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.
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?
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."
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.)
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?
For a long time, one of the biggest aspects of my identity could be summed up as “loves women in a political way but also in a gay way.” The sexual fluidity revolution has started to make identifying with labels like “gay” and “lesbian” and “dyke” somewhat less popular in more radical, gender-enlightened circles, but I’ve loved those labels, and clung to them, all the same. I love the incredibly vibrant histories attached to them; I love the fuck-you bluntness of them; I love that they’re specific and unapologetic and true; and I love that they mean I love women.
I’ll admit that I had the tiniest, guiltiest little pang of sadness when my partner came out to me last year as nonbinary — I was so happy for them, but for a brief moment I also mourned my favorite way of coming out to other people: using the word “girlfriend,” something that’s never stopped quietly thrilling me. Of course, my partner is my partner and not my accessory; their identity can’t, and shouldn’t, be responsible for affirming my own. I still identify as a lesbian, but I’ve become interested in the potential of expanding what that identity can mean. But in the middle of the gender-fluidity revolution, I’ve also found myself trying to figure out my relationship to my own womanhood, which has been fraught for most of my life.
As a kid, I wore a lot of jorts from the boy’s section at the Gap. I was the tallest girl in my elementary school classes, a nerdy, awkward stringbean, but I was also strong and athletic; beating the boys at soccer during recess was one of life’s most delicious pleasures. Grownups told me that was because I had crushes on them, and at the time I thought so, too. But what I really wanted, I think, was to be considered one of them, to be physically indistinguishable from the other owners of sprawling limbs and grass-stained knees. I wanted to be free.
For years, I didn’t think about the distinction between me and my body. We were one and the same, my body and I. But puberty, like it did for so many of us, changed all that. I couldn’t as easily run wild with the boys anymore; I was growing hips and breasts that disqualified me from passing as anything other than a girl. My best friend, another tomboy, didn’t go through the same dramatic physical transformations I did, and she never stopped wearing the same comfortable uniform of jeans and a T-shirt as we grew older. I envied her for her androgyny, something I didn’t think I could pull off anymore. My body became an object of boys’ derision or disgust or desire, and I never felt the same way about it after that.
I was no longer in charge; now, my body called the shots. And since boys’ clothes couldn’t obscure the fact of my curves, I stopped bothering to try at all, swapping out my jorts for pleated skirts from Abercrombie and tying literal ribbons into my hair. During the summers, I worked seven days a week at a yacht club snack shack to save up for crappy jewelry from Juicy Couture. But by the summer before high school, resenting how poorly my attempts at traditional femininity were going, I started listening to screamo, chopped off and dyed my hair, got piercings I’d grow to deeply regret, and began the ambitious project of starving my curves away. It worked, sort of. But I was more miserable than I had ever been.
My group of friends (all girls, all weirdo punks) decided one Halloween to dress up my best friend, the tomboy, as an emo guy we’d call “Shane.” We pinned her blond hair into the signature emo guy swoop, partially obscuring her face, and gave her some fake snake bite lip piercings. She wore a band sweatshirt and a studded belt and skate shoes and impossibly tight skinny jeans. When we met up with a group of emo boys we were all trying to be friends with/date at the time, they immediately got territorial: Who the hell is this other dude? My friends and I hung all over our new invention, making the other guys jealous. I was jealous, too, that by wearing the exact same clothes I wore to school every day, my friend could pass so easily as a boy, and suddenly gain all the social power that comes along with boyhood. Even more basic than that — I was jealous that she could dress up that way, and be believed.
Emotionally exhausted, I gave up my emo phase by halfway through high school and tried to be a normal girl again. I got better grades and a boyfriend. For a while, it was enough — more than enough — until coming out as gay toward the tail end of college made me rediscover my relationship to my body, my gender, and my tenuous femininity all over again.
Coming out was one of the best things that ever happened to me. For years I’ve been happier, healthier, and kinder to myself than I ever was as a tortured young person. And being able to stop giving a shit about the male gaze, at least in the context of my romantic relationships, got me closer to the kind of physical freedom I had as a carefree little kid than anything else has since. There are so many things to love about dating women, about being a woman who dates women.
