Gender Abolitionism vs Realism
Until recently, the mainstream (Judeo-Christian) view of gender has been a sort of biologically determined realism. This is to say that gender is not a “social construct” or anything of the sort. It is a fact of life determined at birth based on physical structures found on the body. To say otherwise was considered a form of mental illness, and still is in some circles.
Within this framework of gender, to say that there are only two genders is a fact, no less empirically true than gravity or the weather on Mars. This is what is meant by realism: gender has an actual existence independent of what anyone happens to think about it. Facts don’t care about your feelings, so there’s nothing feelings can do to change the reality of gender.
As a society, we seem to be moving away from this conception of gender. But towards what? I propose that the answer is not so clear. Rather, I’d argue that there are multiple, often fundamentally conflicting views of gender that are often bundled up into one viewpoint. I’d like to look into two of these viewpoints that I feel are especially opposed to each other.
Being trans is perfectly normal… and if that makes some people uncomfortable, it’s only because they’re choosing not to live in reality. — Abigail Thorne
The first view is what I would consider another form of gender realism, or at least quasi-realism. Unlike the biologically determined form of realism, this viewpoint doesn’t believe in any external, objective source of gender. Instead, gender emerges from an authentic inner source that isn’t necessarily determined by anything biological, although it is intrinsic to the individual. I’ve thought a lot about what to call this position. Perhaps the best name for it would be authentic realism, because it is based on an inner, authentic, and personal source.
This doesn’t mean that gender is whatever you feel like. Although gender is subjective in the sense that it resides within an individual, it’s still a type of inescapable fact. One may benefit immensely from performing an inauthentic gender sincerely. Not only might a transgender person desperately crave the approval and acceptance of their family and community guaranteed by fulfilling their biologically determined gender role, they also increase their probability of victimization by violent crime four-fold by performing their authentic gender.
What would push someone to leave the safety of their biologically determined gender role? The ecstasy of inhabiting your authentic self, and the agony of being inauthentic. In contrast to the comfort, relief, and relaxation one feels performing their authentic gender, being forced to inhabit an inauthentic self is a genuinely traumatic experience. Here’a a quote directly from Abigail Thorne, a British actress and creator of Philosophy Tube, on her experience inauthentically performing male gender before coming out as trans.
It’s like every time I see myself on screen or even in the mirror, I’m not sure I’m really there. I don’t know if I’m real. It’s like it’s a different person… This face and this body… It’s not who I was expecting. But then I go out and people talk to me like I am him, and I just sort of pretend I am… I want to be like him… To me, pretending to be this man is like living in the trenches, going to war every day… I think I’m dying. In fact, I feel like I’ve been dead for years.
We can clearly see that choice is outside the realm of possibility here. Abigail is emphatic that she would like to be this male stranger she presents to the world. He’s beautiful, successful, and a role model to those around him, but he’s not real. More than that, it seems he’s killing the real Abigail. The theme of death is crucial to authentic realist discourse, as we can see with the concept of deadnaming: to call someone by the name given to them at birth rather than the name authentically chosen by the individual after transitioning to their real gender.
When you deadname someone, you’re telling them that you don’t see them as their true self. Instead, you see them as you choose to, which is not in alignment with who they are.
This quote from the article What Is Deadnaming and Why Is It Harmful? by Ariane Resnick is a realist statement to the utmost. Here, we see the authentic realist version of “facts don’t care about your feelings”. There’s also an explicit rejection of choice, which of course is inherently incompatible with realism.
I can’t help but find it ironic that commentators like Ben Shapiro who position themselves as defenders of individualism so ardently oppose what he calls “the cult of authenticity” as a borderline existential threat. Rather than asserting and living by their own beliefs about themselves, Shapiro argues it’s more important for the sake of civilization that individuals surrender their autonomy and give in to the collective’s need for them to conform to a role predestined by biology. The movement away from “sincerely” adopting appropriate roles that perpetuate a system of social relations to authentically pursuing one’s unique role regardless of social norms is perhaps the cornerstone of individualism. One has to wonder what exactly Ben Shapiro is defending then.
By the way, I came up with the term “authentic realism” before looking into what Ben Shapiro had to say about it. No, I am not happy that I accidentally converged on an idea with Ben Shapiro.
