Sex and gender are often differentiated by the notion that the former is biological, while the latter is a social construct. We subscribe to the view that both sex and gender are materially, discursively and historically produced. The very aspect of naming and categorising bodies is indeed a social act that has sedimented over thousands of years, consolidated and reproduced through western patriarchal binary constructions of gender and sexuality. As Donna Haraway identifies, there is an ‘exclusion through naming’ that emerges through the construction of any unity, including the supposed unity of diverse women in the universal biological category ‘woman’.
The category of women is by no means monolithic or homogenous. Feminist histories are riddled with exclusion and erasure. For instance, the first two waves of feminism, which were led predominantly by white middle-class women, excluded and shut down the voices of black and indigenous women of colour (BIWOC)/ black, asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) women, as well as women from working-class backgrounds, who felt their oppression was inflected by race, class and geographical location, that resulted in different experiences that a sole category of ‘woman’ did not make room for. This resonates with our own experiences as cis men. We are both gay, we are from different backgrounds of race and class, we grew up in different geographical locations, and we have different experiences of religion.
In light of the current politics of exclusion that trans women are experiencing, where they have been systematically excluded from women’s spaces, we find the need to resist any form of categorical unity that does not account for difference. For us, cis and trans are just a few of the adjectives that describe the diverse experiences of gender/sex. The concepts of woman, man, or any descriptors of gender between and beyond such categories, are meaningless without adjectives as there is no universal experience.
We consider the accusations of trans women being a danger in women’s spaces akin to the kind of baseless fearmongering surrounding gay men and pedophilia. Contrary to the panicked headlines, trans women, particularly black trans women, experience far greater levels of violence and sexual assault than any other group. We argue that the fear of sharing such spaces comes down to the assumption that trans women are not women and therefore represent a threat.
To conclude, we believe no two people are the same. We all come into being through multiple relations. Identity is as much about the relationships we come to form with the people, places, spaces and things around us as it is about the bodies we are born with. In fact, even separating the biological from the social is problematic because biology is malleable in its interactions with society and culture. Take hormone levels and brain structure for instance – both can be affected by behaviour (behaviours that are at least partially produced through our relationship with society and culture). This is not to argue that biology is insignificant, but rather to stress that the limits of what the body can be, do and become lie beyond simplistic distinctions between nature and culture. It demands taking into account the inseparability of such distinctions, i.e. seeing our world as ‘natureculture’ (Haraway, 2003). This, in turn, enables us to move away from any kind of categorical purity to embrace complexity, contradiction, and multiplicity.
Scott Kerpen is a doctoral researcher exploring possibilities for queer masculinity and queering masculinity in the digital age. His work draws on new materialist and psychoanalytic theory to explore possibilities of negotiating gender and sexuality in a social and material LGBTQ+ culture dominated by commercial interests. Follow Scott on Twitter @Kerpensd and Academia
Sid Mohandas is a doctoral researcher from Middlesex University, London UK, investigating gender within Montessori early childhood spaces using feminist new materialist theories. Follow Sid on Twitter @Sidmohandas and Academia
Haraway, D.J. (2003). The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.