Behind the backlash: what’s so scary about deconstructing the gender binary?

A lot of people were upset about my post on why I won’t be talking about abortion as a “women’s issue”‘ anymore, which was based on the discussion of a panel I attended on Transfeminism featuring our very own Jos Truitt.

The basic idea was that to truly be a trans ally and achieve reproductive justice, we should all stop saying and stop thinking that abortion is a women’s issue, since it’s not just cis women that have abortions, but also trans men, gender queer people, and many more people who may not fit into the box of ‘woman’. Understandably, this concept generated a lot of debate.

There was constructive criticism (which I always appreciate), like that offered by commenter alex myn:

I’m not sure if I agree entirely. I too am working to become more trans-inclusive in my politics, but I don’t know if ceasing to conceptualize of abortion as a women’s issue is entirely productive. It is not just women who get abortions, but predominantly that is the case. And I know that healthcare access is a huge issue in the trans-community, but anti-abortion healthcare politics predominantly affect women. I would argue that anti-abortion politics are a direct attack on women and their bodies. Yes, transpersons are affected by this as well, but they are not necessarily the target.

But commenter gabe pushed back on this idea:

It’s true — and important to remember — that a lot of anti-abortion rhetoric and activity is based in sexism and thus targets women. But that’s no excuse to label as a “women’s issue” something that profoundly affects plenty of people who aren’t women. That framing (and any framing that relies on the idea that “most” people are cisgender) is cissexist and perpetuates cisgender identity as a norm.

And Jemma Howitzer found it downright transphobic:

“Alex Myn, you are not a trans ally, stop kidding yourself. People like YOU actively reinforce cissexual privilege.When you refer to abortion issues as women’s issues, you are stating to all the trans people reading your comment that trans men (who need access to abortions) are women, and trans women (who do not need access to abortions) are therefore, not women. So your speech is broken.”

Gina Morvay pointed out another potentially problematic aspect of my post

“While I truly do appreciate the gist of what this post is saying and that you’re giving props to the transfeminism panel… I really find it troubling that you mention seeing a panel of trans women and then follow that by “abortion is no longer just a women’s issue.

Comments like those from alex, gabe, Jemma, and Gina made me feel overwhelmed with gratitude to be part of such an engaged community. They also pushed me rethink and reevaluate my position. If I could write the post all over again, I would probably frame it a bit differently. Perhaps as getting beyond the concept of abortion as a cisgender women’s issue.

Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, not all the responses were as…constructive. Fox News, ever the fair and balanced news team, eagerly hopped on the “defending the gender binary at all cost” bandwagon by tackling the issue in their usual mature fashion: they assembled a panel of old white dudes, constructed a straw man argument that failed to accurately represent my post, called me a “moron”, said I should “disappear”, mocked the term reproductive justice, and giggled like small children.

Rather than freaking out, I’m thrilled that such sexist bigots find my ideas about the gender binary threatening. That means I’m doing something right. These reactions also make me wonder: what’s so terrifying about deconstructing the gender binary? Why does it touch such a nerve, not only from those within our movement who are committed to finding the most comprehensive strategy for achieving reproductive justice, but to conservatives who have seemingly less at stake in such a conversation? Why does it make them feel threatened, to the point of deeming it necessary to take on the issue head on via a televised (albeit 3am) “gender essentialist” panel?

It seems to me like we would all benefit from getting rid of these wretched, rigid rules about who to love and how to live. I genuinely don’t understand the resistance. But I do know one thing- when Fox News says me and people like me who believe in rethinking the current model for gender should “disappear”, that’s just wishful thinking. Giggle and mock all you want, but we’re not going anywhere.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • nazza

    In this world, unless you touch a nerve with someone, you’re likely to be ignored. I often tell this story, but here’s one more rendition. When I was in grad school, constructing a paper to be submitted for publication, I was told that there was nothing worse than being ignored by other scholarship. Either it meant it went unquestioned, or that it was so irrelevant that no one felt compelled to “correct” it with their own opinion.

    But we get so attached to our own ideas often that we seem them as our children. And we don’t necessarily own them so completely. It’s good that they inspire future debate, even if it’s debate we disagree with completely.

    And why does deconstructing the gender binary so terrify? Because it invokes fear in the minds of those who think that we’re entering a world where everything is relative and we have no firm backbone remaining. They don’t see it as a fairer, more equitable, more realistic way of examining human experience. Instead, it’s proof that our society is decaying further with the introduction of radicalism into the way things should always be.

