The Same Door

In the first chapter of my new book What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use, I reflect on the use status of different things, from well-used paths, to used up tooth-paste, to over-used exclamation points. One of my examples is “usable/ unusable doors” (75-65). I photographed this door, which is a door at a university near where I live.

Usable Unusable door

This door is a door I can use, I do use, it is usable for me, but it is not a usable door for  disabled people with mobility restrictions.  To reflecting on usability is to reflect on who a world is built for. This is why scholarship in disability studies was one of my primary sources of inspiration in writing the book. As Aimi Hamraie describes in Building Access “Examine any doorway, window, toilet, chair or desk…and you will find the outline of the body meant to use it” (2017, 19, emphasis added). Hamraie usefully name this outline “the normate template” (19). Those who don’t assume the shape of the norm often know the norms; norms become walls: what hits you can be what stops you from entering.

Doors were not originally one of my primary examples in the first draft of the book although I did have examples of signs on doors. They came into the text later. Why? When I began doing interviews for my project on complaint in the middle of 2017, I noticed how often people made reference to doors. Doors came up figuratively, certainly, but it was the actual doors that first caught my attention. That I was working on use, making use of things, was probably why I noticed these doors.[1] Something can be right in front of us, but we still do not notice it. Research can be about becoming attuned to what is already there: you notice an arrangement; you reflect on what you notice.

In the book I kept reusing the same images with different captions.[2] But there is one instance in which I use the same caption with different images. That caption is “the same door.” In this post I explore the connection between these different uses of the same door.

Why do doors come up in testimonies about complaint? Complaints are made confidential as soon as they are lodged. The expression “behind closed doors” is thus everywhere in my data. This expression might be used to refer to actual doors: you might tell the story once the doors of the office have been shut. The expression is also used to convey what is kept hidden or secret from the public. If complaints are data-full, and complaints require evidence, they require you to collect data, then that data is kept under lock and key. Doors can thus function as containers of complaints. My own task is to open the container.

My first use of “the same door” as a caption on page 181 refers to how if harassment and bullying happen behind closed doors, then they happen in the same place complaints happen. I reused the image of an usable/unusable door from chapter 1.

Usable Unusable door

I will be working in future writing on accounts of physical or sexual assaults that happened in offices or corridors. In these testimonies, doors figure prominently. I am not sharing these testimonies here: to share them responsibly requires giving them the fullness of my attention. Doors came up not only because they were shut, but because someone was struggling to get out of the room. Two women academics I spoke to, one who was sexually assaulted by a lecturer when she was a student, the other who was physically assaulted by her head of department as a lecturer, described to me in acute detail the handles or locks on the doors of the office or corridor in which the assault happened because those handles or locks were difficult to use. When you are struggling to get out, a lock can be imprinted in your memory. They both managed to get out, but it was hard. It was made hard.

We tend to notice what stops us from getting out when have to get out. And if you have to struggle to get out of the room, it can be another struggle to get a complaint out. In another instance, when a student made a complaint about an assault (her assailant in this instance had locked the door) she is called to a meeting with senior academics. They were all colleagues of the lecturer who assaulted her. In talking to her, they referenced their shared history with him. As another student said, “they have each other’s backs.”

The “same door” is a device I am using to show what might be obvious but still needs to be said (the obvious is too often left unsaid): the same structures, the same networks that enable harassment are “at work” in stopping complaints about harassment.  Doors can be our teachers: they teach us the significance of a complaint about harassment being lodged in the same place the harassment happened.  If they have each other’s backs, their backs become doors.

The second use of the caption “the same door” (p. 202) might seem quite different. Here the image is of a sign on the door: women.

women's sign

A sign on a door is often a use instruction: it tells you who should use what door. The signs are of course not referring not to the toilets themselves as men or women but to the users of the toilets. You might go that way, open that door, because of who you understand yourself to be, but still be told you are using the wrong door because of how you appear. Use instructions can be enforced not only by the police or security guards but by other users, who are invited to become police, to look out for those who are, as it were using the wrong door.

Doors exist alongside other technological methods for directing human traffic, that is, for telling us which way to go when we have to go. Doors are also telling us something about the nature of sex as an assignment. We are supposed to be as constant as an assignment. And so: if you are assigned girl, if girl is your original assignment, you are supposed to follow that path, which means using the same door that you used before; the same door. This is my other use of “the same door.” It is a use instruction that teaches us something about the nature of an assignment.

Is there a connection then between this “same door” and the other “same door”? I think there is a connection. Being told you are using the wrong door often means in practice being harassed. You can be harassed behind a door; you can be harassed for using the wrong door. Many women who are gender non-conforming, including cis as well trans women, have experiences of being harassed in toilets because they do not conform to an idea of how a woman should appear.

When you complain about harassment you are often harassed all the more. You encounter the same door.  The same door can also refer to how a person is stopped when they are trying to stop something from happening. A trans student of colour complains about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. The questions were laced in the language of concern, concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country; racist judgments are often predicated on stranger danger, the location of danger “over there” (a brown elsewhere). I will return to stranger danger in due course.

