Radical feminist John Stoltenberg responds to trans feminist Cristan Williams‘ question regarding the way trans and radical feminists might language oppression without condemning intersex and trans experiences of embodiment. Stoltenberg expounds upon his contextualization of “gender identity”, bridging a discursive divide between trans and radical feminist discourse.
Radical & Trans Feminism: Bridging a Discursive Divide
BY John Stoltenberg
Reading and rereading your most recent passage has underscored for me the importance of not only conscious precision in how I say what I mean but also sensitivity to what I have just said means to someone else. Just as the two words you and I began talking about, sex and gender, require all the careful clarity we can humanly bring to our understanding (“we” there being not only you and me but also anyone reading this), so too your foregrounding of the words identity and role—as each has meaning when preceded by the word gender—challenges me to rethink how I was saying what I meant when I too used the term gender identity.
But before I proceed I want to make a personal observation about communication that relates to radical feminism generally. I have come to believe there is political necessity to find a way to language radical feminist insight and vision that encompasses, rather than marginalizes, trans experience. Obviously to do so would have the positive result of diminishing demonizing, some of which may have arisen from animus but some of which is transparently a massive communication breakdown. The hurtfulness of that demonizing is beyond my reckoning, and I have wracked my brain trying to figure out what I or anyone can do or say to stop it from happening anymore.
But for me as one individual, simply as John, the reason I believe radical feminist discourse needs to be trans and intersex inclusive has an even more compelling rationale and urgency: It’s because I have come to believe that illuminating the radical inclusivity of radical feminism makes radical feminism itself clearer to understand, therefore more persuasive, therefore more politically powerful.
Let me explain with an example.
I once had a correspondence with someone who was assigned female at birth, who was “struggling with how to be masculine without taking on the more damaging aspects of male privilege,” and who asked me, “Do you have any thoughts on how the masculine community can welcome someone who was not born male without falling back on the more damaging aspects of male bonding (like objectifying women, or engaging in risky behavior, etc.)?”
I was impressed with how that question was framed, and it opened my thinking in a way that was reflected in my reply:
You really asked what I would now say should be “everyman’s” question—meaning the question someone should ask whether they were assigned at birth to grow up male or whether they elected to live as a male sometime later on. So rather than thinking of your question as coming from some marginal, outlier, outsider position, I would encourage you to assume the truth, which is that your question is absolutely central to the conversation.
I do not know whether this person identifies as trans, but to me the question reflects a valuable insight about what the words gender identity and moral identity mean in how I have been using them. The question also clarifies what I now understand the words gender identity and gender role mean in how you have used them here.
Bear with me, because this might be one of those junctures where our vocabularies mix ’n’ match but also have distinguishable meanings—each of which is true without the other being false.
In your first paragraph above (“I think most trans advocates can clearly see…”), I recognize exactly the political phenomenon of manhood-proving that I have been describing. When you say, “It is the perpetual cultural grasping after the ‘real man’ identity that in no insignificant way not only produces that which we take to be ‘woman/female,’ but in fact produces patriarchy,” we are on exactly the same page. And I recognize that your expression “the ‘real man’ identity” references precisely what I was talking about when (in another answer to that same questioner) I said (with some cis-specificity, which I considered relevant in this context):
The basic dilemma with the gender identity “real man” is that it’s a contested sense of self. It’s not an identity one can simply put on in the morning like clothing. It’s not something that automatically inhabits one’s body with, say, one’s first nocturnal emission. Instead it needs to be reiterated, asserted and proven, repetitively, over and against what it is not.
Put another way: Manhood is an identity construct based on threat—the threat of being perceived (by others and oneself) as less than a “real man.” That’s why to many men and masculine people, any critique of that identity framework will seem to be another threat.
It all goes back to the fact that the gender identity manhood originates as contested, and it has to be reproven and redefended against the threat of seeming not a man—which can feel like nonexistence, like being less than nobody.
When you use the term gender identity, I think you may be talking about something different—something no less true, but something else. You explain that:
when “gender identity” is used in trans discourse, it may be referencing any one of three categories.
