Gender Ideology? Up Yours!

[updated 31st January 2019: Some amendments and typo fixes were made in response to feedback, where possible these have been annotated as such]

I’ve been feeling recently a bit like the popular online discourse around transphobia and trans liberation is living in another world and to the extent that social media is very much still a media world that’s the truth. This was prodded most abruptly by yesterday seeing Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (I’ll call them TERFs from now on) visibly annoyed that prominent Queer Theorist, Judith Butler, had written an article for the New Statesman on Gender Ideology and hadn’t condescended to mention them even once!

This gave me some pause for thought about the last several months worth of campaigning in both legacy and social media and the gap from my experiences offline regarding the wider issue of the fight over what is being billed as “Gender Ideology” in general.

In the offline world, the last transphobic death threat I had was direct to my face 3 years ago by my neighbour’s (ex) boyfriend. As a frumpy fat queer mid-thirties trans woman I receive a lot less abuse (and attention generally) than I did as a young person, but I still receive direct threats and jibes from time to time and they are still almost universally from conservative men (not “feminist” men, whatever they are, much less TERF men, certainly not men who are ever going to be influenced by the contents of Gender Hurts by Sheila Jeffries or The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond).

The idea that TERFs are the main driving force behind transphobia is just wild to me. The incidents I’ve had of of discriminatory experiences which were proposed as being feminist or LGB liberation activity have been almost entirely procedural and bureaucratic — attempts to curtail the healthcare of people like me, petitions by women’s organisations attempting to paint people like me as a threat to women, efforts by some members of my student union LGB soc years back to question my involvement in LGBT stuff at all on the basis that while I was a trans woman with a girlfriend at the time. In my understanding TERFs are engaged in something far more mundane — putting a commentariat friendly feminist or gay-liberation gloss on defending a set of norms which cut across trans people, which TERFs neither invented nor are they even remotely the vanguard of.

There’s an amount of implicit violence which results from in denying trans people political voices, attacking our organisations, spreading hatred in our allied liberation movements, defunding bodies that seek to support us or in the impact on policy that their petitions demonising us can have, and it’s certainly not nothing but TERFs are themselves not the most significant political force in society affecting our lives. They have a very significant presence in the media (thanks in part to their ability to serve as a fig leaf for more conservative interests) and this makes them very difficult in general to pay no attention to.

However at the same time, it’s abundantly clear that it takes no media savvy, no widespread public support, nor anything else for Gender Conservatism to remove trans people from valued places in public life.* It’s so straightforward it’s practically background to any but those affected directly by it.

What is Gender Ideology?

The impression you could get from life online, including from TERFs themselves, is that TERFs had invented this heroic struggle against “Gender Ideology” from whole cloth. As a rough and ready overview, the phenomena and ideas which seem to comprise Gender Ideology appear to be:

There is actually also a pre-existing feminist sociological use of Gender Ideology which this runs the risk of being conflated with; that being the coinage to describe the prevailing cultural ideological environment regarding gender (which is to say gender stereotyping in general) in a way which does not particularly concern itself with trans people (except in rare cases where the appearance of gender variant people in historical records illustrates something about gender from a sociological perspective in general). And it would be easy given their loose proximity for Gender Critical people online (who are often not even particularly that feminist to be sure) for them to try and claim that resistence on the grounds of the bullet points above is strictly from an ideologically Women’s Rights basis.

As we shall see that is very much not the case.

It turns out, that if (as I did) you use Google to search for the term “Gender Ideology” and you set the date using the search tools to articles before 2016, you find, almost exclusively, two sources for literature on the topic:

  • Academic Sociologists studying how society creates and reproduces gender as an ideology (in a very strictly technical use of the term).
  • Catholics and the wider Western conservative tradition panicking about trans people.

You might be inclined to ask “Why would I want to search before 2016?”, and the reason is, in July 2016, the British Government issued a proposal to review the Gender Recognition Act with a view to “improving transgender equality”.

