The rising visibility of trans, intersex, and genderqueer movements has led feminists—and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world—to an increasing awareness that m and f are only the beginning of the story of gender identity. With the release of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Julia Serano offers a perspective sorely needed, but up until now rarely heard: a transfeminine critique of both feminist and mainstream understandings of gender.
As someone who has lived, at various points in her life, as male, genderqueer, and female, Serano brings unique insights to discussions of sexism and misogyny. In Whipping Girl, she weaves theoretical arguments through her compelling essays and manifestos in an attempt to bridge the gap between biological and social perspectives on gender, and calls our attention to the need for empowering femininity itself. In the process, she takes feminist and queer communities to task for dismissing male-to-female transsexuals while celebrating their counterparts on the female-to-male spectrum.
Serano lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is a biologist, writer, spoken-word artist, and musician. From 2003 to 2006 she curated and emceed GenderEnders, a trans/intersex/genderqueer-focused performance series. She's also the vocalist-guitarist-lyricist for the Oakland-based noise-pop band Bitesize.
Bitch caught up with her at a bustling San Francisco café to talk shop, eat sweets, and subvert various paradigms.
You make clear in your introduction that this book is not intended as a memoir.
My experiences definitely shaped my thinking, and I think they also make the points I’m describing a little more vivid. But I didn’t want this to be an autobiography, and it isn’t, because you learn very little about my actual life and history. There’s been this compulsory autobiographical tendency that’s happened with trans people, where you’re expected to tell your history: Did you know as a child? Tell me about your surgery. Et cetera. But our transitions are mere fractions of our lives—mine [took place] over the course of a year and a half. [So] having us tell our stories over and over again ends up making transsexual genders look artificial, like we’re always transitioning.
The idea of “empowering femininity,” as you term it, is problematic given that feminine expression is often used solely to appease and attract men. As you wrote in the book, there’s not much power in being a carrot on a stick dangled in front of someone.
Something I struggle with is the difference between how other people perceive me and how I perceive myself. For example, I’m not attracted to men. [But] sometimes I like getting dressed up, but I know that when I do, men on the street will comment more, people are going to perceive me as dressing that way in order to gain attention. And that sucks, because that’s not what my motive is. But the other option is to repress my femininity or repress my desire to dress up when I feel the desire to do so. And that’s what I did most of my life as a male. And that sucks, too.
Are the terms “femininity” and “female” synonymous?
I use the word “female” throughout the book to describe people who identify as female. Generally, female is a social category. I define femininity as a collection of heterogeneous traits that are independent of each other but are commonly associated with women. The only thing that feminine traits have in common is that they tend to be associated with people who are women or female. Some of those traits might be entirely social in origin. Other traits have strong biological inputs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t social things situated with them. An obvious example is that female hormones can tend to make one experience emotions more intensely than testosterone, and that being emotional is seen as a feminine trait. There’s definitely a lot of biology there, but there are also social norms that are assigned to that, so that if you’re a boy, you’re seen as being atypical if you cry and if you’re female, you’re expected to.
You introduce a lot of new terms in this book, like “cissexual” and “cissexual assumption.” Where did these come from?
Cissexual is a synonym for nontranssexual, just as the related term, cisgender, is a synonym for nontransgender. Until now, cissexual has been used in activist circles, but I decided to use it in the book so that I could thoroughly critique the belief that cissexual genders are more legitimate than transsexual genders. Cissexual assumption occurs when we assume that everyone we meet [has] always been, and always will be, a member of the sex we perceive them to be.
Let’s talk about the use of the term “passing” and why it’s problematic when it comes to the experience of people who are transsexual.
When everything is framed around whether the trans person passes as their identified sex, it puts transsexuals in a position where our genders always come off as fake, as imitations of cissexual genders. Many of us are not actually trying to do anything. I don’t experience myself as actively doing anything to pass. I'm doing what resonates with me.
But in a certain sense, people are always trying, even if at some point it might become second nature. It seems like you're framing it as either “choice” or “biology,” with no in-between.
I disagree. Many times in our lives we enter novel situations where we are read by others in one way or another before we even know what the rules of passing are. In the book I talk about how my mannerisms (which did not change during my transition) seemed to take on new meanings once people began perceiving me as female rather than male. It really took me by surprise. It made me realize that passing has little to do with our performance. It lies in the expectations and assumptions of those perceiving us.
Your argument seems to hinge on the need for a cultural shift in the connotations of femininity. How will that happen?
