Power Must Be Abolished, Not Abandoned: A Response to Alyx Meyer’s “Trans People and the Dialectics of Sex and Gender”
Among leftists today, there is a large focus on the question of gender — specifically, the theory and practice of transgenderism. This renewed interest parallels the increasing attention paid to the subject by bourgeois society as well. These mainstream forms of trans politics and activism are, by all accounts, foundationally liberal. However, many leftists continue to search for an alternative analysis of gender and sex that offers support for trans theory from a radical perspective.
I am a leftist who rejects these theories. I identify the growing defense of transgenderism by leftists to be greatly confused and counter to basic elements of a radical analysis — and for this, I am often dismissed, condemned, and abused by those who disagree. When discussion does occur, Alyx Meyer’s Trans People and the Dialectics of Sex and Gender: Against Radical and Liberal Feminism is commonly referenced to demonstrate the coherence of trans ideology from a leftist perspective.
The arguments put forth in Meyer’s piece can be seen as (largely) representative of the increasingly popular position of pro-trans leftists, and thus I feel the need to provide a critical analysis of its failings in the hope of improving our Gender Line. I would ask that those who are predisposed to threats, mockery, and rage when challenged on these issues to remember Mao’s words: “To indulge in personal attacks, pick quarrels, vent personal spite or seek revenge instead of entering into an argument and struggling against incorrect views for the sake of unity or progress or getting the work done properly. This is a fifth type [of liberalism].”
Meyer begins the piece by discussing the category “sex” and its existence as a social construct. As always, we must be careful to delineate exactly what we mean when we use this term. As J. Sakai points out, both race and tank columns are socially constructed as well!
Human beings are undeniably sexually dimorphic, meaning we reproduce through the meeting of sperm and ova. The process of evolution (one which began, of course, far before human beings even entered the picture) has led our species to develop around two basic biological types of male and female. “Male,” in this sense, refers to those who possess the body type that developed in reference to the production of sperm, and “female” to those whose body type developed in reference to the production of ova.
Whether or not this makes sex a social construct is up for debate. No one can deny that our biology does tend to center around two distinct poles. Fewer than one in one thousand births require a specialist to assign sex. This is far less common than, say, polydactyism, in which a child is born with six fingers on one or both hands. Thus, leftists who reject sex as a coherent way of understanding human biology should also be prepared to reject any anatomy textbook that claims human beings are ten-fingered!
With this in mind, sex is either not constructed — in that our biology does clearly tend towards two basic anatomical templates developed in relation to reproduction, regardless of human conceptualizing — or constructed, but only in a trivial sense. If sex is, as Meyer says, a social construction “separating those who [are] able to become pregnant from those who [can’t] become pregnant,” then height is a social construction separating those who can reach the top shelf of a grocery aisle and those who can’t. In either case, they exist as a constructed method of measuring non-constructed biological features.
This sense of the term is absolutely not the case for gender. While sex refers to physical traits, gender is placed onto physical traits. This divide is why we can speak of male spiders or female toads but not masculine bobcats or feminine goldfish; differences in bodies can be identified among creatures without culture, but differences in behavior and expectations require a social bond to function. Even if one holds that sex and gender are both social constructions, there is still a clear divide between their nature and the strength of their link to material reality.
The exact nature of sex, however, is not particularly important to the question of transgenderism. No one need show that there exist two immutable, biological forms of Male and Female — only that human sexual dimorphism is such that human beings can be, and have been, consistently sorted into two social groups since the beginning of class society on the basis of their physical forms. Meyer seems to accept this, saying that sex is a framework for sorting biology based around reproductive potential.
However, the following claim is patently false:
“‘Gender’ is when sexism, oppression and exploitation based on reproduction (and ultimately relations of production), is institutionalized and divorced from each individual person’s reproductive capacity and general biology.”
I have no idea what to make of this. Certainly it can’t be that forced pregnancy, forced abortion, sterilization, prostitution, and pornography have no relation to an individual’s biology — or, alternatively, that these are not forms of gender oppression. But even more confusingly, Meyer fails to make a distinction between the experience of oppression being divorced from a person’s general biology, and a person’s general biology no longer being the foundation for that experience.
As an example, we can examine the race system. Clearly, race is institutionalized and divorced from each individual person’s general biology, in that there is no form of exploitation under race that directly requires the possession of melanin or other African and indigenous phenotypes. The biological features required of the colonized African and indigenous proletariat — mainly, bodies capable of labor inside capitalism — are equally possessed by Eurocolonists.
However, this does not mean that a person’s general biology has nothing to do with the race system! It simply means that the criteria for placement into the subordinate racial group is not directly related to the demands made on, or the oppression faced by, those who exist inside it. To be clear, I hold that the experience of those in the group “Woman” is far more yoked to biology than Meyer claims. But such a belief is not essential to the larger claim that female biology forms the basis for existence in the social group “Woman.”
So when Meyer states, “Ultimately, women’s role in society stems from class society, not biology,” I don’t disagree. Women’s oppression is not an inevitable or even direct result of their possession of a uterus or vulva, but instead the actions of men inside class society. However, that is very different from saying that biology is not the foundational criteria upon which placement into the social group of “Woman” rests. One can hold these two positions — that “Woman” is not a biological category, and that “Woman” is a category comprised solely of female humans — without contradiction.
Meyer moves on to discuss the concept of gender identity through the lens of three contradictions: Self/body, self/society, and society/body. I have no position on this model, other than to say that all three contradictions exist in all people to some degree (a point Meyer agrees with later), and in fact form the foundation of what feminism is. The feelings of “This gender role feels wrong to me” and “People gendering me this way feels wrong to me” were and still are the driving forces behind all feminist action — not because women feel that they are being gendered “incorrectly,” or because they felt another gender designation would be more comfortable, but because they see the entire notion of gendering to be fundamentally oppressive.
Meyer goes on to say:
“We should staunchly combat the reactionary subsections of the trans population overtly influenced by gender roles in their decision to transition as this only serves to reinforce gender roles and provide a smaller space in which ‘womanhood’ or ‘manhood’ can reside.”
This is good to hear, although I don’t see any coherent vision for exactly what kind of transition would not lead to this constricting of the gender categories without tumbling off into incoherence. If one’s gender transition hinges on adopting the constructed markers of womanhood, it’s clearly an expression of parodic misogyny. But if transition occurs without any reference to those markers, there exists no non-essentialist explanation for what “Woman” means in this case.
The confusion increases as Meyer states:
“We must be very careful in our own criticisms here, however, as some people take any trans woman’s display of femininity — regardless of the reasons — as automatically illegitimate, as a sign that they’re ‘faking’ or ‘appropriating’ womanhood, or that they’re some sort of drag queen.”
We need more information about what exactly would grant legitimacy to one person’s claim on womanhood but not the other. If gender is simply the social group created by male supremacy to ensure the subordination of women, it would seem that, if anything, those who most flagrantly adopted the markers of submission would be most able to claim existence in the social role of “Woman.” Yet Meyer rejects this and seems to endorse the opposite.
Regardless, Meyer moves on to discuss the relationship between male privilege and transwomen. It begins with a jab at the idea of transwomen receiving male privilege by comparing it to the concept of “raised heterosexual” privilege. But of course that comparison fails, because we are all raised heterosexual. There is not a division in our society wherein one group of people are raised to pursue same-sex relationships and others are not; if that division did exist, it would be perfectly reasonable to discuss how it affected us later in life.
“Everyone in the world is presented with ideas about womanhood and manhood, maleness and femaleness, regardless of — but of course varying in concordance with — their birth designation… People aren’t so much socialized into a gender role, but educated about gender roles, plural.”
This is perhaps the only part of the piece I find truly offensive. It is absurd to claim an equal psychological and social toll results from learning women are acceptable targets of rape, and living as an acceptable target of rape. We are indeed all educated on gender roles, plural, but whether that education primarily comes from television and movies or fists and penises hinges largely on your gender designation at birth. Although the notion of “lived experience” is often used to defend liberal individualism, this is one case where it should clearly not be ignored.
Meyer’s position also posits a level of self-awareness on the part of men that we know to be nonexistent. The vast majority of men do not link their traditionally masculine behavior — speaking over women, taking up more physical space, privileging male opinions in conversation and debate — with a specifically gendered dynamic.
If you confront the average man about these behaviors, he won’t respond, “Well sure, but I’m a man, so it’s okay.” He’ll respond by either denying that the difference exists, or refusing to acknowledge its link to his gender designation. Some may do this disingenuously to avoid criticism, but many are truly unaware of the role gender plays in these interactions. And if men clearly don’t link their privileged behavior with their gender, why on Earth would they drop that behavior once they adopt a new one?
At this point, Meyer drops an analysis in favor of some completely unsupported platitudes. Among others:
“A trans woman on coming out to herself soon drops internalized male privilege and starts to internalize female gender roles.”
I hate to be snarky, but a citation is really needed here. Certainly my many comrades threatened with rape, mutilation, torture, and death for defending female-only space do not see the speedy abandonment of masculine behavior Meyer asserts here. The question of what individual, psychological process occurs after transition is an objective one that deserves to be studied, not just asserted as fact.
Meyer says as much afterwards:
“I suspect that older transitioners will have experienced the four points in my privilege dissection for long enough in the pre-everything period such that — maybe at least initially — those years stand a much greater chance of overshadowing the post-transition period.”
But this disclaimer fundamentally weaken the previous dismissal of socialization. If divestment from male behavior patterns is not, in fact, an inevitable occurrence (which, to be fair, I don’t think Meyer ever claimed), then it is unreasonable and anti-feminist to demand that women assume those behaviors will fade away.
“Some trans people suddenly conforming to gender stereotypes after transition isn’t terribly surprising given the unavoidable sexism and cissexism in this society. The impossibly inhuman digitally-manipulated model with a clothing size of ‘negative-five’ isn’t a standard that trans people are mystically exempt from.”
Well, yes and no. Yes, transwomen who are attempting to exist and survive inside the social group “Woman” will be required to adopt the markers of submission that define it. They are, however, “exempt” in the sense that they have chosen to enter that social group — a social group that so-called “cis” women are incapable of escaping.
Some may bristle at the claim that transwomen “choose” to transition, but there is no non-essentialist justification for the idea that transition transcends choice. Of course I speak of “choice” not in the liberal idealist sense but simply to recognize that it is not a requirement put on them externally. In fact, Meyer seems to recognize that they are actively fighting to enter the subordinate social group. In this asymmetry of experience, in which one group is expending effort to claim membership in the social group its current members are expending effort to escape, it is perfectly reasonable to consider the latter to be oppressed in a way the former are not.
Meyer makes another statement that is nominally true but misleading:
“Street harassment, violence, housing and employment discrimination, sexual assault, rape, and more, are the daily lives of ‘non-passing’ CAMAB people.”
With this bare fact, I completely agree — however, I would say that this is not evidence that one exists inside the social group “Woman,” but instead simply that men often abuse those males they identify as failing to sufficiently practice masculinity.
In fact, the mere use of the term “non-passing,” even in scare quotes, admits an obvious truth: Most transwomen are not seen as women, but instead as failed men, by those who abuse them. And if we are to say that one’s position in the social group “Woman” is determined by the society around us (as Meyer does later, saying “When I’m gendered woman, I am woman. When I’m not gendered woman, I’m not woman”) then we would have to also admit that many, many transwomen are not women most of the time.
Under this logic, it becomes difficult to say what “transphobia” even means beyond outward acts of hostility and violence towards trans people. When a transwoman is not allowed into a radical feminist space, they are clearly not being gendered as “Woman.” And if one’s gender designation is determined by social experience, would not the rejection of a transwoman’s claim to womanhood itself confirm their maleness? Trans theorists cannot frame gender as a social process while also holding that someone’s gender can be invalidated or misrepresented — considering that the very truth value of their gender claim rests of the validation and interpretation of others. Is Meyer willing to claim that position?
