ELI5 - Gender

I found this discussion really helpful!

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How did I just now find this thread? Stoked to read & catch up!

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I’ve read some of this broader forum but haven’t posted. Chance brought me to this specific thread. Sharing the above link will likely make me persona non grata - here and in other communities - so this will be my last post (unless someone chooses to engage with me in good faith on this one thread). I’m sharing it, despite the expected pushback, because (1) (selfishly) that is how strongly I feel about this topic and (2) (I hope usefully) I genuinely think it addresses Jack’s original question in a helpful way. That is all.

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This is such an interesting discussion. I keep thinking about clothing. I follow a bunch of trans women on Twitter, and I hear them express a lot of anxiety about clothing and fitting in. Because that’s what clothes are for, aren’t they? As much a signal to groups you wish to belong to as a means of self expression.

I have always used clothing as camouflage: if I am extremely orthodox in the clothing I choose, I find that my eccentricities are better tolerated.

I’m new to thinking about this kind of stuff, but based on some of the earlier posts in this thread, I don’t think that link is opposed. You could argue that the first step towards achieving what’s advocated in your link is decoupling gender expression from assigned at birth gender. Then it becomes more fluid. Then, idealistically, there’s so many different ways to express yourself that the gender stereotypes become meaningless because the spectrum has been discarded altogether because people realize it’s not a linear spectrum between masculine and feminine at all.

I feel a similar frustration, for example, about politics and the false linear binary between conservative and liberal ideas. The binary makes it so hard to discuss solutions to problems, particularly off-the-beaten-path ones, because people are spending time listening to you figuring out where you fall on the spectrum and thus whether you’re a member of their tribe or the other tribe.


Cressida, when I read that article, I hear someone close to one extreme but more centre talking about another group that is at a far extreme and using those people to paint a whole category.


What I see in this article is someone living in so small and opaque a bubble they don’t even see the rounded surface surrounding them. None of the three bolded statements presented as somehow unbelievable at the beginning of the article would raise eyebrows at all in 80% of the country.

ETA and this is a Bad Thing, but we really do have to be aware of it.

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I agree with the vast majority of that essay (esp the part about gender being a thing we invented), and yet it’s got a whole bunch of straw man and cherry-picked arguments in deciding that there is some monolithic “transgender activist” position rooted in a bizarre gender essentialism.

Being transgender doesn’t give a person a magical understanding of social constructs around gender or gender expression. Janet Mock and Jazz Jennings are famous for being transgender and visible. Mock’s background is in editing and running a fashion magazine. Jennings is famous for being a child who was on television and being a professional transgender celebrity. I think it’s great that they are activists for trans rights, but there are many more trans rights activists with far more nuanced views of queer theory.

For example, why not define trans activism as the thinking and writing of the late Leslie Feinberg, whose Stone Butch Blues is a classic? Other activists that come to mind who have addressed feminism from a trans perspective are Sylvia Rivera, Kate Bornstein, Dean Spade, and Julia Serano. And I’m not trying to be comprehensive or provide a reading list - just pointing out that if the main quotes of what the straw man “trans activists” believe are coming from reddit and celebrities, it’s not exactly likely to reflect the deepest and best theorizing about the subject.

I also find the absence of the term “gender expression” in that entire essay puzzling. It refers to expression in different ways, but doesn’t talk about the relationship between identity and expression. There are many trans or non-binary identified people who want to express themselves across the spectrum of clothing, accessories, hairstyles, etc. in ways that are culturally coded by “society”* as masculine, feminine, androgynous, and so forth. So to label trans people as universally seeking biologically essentialist choices in expression is flatly untrue.

There is also one other big hiccup:
Historically, in order to grant trans people access to the ability to transition (medically, socially, legally), gatekeepers have required that trans people parrot back a narrative of being “trapped in the wrong body” & “always liked dolls and dresses” & being understood as heterosexual in the affirmed gender. This was especially true in some countries, including the UK (where some of the material in the essay comes from). As a result, you will often find a lot of these stories being repeated because it was the only way people could get what they needed to function in a society - matching identification, a desired medical procedure, etc. I think there is a tail wagging the dog element of claiming that trans activists invented or believe these narratives when for decades (and even today in some countries!) it was the sole story that doctors, psychologists, and government officials would “accept” from them.

Anyway, I do think there are a lot of important issues that get glossed over in discussions of gender, expression, and identity. I just think it’s easy for people to get stuck in difficult theoretical arguments fighting on the internet, while actual people are being harmed. We don’t have to agree on what gender is to know that violence against women is wrong and violence against trans people is wrong.




Didn’t read the whole essay but I think this long-form piece by political YouTuber Natalie Wynn (and trans woman) does a good job of looking at many of the points in that essay:

  • also excellent set design - Gender Critical

This was very helpful, thanks! I have seen some of her videos, and find her to be super intelligent, insightful, and funny.

