Writing Gender #3 considers gender-informed and politically engaged scholarly writing and pedagogical approaches, including mentoring practices and activist scholarship. It will think about how such work can transform disciplinary knowledge and research, and address the gendered politics of knowledge production both within and beyond university settings. This event will further consider alternative and potentially disruptive research and pedagogical methods that advance justice and equality in diverse ways. It will ask what gender-informed research and pedagogy look like right now, and what it means to engage in activist scholarship within this context to challenge gender inequality and other forms of systemic oppression.

Roanna Gonsalves will lead a conversation on these themes with Evelyn Araluen, Jeanine Leane, Quah Ee Lingand Astrid Lorange on Friday 8 September. Please join us for this free online event at 11am. Register here.

You can write about gender – many do. You can also write about the writtenness of gender, about gender as a form of writing. Many do that too, but what does it really mean?  

For some, it might mean that gender is written from within: written, as it were, in our body as if code; written as a kind of inheritance and destiny, form and function. Against this idea, others see gender as written from without: written, as it were, onto our body; written as a form of discipline or belonging, as a social script or score for performance. Others still see gender’s writtenness as neither wholly from without nor within, but as a dynamic relation between the two, mediated by the one whose embodied experience marks the boundary: gender as a poetics, the shaping of meaning that leaves its trace, that invites a reading of what is written as writing.  

Whether we are writing about gender or writing about the writtenness of it, the stakes are high. It is not hyperbolic to say that we are in the middle of a bloody and brutal war waged under the sign of gender, and it is a war that requires us to take a stand, to take a side. Writing about gender today requires us to name the stakes of this war: life against death, survival against violence, freedom against constraint. Gender against capture. And so, to begin: when I write on writing’s relation to gender, I do so in solidarity with those for whom gender is a site of subjugation, and I write in the spirit of demanding no less that the total liberation of gender for all. Liberation, that is, from the violence for which gender is a proxy, and liberation as a form of autonomy to live a gendered life of one’s own. 

We may know how to struggle against what we refuse on behalf of gender, but do we know what gender is and does? Do we know how to struggle for this vision of gender’s liberation? Is writing gender – writing gender’s writtenness – a way to ask these questions?  

As Jules Gill-Peterson’s archival account of the first half of the twentieth-century recalls, about seventy years ago, sexual difference became such a complicated question that it was necessary for medical practitioners to intervene to preserve, on the one hand, the mutability of the human body and, on the other, the immutability of gendered norms required to reproduce the social totality according to the prevailing mode of production. At that moment, the 1950s, ‘gender’, as a distinct category from ‘sex’, emerged from the centre of post-war capitalism: the US. ‘Gender’ as a term for the social and psychological dimension of binary sex is a very recent event.  

My mother was in primary school at the time, being disciplined by nuns into a certain shape of Catholic girlhood in the suburbs of Melbourne, a city forged through the brutality of settler colonialism which used, among its tools, the weaponisation of sex in the service of frontier violence, racialisation, subjugation, and value extraction (what Sandy O’Sullivan calls ‘the colonial project of gender (and everything else)’). Before the word ‘girl’ signified gender as well as – or rather than – sex as some innate biological truth, it was possible to be caned for failing to properly perform white girlhood. 

But the word ‘gender’, and its associated meanings, changed the social field enough to make it seem as if the term had always been around, explaining something in excess of the body, which, on its own, could not reliably be called on to locate or define sex. It worked, in other ways, to consolidate the force of sex while standing separate from it, and this contradictory relation of consolidation and separation has persisted into the present. In a historical moment in which biological sex was becoming increasingly impossible to justify as a neat binary, the introduction of gender as a psychological component to sexed life was required to ensure that early intervention could ‘fix’ a child’s sense of self to the sex assigned at birth. This longterm project is indivisible from the production of race and from the protection of whiteness as property: race is sexed; gender is racialised. These histories are cowritten.  

Consolidation: Gender is the expression of sex, its styles and habits. Separation: Gender is a social and cultural construct able to be disaggregated from biological sex. Neither of these propositions gets to what gender or sex are, which is why definitions of either term are so often fraught, confused, or recursive. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity is most often remembered for its theory of gender’s performativity – gender as something that we do, that we bring into being by our very doing, that attains its natural-seeming quality from the force of repetition. It is remembered less often for stressing the way the gestures that cohere in and as gender are predicated on the logic that sex itself is already gendered. This part of Butler’s theory emphasises that the inscription of gendered norms works (at least) two ways: out from the body and into world, and back into the body where it claims its origin. As Jordy Rosenberg writes, Gender Trouble requires us to confront what is both simple, because so common, and difficult, because it has attained the status of common-sense: ‘that the naturalness of gender is a language that is composed of a whole host of occlusions’. The naturalness of gender is a language. Is this one way that ‘writing gender’ occurs?  

By extension, the liberation of gender would require us to see what has been occluded: the rich and rowdy history of life that cannot, will not, is not, contained by binary sex – not for us, nor for seahorses, nor for fungi. Not for then, not for now, not for tomorrow. Not for love, not for kinship, not for desire, not for self-determination. Not for the young, not for the old. Not for life that exceeds enclosure, not even for what is enclosed. The sensuousness of unalienated life, or what Kay Gabriel has called the ‘minimal demand for autonomy over one’s sexed disposition’ that figures gender as the aesthetic dimension of the self; the compulsion towards failure inherent in gender’s compulsory performance: these truths are what the disciplinary grammar of gender attempts to overwrite.  

Readers have wondered precisely what Butler means by ‘subversion’, a word listed in the subtitle of Gender Trouble and the cause of disagreement about what is possible in a historical conjuncture dominated by the sex/gender binary, and by extension, the ‘heterosexual matrix’, the assumption that the sex assigned at birth determines gender which in turn determines sexuality as an orientation towards the other, that is, towards the opposite sex. Sic. It is tempting to assume that subversion refers to the possibility of refusing to perform gender – to simply do it otherwise, as it were. But close readers will point out that subversion is more akin to drawing attention to gender’s failure to do what it says: subversion emphasises the constructedness of gender’s rules and the fallibility of its disciplinary tactics. Gender norms fail because gender is irreducible to them. So, while one can subvert the normative grammar of gender, subversion is not therefore synonymous with the collapse of gender norms – not individually, at least, and not unless, or until, subversion of gender is taken, collectively, as one goal of a larger project to abolish the world that would have gender as an axis of domination and site for the accumulation of surplus value. As Rosenberg puts it, ‘The gender self-determination we desire for ourselves and others is not possible to effect … as an individual act. There is no hermetic, lone Bildung of self-determination.’ 

Rosenberg’s reading of Butler betrays his own Marxist commitments – commitments which, in a strange way, are both present and absent in Gender Trouble. As Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr point out, Butler’s subtitle references the 1970s Marxist-feminist pamphlet by Maria dalla Costa and Selma James ,’The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community’, only its translation of ‘community’ into ‘identity’ shifts the terms of a political question – that is, how capitalism exploits gender (and its capacity to be read via difference) as a means to extract value and reproduce social order – into a philosophical domain. And so, the question of how precisely to subvert the writtenness of gender depends upon an understanding that the colonial-capital relation transforms gendered difference into a site for the extraction of surplus value. This process is driven by capital’s compulsion to find whatever sources of value it can. But its historical contingency leaves the door open to rewriting gender outside of the logics of value if such rewriting occurs as part of the collective work of abolishing the colonial-capital relation. Rewriting gender requires no less.  