A.) One’s subjective experience of one’s own sexed attributes;
B.) One’s sexed identification within the context of a social grouping; or,
C.) Both A and B
…which you then go on to very clearly and illuminatingly elaborate.
Going back to the example from the questioner I quoted above, I recognize in your item “B” this person’s longing to be welcomed into a particular gendered social grouping (in this case “the masculine community”) without having been assigned to that gender at birth. I also recognize in your item “A” what I infer to be this person’s desire to meaningfully express a gendered subjective experience that does not correspond to a gender assignment at birth.
So as I read what you say thereafter, I was in a listening and learning mode, because you are languaging life experience I have not had. And I follow your explanation of how the terms gender identity and gender role have specifically relatable meanings in trans discourse.
When I talk about the gender identity “real man” (as it pertains to people raised to be or aspiring to be a man) and call it a contested sense of self, I am referring to the fact of male-supremacist culture that manhood is the mythic benchmark against which its aspirants are measured depending upon their ranking in actual dominance contests, which begin in early childhood, when one’s autonomic fight-or-flight reflexes are first imprinted with the panic, which will last a lifetime, of not being a real-enough man.
To my knowledge, this near-universal pattern of gender-identity demonstration driven by gender-identity panic is specific to people raised to be a man in male supremacy. I believe there are different cultural protocols for seasoning people raised to be a woman into a gender identity that complies with male supremacy’s agendas; many radical feminists and others have written about that process.
One of the most evident parallels between Andrea’s written work and mine is that we both believed that the key to dismantling male-supremacist violence, both individual and institutional, is the end of manhood itself. By that we meant the end of the personal and collective gender-identity structure that derives from domination, disidentification, despisal, derogation, destruction (it’s a broad continuum of behaviors). The socialization script for people assigned at birth to become “men” is to a greater or lesser extent a process of traumatization and terrorization into inhabiting and operating out of the gender identity manhood with impunity. And as Andrea said (I’m paraphrasing), the socialization script for people assigned at birth to be “women” is to a greater or lesser extent a process of traumatization and terrorization into assuaging and valorizing the gender identity manhood while somehow staying safe from it.
The focus of my work has been to understand the politics and ethics of manhood, and its lifelong visceral contestedness and behavioral consequences. So I need to remember to be clear that the meaning I attach to the term gender identity is content specific to the process by which male supremacy produces people always on guard against any innuendo that they are not “real men” and always prepared to aggress against another to prove that their manhood is real.
At the same time, I realize, I need to be open to the meaning you attach to the term gender identity as it names trans experience. As I understand that sense of gender identity, it is also contested, but in a different way with different consequences. One may feel put on the defensive (whether sympathetically or cruelly) to “prove” one is a woman and not a man, or to “prove” one is a man and not a woman—though that is a fact of one’s being that one knows in one’s heart needs no proof, because subjectively one’s sense of one’s gender identity is not in doubt. That is dramatically different from how manhood-proving operates in male supremacy among people raised (i.e. traumatized) to be a man. A challenge to one’s manhood in that context puts one on the defensive in a way that instantly puts one on the offensive, because it retriggers the childhood trauma by which one learned gender anxiety, the dread that if one is not a real man, one is less than nobody. What this means is that for anyone raised to be a man, subjectively the gender identity “real man” is always subject to challenge and always at risk of failing to be proven.
I get that you have parsed the terms gender identity and gender role to reveal the underlying transactional dilemma of gender: what one must do to be? what part must one play to be believed as who one is? This goes beyond esthetics (appearance); this goes to ethics (the values in acts and actions), which is where sexual politics resides. Moreover, I get and deeply respect that trans discourse does indeed wrestle with the ethical/political dilemma of gender.