There have admittedly long been old and often bitter fractures in feminism over how feminists should understand or analyse the ideas and activities of trans people, and particularly trans people in political activity, but the idea of a monolithic Gender Ideology which is not so much about the wider prevailing social ideology of gender but instead addressing trans people as an invading force conquering society and overturning previous defended norms has a more interesting history, and it is in particular this conception (the one that specifically targets trans people as its main focus of fear, anger and frustration) that sets the colloquial idea of Gender Ideology apart from previous radical feminist theories of transsexualism and so on (which were often rooted not in the idea of trans people destablising things too much but instead in the fear that trans people may not destabilise them enough).

A chronology

I’m collecting instances tracing the early course of this term with regard to its specific use targeting trans people and the breakdown of gender role stability following from the rise of Queer Theory in the 90’s (as opposed to its wider use discussing sociological cultures of gender in general) to illustrate my point. As a rule I will include any and every instance I find regardless of whether it is from trans-skeptical/critical feminists or from any other source. My sourcing method is explicitly following the approach of searching textually for references to “Gender Ideology” by date, and only excluding those sources which are using the non-pertinent definition.

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Walking the Date Before counter backwards as I go

I’ve also had to eliminate some entries due to Google’s mis-dating of some hits (for instance a 2018 piece was misdated as occurring in 2013, due to prominently displaying a reference to an event in 2013 and only less significant references to the date of publication).

As an example of the sort of thing I’ve excluded based on using the distinct, strictly technical sociological version of “Gender Ideology" I left out a link to a study on the impact of gender ideology on participation in microtransaction economies, on the logic that it is studying the relationship of women to traditional gender roles and how it affects their behaviour as economic actors with absolutely no relation to or critique of Queer Theory and Trans Liberation.

One consequence of this is that this chronology is missing a massive actual feminist literature on housework.

1990–2008: Pretty much nothing other than bog standard sociology. Technically in 2004 Pope John Paul II puts out a statement which the catholic church says later was “against Gender Ideology” but he doesn’t actually use the term. In general there’s a lot of gnashing of teeth from the Catholic and Evangelical churches over post-modern gender and sexuality theories.

2009 —

2011 —

2012 —

2013 —

2014 —

2015 —

2016 — I’ve had to stop adding in every single reference from August 15th onwards, there are simply too many. The conservative backlash against a demonised “Gender Ideology” meaning precisely a post-modern deconstruction of gender roles is too much at this point in history to list exhaustively. but this is the year that this conservative conspiracy theory is adopted by ostensible feminists.

“These struggles provoke what we term ‘gender panics,’ situations where people react to disruptions to biology-based gender ideology by frantically reasserting the naturalness of a male–female binary.”

Comment link here

It’s worth noting here that there are actually a large number of conservative Christian commenters responding to this article by 4thwavenow, many of whom are very clearly seeking to build bridges with the radical feminist movement.

Interesting graphic from blog header snipped due to these cut up gender icons bearing more than a passing similarity to those popular among Mumsnet “Gender Criticals”
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At this point I am taking a break reproducing the missing data from a draft that got destroyed when I first tried to publish. I have managed so far to get a complete (at least complete as I can make it) timeline of the rise in adoption of the transphobic idea of a specific trans related “Gender Ideology”. I’ve stated some constraints on which model of Gender Ideology I’m talking about to distinguish it from the wider sociological concept and distinguished some anti-trans feminist uses of the term from more reactionary ones where that seemed appropriate.

“The Theory of gender as a ‘social construct’ is one of the ways that we ‘crucify’ our human nature — and those who speak for it.”

2017 —

2018 —

The same year, the Catholic pro-life website start advertising Gabriele Kuby’s book on how Transgenderism is a “New Totalitarianism” and slamming “Gender Ideologues”.

* I’ve been actively anti war since my teens, this is not a defence of the military, but as has been widely pointed out this clearly sends signals to the rest of the US legitimising discrimination.

Written by

is a trans woman, sometime activist and researcher of cis studies.

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