Anyone who has delved into the topic of gender identity has likely heard about the diverging understandings of gender according to queer theory (gender is an arbitrary, personal, unqualifiable feeling) and radical feminism (gender is a social construct with well-defined parameters). This disagreement comes down to how womanhood and manhood are defined (although for reasons obvious to feminists, the nature of womanhood is much more frequently debated) and what we’re ultimately supposed to do about sex/gender stereotypes.
For centuries, women have struggled to break away from the expectations regarding how we’re supposed to look, act, think, and feel. While debates rage on about what it means to be a woman or a man – or a proper lady or a real man – there are people who want to identify as something other than what they were born as or how they’re expected to be. While it’s often said that the reason for this varies from person to person as it’s a purely personal choice, this individualistic approach fails to take into account the inequality between the sexes. This is critical to understanding what’s happening and why because a system whose goal is the dominance of males over females will necessarily seek to define womanhood and manhood, femininity and masculinity, in such a way as to perpetuate that supremacy. It attempts to do this at every opportunity and within every social movement, arguably most aggressively when done under the guise of progressive politics. Once a theory regarding gender is adopted by those who identify as social justice advocates it becomes nearly impossible to question a doctrine already presumed to be revolutionary.
Are we willing to consider that some of the ideas promulgated by such groups could in fact reinforce structures of power rather than challenge them? Is it possible that gender identity is one such example?
The first clue is the prevailing assumption that gender identity exists in a sociopolitical vacuum. We see that where there are males and females, males are able, by virtue of their simply being male, to exert greater physical, sexual, economic, and political power. We see that they enjoy this privilege even when they’re not trying to wield it and are unaware that they have this advantage. The fact that some males feel uncomfortable about this privilege doesn’t undo that privilege. The fact that some males don’t feel comfortable with masculinity and are punished when they don’t conform to it doesn’t change the fact that relative to women, they are still constructed as the dominant class. It is not possible in a patriarchal system for men to be both the oppressors and oppressed relative to women.
Here we have a person who in no way whatsoever presents as female or feminine demanding we agree that he is not something he clearly is. Furthermore, he claims that to question this is violence, making it impossible to be on the right side of history in his estimation without denying reality. He insists we ignore the fact that we can accurately predict what any random person would perceive him to be and that this perception, and not his feelings, is what determines how he is treated: as a man, in contrast to how he would be treated if he were a woman.
But of course, he’s not saying he’s a man and he’s not saying he’s a woman. He’s just refusing to say which he is because he’s special, unlike all the “cisgender” people who we’re to believe are walking stereotypes perfectly accepting of the expectations that gender foists upon them. What’s more, “ciswomen” are told that we actually identify with femininity – you know, that collection of traits that have latched themselves onto females and just happen to be deemed inferior to masculine traits? Those supposedly inherent female characteristics meant to engineer our servitude and submission? Gender identity claims that gender is a binary (or a spectrum – gender defenders can’t seem to get this straight), slamming the door on the critical feminist discovery that gender is in fact a hierarchy.
It’s all well and good to recognize that sexist attitudes and bias exist, but how do we explain how they arise and how they continue to be so insidious? The answer is gender: gender is the mechanism by which patriarchy is reproduced. But Kappel doesn’t want to hear about that because he’s too busy figuratively manspreading his way into women’s spaces under the guise of being an oppressed non-male. If you thought this regressive ‘non-male’ bullshit is too ridiculous to gain any traction in feminism these days, think again. People like Aaron Kappel and Sam Escobar avoid the actual violence they would encounter from
people men who attack gender non-conforming (GNC) people while demanding access to all of the grievances of visibly GNC people.
This is the trick of the non-binary/agender label when harnessed by men: it’s a way of denying one’s own privilege by neutralizing sex and gender. Reality is overridden by an identity which is activated by mere thought and utterance. That identity is then sanctified and protected. Those who do not comply are policed and shamed. Quite simply, men like Kappel know they’ll be exposed if they dispute the existence of male privilege so they’ve finally found a way around it: male privilege exists but it doesn’t apply to them because they’re different. Presto! A get out of male free card. It may be hard to believe people are falling for it but they are, including women who consider themselves to be feminists.
A common practice in gender identity politics is to single out and vilify women while being careful not to criticize them as women per se because that would make the misogyny all too blatant. Instead, women are criticized as feminists – or a certain type of feminist – because the goal is to validate the idea that there are good feminists and bad feminists and the feminists who accommodate non-binary dudes are the only acceptable ones. All of this works out just fine in a patriarchal context because uncompromising feminists are already presumed to be angry [insert sexist slur here]. So if you were expecting pseudo-feminist organizations to give a platform to men who write whiny, self-validating pieces about how they’re being victimized by terrible women, you’d be justified.
