Thinking about Gender: Update

By Chris Riddiough

Our understanding of gender, sex and sexuality has grown in the two years since I originally wrote a two-part blog post called “Thinking about Gender” (Part I and Part II). My thinking and understanding continues to evolve as I talk with people and learn more. First, let me be clear that DSA and myself, personally, support trans liberation and have for some time. But because as we all have grown up in a society that is racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic, we can all learn more and do more to fight injustice wherever it occurs.

We have found over the years that even biological sex, which seems so immutably binary and simple compared to gender identity or sexual orientation, is more complex than one might imagine. While doctors might proclaim, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy” based on the external genitalia of a new baby (or even, these days, a sonogram), they do not take into account internal sex/reproductive organs, hormones or chromosomes. Nor do they ask if there is really any need to classify the newborn.

And, while for eons in many (though not all) societies biological sex and gender identity were deemed to be the same, we now know that that is not always the case. Today more people are describing themselves as genderqueer or gender neutral or agender and thus raising for all of us questions about whether gender itself is really a socially imposed binary: Are the simple categories of cisgender (self-identity aligns with biological sex) and transgender adequate in today’s world? Do we need to think of gender identity in a more complex, multi-dimensional way?

We also need to consider that race plays an important role in how we think about gender. Monica Hesse wrote an article earlier this year linking the North Carolina bill limiting bathroom usage to laws 50 years ago that segregated bathrooms because of the sexualized views of African Americans. Our views of gender, of human bodies and of people are very Eurocentric; this is one factor that limits our ability to fight for racial justice.

In many respects this brings us back to Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and U.S. historian Linda Gordon (from part two of my original blog post) – Gramsci who talked about the importance of ideological hegemony in maintaining the capitalist class, and Gordon who described the system of gender as opposed to gender as an individual characteristic. And as we think about the issues they raise we must also consider how we address the status of the largest group affected by an ideology that thinks the most important thing about a newborn is whether it’s a boy or a girl. That group is women.

So the discussion – and more importantly, the struggle – around gender continues. I am left at this point mainly with questions:

  1. How can we better understand gender/sex/sexuality in the context of socialism and feminism (and socialist feminism)?
  2. What specific lessons can we learn from Gramsci and Gordon – and I would add into this mix Juliet Mitchell, who really started us thinking about women in socialist terms and socialism in women’s terms?
  3. How can/should LGBTQ liberation relate to women’s liberation? Can learning more about trans issues and lesbian and gay issues help us better understand and act on women’s issues, broadly defined? How can these issues inform our efforts to fight for racial justice?
  4. What do we do? The original socialist feminist paper described socialist feminism as a strategy, and that implies action. We must ask ourselves what does any of this mean for what we do?

These are only a starting point. Here are some resources for additional discussion:

Christine R. Riddiough serves as a vice chair of DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.