I do love it. And most days I feel wonderfully at home in my body, comfortable with the way my waist looks in a dress or a jumpsuit, the way my partner and I fit together. But other days, when I’m more in a jeans and loafers and crewneck kind of mood, I wish I could smooth myself into the shape of all the gender-fluid models making waves in magazines. There are times when I wonder, or doubt, whether being seen as a “woman” is exactly what I want.
I know that people of all body types can and do embody all kinds of gender presentations, that no one’s masculinity or manhood is any less valid because of the body they were born with or the sex they were assigned. I know all this, and yet I still can’t help that sometimes, every so often, when I wake up in the morning, I want to be physically different than I am.
Once, my partner let me try on their chest binder, and the way I looked with a white T-shirt on top almost moved me to tears — both from a stunned sort of happiness at how I appeared from the waist up, and from the bitter disappointment I felt that my bottom half, all hips and ass, didn’t match. I haven’t tried getting my own binder yet, because I’m worried about how I felt that day: my occasional dysmorphia deepened, rather than alleviated, when I saw how much about my body can’t be so easily changed.
For most of my life, my shift from identification to desire and back again, when it comes to gender identity, has been in constant flux. There has been no piece of popular culture that’s demonstrated this more to me than Titanic, a ridiculous movie I’ve loved since I was 6, which I’ve watched so many times it’s practically a part of my DNA by this point. Sometimes, on yet another rewatch, I’m identifying with Rose, and desiring Jack, who looks a little like every soft butch lesbian I’ve ever loved. And sometimes, I’m identifying with Jack, and watching Rose, drawing her gorgeous curves like one my French girls. Most of the time it’s some complicated blend of the two. I’m staring across the gulf between who I am and what I want, wondering whether to jump.
Of course, no matter how appealing a gender-fluid future might seem, we’re still impossibly far from one. Even the most liberal, feminist circles are struggling with expanding ideas about gender. There are plenty of self-identified feminists who have “xx” in their display names on twitter and read a lot of the Feminist Current, arguing that trans women are really men in drag who make an insulting spectacle of stereotypical womanhood to gain access to women and lesbians’ spaces. As a faction committed to battling the advancement of trans liberation, claiming that trans people’s rights infringe upon their own, they’re widely known in LGBT internet circles as TERFs — trans-exclusionary radical feminists — though they think that phrase is a slur, and would rather you call them “gender critical.” And far beyond the gender wars waging in certain corners of the feminist internet, we've got social conservatives driving our country’s political agenda, taking swing after swing at trans and gay rights.
One of the reasons that Donald Trump was elected president, and that so many alleged sexual abusers and harassers have been given free reign for so long, is because bad male behavior can still get chalked up to some sort of biological inevitability. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in a recent, rather horrifying column: There’s a “sheer and immense natural difference between being a man and being a woman,” and “nature is far more in control of us than we ever want to believe.” It’s still easier to believe that the world’s ills and oppressions are predetermined, outside of our control. Nothing we can do.
Plus, fantasizing about a gender-fluid future is all well and good, but doesn’t do much to address the real, high-stakes issues that binary and nonbinary trans people are facing right now, in a world where gender policing is still very much a sometimes deadly reality.
According to all the trans-panic-peddling op-eds that somehow keep getting published in mainstream US and UK media, more and more people are coming out as trans or gender-nonconforming because of some nefarious liberal agenda to “turn” all children trans. Of course, what’s actually been happening is that people from all generations, and young people in particular, are realizing that life outside of two assigned genders is really possible.
Davis told me that, when writing Beyond Trans, he was “very interested in this kind of public/private delineation.” But he chose not to write about the personal implications for a world with fewer binary gender markers, acknowledging that it’s tricky.