I write about gender as two irreconcilable things: there is the gender that is mine, the gender that names the specific quality of my sensuous autonomy, the inscription of my body in its world, my signature. The gender that belongs to my child, to my neighbour, to you. Then there is the gender that is not mine, but that is ascribed to me. The gender that is assumed on my behalf, the gender that divides labour, that enacts violence, that codifies the body in terms of purpose, value, character and destiny. There is the gender that underwrites the experience of childbirth or non-consensual sex, the gender of the work it takes to appear in public or disappear into its background. There is the gender of misrecognition and disidentification, the gender of projection. There is the gender of repressed desire and the gender of pathological rage. There is the gender that attaches to an unborn baby, that organises children into social formations, that becomes a common-sense tool for interpreting childhood itself. There is the gender of psychic pain, the gender of grief and disappointment, and the gender of resentment, too. In short: there is the gender that cannot be contained and the gender that contains; these genders are irreconcilable, but the possibilities of the former foretell the collapse of the latter.  

I am writing around the point, perhaps. We cannot simply wish gender away, because it doesn’t mean just one thing. One way to think about the stakes of the struggle for gender liberation is to think of gender as something that has been expropriated and that requires collective struggle to be stolen back, to paraphrase Rosenberg again. While the terrain of expropriation has shifted with time, it is the case that capital accumulation has, as Max Fox puts it (glossing the Endnotes Collective on the ‘fetish’ of gender), relied on the perception that ‘the distribution of sexually differentiated roles in the creation of value’ derives from ‘natural attribute rather than the social arrangement which compels it’. Or: colonial-capitalism doesn’t create gender but gender difference as a site of accumulation and therefore, as a means of its own reproduction. This insight helps us understand why it is so important for gender to be enforced in its binary form and according to a set of highly regulated codes for what is natural, normal, useful, and desirable.  

It is without doubt that the war waged under the sign of gender today is happening precisely because trans liberation represents an absolute threat to the logic of gender as a natural expression of what is divisible and divided, what is productive and reproductive, what is value and its conditions for accumulation. Trans liberation is not directed against gender but for it, a struggle for nothing less than freedom itself. This is what I mean when I say everyone must choose where they are in this struggle, since they are included in its terms.  

I have written about the pain of gender when it comes from above, and the joy of it when apprehended as a relation of self to self, self to other, self to world. I have written about Mumsnet, an online forum dedicated to preconception, pregnancy, birth, and child-raising, and how it is at once a hotbed for TERF radicalisation as well as a support group for cis women undergoing hormone replacement therapy. I have written about how that contradiction reveals something fundamental about the failure – here expressed through utter incoherence – of gender’s grammar. I have written about how other people’s ideas about my gender betray an absolute incapacity to see me, and how my own ideas about my gender map coordinates seemingly unrelated to it: Cliffhanger (1993), the Fine Young Cannibals, Beau Travail (1999), masochism, hyperactivity, cooking stews. I have written about how gender as self-determination is also gender as erotics. I have written about the awkwardness of my own relation to being a woman, and how that awkwardness in its own way names the style of my gender; how reading Chantal Akerman’s description of her gender as ‘neglected’ felt true to me in a way I understand wouldn’t, and couldn’t, feel true to others. I have written about the obsessive policing of children’s gender that intervenes in the work of parenting and that organises the social institutions designed to support a child’s passage into a normal and rightful life. I have written about the lawlessness and capaciousness of a child’s experience of gender before – or against – this policing.  

I am writing about my own political commitment to make the world otherwise, for gender and everything else. I am writing about that here, and I am writing it to you.  

Works Cited

  • Chantal Akerman, My Mother Laughs (translated by Corina Copp), Song Cave, 2019
  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, 1990
  • Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr, ‘Abolition of Gender and Ecotone War’, South Atlantic Quarterly, Volume 115, Number 2, 2016 
  • Max Fox, ‘The Traffic in Children’, Parapraxis, Issue 1, 2022
  • Kay Gabriel, ‘Gender as Accumulation Strategy’, Invert Journal, 2020
  • Jules Gill-Peterson, Histories of the Transgender Child, University of Minnesota Press, 2018 
  • Sandy O’Sullivan, ‘The colonial project of gender (and everything else)’, Genealogy, Volume 5 Number 3, 2021
  • Jordy Rosenberg, ‘Trans/War Boy/Gender: The Primitive Accumulation of T’, Salvage, 2015