The first way is by not buying into masculinist presumptions about femininity. In feminism and in the queer community, there’s a strong anti-feminine attitude. If you look at the gay male community, masculinity is praised, femininity is suspect. If you look at the lesbian community, masculinity is praised, femininity is suspect. We have to get that out of our heads. Whenever I hear a feminist argue that women are subordinating themselves to men when they dress up, to me it sounds like a slightly toned-down version of “women who dress provocatively are asking for it.” It’s the same argument. Femininity is a scapegoat. We call it out when women dress up in a feminine way to attract men, but we don’t call out men who are hypermasculine to attract women. Femininity is seen as artificial and contrived, and we can ridicule that, while masculinity just comes across as natural.
While aspects of both femininity and masculinity are often somewhat contrived, I think that as feminists we tend to overlook the ways in which many of us are drawn toward certain gender expressions rather than others, even when they contradict our socialization. The fact that there are young feminine boy and masculine girl children suggests that gender expression often precedes or supercedes gender norms. That’s why I think that instead of constantly critiquing femininity, we should recognize that it exists on its own and can offer its own rewards to those who naturally gravitate to it, whether female or male. We need to recognize that anyone who assumes that femininity is inherently weak, passive, and only exists to appease men is merely promoting a male-centric view of femininity.
By [talking about] empowering femininity, I don’t mean we should all be more feminine. I’m saying we should strip from it all its negative connotations. The argument that there is something inherently contrived and passive and subordinate about expressing yourself femininely leaves women in a double bind.
Can you talk about the idea of sexualization, specifically as it relates to trans women?
Most people, because they can’t figure out why [men] would want to be women, assume that trans women transition for the one type of power that women are portrayed as having in our society, which is the ability to attract men. And this essentially sexualizes the motives of transsexual women. This is seen all the time, both in psychiatry and in mainstream media, where trans women are portrayed as sex workers or sexual deceivers preying on innocent straight men, or cross-dressers are portrayed as fetishizing femininity. What’s implicit in that is that women have no worth beyond their ability to be sexualized.
You talk a lot about different kinds of binaries in your book—for instance the social-constructionist vs. gender-essentialist binary.
It’s become this sad parody of itself, where on one side are people who try to naturalize sexism by saying that it all comes from biology. And a lot of people coming from a feminist perspective argue that it's all social, it's all a construct. I think we should acknowledge that there are two general categories of sex, while at the same time recognize that any possible exception in those two categories of sex happens all the time.
You could call me a social constructionist in that I think some of the way we express gender is social—and the way we interpret it in others is highly social. But the fact that a lot of feminism has focused on only talking about the social is bad because it gives biology to the people who are trying to support sexism. And from a biological perspective, the cut-and-dried idea of male/female, or masculine/feminine, doesn't make any sense—biologically, there's so much variance in humans.
Like many debates within feminism, it seems a reconciliation is in order. How do we begin to do that?
We can’t even approach a real discussion of what gender is until we’re at a spot where we feel comfortable talking about gender in terms of both biology and social constructs. And I know this is really difficult, because biological arguments [are] so often used to promote sexism.
But what’s problematic about framing gender solely in social terms is that then everything becomes a choice; it puts us in this situation where we’re always having to explain the doing and performance of gender. If gender is a choice, then I should be able to conform the way I express my gender, my masculinity, femininity, androgyny, in order to meet what other people deem is the most radical, or the most anti-sexist. If you only talk about gender in terms of social constructs, you can’t really account for any subconscious inclinations we may experience. The idea that gender is just a construct is often used against transsexuals: If gender is just a construct, why change your sex? [Gender-as-construct] erases the possibility that we each have some kind of understanding about how our bodies should be. It puts my very real experience into terms that I don’t relate to, in the same way that people who aren’t queer often try to frame people in same-sex relationships as, “Oh, they’re looking for an alternative lifestyle.” It’s really condescending to assume you know why people are doing what they’re doing.
I want to talk about women-only space for a moment—specifically, your take on the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and the roots and problems with its “womyn-born-womyn-only policy.”
Transsexual women are singled out and specifically denied entrance into Michigan, and in that sense it’s a cissexist policy: It takes those women who are assigned the female sex at birth, and their lived experiences, more seriously than my lived experience as a woman.
