A lot of the time over the last couple of years of discussing gender regulation and self ID I’ve been having a rhetorical move pulled on me which I’m going to pick apart.
Typically the other side shows you a picture of another person. You likely don’t recognise them. They have some mixed gender signals going on. And they ask
- “Do you think that is a woman?”
- “Do you think they belong in women’s spaces?”
Sometimes the person in question will be a trans person, sometimes a gender bending celebrity or artist who performs in an ambiguous presentation. This itself will reveal how inconsistent appearance based gender decisions are.
In a lot of ways this is an inversion of the gambit trans advocates online have deployed of showing pictures of trans men, saying “do you think he belongs in a women’s toilet?” With the expected answer that a bearded, muscular trans man has no place there because the other side are likely to make judgements based on appearance about who belongs in toilets and because it’s so clear that the trans man communicates virtually none of the markers of even association with womanhood. Either way this reinforces the misogynist and transphobic logic of scrutinising people’s appearance and going around deciding who’s got a bit too much hair on their lip, a bit too broad in the shoulder, or too tall to be allowed to move through society without being targeted.
We also have the likes of Dr Kathleen Stock et al. suggesting that if harassment of masculine women is a necessary result then so be it!
One of the things all of this erases is that policing identity at any given moment just isn’t necessary: no-one has to know or care what some stranger’s identity is and how it ought to be defined with that stranger absent. It also erases the fact that in many places such as the UK, what sex segregation there is in facilities like toilets has been mainly by convention, and self policing. It’s not been illegal to go into women’s toilets for trans women as such, it has been illegal to commit acts (depending on region) against public decency or commit breach of the peace or to commit harassment or assault.
Either way a small number of men still do a large number of rapes a triflingly small number of which have any connection to breaking of gender norms as a means of aiding the crime and you are in most danger from a date or someone you trust.
In contrast, the fixation on appearance as a predictor of predatory behaviour has a history of licensing racist, homophobic and ablist violence. The idea that in any given situation where an unknown predator is not actively attacking someone it’s possible to spot them by their appearance is never substantiated. The violence against entirely innocent people on the basis of social stereotypes about “who the rapists are” is rarely adequately questioned.
When faced with these sorts of questions, whatever my reaction may be towards the mug shot being shown to me by someone asking me too to become a cop, I say:
Sorry officer, I couldn’t tell you. I’m not a cop you see, and it’s not my job to go policing people’s genders.
It’s not that I believe there are 57 varieties of gender we need to understand better and integrate into society’s structures with special toilets for each and every one. Instead I believe that these structures themselves are harmful and that the policing of gender does far more harm overall than a reduction in policing does. This system says any man in cleaners overalls can walk into the women’s toilets anyway. Why bother meddling with deeper litigation of gender (itself a broadly incoherent system of conflicting norms around sex which mostly serve to harm people on average)?
Just deregulate it. Stop policing it. Refocus on actually anti social behaviour like arseholes who go around actively being creepy about young people and women. Refocus on learning abusive patterns of behaviour and how to spot and address them. One of the things we’ve learned the hard way both through internet security and through years of data on just how “normal” most abusers seem to other people is that we can’t recognise evil as a set of static visible context-free attributes — it is only recognisable through observing abusive patterns of behaviour.
There will, no doubt, be occasions when ppl genuinely think something harmful might be happening and it’s necessary to check and make sure in real life situations; that’s life. What we do need to question is the idea everyone needs to be viewing gender and unusual appearance as a threat in need of policing.
I’m not your gender cop or anyone’s, and I believe in methodical, evidence and process based means of keeping society safe rather than anyone’s (including my own) uncomfortable feelings about other people’s appearance.
Mallory Moore is a trans woman, professional hacker, sometime activist and researcher of cis studies. You can check out her Medium blog here.