I'm finally getting around to reading Julia Serano's Whipping Girl (2007), and I thought I'd make a few comments as I go along.
The first couple chapters are, by and large, an introduction to the terminology standard in gender studies and transgender circles. For those already familiar, it's light reading; though there are a few important notes of positioning. The first, and one I agree with wholeheartedly, is explicitly stating that "sex" is a socially constructed concept— exactly as "gender" is. This is, surprisingly, a controversial statement. Back when I was first introduced to gender studies, circa 1999, the conceptual distinction between "sex" and "gender" was portrayed as being one between biology and culture. There was indeed a passing note, in those days, that because "biology" is itself socially constructed so too must the notion of "sex"; but this note was quickly swept under the rug. It was ignored in subsequent discussion. And this note never made it to online communities either.
Even though "sex" and "gender" are both expressions of cultural ideology, they encircle very different aspects of our culture. We should distinguish them not because the one names biological destiny and the other names hegemonic indoctrination; rather, we should distinguish them because they are different faces of the same base coin propping up systems of oppression. Sexual discrimination is what is writ on your IDs, it is the discrimination which insurance companies use to deny trans people coverage for hormone prescriptions, it is the discrimination which prohibits gynecologists from using their training and experience on male populations (update), it is the discrimination which allows doctors to surgically mutilate infants' genitals when they fail to adhere to cultural norms. Whereas gender discrimination is the discrimination which says that women are weak, are here to serve men, are only useful for procreation, etc; it is the discrimination which values the masculine over the feminine, logic over intuition, stoicism over emotion, and so on.
Those effeminate men and masculine women who are cisgender face gender discrimination routinely, but sexual discrimination rarely. Those intersex people who conform to gender norms face gender discrimination rarely, whilst dealing with sexual discrimination every time they see a doctor or take a new partner. Moreover, these two systems of discrimination are designed to reinforce one another. It used to be socially acceptable to deny women's skill at mathematics because of their upbringing and (lack of) education. When failing to educate women was no longer considered acceptable, society looked for new ways to discourage women mathematicians— eventually deciding neurology would excuse this form of misogyny. When oppositional sexism is challenged by those who live outside binary roles, it is rerooted in sex. When oppositional sexism is challenged as a biological farce, it is rerooted in the ubiquity of binary roles. Whenever one form of sexism is challenged too much, it migrates from gender discrimination to sexual discrimination, or vice versa. Thus, sexism evades eradication by relying on the fact that both sex and gender are socially constructed and that both nature and nurture can be used as justification. Consequently, the need to distinguish sex from gender stems foremost from the desire to eliminate sexism. That the distinction is also beneficial in understanding the lives of trans people is, imo, only a secondary benefit.
The second positioning Serano makes is one I take issue with. Serano names herself a feminist and considers her work in exposing and discussing trans issues to be part of the feminist enterprise. She recognizes that it is historically problematic to take this position, referring to feminists like Janice Raymond as "pseudofeminists". I most definitely agree that women like Raymond "preach feminism with one hand while practicing traditional sexism with the other." (Serano 2007:17) However, saying that these women are not feminists does not make it so. The feminist community has historically embraced these women, and though they are not worshipped now so much as they once were, feminist circles continue to embrace the fundamental errors of "pseudofeminist" ideology.
Feminism has done great work in advancing the status of (certain) women, but that is no reason to align oneself with it. One cannot identify the ideology and praxis of feminism from the pithy quotes used to summarize it (e.g., "feminism is the radical notion that women are people"). In order to identify the ideology and praxis of feminism one must locate feminists —those who identify as feminist and moreover are recognized as such by other feminists— and then observe the words they espouse and the acts they perform. Feminism is, exactly, that which the feminist community does. No more. No less. No matter how we may wish it to be otherwise. In order to be Christian it is neither necessary nor sufficient to behave in accordance with the gospels. In truth, the gospels are irrelevant for identifying Christians or for predicting their behavior. In just the same way, the desire to dismantle systems of sexual/gender oppression is irrelevant to feminism. One cannot dismiss the unsavory side of feminism by dubbing it "pseudofeminism" any more than one can dismiss the unsavory side of Christianity by dubbing it "un-Christian" or "un-Christ-like". How many legs does a dog have if you call a tail a leg?
It is precisely because I want to dismantle systems of oppression that I cannot align myself with feminism. I have many friends who are feminists, and whom I respect. And while these friends my attribute the label to me, the truth is I have never been welcomed in the larger feminist community. Moreover, I have many other friends —women of color, poor women, trans women, non-US women— who have also been actively excluded from feminist circles. I see little reason to align myself with those who would enact racism, classism, sexism, and imperialism on my friends. Finally, whenever I have employed the lens of dismantling systems of sexual/gender oppression to offer a critique of feminist practices, the response has always been one of insult, harassment, misgendering, silencing, and exclusion. I see little reason to align myself with those who cannot even treat me as a human being, let alone be bothered to listen to my words.
Serano approaches some of these issues in her new book Excluded (2013), so it will be interesting to see how her thoughts compare across the intervening six years.
The most interesting point so far is her distinguishing between anti-female ideologies and anti-feminine ideologies. The distinction between femaleness and femininity should make sense to anyone. Serano goes a bit further in trying to systematically distinguish them and to identify when particular acts serve to subjugate women vs subjugating femmes. Feminism, for example, is very pro-female and has successfully built a world where it is natural to say "men and women are equal"; however, it has done so largely at the cost of sacrificing femininity— a woman can do anything a man can do, just so long as she's not too girly about it. I very much hope Serano delves into this topic more.