When they complain, what happens? “People were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The complaints process can lead to a reiteration of yet more intrusive questions, questions that make a concern right or even into a right. So much harassment today is enacted as a right to be concerned. We have a right to be concerned (as “citizens”) about immigration; we have a right to be concerned (as “adult human females”) about sex based rights. A right to be concerned is how the violence of scrutiny is masked, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

A complaint is put out into the same world a complaint is about. The doors that are closed on complaints, which stop them from getting through or getting out, can be the same doors that are closed on persons, which make it difficult for some to get through. A trans lecturer considered making a complaint after not getting a promotion and goes to their union. He is told: “because I was trans I would never be promoted.” I think of the weight of that because: how you can be made responsible for what stops you from progressing even if it is discrimination that stops you from progressing. You have to deal with what comes at you: each time you are slowed down by trying to challenge what slows you down.  In his testimony, he describes transitioning as moving between different zones of discrimination. Before he transitioned, he had experienced routine sexism:“being pushed out and side-lined in terms of my career.” He also described what it was like to witness colleagues who “make use of sexual jokes” only to be quickly promoted. In transitioning, he enters a different zone of discrimination: “I started transitioning and he fired me.” Indeed he describes how discrimination against, and harassment of, trans people is given a “green light.” I think of traffic lights, not amber, not red, but green: a traffic light is saying, yes, go, you can say that, yes, you can do that; fired; fire away.

A green light to harassment, yes, go, you can say that, yes, you can do that: is that where we are today?

That is where we are today. In the UK today, we are on a permanent green light: permission is constantly being given for transphobic harassment, creating a hostile environment for trans people. Some of this harassment operates through the logic of stranger danger: trans people are often positioned as strangers not only as “bodies out of place,” but as threatening those who are “in place.” Stranger danger is a well-oiled machine: it works so well from being used so often.[3] Just think about the use of terms like “gender extremism,” which work to creating a menace, a vague sense of menace, borrowing perhaps from racialising discourses (extremism as a term tends to stick to some bodies more than others). Just think also of the use of terms like “the trans lobby,” to imply a powerful and sinister agent that is behind this or that action. If stranger danger works to locate danger in those deemed outsiders, stranger danger also creates the figure of the endangered most often a child. Contemporary transphobia works to suggest or imply that trans people are endangering children (one headline reads, Are you transphobic? Me neither, we’re just worried about our children). Stranger danger thus creates a missionary position: we have to save the children. We have seen a proliferation of this positioning.

Contemporary transphobia is thus eerily similar to earlier forms of homophobia (and by saying earlier homophobia I am not saying that such homophobia has disappeared – it most certainly has not).  Gays and lesbians too were often presented as endangering children[4]. And a “gay lobby” was deemed to be promoting “gay lifestyles,” by teaching or recruiting students, by publishing books about happy gay families.

Damn it: we needed those books!

Many of us can recognise these forms because we have seen them before.

Power is often legitimated by treating an effort of a minority to survive, to create resources to enable their survival, as the formation of an industry. Those with power often position themselves as having to defend themselves (as well as others for whom they claim to speak) or defend a group or an idea/ideal that has already taken their shape; the nation, the race, civilization, even life itself, as if they are the minority under attack. That reversal of power is a central means by which power operates.[5]

Stranger danger is about how danger is located in the outsider.[6]  Stranger danger thus creates a line, a boundary, between inside and outside. Some are judged as imposing on others; by virtue of existing, or by being too proximate, you can be deemed to have crossed a line necessary for the protection of others. A category too can be assumed to be closed; a door can be used to close the category “woman,” for instance. Closures however much they are justified as natural or necessary still depend upon actions; hence the creation of new terms if the old ones are drawn in a way that risks including those some do not want to include (woman becomes “adult human female,” for instance).  This is how a conversation about terms can actually be about how some are shut out of conversations. Note: you can be asked to participate in a conversation even though the terms of the conversations are about shutting you out.

I have no interest in having a conversation in these terms.

All categories have social lives. I think stranger danger can also work through category formation. My sense is that “gender” can be turned into a stranger; yes I am suggesting a category of thought can be treated as a stranger, framed as an imposition on nature or on biological reality.  The externality of “gender” as a category can then be used to refer to the externality of people who are assumed to rely on a category for their existence (simplified as: gender does not exist, you don’t exist as you say you do).  When gender is made foreign, those who use that category to make sense of their own selves are treated as foreigners. Part of the transformation of gender into the stranger, is the treatment of sex, often biological sex, as nature or even as native.

