What makes a man, if not masculinity? What makes a woman, if not femininity? These questions arise out of modern feminist theory, where scholars first drew a distinction between biological sex (male, female, intersex) and gender (femininity, masculinity, etc.), because they saw the latter as a culturally specific construct that varies too widely across time and place to serve as a productive categorisation 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 has largely become the dominant narrative around sex and gender in the western world, having overcome right-wing sexist efforts to keep the sexes in their places. 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, in opposition to the liberal values of individual freedom that many of us have fought so long to promote. As a consequence of focusing on personal identity (how one sees onself and wishes to be seen by others), the new cultural left has regressed to the pre-feminist social habit of essentialising gender roles and norms. In so doing, modern social justice movements have inadvertently become the mirror image of the old-fashioned, right-wing sexism they criticise. 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 challenging those 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 this new gender ideology.
A little about me: I am a twenty-something woman living in Southern Oregon. I am also bisexual. I grew up going back and forth between my divorced parents, who both had their own distinct ideas about gender. 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, 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 gender fluid, I continue to define myself as a woman because I do not believe that any of these behaviours 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 bisexual 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 as the grand marshall. It was a big deal for bi folks to have amBi as the official sponsor of Pride that year. It was one of the many positive changes happening in LGBT circles as bi people gained more visibility and influence.
Participating in the event was a terrific experience. It meant a lot of networking and socialising with the queer community, and it was during this time that I was first exposed to what I can only describe as radical transgender ideology. During one meeting, as has become common practice in LGBT 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 non-binary or pangender. This seemed more than a little presumptuous coming from somebody I’d only briefly met a few times. Yet, the speech went on for several minutes, as this person 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 speak up on my behalf. Nobody did.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but since that day I have experienced similar gender policing over and over again in LGBT circles. Needless to say, these are not right-wing spaces, yet I continue to encounter this attitude. As I reflect upon these encounters from a feminist perspective, I cannot help but notice that this left-wing gender policing relies upon the same sexist ideas as its counterparts on the right. Whereas I have chosen to respond to sexist gender roles and norms by rejecting them completely, these folks seem to have taken a more antiquated approach. They’ve managed to preserve sexist attitudes about 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 jettisoned such limiting gender roles and assumptions, today’s left now reinforces them by creating new terms for people who don’t conform. Unfortunately, what they fail to recognise is that this strategy has the unavoidable and troublesome consequence of propping up 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 to force a label on anyone else. On this point, most of my fellow leftists agree. However, the problem runs deeper. It is not just that people speak rudely to me, but that they continue to essentialise sexist gender roles and norms when they should be working to unseat them instead. A person’s right to their identity cannot be contingent upon bolstering sexism. Until the queer community faces this fact, there will be pointless infighting between those of us who ascribe to the dominant feminist ideal of distinguishing 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 outset. What makes a man if not masculinity? What makes a woman if not femininity? I realise that these questions 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 don’t 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 to medically transition (or even wants to) and I will, of course, respectfully use whatever pronouns someone asks me to 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 assumptions. Furthermore, I will take to my grave the right to assert that current norms are sexist cultural constructs.
The tension between feminism and the new gender ideology 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 us any favours to ignore it. In the end, it is up to us as a society to come together and find a workable consensus to move forward with.