Gender solidarity is a kludge

The other day on Twitter, someone posted about “that knowing look” that women exchange when a man is talking down to them. This is the mild end of a spectrum of actions that women take out of solidarity with each other, from looks through accompanying each other to the bathroom, through friendship to full-on man-hating separatism.

Added February 7: In a speech endorsing Hillary Clinton for President yesterday, Madeleine Albright said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” According to Maureen O’Connor she has been saying this since at least 2004. It’s a striking example of the kind of problematic solidarity I’m talking about.

In contrast, Erica Violet Lee gives examples of situations where solidarity may well have been the best available course of action – in part because of solidarity among men.

The problems they are responding to are a hundred percent real. From disrespect to discrimination to harassment and rape and murder, women are systematically oppressed in our society. This is a matter of social structure, not agency, but the structure exerts its oppression on women in large part by enabling and encouraging people to take action against them, and the vast majority of those actors are men. It is thus not surprising that in many circumstances women trust each other more than men.

It is also not specific to gender: members of oppressed groups have always tried to show each other solidarity. Black people share knowing looks, gay men walk each other home, Deaf people form friendships, Jews form separatist communities. Sometimes these measures work, sometimes they don’t.

When solidarity fails, it’s because people fail to realize that it’s a kludge, a statistical bet on the effects of these social structures. It’s because they mistake the structures that encourage people to dehumanize others and behave like assholes with the prevalence of actual psychopaths and assholes. They forget that God (or Odin or Krishna or whoever) has carefully sprinkled assholes and psychopaths throughout the population, so that they are represented among Black people and gay men and Deaf people and Jews and trans people and yes, even women.

Solidarity also fails when people fail to realize that the structure does not affect everyone equally. Of course, many people are smart enough to adjust their solidarity to take into account edge cases and intersectionalities. One well-known example is when women include gay men among their “girlfriends” – but absolutism fails here too, as many people have observed that there are gay men who are just as misogynist as any straight man.

Like any kludge, gender solidarity can be incredibly useful. But like any kludge, it works best when we know its limitations, use it sparingly, and try not to think of it as a stable long-term solution to our problems. See also: segregated bathrooms and gender roles.

We need support to be men

This month there has been a lot of talk about support for alternatives to transition. In Slate, Michelle Goldberg wrote about a group of “gender-critical trans women,” including several who identify as transgender or transsexual. In a reaction to the shutdown of the CAMH clinic, Alice Dreger talked about people who were gender non-conforming children and didn’t transition, linking to a book called Blood and Visions, a post by Debra Soh and an interview with Sarah Hoffman. Maria Catt wrote about her experiences taking and dispensing testosterone to female-bodied people. Joel Nowak hoisted a great comment by Juniper asking, “Where are the examples of (so many) people who have lived long and well WITHOUT surgeries or hormones?” 4th Wave Now expanded on Juniper’s post, highlighting the value of alternatives to transition in reducing the incidence of trans suicides.

The author, big hairy scary man[/caption]We do need to hear more from examples of people who have successfully coped with gender dsyphoria without transitioning. So, let’s take a look at who’s represented in these articles:

  • Women who don’t suffer from chronic gender dysphoria (Goldberg, Dreger, Hoffman and 4th Wave Now)
  • Women who have dealt with dysphoria without transitioning (Soh and Juniper)
  • People raised as girls who transitioned to living as men, then detransitioned (Catt and the authors of Blood and Visions)
  • People raised as boys who transitioned to living as women, but are critical of transgender dogma and identify as male (the women interviewed by Goldberg)
  • People raised as boys who transitioned to living as women, then detransitioned (Joel and the author of Third Way Trans)

These are all important stories, important voices. But there’s a population missing: men who have dealt with dysphoria without transitioning. If people like Joel and Juniper are virtually invisible, people like me are actually invisible.

And yet our stories are hugely important. Most of the people I’ve mentioned have complained about transgender dogma, particularly as articulated by transitioned trans women, and particularly about the demands made by transitioned trans women for unconditional access to women’s spaces. Many have complained about the behavior of individual transitioned trans women, online and in person.

It’s very nice for transitioned trans women to be accepted (by some) as feminists. It’s absolutely essential for detransitioned trans women to be heard. But if what we’re looking for are alternatives to transition, we need to make space for people raised male to talk about how we deal with gender dysphoria without transitioning. And people need to listen to us, not just talk at us.

