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Guest Post: Shanice McBean: A response to John Molyneux: against gender essentialism

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This article was first published by Shanice on Facebook.

A reply to John Molyneux's article, History without nature? A response to Nancy Lindisfarne, Jonathan Neale and Colin Wilson, in International Socialism.

Linder: Untitled

The riot of Stonewall in 1969 marks a decisive reference point for the history of LGBT struggle. Pre-Stonewall there was a pervasive pressure for LGBT people to assimilate into the gender and sexual norms enforced by the nuclear family. These conditions meant a lot of LGBT people found themselves in heterosexual relationships that involved a feminine woman being the subordinate to a masculine man.

The Stonewall riot and the Gay Liberation movement (GLM) that followed created the conditions where rejecting the confines of assimilation became an act of political subversion. The popularisation of the camp aesthetic alongside bawdy and extravagant aspects of the GLM was a reaction to the repression concomitant to the previous period of enforced heteronormativity.

It was during this context of a backlash against assimilation that the diversity of sexual and gender identification became much more visible. The question of visibility is deeply connected to the history of LGBT struggle precisely because a major aspect of LGBT oppression is forcing the diversity of sexual and gender identities to become invisible. We can see this still today, where even Conservatives publically support same-sex relationship equality so long as that very same-sex identity becomes invisible; by dissolving itself into the heteronormative structure of the nuclear family through marriage.

The subsuming of LGBT identity to heteronormative structures (like the family) is a major way LGBT oppression operates under capitalism which means visibility is central to LGBT struggle under capitalism. This is why, despite the limitations, events like Pride are incredibly important. Crucially, this means left wing theorists on gender and sexuality need to actively refuse to contribute to the invisibility of LGBT identity.

What is the relevance of the question of visibility to John Molyneux’s International Socialism piece? The assumptions of his arguments inherently wipe out the very possibility of transgender identity. Molyneux’s main arguments work on the assumption that gender is not a social construct but is a biological reality that is influenced by society. Indeed he writes: "Race is not a scientifically valid or useful biological category in the way that gender is. The notion of distinct races really is a social/historical construction. The concept of distinct genders or sexes is not." This is revealing. Firstly, it confirms that his assumption is that gender has a strong biological element. Secondly, it shows he conflates gender with sex: ‘genders or sexes’. The consequences of this are incredibly problematic: if gender is simply a matter of biology then it follows people born with a male anatomy cannot then become women (and vice versa for people born with female anatomies). This wipes out the theoretical possibility and therefore denies the very existence of transgender people who, fundamentally, find they have a mismatch between their anatomy and gender.

If, on the other hand, gender is not solely but is partly a matter of biology then it follows transgender women/men can never truly be women/men because they will always be lacking that other necessary constituent of gender: biology. The understanding of gender as conceived in any correlative way to biology creates either the theoretical space for the non-existence of transgender identity, or, allows the space for transgender identity to be conceived of as less full or less real than cisgender identity. This line of thinking perpetuates the invisibility of transgender people and, I believe, we ought to call this kind of crude gender essentialism what it is: transphobic.

This seems quite contrary to common sense, though. It is universally acknowledged (at least in the 21st Century West) that there is some biological basis for gender. How can we reconcile the transphobic consequences of correlating gender with biology with the seemingly scientific pressure to suggest some basis in biology for our understanding of gender?

It is at this point we can go back to Molyneux’s quotation above: he says ‘gender or sexes’ as if the two words designate the same thing and are therefore synonymous. It is here that Molyneux’s ignorance on the issue is most glaring: there has, over many decades of thought into the subject, emerged a sharp distinction between sex and gender. This distinction is relevent in theoretical and philosophical discussion but is also becoming cemented scientific and sociological investigation - making the distinction not just a pretty abstract theory but a facet of reality.

The distinction is understood as follows: sex is denoted by the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ and designates biological categories. One’s sex is defined by hormones, genitalia, reproductive capacities etc. Gender, contrastingly, is social: it designates the role one plays in society, one’s aesthetic expression, one’s position in society relative to others, one’s social behaviour and is denoted by words like ‘woman’ and ‘man’. Sex does not give rise to gender: the two are ontologically autonomous.

