Gender as Non-Fiction

A Q&A with Julia Serano, author of Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive
Lucas Jackson/Reuters

"My gender is a work of non-fiction," author, activist, and biologist Julia Serano declares in one of the essays in her new book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, out on October 1. That’s in contrast to Judith Butler's view, popular in feminist and queer theory, that gender is a social construct.

Serano attacks this concept from three perspectives. As a transsexual woman, she says that being a woman isn't just something she puts on or pretends to be — it's who she is. As a self-declared femme, she says that feminine gender expression — wearing make-up, or a dress, or crying — is not artificial, but rather natural to her. And as a biologist, she's saying that gender isn't performance, or isn't only performance; it's not (just) something you play at, but something you are.  

Serano's first book, 2007's Whipping Girl, talked about the way that feminine gender expression — wearing dresses, or crying, or just being a trans woman, or for that matter being a cissexual woman — is often stigmatized as artificial or fake.  That stigmatization, she argues, occurs not just in the mainstream, but among some feminists, who see being feminine, or being trans, as reinforcing the patriarchy, or shoring up the gender binary. Attacking people for their gender expression in this way, Serano argues in Excluded, is just another kind of sexism. I talked to her about that, and about gender as non-fiction, earlier this week.

Would you call yourself a gender essentialist?

I don't identify as a gender essentialist. Basically, gender essentialism is the idea that there are innate characteristics which all men share with each other and innate characteristics which all women share with each other.  And it leads to ideas that men are naturally aggressive, or that women are naturally nurturing and so on. And those ideas erase gender diversity. There's lots of variation among people of different genders and a lot of overlap between the genders.

Gender essentialism comes up a bit in my book because a lot of feminists have historically associated people who talk about biology as automatically being gender essentialists. That's because usually in mainstream society, people will point to biology to make the case that there are essential differences between the genders. I don't do that. I actually argue that biology, culture, and environment all come together in an unfathomably complex way to create the gender diversity that we see all around us.

How does being a biologist affect your perspective on gender?

Being a biologist has led me to realize that the whole idea of nature vs. nurture in relation to gender is completely ridiculous. Because culture can't happen outside of us as biological beings, and biology doesn't happen outside of culture, at least human biology doesn't happen outside of culture. It’s well established that your culture as well as your individual experiences affect how your brain develops, so there aren't these really strict divides.

I also think that the way feminists have taken a very strict stand on the nurture side of the debate leads to a problem. It leads to the idea that if gender is just a social construct, then maybe we should all do our genders in ways that are politically righteous and will change the gender system. And I think a lot of times that can just as easily erase gender diversity as mainstream assumptions about gender being essentialist.

Has being a trans woman affected your take on the nature-nurture debate?

Yeah. The idea that some feminists have that men and women are different because of the way they're socialized doesn't resonate with me as a trans woman, because I was definitely not socialized to become the person I ended up becoming.

Your new book, Excluded, is actually not about the mainstream excluding members of marginalized groups, but is about how marginalized groups also tend to exclude people. Why make that your focus?

The book started out from me thinking about how as a trans woman I often experience exclusion in women's spaces, and also the ways that being bisexual and femme leads to me being seen as not legitimately queer in certain queer spaces.

Presented by

Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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