I’ve been blogging about this stuff for years, and for some reason I’m not mentioned by Goldberg or Dreger or Catt or Joel. I had some conversations with detransitioned trans men on Tumblr a few years ago, and they got very angry. I tried talking to the gender-critical trans women on Tumblr, and they ignored me. I tried to talk to Joel about this on Twitter, but he cut me off. I simply posted about my gender-related feelings on my own blog, and gender-critical feminists mocked me on their blog.

I don’t think it’s me, but let’s assume that it is. Let’s assume that I somehow came off as a huge asshole. Why am I the only one blogging about this stuff? Why haven’t Goldberg or Dreger, who are journalists, gone and found some male-bodied people who have dealt with gender dysphoria without transitioning?

I have a simple theory about this. It’s one thing to deal with women, even gender non-conforming women and detransitioned trans men. Boys are pretty safe, especially “pink boys.” If you’re willing to be flexible, transitioned and even detransitioned trans women can be seen as womanly enough. They’ve had hair removal and lots of female socialization. But it’s another thing to deal with men. Big strong hairy muscular men with deep voices, talking about sports or gadgets or hunting, some of us in dresses.

Third Wave Trans has written one of the wisest things I’ve read about this: many people, including me, have been traumatized by men in their lives. I’ve largely gotten over my trauma, but lots of people have a hard time trusting men. Some have a hard time even being in the same room with men.

I get this. I’m not asking anyone to go beyond their comfort zone. If some people are unable to relate to men without being mistrustful or hostile – or at all – I’m not going to demand that they do.
But someone needs to talk to us. Someone needs to listen to us. Someone needs to help us to be out and proud. Someone needs to tell the young trans women out there that they can be happy without transitioning.

Joel accused me of demanding “politeness.” I am not. I am also not trying to impose patriarchy or mansplain or dominate any discussions. To paraphrase the immortal words of stimmyabby, I’m not demanding anyone treat me as an authority, only as a person. I think it’s reasonable to ask people not to use us as insults to mock transitioned trans women. If you’re going to make pronouncements about what we should and shouldn’t do, you could at least ask us if we think that would work.

I am not writing this to criticize people for what they’ve written in the past, only voicing a plea for what they will write in the future. The bottom line is that if we don’t want all the trans women thinking they have to transition, or commit suicide, we have to make it safe for trans women to be men.

The role of family rejection in anti-trans violence

In 2013, in response to the murder of Islan Nettles, I talked about how a saner approach to sexual relationships between men and trans women, and between men and other men, would do a lot to reduce the number of murders of trans women, particularly poor trans women of color. There was another trans woman killed in the area that year whose story was a bit different, and pointed to another factor that makes a big difference.

Almost two years ago, Eyricka Morgan was killed in a boarding house in New Brunswick, New Jersey. News reports say that she was arguing with a man who also lived in the boarding house, and when the argument got heated he stabbed her in the neck with a butcher knife. Unlike the case of Islan Nettles, there is no mention of any sexual attraction between her and the suspect. It may have just been one of the many kinds of arguments that happen between any two people who live in the same house.

The question I had was why this argument turned violent. There is nothing in the reports to suggest a reason, other than that this was the second fatal stabbing of 2013 in New Brunswick. It may not have had anything to do with the fact that she was trans. These things happen to non-trans people – a point that deserves its own blog post.

Still I wondered whether things would have been different if Morgan’s living situation had been different. What if she had lived in a different neighborhood? What if she had had her own apartment, or shared a house with people she knew and trusted?

It seems likely that Morgan lived in the same boarding house with that murderous young man because she couldn’t afford a safer living arrangement. To understand why that might be, listen to Morgan herself (Part I, 25:30) describing why she left her family home in Newark at the age of fourteen or fifteen: she was regularly beaten by her grandparents and uncles. Later in the panel (Part II, 25:28) she said, “I missed a lot of years of my youth due to something that I did, so I wasn’t really around for my youth years.” If I understand her correctly, she’s saying she spent time in juvenile detention.

So what might Morgan’s life have been like if she had felt safe in her own home as a teenager? Being homeless is a huge drain on a person’s time and energy, and being incarcerated is a huge setback. What could she have accomplished if she hadn’t had to deal with that during those critical teenage years? Would she have been able to finish college on time? Would she have been better prepared for the adult job market?

