Julia Serano talks “Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive”

AE: What occurs in the act of exclusion is the projection of violence construed as fear, when in fact the violent or threatening community is not the excluded other, but that whom has excluded the other. Cissexism, to me, is nothing less than gender-xenophobia. I have a question of clarification regarding MichFest and “the penis.” You write, “What’s between my legs is not a phallic symbol, nor a tool of rape and oppression; it is merely my genitals.” For you, yes—but how do you eradicate thousands of years of symbolism, of signification, not only of the penis as phallus, but as the penis as…well…penis? How does the material penis not “matter”?

JS: Pre-op and non-op trans women are highly aware of the fact that penises (or genitals that come in that particular shape and form) are quite material. To be honest, I don’t think that anyone is as viscerally aware of both the material and symbolic aspects of penises than trans women!

An important part of being a feminist is learning to cut through societal propaganda and symbolism. There are thousands of years of symbolism portraying women as being the property of their husbands. Should we not challenge that symbolism simply because it has a long history? Women have been taught to fear penises. But many societies have also feared women during menstruation. It doesn’t make that fear justified or right.

The argument that women at MichFest and elsewhere make is that some women who survive sexual assault and rape are triggered by the presence of penises, and therefore trans women must be excluded for their safety. This argument ignores the fact that 1) penises don’t assault people, people assault people; 2) many perpetrators of sexual assault and rape do not have penises; 3) many trans women (regardless of their genital status) are victims of sexual assault and rape; and 4) we live in a culture where people cover their genitals in public, so it’s not like these women have to see anyone’s genitals if they don’t want to.

Symbolism is often a form of objectification. And when people dismiss a woman’s personality, identity, and life experiences because (in their eyes) she “has a penis,” that is objectification, pure and simple. As a feminist, I believe we should view people (especially women!) as whole people rather than as isolated body parts.


AE: How did cissexism arise out of traditional, heterosexism? How it is a form of misogyny?

JS: In Whipping Girl, I made the case that most forms of sexism tend to fall into two major categories. The first is traditional sexism, which assumes that femaleness and femininity are inferior to, and less legitimate, than maleness and masculinity. The second is oppositional sexism, which presumes that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive, “opposite” sexes, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires. When people do not live up to the ideals of “opposite sexes,” they are undermined by this type of sexism.

So I would say that heterosexism and cissexism are different forms of oppositional sexism, as they punish people for not living up to male and female ideals. And they both can intersect with misogyny/traditional sexism. For instance, the lion’s share of societal consternation and demonization of transgender people targets those of us on the trans female/feminine spectrum—this is the result of cissexism intersecting with misogyny.

AE: When I read the beginning of “Performance Piece”—”If one more person tells me that ‘all gender is performance,’ I think I am going to strangle them”—I squealed with delight. The accepted, myopic gender theory, more egregiously reduced down to misreadings of “Judith Butler,” audaciously negate the body from existence. Acknowledging the body as our material “working canvas” is the starting point of feminism—especially feminism as philosophy—in my estimation. My question is, why have the feminist and queer communities latched on to gender artifactualism so devoutly?

JS: Yes, some people mistakenly presume that I am attacking Judith Butler’s work in that piece. But she never once said that “all gender is performance” or “all gender is drag.” It is a humongous oversimplification of her theories!

Anyway, I think feminists and queer theorists buy into gender artifactualism because they see it as a way to challenge gender determinism/gender essentialism. They fail to realize that people can also forward sexism from a gender artifactualist stance as well—take for instance psychologists such as Sigmund Freud, John Money, and Kenneth Zucker.

I also think that the humanities/science academic divide plays a role here. Academics in gender and queer studies departments are unfamiliar with more recent and advanced concepts in biology. So they falsely assume that biology is inherently determinist and essentialist when in fact it is not. Biology functions in ways that are fundamentally anti-essentialist and anti-determinist—I explain why in my book. Thus, when they ignore or argue against any role for biology (because they assume biology equals essentialism), in a sense they are making the gender determinists’ case for them!

AE: A follow-up question: While there is no universal trans* narrative, how does moving away from gender artifactualism affect the universal element of “transitioning” in a trans* narrative? The idea of gender as an airy-fairy, whimsical construct seems to undermine the very real—bodily, psychological, and emotional—need to transition.

JS: I think that most people who physically transition will tell you that they experienced some sort of visceral understanding about their genders and bodies. Such experiences and self-understandings are often erased or dismissed by people who take hardcore gender artifactualists stances. As a result, trans people who participate in feminist and queer movements often feel like they have to frame their experience in political terms—for instance, by making the case that their trans-ness somehow challenges the gender binary. I would much rather us accept gender and sexual diversity, and that all of us have somewhat different self-understandings about our bodies, genders, and sexualities.