Because that’s exactly what Aaron Kappel did. It’s a common feature of mainstream feminist media like The Establishment, which describes itself as a multimedia site run and funded by women. The site published Trans-Exclusionary Feminists Cannot Exclude My Humanity, in which Kappel says he’s a non-binary (trans) person because he doesn’t embrace stereotypically masculine things. He claims to have felt like the girls he socialized with, although how he could know how these girls actually felt, he doesn’t explain. His language is hyperbolic from the outset: anyone who believes he’s a man is somehow saying he’s not human, that he doesn’t exist, he doesn’t have rights like everybody else, etc. He seamlessly transitions from telling us how sensitive and tortured he is to talking down to women (I’m sorry – certain feminists) he claims are violently excluding him because their struggle for liberation from men like him won’t bend over backwards for his feelings. Feelings he believes can’t possibly be the natural feelings of men. Feelings that make him a not-man. What makes you a man, apparently, is thinking and feeling a particular way – but don’t ask what this means. We’re told it’s up to each person to decide, even though we all know exactly how masculinity and femininity are characterized. When it all gets too complicated, we can just pretend we’re something other than the thing we want to avoid being associated with.
The crucial thing to note here is that while gender identity adherents talk a lot about feelings, in the grand scheme of things it’s not really about feelings. It’s about power, which Kappel reveals here:
Feminism was a direct response to oppression, and oppression lives within us all.
What does it mean to say that oppression lives within all of us? That we all experience oppression? Oppression is characterized by inequality; if everyone experiences it then there is no inequality and there is no oppression. The term is rendered meaningless when feelings are equated with oppression and are given precedence over political movements that seek liberation from social hierarchy.
There’s a lot of talk about intersectional feminism going on right now as a feminism that must validate queer theory and gender identity. Intersectionality provides the critical insight that there are simultaneous axes of power which compound marginalization and shape how specific groups experience oppression (e.g. white women experience sexism but not misogynoir). The problem is that along with that insight, other ideas, which are anything but feminist, slipped in through the back door. A new generation of feminists has been weaned on a stealthy vocabulary of terms and phrases that functions as a kind of script, but unless they have a road map that shows them how these ideas are connected and where they come from, how do they know if they’re going in the right direction?
Take the concept of heteronormativity, for instance. It’s often discussed as a standalone problem, but it’s actually a fundamental element of patriarchy because it dictates how males and females are supposed to behave relative to their biological sex. More specifically, this entails marriage with men being the head of the household and women being assigned the role of wife and mother. Effeminate gay men and other GNC males are victims of discrimination (typically in the form of violence by males – a derivative of masculinity) insofar as they violate the rules of masculinity. Why is this seen as a bad thing? Because a male who doesn’t exude aggression, strength, and power is viewed as a wuss. A sissy. A pussy. A bitch. This behaviour implies femininity and anything associated with females is inferior.
Of all the things GNC men experience, including those who convincingly pass as women, their male socialization inculcates them with negative views toward women and instills in them a sense of entitlement. Gay men still make more money than women and they enjoy the gamut of male privileges. They’re not threatened with corrective rape the way lesbians are. They don’t have to worry about unwanted pregnancy or a lack of reproductive care or justice. They don’t experience femicide, female genital mutilation or breast ironing. They don’t grow up being made to feel ashamed of their breasts, vaginas, and the painful, exhausting, and messy process of menstruation. Their bodies aren’t mined as sexual commodities to any comparable extent (transwomen are certainly an exception) and they’re not exploited as surrogate mothers. The bodies of women are the source of reproduction of the species and hence the source of all labour. In short, the oppression of females is both social and biological in nature. Who else but a misogynist would deliberately erase this fact? There’s also no distinct axis of oppression in the form of hetero or cis supremacy; what is termed ‘cishetsexism’ is an explication of patriarchy. Nowhere within the framework of sexism do women, feminist or not, oppress men, GNC or not.
Zoom out and the picture is clear: taking into account white supremacy and economic class, at the top of the hierarchy we find rich white men and at the bottom we find poor women of colour (and in a colonial context I think indigenous women deserve a special mention here too). This is a simplified representation, of course, with many ethnicities, nationalities, and other social groups organized within this system. There’s a lot of overlap. But intersectionality is not supposed to be a weapon for men to use against women. It does not mean feminists have to save everyone who thinks they’re oppressed. Feminism was not a direct response to oppression, full stop, as Kappel claims. It was and is a direct response to male supremacy. While radical feminism ultimately aims to dismantle all forms of hierarchy and domination and anti-racism must be an integral part of its politics, feminist politics that do not centre females are not feminist by definition. Now why would men like Kappel fail to mention this? Male privilege, perhaps? Misogyny? Here we have yet another man bulldozing through the incriminating truth to remind feminists that we’re supposed to be here for him. He gets to set the agenda – via a platform created and funded by women, no less. Women, know your place.
No matter how females identify, our being visibly female marks us as targets. No amount of eschewing certain pronouns, titles, or identities insulates us from this. And just as you can’t identify your way out of being oppressed, you can’t identify your way out of being a member of an oppressor class. Agender and non-binary men would do well to remember this.
Whatever your views on gender identity, it can’t hurt to look a little more closely at a concept that remains a mystery to most people but is shaping legislation around the world. In the following talk, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Warwick, deconstructs gender identity and clarifies the aspects and implications of this doctrine: