Julia Serano’s Arguments for Gender Identity are Unconvincing, Incoherent, and Insulting

Recently, trans activist Julia Serano posted an article on Medium titled “Debunking “Trans Women Are Not Women” Arguments.” The arguments presented are a good Rolodex of common pro-trans, anti-feminist talking points, so I thought I’d point out why so many of them just don’t make a lot of sense. I’m not going to go over every one, just the most common arguments that I immediately had a problem with.

Serano starts by discussing biology and its relation to womanhood. I’m not a biologist and Serano is, so I won’t get into the discussion — other than to say that the following quote is downright silly:

If you and I were to meet, should I refuse to recognize or refer to you as a woman unless you show me your genitals? And frankly, what could possibly be more sexist than reducing a woman to what’s between her legs? Isn’t that precisely what sexist men have been doing to women for centuries on end?

This is a common argument, that identifying women’s biology reduces them to their genitals. Leave off for a moment that only a sexist would equate “female body” with just a certain type of genitals — is there any other realm in which this standard applies, where simply acknowledging a shared trait is seen as reductive? No one believes we “reduce” black people to their melanin levels by acknowledging that, yes, most will have darker skin. I’ve yet to see a labor activist say we “reduce” carpenters and steel mill workers to a set of fingers by acknowledging they do work with their hands.

In every other case, it would be patently ridiculous to argue that “This group shares feature x” means the same thing as “This group can be reduced to x and is only worthwhile in relation to x.” Yet trans activists have decided that’s the only possible interpretation when it comes to women’s biology even being mentioned. It’s a appallingly disingenuous retort. “Women have this body” does not mean “women are this body”; if you can’t hold a woman’s full humanity and her possession of a vulva in your head together at the same time, it’s you who i doing what sexist men have been doing for centuries.

Serano continues:

I would argue that all of these appeals to biology are inherently anti-feminist. Sexists routinely dismiss women by pointing to real or presumed biological differences. Feminists have long challenged the objectification of our bodies, and have argued that we are not limited by our biology. So it is hypocritical for any self-identified feminist to use “biology” and “body parts” arguments in their attempts to dismiss trans women.

Again, I just don’t get the logic. Sexists dismiss women by referencing biology, so the solution is to never reference it at all? Couldn’t the solution be, instead, to not be sexist? Unless you actually believe the claims misogynists make about women’s bodies, you shouldn’t be afraid to have the discussion.

When someone like Serano can’t seem to separate a discussion of female bodies from discrimination towards those bodies, you’d be forgiven for assuming that’s because they agree that female biology is lesser than. When someone wants to avoid limiting women by their biology, and decides to do so by forbidding any reference to it, what else are we supposed to assume except that they believe that biology is actually limiting?

Later, Serano brings up this scenario to discuss socialization:

If you happen to be a proponent of the women-are-women-because-of-socialization argument, then I ask you to consider the following scenario: A young girl is forced against her will to live as a boy. Upon reaching adulthood, after years of male socialization and privilege, she comes out about identifying as female and begins to live as a woman. Do you accept her as a woman? If your answer is yes, then it is hypocritical of you to not also accept trans women as women. (Indeed, the “forced against her will into boyhood” scenario is exactly how many trans women describe their childhoods.)

Serano has to understand that literally every human being is forced against their will into boyhood or girlhood, right? No one chooses to be gendered, because gendering is a process that takes place on the social level outside of us. Assuming non-trans boys or girls have a desire for their psychological grooming is deeply offensive, akin to victim-blaming.

Anyway, the hypothetical itself is not particularly useful. Regardless of the specifics — why was the girl forced to live as a boy? What does that entail? Afterwards, is she returned to the class woman? — the two situations aren’t comparable. To say that they are is to beg the question; the entire point of the debate here is whether or not those experiences would be the same.

Serano caps the section off:

More often than not, people who claim that trans women aren’t women make both the biology and socialization arguments simultaneously, even though they are seemingly contradictory (i.e., if biology is the predominant criteria, then one’s socialization shouldn’t matter, and vice versa). Much like their homophobic counterparts who make appeals to biology (“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”) then hypocritically invoke socialization (e.g., claiming that people can be turned gay as a result of gay teachers or the “homosexual agenda”), the trans-women-aren’t-women crowd desperately throws the entire kitchen sink at us rather than attempting to make a coherent argument.

This is a bewildering response. Even the example of homophobic Christians doesn’t make sense; it’s completely possible to argue that homosexuality is biologically unnatural and caused by social factors. I mean, wouldn’t it be weird for a homophobe to argue one and not the other?

This is another one of Serano’s odd logical leaps. The statement “if biology is the predominant criteria, then one’s socialization shouldn’t matter, and vice versa” is clearly untrue. Of course you can believe that gender is assigned based on biology and still think socialization matters! To say otherwise would be like saying “Well, if you think someone becomes a police officer once they sign up at the precinct and get a badge, you shouldn’t care how they’re trained!” Of course it’s the badge (and paperwork and legal mumbo-jumbo) that makes you a cop — but it’s the training that badge gets you that determines what being a cop means.

In the same way, if my parents had locked me up in a closet after I came home from the hospital and never let me outside until this evening, I would still be a boy even without any socialization. But my “boy-ness” matters precisely because of the socialization that does come with it. I can’t understand why Serano doesn’t see this. I have a feeling it’s a case of intentional ignorance.

Finally, Serano tries to dismiss comparisons between transgender and transracial identities:

Along with Caitlyn Jenner, contemporary trans-women-aren’t-women arguments almost always namedrop Rachel Dolezal. The implication is that a “man” claiming to be a woman is as ridiculous (and as enabled by privilege) as a white person claiming to be black. But here’s the thing: Rachel Dolezal is one person. In sharp contrast (as I alluded to earlier), transgender people are a pan-cultural and trans-historical phenomenon, and comprise approximately 0.2–0.3% of the population.

Privileged people assuming the identity of oppressed groups isn’t a “pan-cultural and trans-historical” phenomenon? I guess Serano has never heard of the Improved Order of Red Men (or been to Coachella). Transracial identities are common throughout colonial history, and they generally carry with them the same features transgender identities have shown throughout patriarchal history: Essentialism, arrogance, and a propensity for rage and violence towards those oppressed peoples who defend their boundaries.

I’d like to make one final point about the incoherence of Serano’s position. The piece ends with:

Trans women are women. We may not be “exactly like” cis women, but then again, cis women are not all “exactly like” one another either. But what we do share is that we all identify and move through the world as women. And because of this, we all regularly face sexism.

To say that transwomen move through the world as women raises the obvious question: What, then, is transmisogyny? How does Serano square these seemingly oppositional claims— that transwomen exist socially as women while also repeatedly being denied womanhood by the same society referenced as the arbiter of gender? The two positions can’t be reconciled. If transwomen truly “moved through the world as women,” they would never experience the invalidation and discrimination trans activists describe. And if we accept that they do have those experiences, that would function as concrete proof that, socially, they are not seen as or treated like women.

This is the double-bind Serano is in: you can’t argue for the validity of your trans identity based on the social experience of womanhood while also affirming, over and over, that transwomen don’t have that experience. Serano needs to get the story straight: Is gender determined by an internal sense of identity or an external process of social gendering? If the former, any unilateral claim that transwomen “move through the world as women” is unfounded. If the latter, transmisogyny doesn’t exist — it’s simply society handing down a “gender ruling” you don’t want.

Either way, like most of Serano’s arguments, there’s not much weight left once you toss out the question-begging and logical sleight of hand.