit for the good of the herd. Wait your turn. Your issues will come later. Just support us in this and we will help you out in the future. Well we don’t mean you when we say this thing about people in your social group. It’s just really important that we look unified, you know?

The result of this is that people feel excluded. Sometimes they break off and form their own movement — and you miss out on their organising power and other contributions. Sometimes they agitate for inclusion because they believe they belong in your movement, and you accuse them of being divisive. Sometimes they subside, slipping under the waters to lie frustrated, furious, and dormant until they can try again.

One particularly obvious example of this is with gender essentialism — the obstinate connection of specific sets of genitals to particular genders, without regard for gender or genital diversity. I also sometimes call it genital essentialism, because that’s functionally what it is: Ladies have vaginas and gentlemen have penises. There are no other genders and no other genitals. If you have a vagina, you are a lady. If you do not, you are not.

Historically, the ‘women’s movement’ has leveraged gender essentialism in some really disgusting ways which linger today — TERFs are still alive and well, state legislatures use gender essentialism to frame transphobic bills, and, yes, constant references to ‘vaginas’ and ‘uteruses’ adorn protest art, literature, and commentary that’s supposed to be a unifying commentary about ‘women.’

In the last ten years, this has really changed. Many major organisations working on these issues have consciously turned to more inclusive language — like ‘patient’ or ‘person’ or ‘pregnant person’ instead of ‘woman’ when talking about abortion rights. Some have done this despite incredible pushback from people arguing that reproductive rights is a women’s issue targeting women, so women should be centered in reproductive rights discourse (all women have vaginas, remember? And if you don’t have a vagina, you’re not a woman). It’s been amazing to see people holding their ground on this, and it worries me to see slippage.

Here’s the thing. The vast majority of people with vaginas, OEM or aftermarket, are in fact women. The vast majority of them also have cool accessories like uteruses and ovaries. Most have high concentrations of oestrogens in their bodies, whether they produce them or use hormone replacement therapy. Most have breasts of various shapes and sizes. Many are also capable of bearing children and breastfeeding, and menstruate during a large portion of their lives.

It is also true that many of these things are historically associated with what we think it means to be a ‘woman’ and that in a misogynistic culture, things associated with femininity are viewed with fear and hatred. In a culture that wants to exert ownership over what it defines as ‘women,’ laws and practices targeting people with these anatomical and endocrinological features are very transparently aimed at ‘women.’ And it is very important to recognise this.

But it is also important to recognise that there are women who don’t have one or more of these things. Some women have had cancers or other health issues that necessitated the removal of one or both breasts or ovaries, their uteruses, even in some cases their vaginas. Some women were born without these features. Some women produce more testosterone and don’t use HRT. These people are still women, even if they lack the social symbols that people associate with femininity, but when the notion that these are required traits is hammered home again and again, it can feel exclusionary.

Every woman feels differently about these things. I don’t purport to speak for all of them, but I can speak to what I witness and read — I see women who have lost parts of their bodies to cancer feel demoralised and stripped of their femininity. I see women who love their penises being told that they aren’t ‘real women.’ I see women who loathe their penises and experience extreme dysphoria feeling even more wrenched because of the rhetoric surrounding their genitals. I see women cringing at the association of menstruation with femininity because they can’t menstruate, or don’t want to. I see people who experience real pain because of these practices.

And I also know people with some of the anatomical and endocrinological traits above who are not women. I am in fact one of them — and it is extremely painful to be constantly reduced to my genitals, for people to make assumptions about my gender, my beliefs, where I stand on social issues on the basis of what they think is inside my pants. It is alienating to me to have parts of my body tightly bound up with an identity I do not share. And it’s also frustrating, because when I want to advocate about issues that matter to me because they affect me personally, I feel trapped in a snarl of gender essentialist and sometimes transphobic rhetoric.

Women aren’t the only people who need abortions. Women aren’t the only people who get cervical cancer. Women aren’t the only ones who would like to bear children. Not all women are able to get pregnant. Not all women have cervixes. Using thoughtful, inclusive language shouldn’t be hard, and actually strengthens and unites a coalition: I work with reproductive rights organisations that practice explicit, radical inclusion because I feel comfortable advocating there, knowing that people aren’t forcibly labeling me as a woman, and aren’t going to crack jokes about how ‘if men needed abortions…’

Because here’s another thing that I want you to think about: Your exclusion can be extremely harmful on more than a purely emotional level. Your decisions when you talk about these issues can deprive people of access to needed services. When you insist that men don’t need abortions, men who do need abortions really struggle to find safe, compassionate care providers, and they can’t talk about their abortions because abortion rhetoric is so closely yoked to femininity, which can be painful and emotionally stressful. When you insist that women don’t have penises, women who need urology care can struggle to find competent, respectful medical teams who will meet their needs. When you say men don’t get breast cancer, they don’t get screened for it, or have difficulty getting treatment when they are diagnosed.

The best way to show a united front is to make that front truly united, to explicitly cultivate diversity and inclusion. That’s the ‘fuck you’ the establishment is really terrified of — the thought that someday, marginalised people might band together instead of replicating patterns of power and oppression in their own communities.

Image: Women in agriculture, ICRISAT, Flickr