Meyer’s next section is, paradoxically, the one I both agree with most and find most troubling. I will quote it in its entirety, because it forms the crux of my opposition to trans theory:
“Womanhood and manhood are defined by their existence through each other and their violent struggle against one another. You can’t have one without the other, a contradiction (and an antagonistic one at that) in dialectics parlance. One is the struggle of the oppressed and one the struggle of the oppressor. The call for the abolishment of gender isn’t quite correct, or at least requires a bit more nuance and elaboration. Women and men are not the problem, to be abolished on equal terms, it’s men who are the main problem. That’s where we need to focus our energy. You don’t abolish classes by trying to abolish the proletariat and the bourgeoisie both together, no, you focus on the bourgeoisie. You focus on the exploiters and the dominant class in the dialectic — you abolish men first and foremost.
The only progressive way forward for men is for them to strive to end class society — the conditions which gave rise to gender — and to give up manhood, to abdicate their patriarchal throne. To consciously decide to fight sexism at every opportunity and to politically, materially, and ideologically, disassociate as much as possible from their privileged position, masculinity, and exploitation of women. To try and undermine their own social position at every turn. Progressive men should stop trying to envision a “better” manhood or a “better” masculinity; men hurt themselves, other men, women, and non-men when they assert their masculinity, and they should stop trying to imagine ways to redeem themselves without fundamental change.
Just like I strive to give up and end my position and the category of first world labour aristocrat, my position of whiteness, and my position of physical abledness, I call on men to strive to give up manhood. It doesn’t mean I shrug off the label “white” or “labour aristocrat”, just the positioning of those identities as good, or at worst neutral. It means that I recognise that they are fundamentally oppressive social positions and that the only possible use for them are as political organizing labels and for the recognition of my own privilege.”
I agree completely that “Man” as a social designation is irredeemable and must be utterly annihilated. Gender as a system is sustained by men and cannot be abolished until men (and, as a result, women) no longer exist. However, I am incredibly perplexed as to how Meyer’s instructions to men (instructions I very much echo!) can coexist with support for transgenderism.
Recall earlier, when Meyer discussed gender identity in terms of three contradictions: A sense of “wrongness” in regards to the physical body, a sense of “wrongness” in regards to one’s assigned gender role, and a sense of “wrongness” in regards to the social meaning of that assignation. The latter two contradictions are, however, part and parcel of “giv[ing] up manhood” and “disassociat[ing] from a privileged position,” which Meyer demands. But unless we are to see this disassociation from power as best obtained through transgenderism, a conflict emerges.
The conflict is this: We cannot both ask men to give up manhood and divest from masculinity while simultaneously insisting that the urge or desire to do so is resolved through taking action to exist inside the social group “Woman.” That is no longer men rejecting their power, but simply women rejecting an incorrect gender assignment. Men cannot “undermine their social position at every turn” if they are no longer holding that social position, nor can they position these markers as fundamentally oppressive if they have first left them on their own accord.
Meyer specifically says that rejecting race and class privilege doesn’t mean “shrugging off” the label of white or labor aristocrat. Why, then, shrug off the label “Man?” There seems to be a fundamental asymmetry on display, in which those who reject the depravity of whiteness and the bourgeois class are counseled to dismantle those institutions from their privileged place inside them, while those who reject the depravity of manhood are encouraged to renounce their very existence as men.
Meyer says the statement “I’m a woman” is an act of “relating myself to other women and our somewhat shared experience as a group under patriarchy.” Why not encourage whites to yoke their experience to that of Africans and indigenous people by claiming blackness? Why not encourage the bourgeoisie to embrace “classfreakhood” as an act of resistance? What is it about the social group “Woman” that lends itself to these refugees from manhood? Until this confusion can be addressed and clearly explained, the entire thrust of Meyer’s argument fails.