“I respect the fact that gender is very important for a lot of us personally and also socially,” he said. “People will sometimes ask me if the ultimate goal is a genderless society, and I don’t know. As a trans person who transitioned 9 or 10 years ago, having personally fought for my gender markers to be changed and for my own identity, it feels challenging to think of a world where that all falls apart.”
Davis was inspired by the concept of universal and inclusive design, established in disability studies, when crafting his policy suggestions — policies which might be targeted to help one group of people but will really benefit everyone, like all-gender restrooms. But he knows that rethinking the role that gender plays in our lives will not always be win/win. “I recognize there are times when sacrifices have to be made.”
One of the Beyond Trans case studies that resonated with me the most involves women’s colleges, which for years have been roiled by controversy over whether or not they should admit and retain trans and nonbinary students at varying stages of medical and social transition. Davis suggests that these colleges should open their admissions to everyone — but he acknowledges that it’s important that women’s colleges retain their feminist missions. A historically women’s college could therefore operate similarly to historically black colleges and universities, by remaining committed to its social justice roots and admitting people of all genders whose applications express support for the school’s values.
Many of the few lesbian bars that have been able to withstand the tides of gentrification and changes to lesbian culture have operated with a similar sort of philosophy: They’ve historically catered to lesbians, but now they more often cater to all genders and sexualities. A lot of lesbians have mourned this shift, however, blaming a “minefield of identity politics” for killing the lesbian bar, as if these places’ efforts to be more trans-inclusive are truly to blame for their own demise. But the reality is that lesbians are a small minority, and operating businesses that serve such a small subset of the population alone can struggle from the start. Opening their doors to every corner of the queer community makes economic sense: These bars have a stronger chance of surviving and thriving.
It does seem enormously unjust, though, that lesbian bars and other community spaces are struggling to keep their doors open while, in traditional gayborhoods in cities across the country, there’s still a gay men’s bar on every corner. While lesbians are (rightfully) figuring out what better inclusion could look like, many gay men’s spaces have remained largely untouched. I'm sad about the death of lesbian bars, too, but a space that’s filled with queer people of all genders and gender presentations, that self-monitors for racism and body-shaming, that welcomes everyone as long as they respect each others’ bodily autonomy and dignity, looks the most like the kind of world I want to live in.
I don’t think we have to knock down every public barrier when it comes to the way we think about gendered spaces and gender classification, however. Davis makes clear that he also doesn’t believe in abolishing gender markers altogether — they can still be useful and necessary when it comes to initiatives like achieving workplace gender equality. But “when sex is relevant to a legitimate policy goal,” he writes, “it behooves an organization to clearly articulate this relevance and make it transparent both to itself and to the public.”
The same goes, I think, for determining whether or not sex classification is relevant to a legitimate social or personal goal. Gender can, and does, still matter. The major issue with gender classification is that right now, there are so many people in what Davis calls “misbegotten roles of sex-identity verifiers” — the bouncers, the government officials, the doctors who get to determine who does and does not belong.
Whether or not we belong somewhere, whether or not we’re allowed to dress and act and exist peacefully in our own bodies, is all too often left up to the discretion of people with just a tiny bit of power over us. And that goes for all the little moments throughout our days when we’re classified by gender, just as much as it does the extreme forms of sex-policing that can lead to harassment, violence, or death.
It’s important to recognize when “sex” or “gender” doesn’t have anything to do with the matter at hand at all — that workplace harassment isn’t about sex, but about work; that panic over trans people in your restroom isn’t about sex or sexual predators, but who is allowed to exist in public space. Our task is figuring out when sex or gender do have to do with the matter at hand, what about gender we should be holding onto, and what gender might look like if we’re all empowered to determine where we belong for ourselves.
The other night, my partner asked me whether my occasional discomfort with presenting as masculine has to do with the fact that while doing so, I can’t pass — that I can’t so simply slip into the privileges of masculinity. I told them I’m sure that must be a part of it; like everybody else, I don’t live in a vacuum, and I do worry that some of my fantasizing has to do with patriarchal power dynamics and limited queer beauty standards and, yeah, some internalized misogyny.