  • Lauren

    Deconstructing the gender binary requires acceptance of many genders. So deconstructing that binary also requires a redefining of language, which seems to be the crux of the previous post and the referenced comments.
    The redefining of gendered language has given rise to different terms – cisgender, trans women, etc. To effectively describe different people we have created separate spaces for them in our language. Deconstructing the gender binary is based on inclusivity – that everyone is entitled to their gender free of judgment or of being singled out.
    I think part of the battle here, within the ranks of those who support the dismantling of the gender binary, is one of semantics. Let those who identify as women be women, and recognize that abortion is a women’s issue. But it is not solely a women’s issue, and we have to work to create a language that allows us to recognize that. We obviously don’t have it yet.

  • Amanda

    I have to admit that I shy away from trans issues due to lack of knowlege. Can anyone recommend good books/blogs/other sources of information to educate myself on these issues?

    • Nonny Morgan

      @Amanda has been recommended to me as a good place to start. :)

    • L Sloan

      Amanda, look for work by Susan Stryker, particularly her “Transgender History” book.

    • Jenny Barnes
    • Amanda

      Thanks everyone! I’m going to start looking into these things right away. :)

  • Lloyd Sheridan

    I think in general going outside of previously established binaries scares people, sometimes even supposedly open minded people. I can’t tell you how many gay and straight people have told me that I’m wrong for being bisexual. On top of that, so many see their gender as the defining aspect of themselves, which is why gender issues freak them out so much, because if gender isn’t this cut and dried thing, then what is? Understand that this is in no way shape or form excusing their purposeful ignorance, just trying to explain it. I would be curious to see the fox news clip, if you know where it is.

  • Anders

    The American feminist movement has a long, rich history of being “run” by women with power and privilege who are so invested in their own liberation struggle they cannot see the ways in which they are oppressing other people. White women have historically ignored and/or hated on the accomplishments and struggles of women of color; straight women have done it to lesbians; cis lesbians have done it to trans people; rich feminists have done it to poor women; white American feminists have done it to Arab women; and so forth.

    What often ends up happening is that their “mainstream” movements (for lack of a better term), which are based on exclusivity of a privileged identity, reject people they could and should be collaborating with, and things like the Civil Rights Movement and Stonewall and Camp Trans happen without them. Meanwhile, our common opponents get stronger as we perpetuate this in-fighting. Take the racist, anti-abortion billboards for an example. As Loretta Ross said at the CLPP closing plenary, “Our opponents are more culturally competent than we are. No wonder they’re winning.”

    For the cis women who are still freaking out about “not being able to call themselves women,” (or whatever it is they think trans people are trying to do to them) I’ll offer up this as a way of reframing it: No one is telling you not to call yourself a woman. No one is telling you not to include yourself personally in the issue of abortion. All we are asking is that your analysis be as complicated as the world itself. It will be extremely difficult, and lucky you — to become allied to so many trans and gender non-conforming folks with complicated and difficult identities who are every day growing more skilled in navigating this territory.

  • Rebecca

    Lori! Do you have a link to that Fox News show? I need a laugh. (Not that it’s really funny. Sigh…)

    • Lori

      Hi Rebecca! The link to the Fox News segment is here:

      I didn’t include it in the OP because I didn’t want to give them too much traffic/attention. But when you need a laugh, you need a laugh!


  • sex-toy-james

    First, I’ve got to say that I agree with the idea that abortion issues affect more than just traditional women. I’m fine with breaking up the gender binary. However, you’re losing me in the language of inclusiveness.
    You can take this issue from “I’m fine recognizing that this affects trans-people.” to “Hell no, I do not want to play this game.” Look at it this way, Alex Myn, someone who appears well meaning, involved in the issues, and accepting that the issue affects transpeople, was torn apart. A few missteps and he’s”cissexist”, “not a trans ally”, and being lumped in with everyone who’s against recognizing trans issues: “People like YOU actively reinforce cissexual privilege.” When someone who’s friendly to trans issues, and informed to an extent, can be vilified so badly, I don’t even want to try.
    I have personally chided people for their transphobia, and I generally try to address people as they appear to be presenting, but I’m pretty sure that stepping into the realm of those who use inclusive language will get me ripped apart and reveal me to be some kind of oppressive monster. If I were to try not to offend, I wouldn’t be communicating openly and honestly, and I’d be stressed out like I were tip-toeing through a mine field. I’m not going to play a game where the rules are stacked against me. So if breaking up the gender binary involves closely policing your language and losing the ability to speak freely without being labeled a monster, then I’m against it. If you’re asking me to recognize that certain issues that are considered traditional men’s or women’s issues also affect transpeople, then I’m for it.
    Can you see though, why respecting the breakup of the gender binary might not look too attractive?