Hannah Drossman for BuzzFeed News
I was in Barcelona celebrating a friend’s birthday this past summer when I got kicked out of a gay bar.
I was following one of my guy friends into a small, well-lit room crowded with men when I felt someone tugging on my shoulder. It was the bouncer, smiling and shaking his head. First he said it in Spanish, then in English: “No women here.”
“Why?” I asked him. He didn’t seem to want to tell me, even though I knew.
“This is a bar for gays,” the bouncer explained after he’d deposited me outside.
“I am gay!” I said.
“You are not,” he said, confused.
I knew what he probably meant — I’m a femme-ish presenting lesbian, not a gay man — but it annoyed me that this person had been tasked with determining who did and did not appear to meet the binary gender requirements for patronizing this small, unremarkable bar. So I left. And from then on, I saw the signs everywhere, on front doors and inside gay clubs, in Catalan and Spanish and English: “Nomes Nois.” “Solo Chicos.” “Only Men.”
Those signs made me think about how often we’re all classified and segregated according to our assumed biological sex, both within queer spaces and far beyond them.
My relationship to womanhood (like practically every other assigned-female person, I’d imagine) has always been fraught. Being perceived as a woman or femme means you’re subjected to anything from garden-variety sexism to abuse and assault; it can be maddening, and exhausting, and frightening. But access to the womanhood club also comes with so many pleasures and joys, not least of which is the intimate company and camaraderie of other women.
Sometimes, the latter can be a balm for the former. I’ve sought out other women and queer people even more often than usual lately, after reading the stories of the hundreds of female victims of assault and abuse who have come forward over the last few months, as well as writing one of my own. But even though I’ve been comforted and inspired by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, I’ve also been frustrated with how much the biggest gender reckoning in recent memory has been driven by reductive conversations about men vs. women.
The reckoning can’t possibly be a battle of the sexes, because we’re not all on the same side.
Even though pretty much everyone understands that these movements are, or should be, about so much more than a simplistic battle of the sexes, it can be difficult to articulate the bigger picture — which means that the trans, gender-nonconforming, and male victims of sexual assault and abuse often get left out of the conversation. On the flip side, plenty of women have been adding to the concern-trolling cries of “witch hunt” in response to the #MeToo reckoning, while we also saw all too recently that some women — white women — have chosen to support accused sexual assaulters like Donald Trump and Roy Moore. The reckoning can’t possibly be a battle of the sexes, because we’re not all on the same side. Gender, and the feminist practice surrounding it, has always been more complicated, more messy, than that. And it’s sure to become more complicated still.
The world is changing. More and more young people are identifying as transgender, gender-nonconforming, or otherwise outside of the gender binary. Since that night in Barcelona — since long before that, really — I’ve been thinking about what doing away with gender classification and segregation in certain areas of public life might really look like. And what, if anything, would breaking down some of those public barriers mean for our own personal relationships to gender?
Hannah Drossman for BuzzFeed News
In the United States, our cultural and legal definitions of gender have changed rapidly over the last few years. Oregon and California both recently began to offer a third sex marker option on certain legal identification cards, the fight to allow trans and nonbinary people access to the bathrooms which correspond with their gender identity nearly made it to the Supreme Court, and there’s been a steady increase in trans and gender-nonconforming representation in pop culture.
But increased visibility can be a double-edged sword. In the new anthology Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and The Politics of Visibility, editors Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton probe the paradoxes of the time we live in: There are more trans and gender-nonconforming people reflected in popular culture than ever before, but trans women are four times as likely to die by homicide than their cisgender counterparts — and reported violence against trans people has reached record highs. Recognition can come at a terrible cost.
In another major book about our current gender moment, Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? Heath Fogg Davis, a professor of political science at Temple University and a transgender man, makes the argument that the modern trans rights movement shouldn’t be so heavily invested in integrating trans and gender-nonconforming people into our existing gendered institutions. Instead, Davis suggests, we should use the so-called “transgender tipping point” to explode our bureaucratic definitions of gender altogether.
Davis explains that biological sex is assigned to infants at birth, typically based on the appearance of their genitals, even though sex is a complicated cocktail involving hormones, chromosomes, internal and external reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics — which means that sex is not necessarily visible to others, easily measured, or immutable over the course of a person’s life. Not too long ago, as Davis documents, race markers were standard on many birth certificates and driver’s licenses in the US, until civil rights organizations lobbied for their removal in the 1960s. He suggests that we would all be better off, as individuals and a society, if we follow suit when it comes to sex markers — which follow us from birth to death, reinforced constantly in our daily lives as we take tests, apply to jobs, get married, buy cars and homes. Every time, we're asked to mark “M” or “F.”
“Even efforts to extend government sex classification … end up reinforcing the sex binary by leaving it intact.”