It is this distinction that allows us to maintain the common sense assumption that there is some biological element worth considering here and the reality that trans people are fully the gender they identify with. By sex and gender being the subject of different spheres a necessary connection between the two is severed. You can have the biology of a male but fully be a woman (i.e. a transgender woman) or you can have the biology of a female and similarly fully be a man.

It’s worth stating here that as Marxists we believe that theory should be based on reality; not the other way around. It may seem to some that the gender/sex distinction was invented to solve the political problem of making trans identity invisible. This would be mistaken. We know that, objectively, transgender women/men are fully women/men. Some transgender people aim to - and some do - cement themselves within the world as the gender they are and then become understood by the world as being that gender. Therefore any theory that leads to the conclusion that transgender identity cannot exist (i.e. by fixing gender statically to biology) or cannot exist to the fullest extent of gender identity (i.e. by fixing gender to biology in some way) must be wrong. The gender/sex distinction is, then, not an invention but a discovery. There is something fundamentally different between biological anatomy (sex) and the socially constructed moulds we are forced to occupy (gender) and it is this coming apart of the two that means transgender identity is as real and true and full as cisgender identity.

Gender, then, becomes the oppressive moulds we are socialized into and who gets socialized into what role is determined by sex markers that signify what sex one belongs to. In class society this is most signified by the capacity for reproduction. What this distinction means is there is no inevitable or necessary connection between sex and gender. This circumvents the problem of making transgender people invisible but also circumvents the gender essentialism that justifies a lot of women’s oppression. It does this whilst also explaining why biology tends also to be a key consideration all the while remaining rooted as a description of the way the world is.

The discussion, however, does not end at this distinction. There is clearly a distinction between what we want to call sex (biological anatomy) and what we want to call gender (the social moulds that capitalism enforces to oppress us for its own ends). But the next question is a lot more radical; is the very categorisation of human beings by biological sex something timeless and inherent to nature? This is to ask the question of whether the very categorisation of people into biological sexes is itself a social construct.

Take for example categorisation based on race; before racism categorising people by their skin colour was no more sensible than identifying and categorising people by the shape of their ears. How much, then, is the demarcation between people who can reproduce and those who cannot a product of oppression rather than a natural line of division? While it is true that people with a womb can have children and people without cannot, this does not, as Molyneux seems to argue, mean that sex is ‘natural’. It is also true that black people can have brown skin and white people cannot – due to biology – but this does not mean the basis for race is natural. This question is very complex and I haven’t got the space here to fully explore it. The point is simply this: the notion that sex is categorisation superficially made in order to create pseudo-scientific justifications of oppression is not one that can be refuted by stating the obvious fact that there is one group of people who can reproduce and another who cannot.

Furthermore sex itself – and so the ability to reproduce – does not fit neatly into the male/female dichotomy. Some women are infertile, some men have wombs, and some people are biologically neither male nor female because they were born with an anatomy somewhere in between (i.e. intersexuality).

This raises a whole lot of serious questions for us. If gender and the categorisation of sex are both socially constructed then what is the explanation for the very strong pull in the direction of seeing gender/sex as solely or mainly biological? What is the creative political potential for subverting gender conventions under capitalism to undermine gendered oppression and heteronormativity? Why, if gender is constructed socially, does there seem to be behavioural continuities between women as a group and men as a group (a very good resource on this would be Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender where she systematically refutes the notion that behavioural continuity between the sexes is because of biology). There are many more questions that this topic raises than it answers and that’s why we need to discuss it; not regurgitate rehearsed and unresearched dogma where the sole purpose is to attack individuals, rather than genuinely and keenly seek a Marxist understanding of gender, sex and sexuality.



The image at the head of the article is an untitled photomontage by Linder, originally used as the cover to the Buzzcocks' Orgasm Addict, 1977.