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I was expecting nothing less than a chorus of “burn the TERF in a grease fire” when I posted that link. Since that did not happen (although I do not claim to read anyone’s mind), I will go ahead and briefly respond. Two things.

I understand the impulse to find fault with the piece. When I first encountered the argument outlined there,* I also recoiled from parts of it. So, I get that.

“it’s got a whole bunch of straw man and cherry-picked arguments in deciding that there is some monolithic “transgender activist” position rooted in a bizarre gender essentialism.”

I am curious about what definition of “gender essentialism” is operative in this comment, and what are some specific examples where the piece calls this out.

[edit, clarified the second comment]

*not this piece specifically, which is quite recent.

Thank you for opening this discussion. I think it’s an important one. Because I do understand why some cis women want spaces and delineation between cis and trans. But I find fault both in this specific article and in the argument that trans women aren’t women.

First, the article. Cressida and anyone else who finds a home in the ideology of trans exclusionary feminism, please never share this particular article again, and align yourself with persons who are critical thinkers. If we ignore the gender based arguments, this article argues that colonizers and oppressors convinced the oppressed Irish, Indian, Native American populations as well as the enslaved African American populations that the oppressors deserved a higher role in the hierarchy. No. They didn’t. They might have convinced individuals, they might have created literature and obtained quotations from the oppressed saying they were thankful for the oppression. But they didn’t convince the oppressed peoples that they were lesser. In many of these groups learning the white man’s way to succeed was used as a tactic, but also seen as lowering yourself. It’s also why some feminists don’t like when I put on heels and lingerie and blow a dude on my knees. Because playing with those oppressive tools is dangerous, and if the white man learns that I, one femme, likes being femme, he might use that to make everyone else femme. If the white man learns that I, with my Irish blood, enjoy physical labour, he might make all the Irish people do hard labour. If he learns that I, with my Indian blood, enjoy servitude, tea, and hot weather, and dislike managing my finances , he might resume British rule. So as a mixed kinky queer femme, I need to be better and do better. It’s also why I was relieved to see a man I respect responding to this line of inquiry, and a great video of a middle class trans woman arguing these points.

Any argument I make, without re-entering the academic space is invalid.

On to the few ideas I gathered from the cesspool of trans exclusionary thought. That 1) cis women have been oppressed 2) that there is a difference between trans and cis people of the same gender 3) that erasing gender is a good thing and 4) that people, especially trans people who embrace gender are a threat to equality

  1. yes. And this is a reason why it’s okay to sometimes have cis women only spaces (like for religious reasons or for working through some kinds of trauma). But let’s not overuse that, and make sure that cis women stand up for trans women’s rights and vice versa. Our experience of oppression is more the same than it is different
  2. yes, there are differences between trans and cis women, trans and cis men, and butches and femmes. And I’m not sure what the point of dwelling on this is.
  3. no. I disagree. See point 2. I don’t see the point of dwelling on gender erasure. I am not one to force gender on anyone. But I like mine, and when people identify as gendered I like recognizing that and appreciating it. When they don’t want a gender I’m exhilarated to celebrate their gender freedom. Of course we should also recognize that people who don’t perform their gender according to society’s expectations are the ones currently facing the most stigma and who need support the most.
  4. some trans people are probably bad feminists. Some are capitalists. Some are racists. They are a group who navigate towards gender equality and trans rights, but they are not necessarily in agreement with each other about anything. Anything that a trans person does puts them at risk of being a bad representative of the community. That fucking blows.

So obviously I don’t believe that we should have trans exclusionary anything. But I understand some of the ways that this rhetoric can draw people in. Because if I want a safe space, and I perceive some people as threats, I struggle to let them in. If my religion says that only women can x… How do I know who is enough of a woman. If I let a person see me because they identified as female, and now transitioned to male… Have I sinned?

My personal answer is love and compassion. It is to try not to say TERF because it hurts someone’s feelings. It’s to let the gods decide if I have sinned. It’s to say a space is for x identified people and to let those people decide if they fit the definition. It’s to assume that the masculine person in my bathroom feels safer there. It is to correct myself when I start to try and guess the gender of an androgynous person. It’s also to remember that my gender expression comes from a place of both privilege and oppression, and to acknowledge that when I choose to go high femme, and to not give my power to anyone who does not respect me as their equal. It’s to remember that if someone is identifying with radical feminism, the wolf pack, trump, Ford, or the red pill movement, that they are a human person who has feelings and might feel afraid. That these movements that terrify me won’t be stopped by meeting fear and hatred with fear and hatred. Instead, it’s my time to listen and respond or ignore. To draw upon bravery, love, compassion and pride.

Until their words and seeds infringe upon my fellow human’s rights. Then I stand up and disagree. And here I’m disagreeing with the racism, classism, misogyny*, and transphobia perpetuated in a single article.

