Gender Focus Reads: Excluded by Julia Serano

by | January 18, 2014
filed under Books, Feminism, LGBT

photo of a hard copy of Julia Serano's "Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive", with several post-its sticking outby Jarrah Hodge

I received a review copy of Julia Serano’s newest book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive last fall, and I knew it was going to be particularly important. Serano’s last book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Feminism and the Scapegoating of Femininity has been a hugely impactful book for many trans* people and feminists and was even named the 16th most important feminist book of all time by Ms. Magazine.

Moving into 2014, it’s clear this book – and the discussions it provokes – are more necessary than ever. Last year saw more than 790 individuals and 60 organizations sign on to the Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism, but it also saw trans people continuing to struggle – often without wholehearted feminist support – for acknowledgments of basic rights and freedom from violence. It saw the unjust imprisonment of CeCe McDonald, Vancouver Rape Relief invite an anti-trans speaker to their December 6 memorial event, and British media harassing trans teacher Lucy Meadows, leading to her suicide. And literally this past week, a similar event occurred when Grantland writer Caleb Hannan outed a trans woman, Dr. V., and published a cruel, misgendering article even after her suicide.

The continuing injustice and exclusion should unite us as feminist and queer activists, rather than dividing us, and Serano’s book considers how we can get there.

The first part of Excluded is a collection of Serano’s essays since Whipping Girl, outlining exclusion within feminist and queer movements, including femme and bisexual communities, and at events like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Fest:

“I realized right there at the lake what a mistake many women from Michigan make when they insist that trans women would threaten their safe space, destroying a rare place where they feel comfortable revealing their own bodies. Because there is never any safety in the erasing of difference, and no protection in the expectation that all women live up to certain physical criteria. The only truly safe space is one that respects each woman for her own individual uniqueness.”

The essays are particularly helpful for understanding the big picture if you haven’t read Whipping Girl or experienced the kind of discrimination she talks about first-hand.

The second part is new material introducing Serano’s proposals for creating inclusion. Serano states:

“One-size-fits-all approaches to gender and sexuality – whether they occur in straight male-centric mainstream, or within feminist and queer subcultures – inevitably result in double standards, where bodies and behaviors can only ever be viewed as either right or wrong, natural or unnatural, normal or abnormal, righteous or immoral…we should distance ourselves from these one-size-fits-all models, and instead embrace an alternative approach – what I call a holistic approach to feminism.”

Serano’s “holistic approach” involves moving away from the “nature-versus-nurture” debate to acknowledge the complex interrelationships between biology, culture and environment. It also urges us to recognize our own specific, limited standpoints and therefore recognize the only way to truly understand gender and sexuality is through allowing for multiple perspectives. Finally, Serano suggests her framework would allow feminists and queer activists to challenge all forms of sexism and marginalization rather than just the ones we are most familiar with personally.

Many of Serano’s ideas are challenging to the ways many of us think of gender, sexuality and activism. I will mention a few key ones for me and encourage others to read the book in the hope it will prompt constructive discussion between cis and trans* feminists and queer activists.

For example, Serano outlines a phenomenon she describes as “the perversion of ‘the personal is political'”. This involves excluding trans people from feminist movements through what Serano calls “gender artifactualist logic” (one of many new terms she introduces in the book). According to Serano, the argument goes: “1) Gender is a cultural artifact; 2) Transsexuals mistake gender to be something real (rather than recognizing it as artificial); 3) Therefore, transsexuals reify the gender system.”

Serano is right to point out the way this argument invalidates trans people’s lived experiences and how it operates as a double standard (feminine cis women tend not to be excluded in the same way for ‘reifying the gender system’). She also points out it’s applied unevenly depending on the perceived threat to the group: “Apparently, reinforcing the gender system, like beauty, is truly in the eye of the beholder.”

But among other measures for addressing this issue, Serano asks feminists to “stop pretending that there really is a gender system…the more atypical forms of sexism cannot adequately be explained via the concepts of patriarchy, or heteronormativity, or the gender binary, and so on.”

She elaborates later that looking at particular hegemonic systems helps foster “oppression Olympics” competitiveness and helps us remain blind to the ways we ourselves may marginalize others. I think that’s a fair critique but am really grappling with whether abandoning critiques of systems of oppression is desirable or wholly possible.

Rather than focusing on the “isms” or “single-issue activism”, Serano argues for starting by dismantling double standards by showing how some traits are marked or unmarked by society, allowing the “unmarked” group in a particular situation to pass without question while the “marked” individuals are subject to scrutiny. This, she argues is “the underlying mechanism that enables all forms of sexism and marginalization.”

I’ve experienced first-hand that talking about gendered double-standards is usually a better way to engage new people in feminism than talking about, say, “the patriarchy”, and I think Serano does a great job breaking down what kinds of double standards are out there and how they function. But we also need to explain why the double-standards line up against certain groups of people more than others. Further, I’m think analyzing double-standards leaves a gap in understanding colonialism and class inequality/capitalism, which clearly marginalize people in complex and varying ways beyond “marked” and “unmarked” characteristics. To be fair, Serano does acknowledge these limitations and explains her approach is a theory that may not be applicable in all situations.

There is definitely potential, though, in Serano’s proposal for a “bottom-up” approach that encourages us to identify “invalidations” or barriers shared by marginalized groups (for example, portraying members of a group as “mentally incompetent” or “immoral”), in a way that helps people be able to identify the most common so they can work against them when they see them.

In terms of other things we as activists can be changing now,  Serano says we need to embrace heterogeneity and stop projecting our values and judgments onto others. But she clarifies she’s not talking about everyone embracing “choice feminism”:

“We must remember that feminism is about challenging sexism. And sexism does not stem from how we ‘perform’ our genders or sexualities but rather from the double standards that we (and others) nonconsensually project onto other people. Therefore, simply acting upon our own gender and sexual desires (e.g., choosing to wear, or not wear, a dress) does nothing to challenge sexism in and of itself.”

Even though this is a long post, I haven’t come close to covering everything important Serano raises. The analysis in Excluded is nuanced and I encourage anyone who’s read this far to pick up the book and help build the discussion around the concepts and what changes need to be made to stop the exclusion and build a more ethical, heterogenous but united and successful feminist movement.

This post uses an asterisk after the prefix trans- as a way to include all non-cisgender gender identities.

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