We know that connections are very valuable when building a career. What might have happened if Morgan had not been cut off from all her family connections? Could her grandmother and her uncles have connected her with jobs if they hadn’t driven her away?

Many parents believe that it is part of their job to police the gender expression of their children, to make sure the boys grow up to be men and the girls grow up to be women. This probably comes from ancient tribal anxieties. The prescription is usually “tough love,” in the form of corporal punishment or verbal abuse.

Can we all agree now that this “tough love” doesn’t work? I’ve met trans people, and gay men, who’ve grown up with it. They didn’t stop being trans or gay. Some of them left home, like Morgan. Others just learned how to hide it. The “best” were able to suppress it. None of them could have “given it up” however badly they wanted to.

If we want to prevent murders like Eyricka Morgan’s, we need to stop parents and grandparents rejecting their kids for being trans or gay. We can fund homeless shelters and outreach programs; I’m sure they help a lot. But Morgan had outreach programs; they’re not enough.

Somewhere along the line, Morgan’s grandmother was taught that if you have a “boy” who wants to act or dress feminine, you should beat the kid, and if they still do it then it’s okay to let them run away and sleep on the streets. She passed that message on to her children – Morgan’s uncles.

In contrast, the first thing my parents did was to make sure I knew that they would always love me, and that I always had a place to stay, no matter what I wore or how I talked.

We need to stop sending parents and caregivers the message that a girly boy is something to be ashamed of. We need to support parents and grandparents who support their kids. That is something we can do to stop people murdering trans people.

Predators, prey and gender overlap

In 2013 I wrote about how I and many other people sometimes interact with the world as a woman, and sometimes as a man. Some people are very uncomfortable with this. They may accept the idea that a person is “really” a different gender inside, or that they have to live as a different gender, but they want everyone to transition and get it over with. They hate the idea that someone could be a man one day and a woman the next and a man again the following day, or even both simultaneously.

I puzzled over this for years, but I think I’ve figured out now why some people are violently opposed (many of them quite literally) to the idea of someone being both a man and a woman. It is because they see the two categories as not just incompatible but as antagonists, even enemies. It is because they see men as predators and women as prey.

Our culture has many metaphors based on this model. We talk about sexual predators (the vast majority of them are men), men being out on the prowl, women as trophies and feathers in caps. We talk about the chase and about the thrill of the hunt. There are other metaphors where women are valuable prizes won by men, and in the other direction where men are fish or bears, and women are trying to catch them with nets and traps, but the ones where men are hunting women are more common.

These metaphors are not created out of thin air. In my first grade class a common pastime of the boys was to have “girl chases” (I boycotted them on principle, so I don’t know what happened if a boy ever caught a girl). When I was a teenager I learned from movies and songs that getting a pretty girl – or at least having a pretty girl say that she liked him – was one of the main goals in life, and a way that a boy could get people to like and respect him.

I have known people who really do relate to the other primary gender in those terms most of the time. I’ve known men whose first reaction on meeting a woman is to size her up as a potential mate. Those who are suitable they pursue, and if they catch them they may use them and drop them. Those who are not suitable they try to ignore, or to relate to as “one of the guys.” If that fails, they are often at a loss.

Similarly, I have known women who evaluate all men as potential threats. Those who turn out to be threats they may run away from, or grit their teeth and try to bear it. Those who are not threats they try to ignore, or dismiss as annoying boys. If that fails, they are similarly at a loss.

Some women reject the idea that trans people who were raised male can be women, but are occasionally willing to make an exception for passable trans women with lots of female socialization – provided that they transition, get rid of as much of their maleness as possible, and then stay transitioned. If we spend any time as men, we’re automatically disqualified. This makes sense if they are thinking of us as predators: we can’t be simultaneously predators and prey, so we must be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Similarly, men who attack trans women seem to do so when they feel attracted, but there is some unmistakable sign of the trans woman’s maleness. This also can be understood (not excused, of course) if they are thinking of men as predators and women as prey. Just when they think they have caught their prey and begin to let their guard down, she turns into a predator before their eyes!

Anyone who has actually made the effort to relate to people of other genders as human beings knows how superficial this way of thinking is, and how unrewarding. The reality is that both men and women are people, and every person is a complex individual. Some are nice and some are not. But of course, if they’re treating you either like a predator or like prey, you can’t get to know them anyway.