But I don’t actually want to pass as a man. Not really. I’d perhaps just like to pass, sometimes, as a queer person without any gender at all. And I think that's something everyone, cis or trans, queer or straight, wants at some point or another: to exist in the world without being forced to fit in a box that was not of our own making.
I personally don’t feel the need, or the desire, to permanently flip over to the other side of the binary. Nor do I feel like a part of myself has always existed there. Rather, I wish I could shape-shift. When I was little, I had a Barbie doll whose hair length would change when you tugged on it. I wish I could reach into my own head like that, to push and pull until everything in alignment for one perfect, comfortable day, and wake up the next morning and do it all over again.
The closest I’ve come to seeing these weird, messy feelings presented anywhere else are in this essay by Mallory Ortberg about binders (one of which I promise I’ll get for myself, someday soon): “There are things about living in a body in the world that feel inaccessible without quite being impossible; inaccessible in the sense that the gap between fantasy and reality is always present regardless of how one looks, inaccessible in that one often fears the extent, scope, and reach of one’s own desires, inaccessible in the sense that learning more about what one may want does not necessarily translate into being any closer to getting it, or even asking for it, or that there will be anyone to ask it of, inaccessible in the sense that what one wants is not always consistent, recognizable, or even legible, to oneself, much less anyone else.”
It’s impossible for me to know how I’d feel about my body or my gender if I hadn’t been raised in a sexist world, or if I hadn’t been sexually harassed and assaulted since I was 11 years old. But I also know that I’d be doing myself a disservice if I chalked up my sometimes weird gender feelings to a desire to escape from something. Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts that her partner, Harry Dodge, tells people inquiring about his gender transition, “I’m not on my way anywhere." I don't think I am either; rather, I'm trying to embody exactly who I am standing here, right now. Sometimes womanhood feels like a cage, and sometimes it feels like home; the only home I’ve ever known. I don’t think I want to knock down those walls entirely, but rather find a way to give myself more room.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m genderqueer, and sometimes I wonder if I’m simply one of the millions of assigned-female people who can sometimes get fed up with all the shit that comes along with living in our bodies. No matter what, I worry that I don’t have the right to play around with my gender, waffling around in uncertainty while there are millions of people who experience devastating, real-world consequences for their gender-nonconformity. But then I remember that’s how I used to feel about the first phase of my queerness, too, for the years that I tentatively tried to claim something I feared no one else would let me claim.
I worry, too, that I’m just putting far too much stock in gender itself. Am I empowering myself by questioning binary gender’s hold over me, or am I just fanning the flames? Why do I care this much?
But perhaps it’s perfectly fine to desire something, even something so impossible as waking up, from time to time, in a breastless, hipless body.
In a breathtaking recent essay for N+1, writer and academic Andrea Long Chu takes on the thorny topic of queer and trans desire. “To admit that what makes women like me transsexual is not identity but desire is to admit just how much of transition takes place in the waiting rooms of wanting things, to admit that your breasts may never come in, your voice may never pass, your parents may never call back,” she writes. But “not getting what you want has very little to do with wanting it … After all, if you could only want things you were guaranteed to get, you would never be able to want anything at all.”
I’m trying to become more comfortable with my wanting. And not because I think it’ll have any real impact on the larger goal of gender liberation — I don't believe there's anything inherently more radical about one gender identity than there is about any other. But just for my own sake, I'd like to think about my gender, like all genders, more as just a genre, as critic Lauren Berlant as put it — something tied to all the other aspects of my identity, including being politically categorized as a woman; including being queer; including all the particular social and cultural codes that come along with living this life, right now.
As many trans and gender-nonconforming activists have long argued, perhaps what we should be striving for is not a genderless society, but a gender expansive one. Pioneer trans author, artist, and gender theorist Kate Bornstein put it this way in a recent interview for Aperture: “When gender is a binary, it’s a battlefield. When you get rid of the binary, gender becomes a playground.” Here’s to, maybe someday, leaving the battle behind. ●
Shannon Keating is the LGBT editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Shannon Keating at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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