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.

And one of the things I think I've found is that the exclusion that goes on in particular feminist or queer spaces mirrors the exclusion that happens in mainstream society. I know that the average person might say, "Isn't this a minor problem, talking about infighting within these movements?" And I would argue that it's not, because if you're excluding people within your own movements, you're going to get a very narrow and distorted agenda.

In the book I talk about how feminism and queer activism, which were created to challenge different forms of sexism, often create their own sexist hierarchy, where people of certain genders and sexualities are seen as better than others. So there's an important hypocrisy there. And also exclusion happens more generally. For example, a lot of women of color and poor and working class women have talked about how mainstream feminism has been very white and middle class, and so a lot of issues that fall outside of that narrow realm often get overlooked. So I would say that it's as important to talk about exclusion within our movements as it is to talk about exclusion in the culture more generally.

In your book, you question the idea of totalizing systems of oppression, like patriarchy or the gender-binary. Instead, you argue for looking at individual double-standards, wherever they appear. So given that, I wonder how you make distinctions between discrimination and reverse discrimination from your perspective? Or do you make a distinction?

I think a lot of times when you're really focused on a particular –ism, you kind of theorize two groups, and one group has all the privilege and the other group is completely oppressed. And that's often very true, often that's one way of looking at the issue and of getting at the fact that there is a hierarchy and one group is seen as less legitimate than the other.

But I think sometimes, especially with gender, since gender's very complicated in that there's a lot of stereotypes and assumptions and expectations placed on all people, of various genders and various sexualities, and so I think that if you're only looking at the specific hierarchy you sometimes disregard a lot of assumptions and double-standards. But at the same time people who only look at double-standards sometimes don't see the hierarchy.

You brought up for example reverse-discrimination, as some men's rights activists will talk about it. And while there are very real double-standards that men face, usually the double-standards that men face is related to a hierarchy that affects women more severely than men.

So for example, I've sometimes heard people say, well women are free to wear whatever they want, whereas men have to fit more strict rules regarding dress. And I think that that ignores the fact that women's dress is very highly policed in our culture. And it's also related to the fact that being female and feminine is less legitimate in our culture than being male and masculine, which leads to the idea that men who wear women's clothing are more suspect than women who dress in masculine clothing. So that's one example of how if you're only looking at specific double-standards in terms of reverse-discrimination, it isn't very helpful. Because you can't get rid of the double-standards men face without getting rid of the double-standards women face.

I do definitely believe that men are affected by sexism. So I do think that it's really incorrect to think of men as being completely privileged and women as being completely oppressed. Men's gender and gender expression are highly policed, albeit in different ways than women's are. And rather than fighting over, "we should only be fighting for women's rights," or "we should only be fighting for men's rights," I think you should work to fight all forms of sexism, regardless of who's impacted by it.