Tribal traitors

In February I talked about the odd concerns you hear every once in a while over “low birth rates.” I noted that they’re always about the birth rate of one country, ethnic group, religious group or even race, relative to another. It’s an ancient tribal feeling, and this article by Israeli tribalist Moshe Arav about the Jewish State’s “demographic targets” is unusually blunt, even for the genre.

CAS795If you think about it evolutionarily, there’s a certain sense to this tribalism. If most people look after the tribe, and even show a lack of concern for people from other tribes, then the chances that any member of the tribe will survive are greater than if everyone just looked after themselves of their nuclear families or treated everyone in the world equally. On that basis, a concern with the tribe’s birth rate is understandable.

But tribal impulses like these don’t work well when they’re applied to a nation or an empire. Caesar Augustus worried a lot about low Roman birth rates, but it was much more effective to allow Italians and other non-Romans to take on a Roman identity than to promote rigid morality and existing bloodlines.

Birth rate obsession may not be effective for nations and empires, but that’s not to say that it isn’t dangerous. In fact, it’s one of the main historical reasons why transgender actions and homosexual desire have been condemned and even criminalized, and why women and others have been oppressed. As Philip Longman detailed in 2006, it’s the prime motivation for patriarchy.

Around the world and throughout history, some cultures have tolerated or even valued homosexual and transgender actions, while others have condemned them. Many of the explanations people give for condemnation are based on tradition, which doesn’t tell us much, but when they do go beyond tradition it usually comes down to reproduction.

If you’re simplistically focused on the birth rate of your tribe or nation, anything that distracts from making babies is a problem. That includes celibacy, birth control, masturbation and women’s education, among other things. Gay sex is a problem for this worldview, but boy howdy is same-sex love a bigger problem for it. If two guys fall in love, what incentive are they going to have to conceive children?

Trans people are just as much of a problem for people who worry about birth rates. Anyone who eliminates their reproductive capability through hormones or surgery is eliminating their ability to contribute to the birth rate. Trans women who don’t modify their bodies can’t conceive by having sex with men or with other trans women, so for birth rate purposes they might as well be gay men. Trans men who are still fertile but don’t have sex with men might as well be lesbians.

Beyond our own fertility, we threaten the birth rate by attracting others. A MTF trans person can’t be impregnated, so she’s wasting the time and energy of any man she attracts, and similarly with FTMs and women. Worse, we are often seen as deceivers who turn honest straight people away from the right gender, where they can be seduced by anybody. A significant part of the Rocky Horror Picture Show is devoted to mocking this fear of “decadence.”

Of course, many trans people can and do have kids, without repressing themselves: I’m in a happy marriage with one offspring. And it has been argued that LGBT people and a general tolerance for diversity increase the life expectancy of the children who are born, and their overall quality of life and character, by providing additional adults to nurture and provide for these children. But this kind of subtle reasoning is lost on the tribalists. All that matters to them is quantity, not quality, and a simple job: making babies.

People like to condemn “homophobia” and “transphobia,” online and in person. They’re right to condemn it. It kills people, and ruins other people’s lives. But it’s not enough just to condemn it. We need to understand where it comes from, how it functions, and what feeds it. A lot of what feeds it is this kind of tribalism: they see us as traitors to the tribe. Remember that the next time you hear someone moaning about low birth rates.

Concerns about birth rate concerns

I grew up in the seventies, with “future shock” and other environmental doom about out of control population growth. The argument makes a certain sense: we have only so much room, and we can only grow so much food. As Malthus observed over two hundred years ago, if the population increases faster than the carrying capacity of the land, misery is the result. The more people we have, the more hunger and pollution.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started to hear stories on the news that were concerned with declining birth rates. Low birth rates can lead to work going undone, especially work supporting the elderly. It can lead to the bankruptcy of pension plans and even Social Security. They tell us it’s depopulated Russia, and the Japanese are worrying too! So which is it? Is a low birth rate good or bad? Do these people even talk to each other? And what does all this have to do with transgender issues?

I’ll connect this with trans politics in another post, but first, a low birth rate seems to be good for the planet overall. The population bomb people and the low birth rate people don’t talk so much to each other, but there are occasional examples. Matthew Connelly and Hans Rosling observe that as women get more power, education and birth control, populations stabilize, so they predict that the world’s population will stabilize as more regions industrialize.