De-emphasizing or even eliminating some of these bureaucratic sex markers, Davis argues, can help people of all genders, from trans and gender-nonconforming people, to the female athletes who are forced to undergo humiliating and invasive gender inspections, to the estimated 1.7% of the population born intersex, to every person who has been subjected to harassment or violence because of their perceived gender. And merely adding a third-gender option to documents — like California and Oregon have done — won’t go far enough, he told me in a recent phone interview. “I totally get the impetus there and appreciate the steps those states have taken,” he said, but while “having a nonbinary third option could be meaningful and important for certain people, it’s not for everyone … and it doesn’t get at the root of the problem” when it comes to sex discrimination.
“Even efforts to extend government sex classification policies to include people who reject the binary terms ‘man’ or ‘woman’ end up reinforcing the sex binary by leaving it intact,” he writes in Beyond Trans. And Davis feels similarly about accommodation in other gendered spaces, like bathrooms.
Many activists and legal experts believe that universal all-gender bathrooms made up of individual stalls with maximum-coverage doors are the safest and most efficient public restroom design not only for trans and gender-nonconforming people, but for all people, including cisgender women, parents, and children, and people with disabilities. And yet, Davis points out, many of the legal battles over trans people’s restroom access have been focused on accommodating trans people into existing binary spaces, like Gavin Grimm’s now-famous restroom case.
Accommodation into binary spaces “will benefit only transgender students who can and will conform to one binary sex category,” says Davis. Young trans people like Grimm who have sued their school districts often have the support of parents and some people in their communities, “but relying on social acceptance sets a precarious precedent for extending civil rights to transgender people.” What if a student doesn’t self-identify as either male or female, and what if a student is working class or of color? Accommodation rarely helps those who are most vulnerable to sex-identity policing and discrimination.
One of the trickiest obstacles facing the modern feminist movement, as it has been for the feminist movements of yore, is figuring out when it actually makes sense to group the enormous, diverse, ideologically divided world of “women” together into a single group. For one thing, broad generalizations may simplify reinforce the limitations imposed by the gender binary, and the sex stereotypes which have long upheld it. As Charlotte Shane recently wrote at Splinter: “It’s very hard to emphasize the damages of masculine dominance without simultaneously, implicitly confirming its tenets. (Men are strong, though helpless, against their libidos; women are weak and ill-suited for the workplace.) How do we talk about the reality of abuse without telling those in power exactly what they want to hear?”
And for another, as many have pointed out, including both Shane and Grey’s Anatomy actor Ellen Pompeo in a delightful recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, true gender liberation won’t come around if we simply swap more women into what have traditionally been men’s roles in powerful institutions. The gender binary would still stand, and so would every structural system of oppression with which it works in tandem, from classism to ableism to white supremacy. (The Power, a 2016 science fiction novel by Naomi Alderman, imagines a future where traditional gendered power dynamics are suddenly reversed, making for a provocative, if essentialist, study of these questions.)
True gender liberation won’t come around if we simply swap more women into what have traditionally been men’s roles.
Plus, not all women are committed to the same kinds of gender justice. Consider the feminist rifts of the past year: whether the Women’s March pussy hats were biologically essentialist and therefore transphobic; whether we should retire the “the future is female” slogan, which has roots in lesbian activism (as well as a troubling anti-trans history); whether we should stop referring to reproductive rights as a “women’s” issue; whether #MeToo has centered famous white women at the expense of the working class and poor, trans women, and people of color.
The same goes for speaking collectively about men. Misandrist jokes sure feel good when it really does seem like men, collectively, are ruining everything, but often obscure the fact that not all men hold more cultural and institutional power than all women. Some black feminists have pointed out that white women calling to “kill all men” sounds particularly grotesque at a time when so many black men and boys are dying from police violence.
Clearly we have not yet achieved the kind of genderless utopia where it would be beside the point to address the specific issues that people of different genders and assigned-sexes face. Part of the problem is, perhaps, simply a limit of language; “women” is such easy shorthand when talking about, for example, reproductive rights, or those who are subjected to sexual assault and violence. But using that shorthand leaves out transfeminine people, trans men, and other queer people who experience gendered violence and oppression, too, often at much higher rates. It’s hard to fit all those groups into a headline or a snappy, intersectional slogan.
There’s also the problem that so much of what we talk about when we talk about women revolves around the issues of discrimination, of assault, of violence. But what happens when we aren’t talking about women’s issues, but about women’s communities, women’s friendships and intimate relationships, women’s strengths and joys and pleasures? Even now, cultural narratives tend to define womanhood by its limits, rather than its possibilities. What is a woman if she’s not suffering in the shadow of a man?
Hannah Drossman for BuzzFeed News