GENDERQUEER AND NON-BINARY IDENTITIES – Julia Serano’s Holistic Gender Concept

Julia Serano’s Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive (2013) is an essential, timely book that I was incredibly excited to finally read just recently. Packed with personal essays and detailed analyses of the ways that LGBTQ movements can harmfully police one another – and the tools needed to change that – I would highly recommend Excluded to anyone who feels unaccepted in some queer spaces or wants to end the back-and-forth between marginalized groups in the queer world, without ignoring identity-specific specific concerns, that so often can be a distraction from our fight to define ourselves and gain basic respect and much-needed rights.

One idea that Serano puts forth throughout her book that I would like to focus on in particular, rather than doing a review of the book, is the concept of looking at genderholistically. I think recognition of gender holistically could be one of the most beneficial steps towards acceptance of diverse gender identities. I have bolded some of my favorite parts in the quotes below. Serano applies this holistic concept to feminism and, consequently, it is a useful lens for viewing gender which:

“…moves away from the trite and overly simplistic “nature-versus-nurture” debates about gender and sexuality, and instead recognizes that biology, culture, and environment all interact in an unfathomably complex manner in order to generate the human diversity that we see all around us.” (pg.6)

Serano differentiates “essentialist” thought from the sense of gender expression arising naturally in her chapter on femme identity and reclaiming femininity.

“I am not an essentialist…I do not believe that all women are the same; I believe that all women are different. I believe that women naturally fall over the map with regards to gender expression and sexual orientation. I believe that there are no wholly “artificial” genders or sexualities. I believe that many of us experience natural inclinations or predispositions toward certain gendered and sexual behaviors. But those inclinations do not exist in a vacuum—rather they arise in a culture where gender and sexuality are heavily policed, where they are defined according to heterosexist, cissexist, transphobic, and misogynistic assumptions, where they intersect with racism, classism, ableism, and other forms of oppression. I would argue that this view of gender and sexuality is not essentialist. It is holistic.” (pg. 65)

“Once we accept that on some level feminine expression is natural, that for some of us—whether female, male, both or neither—it resonates with us on a deep profound level … once we accept this, then we can tackle the real problem: the fact that femininity is seen as inferior to masculinity, both in straight settings and in queer and feminist circles.” (pg. 66)

I have received countless questions on this blog, and from others about my own gender expression, about whether it is okay to be non-binary and present femininely. Reading Serano’s account can be a powerful antidote for those who feel shame around wishing to present through the feminine modality; for feminine-presenting / id-ing non-binary folks, femme trans men, and trans women who are consistently marginalized.

Serano also takes to task those who may hand-wave away gender as “just” a performance or “just” a construct.

“Instead of saying that all gender is this or all gender is that, let’s recognize that the word gender has scores of meanings built into it. It’s an amalgamation of bodies, identities, and life experiences, of subconscious urges, sensations, and behaviors, some of which develop organically, and others which are shaped by language and culture…Instead of saying that all gender is performance, let’s admit that sometimes gender is an act, and other times it isn’t…Let’s stop claiming that certain genders and sexualities “reinforce the gender binary.” In the past, that tactic has been used to dismiss butches and femmes, bisexuals, trans folks and our partners, and feminine people of every persuasion…Instead of trying to fictionalize gender, let’s talk about all of the moments in life when gender feels all too real. Let’s stop trying to deconstruct gender into non-existence and instead start celebrating it as inexplicable, varied, profound, and intricate.” (pg. 107-108)

Finally, in Serano’s Homogenizing Versus Holistic Views of Gender and Sexuality chapter, she outlines three tenets of a holistic model:

1) “…while our shared biology and culture may create certain trends (e.g. a preponderance of typical genders and sexualities), we should also expect the variation in our biology and life experiences to help generate diversity in our genders and sexualities (just as there is a great deal of diversity in our bodies, personalities, interests, and abilities more generally).” (pg. 152)

2) “…all human behaviors, including those associated with sex, gender, and sexuality, are complex traits—that is, they arise through an intricate interplay of countless biological, social, and environmental factors. Because there are many different inputs that may influence our sexes, genders, and sexualities, there will always be a wide range of variation in potential outcomes, rather than one or a few discrete outcomes.” (pgs. 152-153)

3) “…one can never truly peel away the biological from the social or environmental…in other words, as a result of our unique environment, experiences, and biological variation, our brains become quite individualized to a certain degree. And it is through our individualized brains that we experience and respond to the world around us. So the notion that one can point to a specific behavior or preference (e.g., some aspect of gender or sexuality) and claim that it stems entirely from biology, or entirely from socialization, is flat our incorrect.” (pgs. 153-154)

The holistic gender framework is very similar to my own ideas I have had for years about gender being a web of social, biological, cultural, and individually determined elements, so I was very excited to see it as a recurring theme and explained so articulately. There is so much wonderful insight to be gained from reading Excluded. I seriously cannot recommend it enough.


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