One key thing to note about the “low birth rate” alarmism is that it’s almost never about the worldwide birth rate. It’s about the birth rate of a country, an ethnic group, a religious group or even a race, relative to another. You can see that in the concerns of Cardinal Meiser and the Russian elites, which are both about “the Muslims” outbreeding “us” – German or Russian Christians. And if you’re concerned about that race part, that should tip you off about the others, because they’re basically the same thing. A race is just an ethnic or religious group fortified with biological essentialism.

Concern about national birth rates is also the same as concern about ethnic birth rates, because low national birth rates are only a cause for concern if there are strong restrictions on migration. If population levels are the only reason for concern, then immigration is just as good a remedy as procreation.

At its root of all of this lies a desire for more “us” and less “them.” This is an ancient tribal feeling, and it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view. But from the point of view of fairness and kindness, it sucks. “Us and them” is fundamentally opposed to “all men are created equal.”

Obsession with “our” birth rate is part of the reason some parts of the world are still struggling with overpopulation. It’s also a primary motivator for hatred of trans people. I’ll get into all that in a future post, but in the meantime when you hear concern about birth rates, take it with a grain of salt.

Gender roles are a kludge

A while ago I talked about gendered spaces, and how they’re something of a kludge, a shortcut. Gender roles are also a kludge, but one that’s even less justified than gendered spaces, given what we can do with modern prosperity and technology. They persist out of some combination of tradition, politics, personal preference and convenience.

Stewardess: Is your...
Photographer unknown.
The primary sex difference is of course the ability to bear children, so a thousand years ago if a man wanted to raise healthy children, the way to get them was by marrying a healthy, young, maternal woman. Of course, not all women can bear children, as numerous frustrated European kings have shown us, but looking for a man was definitely an unproductive strategy.

Nowadays it’s possible for gay couples or even single men to adopt children, so women are no longer necessary, but marrying a woman is still the most convenient way to get children, and it’s acquired the weight of tradition and politics. For men who are sexually attracted to women, marrying a woman tends to be the preferred way of getting a child, because it pretty much ensures that the man will have sex with a woman.

Other gender roles are based on secondary sex characteristics: men tend to be larger and stronger, so they’re preferred for fighting, smashing and lifting. Women tend to be able to lactate, which made them the obvious choice for caring for infants before formula was perfected.

Once these roles are established, they make it easier to segregate other roles. If women are taking care of infants, it’s easy for them to keep caring for older children, and eventually for the elderly and sick. If childcare happens mostly in the home, it makes sense for women to take care of other household needs.

If men are fighting, it makes sense for them to be policing internal order, and then it’s easy for them to be the ones who set the internal order. If they’re smashing and lifting, it makes sense for them to build houses and fortifications, and then it’s easy for them to be the ones who make machines.

Women and men also tend to form communities of practice based on these activities. Any father who’s spent time with a “mom’s group” knows what I mean, as does any woman who’s attended an engineering conference.

All these tendencies make sense. What doesn’t make sense is to be so rigid about them. Natural variation means that these sex characteristics aren’t a given. Some people are naturally infertile. Some women are big and strong, and some men are small and weak.

Technological and social changes have made a lot of these biological generalizations irrelevant. If we do most lifting and killing today by pushing buttons, how strong does a soldier or construction worker have to be? If we can feed infants with formula, we don’t need nursery school teachers to have functioning breasts.

Some roles have undergone gender flip-flops, or simply diversified over the years. In the nineteenth century, the position of secretary was considered too cerebral to be entrusted to women (with all the misogyny that implies), then in the late twentieth century it was treated as exclusively female; in Binghamton in 1992 a retired temporary placement agent told me that they would never send a man on a secretarial assignment. “Stewardesses” were once all female and doctors male, but last month I flew on a plane where most of the flight attendants were male, and my last dermatology appointment was at a practice that was mostly women. The best nurse in my son’s neonatal ICU, who taught me to change a diaper, was a guy named Scott.

There have long been exceptions to these roles. The US Army’s recent official inclusion of women in combat is notable, but women have been fighting throughout human history. There have been women leaders and male nurturers.

There will probably always be roles in every society that are more strongly associated with one gender or the other. There will also be people who will, for one reason or another, be drawn to the other roles. We need to be flexible and ask if there’s really any good reason why a role should be rigidly reserved for one gender. If there isn’t, we should accommodate everybody.