As I said before, I agree with Meyer on the larger picture. Men need to abandon masculinity. Men need to divest from patriarchal power in every way possible. Men need to work to dismantle the institutions that support male power and offer their aid to strengthen women’s resistance struggles. All of these things are essential — but none of them can be done so long as those who feel alien inside the dictates of manhood are allowed or even encouraged to jump ship and claim membership in the social group they previously dominated.
And of course, it’s easy to respond that my whole point is a non sequitur as transwomen simply aren’t men, and thus these exhortations don’t apply. But we all hold that transwomen were raised as men, educated as men, socialized as men, and treated as men until at least the moment they transitioned. To claim otherwise — that someone can be socially and politically recognized since birth to be a man yet still exist as a woman in some other, internal realm — not only negates most of Meyer’s arguments but also descends quickly into the most basic essentialism.
With this in mind, you see that my objection — and, more broadly, most radical objections to trans ideology — rests less on whether or not men can be women in a brute fact sort of sense, but what it means for our society and our resistance efforts for that to be the case. Gender is a social construct; by that fact alone, it’s very possible that its boundaries might shift or change to allow the fluidity trans theorists demand. I am not here to debate metaphysical questions of essential identity but instead the material impact the framework expressed by so many leftists today.
Meyer states near the end of the article:
“My birth designation doesn’t matter. When I’m walking down the street, people gender me as ‘not male,’ as a woman, and it makes me uneasy.”
I do not doubt this is often true. What I doubt is simply that the steps Meyer took to be gendered as ‘not male,’ to exist in that state, were revolutionary or even acceptable in the larger frame of the struggle against male supremacy and gender.
The primary concern then becomes: What ought to be done with those who exist inside the social group “Man” but desire not to? It is my opinion, and the opinion of many others, that the roots of this urge are often, but not always, linked to masculinity — specifically, the masculine urge to take space, break boundaries, and lay claim to what has previously been seen as an explicitly female realm. This should be countered as part of the larger struggle against patriarchal psychology and its violation imperative.
Beyond that, I acknowledge that much of this phenomenon is driven by what Meyer identifies as the three contradictions in gender identity: Self/body, self/society, and society/body. I do not deny that this pain is real. I simply reject that these contradictions can or should be resolved through those existing in the dominant social group claiming membership among the subjugated social group.
Moreover, I hold as universally true that discomfort with status as oppressor is never worse than even comfort with status as oppressed. Consequently, those who have existed in the subjugated social group since birth have the inalienable right to exclude those who currently exist inside the dominant social group, as well as the inalienable right to reject attempts to escape from it.
This is no different than the right of the proletariat to exclude bourgeoisie, as well as reject the attempts of individual owners and bosses to claim status as “one of the workers.” Racially oppressed people are equally within their rights to distrust and fear all who exist inside whiteness and to continually identify whites as white, despite whatever efforts they may put up to exist outside of it. Marilyn Frye once said: “It is always the privilege of the master to enter the slave’s hut. The slave who decides to exclude the master from her hut is declaring herself not a slave.” This does not cease being true even when the master hopes to himself become a slave and make the hut his permanent dwelling.
I must be clear: Those who are placed into the social group “Man” at birth have every reason to experience pain, alienation, and despair. We exist, after all, inside a system that demands from them emotional deadness and inhuman cruelty. We even have reason to recoil from their own bodies, the heft in our fists and the flesh between our legs being perhaps the two most commonly used weapons in the history of human atrocity. I do not ask, as some claim anti-gender radicals do, that men simply accept their gender designation. Far from it — I demand we don’t!
But to truly reject our gender requires that we acknowledge, confront, and weaponize these contradictions inside ourselves, not resolve them through individual lifestyle changes. As men, we exist in the heart of the gender system. We are uniquely positioned to strike at the institutions of sexual sadism — pornography, prostitution, rape, domestic violence, and all other expressions of male supremacy. Like Meyer, I hold this resistance to be essential. I simply disagree that it can survive the politics of transgenderism.