Gender abolitionism is the social movement centered on creating a postgender society. The movement is based on the belief that gender is a harmful social construct that limits individuals and society as a whole. — Williamson
Gender abolition opposes authentic realism in two major respects. In the first place, it is strictly anti-realist. Gender is considered an arbitrary social construct, which is why it can be abolished. You wouldn’t build a movement aiming to abolish gravity or consciousness. Second, its view on gender is entirely negative. Realists like Abigail Thorne may see their gender identity as a source of immense joy and comfort. Gender abolitionists see gender identity instead as a system of control and oppression, even enslavement.
The most important thing to state right off the bat is that gender is not something that is innate or that cannot be changed, this is what allows for the condition of its abolition. — Halls
Despite this, all of the gender abolitionists I have read are universally transgender-affirming when they don’t identify as transgender themselves, as Halls does. However, the way they conceptualize being transgender is entirely different. First of all, it is a choice. Second, the choice tends to be primarily political rather than individual. The Gender Accelerationist Manifesto, probably the most radical text on abolitionism, sees identifying as transgender as a rejection of gender, aimed towards the establishment of queer power to violently resist patriarchy. The goal of this movement is to practice communism towards the end of abolishing the current order and liberating all oppressed people. Gender is seen as a basal component of the current liberal capitalist order, and its material dissolution is immediately paramount to overthrowing the system as it stands.
When people continuously and knowingly use the wrong pronouns and names for others, it is a form of violence against them. Doing so frequently leads to self-harm and sometimes suicide by queer people. As such, we need to defend and back other queer people up. Such violence against queer people cannot go unanswered and cannot be acceptable. But we should keep proportional responses in mind. Misgendering doesn’t warrant murder. — The Gender Accelerationist Manifesto
What’s the cause for this militancy? It’s essentially an application of Marxist materialist thinking to gender. Reproductive labor is broken up along gender lines, with men exploiting women through the threat of structural sexual violence. Gender performance through dress, voice timbre, and so on are the cultural superstructure that reinforce this fundamentally economic relationship. Biology is also part of the superstructure. Reality is to be found in the relations of production.
Structural sexual violence here is not at all abstract. For the authors of The Gender Accelerationist Manifesto, higher rates of rape against women and queer people is a result of the “correctional” role they play in reinforcing the gender relations of production. This form of societal enforcement precedes the state and police enforcement. Laws against sex workers actually make it difficult or impossible to report sexual violence committed against them, providing a venue for it to occur with impunity, or even participation by the police. The only real solution then is to form “queer militias” that protect vulnerable people from sexual assault, fight against misgendering and dead naming, and defend independent queer institutions.
None of the other sources I read go this far in their prescriptions to abolish gender. Burgess, for example, argues for universal healthcare, universal housing, prison abolition, bureaucratic reform, and individual action as a gradual path towards limiting material divisions of gender. Some abolitionists like Dvorsky and Hughes hope that future technologies will pave the way forward towards abolition. They see neurological differences between sexes and the biological necessity of childbirth as part of the material basis for gender, but believe technology like artificial wombs and psychopharmacology will eventually be able to overcome all biological differences.
In case I’ve somehow managed to hide my bias so far, I’ll put it out there explicitly that I lean heavily towards the authentic realist position. It appears to me much more constructive, life-affirming, and based around joy than the primarily reactive abolitionist position. Like many leftist projects, I worry that the abolitionist focuses too much on tearing down what exists rather than building something worthwhile and stable.
I find authentic realism best explains what I intuitively feel myself as well as what I’ve observed in others. I don’t see how gender being an arbitrary choice is at all compatible with Abigail Thorne’s testimony, and many statements within The Gender Accelerationist Manifesto seem especially self-contradictory. How does misgendering someone constitute a traumatic act of violence unless there’s something really there to be violated or suppressed? If biology is merely a superstructure, through what mechanism has gender managed to maintain itself as the oldest, most stable, and most universal form of oppression?
Differences in fundamental philosophy do not necessarily imply differences in outcomes. For example, mathematicians can’t agree on what math is, but they just about always come to the same conclusions about what it says.
The culture may generally converge towards a three or five gendered system like the Buginese culture, which the Manifesto mentions. In this case, we’d categorize people as cis/trans-male, cis/trans-female, and trans-neuter. Given the ideological environment, there’s a push factor towards dropping the cis/trans distinction, but this would have to overcome medical concerns as well as the ideological pull factor towards categorizing people according to their privilege. There are also gender-apathetic and gender-fluid individuals who straddle the entire spectrum. Maybe gender will collapse in on itself. Who knows?