I have heard some radical feminists criticize trans discourse for depoliticizing gender. I have puzzled over how to understand that charge because it seems counterintuitive to me. If, as I surmise, those critics mean that by embodying the esthetics of culture’s gender polarity, transpeople obscure a critique of the ethics that reinforce male supremacy’s gender hierarchy, then I think they are mistaken, or they are not paying attention. The vivid story you relate about Jan Morris gives the lie to their charge. Morris was by her own account “involuntarily” placed into the sex class woman by the demeaning ethics and politics of manhood-proving, even while her gender expression, and subjective sense of self, was as a woman. Nothing about her subjectivity meant she did not or could not discern the objectively political subordination that was done to her. To my mind Morris’s experience in that instance of the demeaning ethics of manhood proving does not differ from how the same instance would be experienced by someone assigned female at birth. “Gender” in that ethical transaction is identically political for them both. Only on grounds of sex-essentialist prejudice, it seems to me, can one suppose otherwise.
While reading your latest piece and writing my response, I have been wondering whether my use of the term gender identity might need a footnote. To my mind, the meaning that I use the term gender identity to say can be seen in how the questioner I quoted above framed the transactional/ethical problem for someone who wishes to present as male: how to be believed in male-gendered space as one’s male gender by choice not birth “without falling back on” the dominance behaviors by which “real man” identity verified. To my mind—and in terms of my radical feminist analysis and critique of belief in manhood—the questioner is asking the crucial question for anyone aspiring to be accepted as a real-enough man. It does not matter whether one was assigned male at birth or not; either way, the question is the same: “How can I have a gender identity that—in order to be regarded and authenticated as such by its most adamant and judgmental adherents—would not require me to violate my moral identity, my conscience, my sense of right and wrong?” If every person raised to be a man and/or aspiring to be a man honestly asked themselves that question, not just once but daily, moment to moment, the world would split open.
I know have been approaching your important question in a roundabout way. You asked:
Can you clarify how we might begin to talk about gender/sex identity in a way that neither condemns trans and intersex people for their embodied experiences while, nonetheless being necessarily critical of the gender/sex contextualizations popular culture uses to authenticate “real men” and “real women”?
My answer is simple: When radical feminism’s critique of the “real men”/”real women” cultural delusion is done with the clarity that Wittig and Andrea brought to it, the experiences of trans and intersex people become necessarily fundamental to the conversation. I completely agree that each individual possesses a dignity of a selfhood that must not be proscribed. For that dignity of selfhood to be fully experienced, embodied, respected, and yes loved, I believe that everyone will benefit by distancing themselves from “real man”/”real woman” prescriptivisms. This is an ongoing cultural transformation in which trans and intersex people are living exemplary lives.
Does this mean that women who were assigned female at birth are displaced in radical feminist discourse (or “erased,” as sex-essentialist radical feminists are fond of saying)? Of course not; it means women who were assigned female at birth will also benefit from debunking “real man”/”real woman” prescriptivism, just as radical feminism advocates and predicts. And it also means that the male-supremacist social structure shored up by the delusion of real manhood will be perceived by more and more people as a shared oppression, which must be ended for everyone’s sake. This is the revolutionary insight at the heart of the radical feminism I learned from Andrea, whose vision was never predicated on belief in biological binarism. Sex-essentialist radical feminists’ solipsistic devotion to defining “real womanhood” on a biological basis obscures rather than reveals the common oppression that derives from and is driven by sex-essentialist belief in “real manhood.” The plainer and more palpable radical feminism’s radical disavowal of all sex/gender essentialism becomes, the plainer and more palpable everyone’s stake in radical feminist revolution becomes.
 My attempts so far have been met with more demonizing, as may well occur again when this conversation is published. If so, so be it. I once gave a speech to an audience of men who identified as profeminists in which I urged them to confront male power. Really confront it. Aware that I was advocating what in male supremacy is high-risk behavior—breaking ranks with and challenging male privilege (aka “refusing to be a man”)—I closed my speech vernacularly: “If you ain’t caught shit, you ain’t done shit.” Those words have come to mind when I have been attacked online for my views, and I recommend the catchphrase to anyone else who might find it affirming.
 I’ve used the terms patriarchy and male supremacy interchangeably in my work. Lately I usually say male supremacy, but to me they mean the same thing.
 The phrase is from the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”