That’s bad enough. What I think is even more problematic—but what a lot of people don’t want to talk about—is that there are more and more people who identify as male going to Michigan, who perform on stage, and who attend other women’s events. The intellectual cover for this is that they were born and socialized female. But I would argue that this language is purposely intended to allow people on the ftm spectrum in but not people on the mtf spectrum. Many times there’s an outright exclusion of trans women. In other cases—especially in a lot of queer/trans spaces—trans women are welcome, but often hardly any trans women attend. A lot of that is because of traditional sexism or misogyny: People are a lot more comfortable with trans masculine expression than trans feminine expression.
People want to frame trans women exclusion around the fact that we were men, but that doesn’t explain why trans men are welcome. Why should someone who lives as male now and currently benefits from male privilege be allowed into a women-only space, while someone like myself, who is treated as a woman and who identifies as a woman, isn’t allowed in?
An example that demonstrates the misogynistic inclinations of excluding trans women, and feminine expression, came from a friend who was walking the line at Camp Trans. They were asked by someone if there are any trans women at Camp Trans, and my friend said “Yeah,” and then the person replied, “I’m surprised an mtf person would even want to go camping…aren’t they afraid they might break a nail?” There’s such a hatred of femininity there, and that's often the attitude. I understand where some of the feminist suspicion of femininity has come from, even though I don’t agree with it, but I think that in talking about the issue of trans woman exclusion, people [chalk it up to] the fact that we were men.
A lot of people [talk about Michigan] as though it’s a place for those who have lived as young girls under a patriarchal society. If [it were] a conference on girlhoods, that claim might make a little more sense. But it’s a women’s music festival; it has nothing to do with your childhood.
It also implies that a very feminine-looking woman and a very butch-looking woman have had the same experiences and the same struggles living in a patriarchal society, which is clearly not true.
Right. And you would think that anyone who’s paid any attention to feminist dialogues over the past 20 years would recognize that there’s a really big mistake in talking about womanhood in terms of some kind of oneness or united sisterhood.
Let’s talk about the current focus on masculinity–both in academic circles as well as in queer women’s communities–and the effect this is having on feminine gender expression.
This celebration of masculinity in the queer women’s community really blows my mind. I was at a queer/trans performance space where the majority of people in the audience identified as queer women or ftm-spectrum folks, and I was one of the only trans women there. Someone who was performing shouted out from the stage, “How many of you love femmes?” And the whole audience cheered. And when I went on after, I said, “How many of you are femmes?” There were over 100 people there, and maybe eight people applauded.
It does seem like there’s been recent movement around the femme identity. In San Francisco, for instance, femme gangs have sprung up. And there was last year’s film Female to Femme.
A lot of femmes tend to frame the situation this way: We’re femme, but we still challenge heterosexism because our feminine gender expression subverts the patriarchy or the dominant paradigm, or gender binary norms. The implication of that is that feminine women who aren’t queer reinforce those things. So not only does it implicitly suggest that straight women are enabling their own oppression—which I think is pretty fucked up—it also makes the femme experience about being queer, rather than framing it as wrong that society, including the queer community, is dismissing them because they're feminine.
I wanted to subtitle the book The Scapegoating of Femininity because I think this idea that all people who are feminine are maligned is a totally unexplored area of gender activism. As someone who is a femme dyke, I would argue that we’d be better off calling out the people who dismiss femmes for their hatred of femininity than trying to frame our femininity in this gender-transgressive way that insinuates straight women’s femininity is reinforcing sexist norms. Anyone who’s been in the queer community or who’s been involved in feminism knows that some people have a really condescending attitude towards straight people, and straight women in particular. And I do not understand how people can self-rationalize that kind of behavior with any kind of ending of [societal] sexism.
Why stay wedded to the concepts of femininity and masculinity at all? It seems like it’s impossible to strip them of their negative meanings.
Many of us find ourselves gravitating toward feminine, androgynous, or masculine forms of expression, even when those expressions defy societal norms (for example, feminine men and masculine women). This suggests that some, but clearly not all, aspects of femininity and masculinity are natural, so it’s impossible to completely abandon them. Lesbian feminists tried this in the ’70s and ’80s and all it accomplished was marginalizing butch and femme women from their community. It just became a new gender norm. In fact, in the book I make the case that it is impossible to critique the way that anybody does their gender without automatically creating a new gender hierarchy, without implying that certain genders are more righteous or legitimate than others. As feminists, I say we should focus our energies on challenging the rather arbitrary meanings and values that get placed onto our sexed bodies, gender expressions, and sexualities, rather than working to create brand-new forms of sexism.