AE: In terms of politics, how do you recommend eradicating the marginalization of bisexuals from the larger queer community? Is there a difference between their political marginalization in the queer community versus the politics of the mainstream LGBT community? 

JS: Yes, the marginalization plays out somewhat differently, but the end result (i.e., bisexual erasure and exclusion) is the same. In mainstream LGBT communities (as well as in the straight mainstream), bisexual erasure often takes the form of presuming that bisexuals are really either closeted homosexuals, or experimenting or overly promiscuous heterosexuals. In more radical queer settings, people often dismiss bisexuals as being “not queer enough” or accusing bisexual-identified people of “reinforcing the gender binary” and thus oppressing trans people. In one chapter in Excluded, I explain in great detail why this latter assumption is both patently false and steeped in biphobia/monosexism. (For those interested, that chapter initially appeared as a blog post called “Bisexuality and Binaries Revisited.”)

A first step toward eradicating bisexual exclusion and erasure would be for people to simply accept the fact that bisexuals exist, and to stop questioning our sexualities! In addition, they should accept that biphobia/monosexism is a very real form of marginalization that undermines people who fall under the bisexual umbrella. I talk about biphobia/monosexism in Excluded—for those who want a more thorough discussion on the subject, I highly recommend Shiri Eisner’s recent book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution.

AE: What is the (cis)sexism of “the personal is political”?

JS: In her essay 1971 essay “Lesbianism and Feminism,” Anne Koedt describes what she calls the ‘perversion of “the personal is political” argument’—when feminists insist that other people should simply change some aspect of their gender or sexuality in order to fit in with feminist dogma. She cites examples of women being accused of oppressing other women, or of not being “real” feminists, if they refuse to be lesbian, if they wear miniskirts, or if they get married. Obviously, such claims deny the fact that people are diverse, and that we will desire to do different things. Plus they simply mirror sentiments in the straight-male-centric mainstream that insist that women should conform to certain gender norms.

There is a chapter in Excluded called the “Perversion of ‘the Personal is Political’” where I highlight examples of how analogous arguments have been used by feminists to undermine transsexuals—for example, accusing us of “reinforcing the gender system” in some way or another. These particular arguments are merely cissexist double standards. After all, a trans woman such as myself may be accused of reinforcing the binary because I identify as a woman, wear women’s clothing, and so on. But lots of cis women identify as women and wear women’s clothing too, but they are never called out for reinforcing the binary for doing such things.

AE: Have you witnessed or experienced sexism at work between the trans men and trans women communities?

JS: Sure. I would liken the relationship between trans men and trans women to that which exists between gay men and lesbians. In many ways we work together to challenge the shared marginalization that we face. However, lesbians and trans women also have to deal with misogyny/traditional sexism in addition to heterosexism and cissexism, respectively. And often trans activism ignores issues specifically faced by trans women in a manner similar to how the gay rights movement has often ignored issues that are specifically faced by lesbians.

So it’s not so much that trans men are blatantly sexist or misogynistic toward trans women. But rather, some trans men ignore our issues and perspectives—that’s how I usually observe sexism playing out.

AE: There are so many fantastic parts of this text, but I want to finish up by asking about “privilege,” the special weapon of “The Oppression Olympics,” the anchor-less signifier of hypocrisy. How can we get beyond the exclusionary acts of accusations of privilege in this current political moment? What is the productive function of the concept of privilege in terms of building coalitions between disparate communities?

JS: Privilege is a crucial concept because it makes the invisible visible. It helps us to realize that it’s not merely that marginalized groups face obstacles and disadvantages, but that those of us in the unmarked majority face advantages as a result. “Privilege checklists” are very helpful in this regard, as they spell out exactly how we materially benefit from not having to experience a specific form of marginalization.

So I am all for talking about privilege. But I think that it is important for us to address how the concept is sometimes misused in feminist and social justice settings to undermine others. For instance, feminists often dismiss transsexuals by accusing us of having male privilege, and many gay and lesbian folks will dismiss bisexuals by accusing us of experiencing heterosexual privilege. Now male and heterosexual privilege are very real phenomena that may play out in a variety of ways in transsexual and bisexual lives, respectively. But these accusations are not intended to discuss such nuances. Rather, they are simply used to undermine these groups by insinuating that they are part of the “oppressor class.” And such accusations also purposefully ignore cisgender women’s cis privilege, or gay and lesbian folks’ monosexual privilege.

Sometimes people call this sort of exercise the “Oppression Olympics,” as you mentioned. Another way of looking at it is that these are always one-sided claims, where people want to talk about the marginalization they face, but do not want to hear about forms of marginalization that other people face.

The truth is that all of us are privileged it some ways. Rather than dismissing people because they happen to experience some form of privilege or another, we should be working together to challenge all forms of sexism and marginalization, and to recognize how they intersect with one another. That is how we will make progress in our feminist and social justice movements.

Excluded is available now from Seal Press.

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