Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Tyranny of a Genderless World

This is the way I am
Yes I'm just made this way
And when I want to laugh
Why then I laugh all day
I love the guy who loves me
So how am I to blame
If the guy who loves me
Is not every night the same?
- Jacques Prevert (translated by Eric Bentley)

This has always been my song. I believe that everyone is different and -- as long as nobody's killing anybody or molesting anybody -- we should let people be whoever they are.
Surprisingly, not the whole world agrees with me (or with Jacques Prevert!).
The big surprise is that some recent opposition to Prevert's ideas comes from an unexpected place: the trans community. But this is not surprising, since the queers who started this whole sexual liberation thing got it wrong in exactly the same way.
Let me explain.
Lately some trans activists (Kate Bornstein, significantly) have been raising the banner of 'no gender.’ I've got nothing against Kate Bornstein, I've met her, and she's probably as charming and sweet a person as you'll ever meet. (And two more different people you will never meet: Kate's about as laid back as I am stressed out!) But as much as I adore Kate, I disagree fundamentally with her idea that there should be no such thing as gender. 
The argument goes something like this. Gender causes a lot of pain. When we label children boys or girls, we force them to fit into the straightjacket of gender assimilation. Who are we to tell anyone what a man or a woman is? And yet, inevitably, says Kate, as long as there are gender labels, those labels will continue  to oppress people. Gender is a kind of fascism. A genderless world would be a world without homophobia or sexism.
A lot of people have picked up on Kate's ideas, including the trendy gender activist Beatriz Preciado. 
But Kate’s ideas are not new.
Contrary to what you might think, early queer activists were not just fighting to make the world safe for gays and lesbians. No. They were fighting to create a world without sexualities. The fantasy of early gay and lesbian activists was the same as present day trans activists --  that labels would some day be unnecessary.  
So what's wrong with this dream?
I believe that such a world would be even more oppressive than the world we live in now.
For example, right now some feminists no longer feel comfortable about beginning a sentence saying — "As a woman, I --"
Why? Why, after years of fighting for women's liberation, would women feel that it’s wrong to speak 'as a woman?' Because for some, speaking 'as a woman' enforces a fascistic gender binary.
I’m sorry, but all this has to stop.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Kate Bornstein has only the very best of intentions.
But a world in which people are afraid to embrace the labels that they have chosen for themselves is not a better world. 
It is, unfortunately, easy to imagine an impossible, utopian vision. What's much harder to do -- but what we must do, at all costs -- is respect the labels that people make for themselves and somehow (and this is very difficult) teach them not to oppress others with their own self-identification.
So if somebody tells you that you can’t speak 'as a woman' or 'as a  gay man' because gender and sexuality are oppressive labels, just say. ‘You’re oppressing me!’
Let's be gay, lesbian, straight, gay, genderless, male, female, gender variant, bisexual, trans -- let’s be different!
But please please -- I beg you --  let’s not tell anyone they can't self-identify.
Because in that imagined freedom you will find a kind of slavery.