We’re at an odd point these days when it comes to feminism and gender politics. On one hand, reproductive rights are as challenged as ever, in the U.S. and elsewhere. On the other, the more plugged-in youth (and fashion labels) have transcended gender altogether. Feminist concerns have started to seem out of date and even, at times, borderline offensive. A feminism focused on getting a woman elected president is guilty of Lean In-ish failures to acknowledge the plights of women who’ve faced more obstacles than Hillary Clinton. And various “women’s” issues—everything from abortion to the women’s-only music festival—have, as Michelle Goldberg discussed in The New Yorker in 2014, come to seem exclusionary of women who were assigned male at birth.
Sam Escobar’s recent Esquire piece—about their non-binary identity, and about the pronouns they prefer—has renewed this part of feminist debate, but this time from the perspective of assigned-female-at-birth individuals who now identify otherwise. While gender non-conformity is a much-covered area these days, Escobar’s piece took the gender-is-how-you-feel position to an extreme. “I do not identify as a woman, but the above photos show you that I present fairly feminine, meaning most people assume I am a cisgender woman until I inform them otherwise.”
Indeed, the photos show a person who, absent explanation, would read as a beautiful young woman. But Escobar’s words don’t leave a whole lot of room for debate. Their requests—which are limited to correct pronoun usage or a good-faith effort in that direction, and also refraining from inquiring about their genitals—are altogether reasonable. And if the pronoun thing seems a bit much, consider the extent to which we’ve embraced “Happy Holidays” as opposed to “Merry Christmas” in December; semantically speaking, including a minority is not a large burden on the majority.
But a more critical take was to be found in one branch of feminist Twitter, where the more old-school feminists—that is, the ones whose feminism largely conflates gender and biological sex. A common sentiment among those who shared the piece: “My god, the self-absorption and obsession. Nobody cares how interesting and complex you feel. Nobody cares.” Which is quite a stinging thud of a criticism, one I would not endorse. There is, however, a valuable point beneath the surface.
As an example: There’s a profound difference between a cisgender woman’s unease with traditional femininity and a trans man’s discomfort with having been assigned the wrong gender. I have no wish to trivialize the body image (and reproduction-related, and sexual-violence-related) concerns that many cis women face. But all things being equal, it’s clear that the latter complaint is a bigger deal than the former. An adolescent girl who feels terrible when she sees a Natalia Vodianova billboard can speak out about this and hear a tremendous echo of solidarity. She is not alone. A trans boy, meanwhile, is unlikely to be able to get a ‘been there, son’ talk from his father.
Even so, it would be wrong to interpret the criticism the piece received from some cisgender feminists as cis women straying from their lane. What these critics are expressing is a sense of frustration with what they present as turn in feminism, toward a more rigid definition of what it means to be a woman. I’m thinking about the second New York Times Ethicist letter here, from a transgender man who feels micro-aggressed when “the waiter” uses “ladies” to welcome him and his partner, and seems to be saying that gender-neutral language should be used in all cases. (Except, it would seem, those involving servers.) Neither the letter-writer nor Kwame Anthony Appiah’s response considers the possibility that an androgynous but masculine-presenting person one is interacting with for the first time might be a gender-non-conforming woman, rather than a trans man.
But masculine-presenting women aren’t the only ones ignored in this new understanding, which is where things get more complicated. The “binary” cis woman, as discussed (in Escobar piece—and in another essay, by their fellow “cis-passing” writer Laurie Penny—is someone who affirmatively accepts female identity. That’s all this can mean, since being a non-binary but cis-presenting female is now also a possibility. That such a category now exists means that the women who don’t embrace an alternative label have, by default, identified really cozily in their gender identity. Writes Escobar:
The gender binary separates those who identify as male or female, simple as that. Non-binary genders, however, don’t fit neatly within these two—they can be a combination of male and female, a fluid back-and-forth, or totally outside of the binary. Cisgender people, on the other hand, are folks whose identities align with the gender they were assigned at birth.
What this leaves out: Why identities may align with traits assigned at birth. It seems to me that gender is experienced, for some ostensibly cisgender women, as a non-negotiable. For me—and here I wish to speak only of myself—being female is like being Jewish. I could, in theory, convert and embrace another religion, and would want to feel free to do so if I felt I needed to embrace, say, Lutheranism. But I recognize that it wouldn’t change how the world perceived of me ethnically, and it wouldn’t change my lived experiences. This certainly doesn’t mean everybody experiences gender in this way. But any discussion of gender fluidity that assumes cis women are comfortable with their gender is missing a key point. While it’s silly to think that trans women, on account of having experienced however many years as apparent boys or men, are somehow advantaged over cis women, it’s at least a notch less silly to view the born-women who cease to identify as women, and who give, as the reason, that they sometimes feel male (or, more troublingly, that they don’t shave off all body hair) as having, in a sense, abandoned ship.
There are several places where well-meaning people may disagree. Which should we prioritize: how we self-define, or how others define us? And does feminist liberation come through the eventual elimination (or proliferation) of labels, or does it require outspoken solidarity on the part of those who present as female? Much as I might want to embrace the former in both cases, I wind up drawn to the latter. On some level, I identify as a Jew—despite no religious adherence, and no particular draw towards Jewish communal life—because anti-Semitism exists. That is, I think, what’s going on when cis feminists squirm at what seems like an evasive self-identification, like what Escobar described in their piece. It’s a political desire to see a level of solidarity.
It’s a matter of basic decency when it comes to pronouns—and restrooms—to err on the side of respect. And yes, this means allowing people to go through phases when they identify as a gender of their own invention. But who’s to say that the person someone is for a month at 15 or 25 is any less who they really are than the one they’ll be at 50? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether someone has embraced a new identity permanently; respect isn’t about wrapping your head around another person’s thought processes.
Just as we—the feminist women who identify as women with no other qualifiers—aren’t in a position to assess whether someone preferring a certain pronoun really feels whichever gender, so too should advocates of the new gender-fluidity remember that not all binary self-definition results from binary sentiment, or from a position of ease. In the end, it’s about the same thing: not policing others’ identities, nor projecting our identities onto them.