*yes, misogyny. Because while being femme isn’t essential to being a woman, mocking stereotypical symbols of femininity as anti-feminist is misogynist


The writer doesn’t address any of the logistical issues that people are facing today. By her logic if you believe you are trans, you are actually not trans, but simply a person who happens to enjoy things that are stereotypically associated with the opposite sex. Ok, let’s go with that. So a MtF trans woman, by her logic, should be free to wear dresses, do makeup, shop, whatever. And then…use which bathroom? What about her photo IDs, what should those say? Should she keep her “male” name from birth or is she allowed to change the name but not her legal sex? It’s easy to tear apart any ideology when your comparison is an ideal world that doesn’t exist and will never exist. It’s akin to saying that capitalism is evil, listing examples of evil capitalism, then saying we should all just share everything because money is a social construct. It’s just paper, man!

The main thing I don’t understand is why non-trans people care so much about how trans-people define their own sex/gender/whatever. How a trans person defines their sex/gender or gender in general has exactly 0 impact on my life. I don’t really know what gender is, for sure, I don’t know that anyone does. I know that I feel very female. Being a woman feels very central to who I am. If I had to live my life looking like a man and fitting into that mold in the world it would be extremely hard, and I don’t know that I could do it.

Maybe the whole feeling I have of “being a woman” is entirely socially constructed and has nothing to do with the fact that I was born “female”, and maybe it’s an essential inborn part of who I am, I really don’t know because I can’t watch a runthrough of my genetic material maturing in parallel worlds simultaneously. It’s impossible to know if I would love ballet and makeup if I were born in a world where there was no social concept of gender.

But, none of that really matters, right? Because if someone wants or needs to present themselves a certain way, or redefine how the world categorizes them, why would I ever object to that? I’ll call you whatever pronoun or lack of gendered pronoun you want, just like if you say “my name Jeff but call me J.B.”, I’m going to call you J.B. I’m not going to dissect the reasons you reject the name Jeff or tell you why I think you should stick with it.

At the end of the day it’s a moral issue for me. Morally, I believe the right thing to do is listen to what people want, what they struggle with, and what makes them comfortable, and be accepting of what they tell you. Give the person what they say they want within reason, which I think in the case of trans rights includes: access, safety, visibility, healthcare, respect, and identification that feels accurate to the person. Seems…like not that much stuff to me. I just always wonder with articles like this what the fear is? What’s the worst case scenario if a huge percentage of people do or don’t think gender is a construct? Unless someone starts breaking down my door to confiscate my lipstick or force me to give up control of the finances to my husband…it affects me how?

ETA: I’m a cis, bisexual woman. Feels relevant to state given the discussion. I also like fudge and long walks in the park :wink:


Ah yes. The last couple of comments are much more in line with my expectations.

This is a shaming tactic. Lefties are terrified of this tactic, so it is usually very effective in lefty conversation. My politics are left, but I have a spine. I take nothing back and apologize for nothing.

I didn’t post the link to start an argument; as I said, I posted it because I thought it addressed the question in the OP. The OP wasn’t intended to start a fight and I will not engage in one.

Please help me to rewrite that bit. I didn’t mean it to come across as shaming and took a long time stepping away from my response so that it wouldn’t be insulting. I’m trying to suggest aligning yourself with people who share your gender beliefs and write about them without including racism in their argument in favour of your gender ideas. I disagreed with the assumptions the article makes about race, and therefore think that sharing it is a bad idea.

I really don’t want to attack you, so I’d like help reframing my words. Maybe by pm if you’d like to, so that it does not come across as arguing?

That was an awesome post @Elle. Yeah I know we can heart posts but I didn’t think that was strong enough!



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I’m not sure I follow what you’re asking. The definition I use for gender essentialism is the belief that there are fixed or immutable characteristics inherent in a gender (e.g., boys like trucks, girls like dolls). Many of the quoted statements in the essay that are meant to say “Can you believe this shit??? This is what trans activists are saying!” are highlighting essentialist types of statements.

I agree that they are essentialist and garbage. The essay you posted is correct to highlight them as being ridiculous. I just reject the idea that this gender essentialism is the mainstream viewpoint among trans activists. That’s why I’m calling it cherry-picked and “straw man” (<— which I guess should be straw man, woman and non-binary person).

For more on how much essentialism pisses me off, ask me about how gendered behavior is inconsistently and ridiculously coded in studies of non-human primates (e.g., monkeys that choose to interact with pots are labeled by researchers as choosing the “feminine” objects because they envision monkey play kitchens with monkey pots and monkey tea parties and not monkeys whacking each other over the head with pots - an activity enjoyed by ALL genders). Stepping off my tangentially related soap box.


I thought this explanation was excellent - only a couple hundred words to break down a very complicated idea.