Categories such as “sex,” “nature” or “biology” or “biological sex” are being used to justify trans exclusion as natural and necessary, as if these categories are not themselves product of labour, as if we do not have a hand in making and shaping them.[7] Feminism gives us internal resources to challenge this use of categories, whichever categories are being used.[8]

We have behind us many feminist critiques not only of the sex/gender distinction but also of the idea that biological sex is given.[9] It would not be possible for me to review all the feminist work that would be helpful. I will just give a few pointers. In the radical feminist tradition, Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating, challenges what she calls “the traditional biology of sexual difference” based on “two discrete biological sexes” (1972: 181, 186). She expands further: “Hormone and chromosome research, attempts to develop new means of human reproduction (life created in, or considerably supported by, the scientist’s laboratory), work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say that there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘man” and ‘woman,’ are used only because as yet there are no others” (175-6). Dworkin argued that transsexuals in a culture of “male-female discreteness” are “a state of emergency,” and argued that they should have access to hormones and surgery because they have a “right to survival [in their] own terms” (176). If Dworkin did imagine that transsexuals might disappear in some projected future, which she did, this was also because she imagined that discrete sexes, that is, women and men, would also disappear. Whatever we think of her androgynous solution, we can learn from her diagnosis of the problem. Dworkin teaches us that radical feminism, a feminism that is feminist at root, cannot be formulated without a radical understanding of sex and biology.

We could also turn to the evolution of arguments about sex and gender in feminist sociology. Ann Oakley’s classic, Sex, Gender and Society certainly made use of the sex-gender distinction, with sex referring to biological differences, visible differences of genitalia, and differences in procreative function; and gender to “a matter of culture” that refers to the social classification into “masculine” and “feminine”’ (1972, 16). However in a later work offers a strong critique of this same distinction. In “A Brief History of Gender,” Oakley writes: “the distinction between sex and gender does not call into question how society constructs the natural body itself” and “sex is no more natural than gender given that our speaking of both is mediated by our existence as social beings” (1997, 30).  Or we could think of the work of historical materialist Christine Delphy who provided a strong critique of the sex-gender distinction in Ann Oakley’s earlier sociological work as well in the work by the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Delphy argues that gender precedes sex,. She writes: “we have continued to think of gender in terms of sex: to see it as a social dichotomy determined by a natural dichotomy” (1993, 3). Christine Delphy called as a materialist feminist for a full and feminist de-naturalization of the category of “biological sex.” So much feminist work has shown that what is deemed originary is an effect. If gender creates the effect of two distinct biological sexes, it is important we do not make the effect our cause (otherwise we would simply be reproducing the system we are trying to dismantle, taking what it creates, as our ground).[10]

We can also find resources in feminist phenomenology. Phenomenology has been an important for feminism because it is a way of doing theory in the first person. Phenomenology helps us to explore how worlds can take shape by receding into the background. When something has become natural, it tends to be looked over. Phenomenology also helps us to think about how bodies are shaped through habits, ways of acting that are repeated over time. Simone de Beauvoir or Iris Marion Young are feminist philosophers who have shown how we become women through in relation to our bodies. Biology matters, yes, but biology is always part of our historical situation. From feminist phenomenology, we might learn how bodily matter and social meaning are always entangled; I think of Iris Marion Young’s concern with how girls learn to throw “like girls;” she calls this “inhibited intentionality.” An idea of what girls can do can affect what girls do, which shape what girls can do. We can thus de-naturalise the category of “biological sex” and still talk about our lived experiences as gendered beings (in fact we have more not less to talk about when we don’t bracket sex as if was outside the social or the cultural domain). We can talk about physical and fragile bodies, aging bodies; and yes, we can still talk about women’s bodies without presuming in advance who is “women.”[11] We can talk in this way because we do not assume that others will have the same experiences; to inhabit a body is to be thrown into a world with others. Phenomenology can also help us to re-think how categories themselves are social as well as lived entities. Categories too can be how we are thrown. Some of us will be thrown by how we are known; we will not be “at home” in the categories that have been used to name us, to identify us.[12]

There is of course much work in the biological sciences, which can help us to show how biological reality is much more complicated than two discrete biological sexes.[13]  And we could work more sociologically; we could track the uses of biology.[14] When biology is used to refer to something outside history or without a history, biology is performing a social function. What are the social effects of these uses of biology? This is where we come back to the same door. It is not a coincidence that the investment in biological sex has led to increasing gender conservatism: the presumption that you can tell who is a woman or man from how they appear. Simply out, gender conservatism is about sex. This is rather obviously the case in the religious right: arguments against “gender ideology” are made as arguments about the immutability of sexual difference as Judith Butler has shown. They take the form of statements: sex is given; there are two discrete biological sexes; marriage can only be about two sexes. Those who are against gay marriage (as well as gay adoption and queer families) are the same people who are arguing against the idea that gender can be experienced as an identity that does not correspond to biological sex. With the increasing spread of right wing politics across the globe, none of us can be confident that we have finished having to make the case for gay marriage (for those who would want to make that case). That is, even if we live in a country that has allowed gay marriage, the idea that gay marriage is against nature (and biology) persists. And we need to note the slide between conservative ideas about sex and gender to conservative ideas about sexuality: sex is man or woman; marriage is man and woman.[15]

To learn from the social uses of biology is to understand how and why gender critical can become very quickly gender conservative. It is not just the religious right that is spreading conservative ideas about gender. Gender critical feminists might not be making the same arguments against gay marriage (although the allegiance of some of these feminists to white supremacists and the religious right probably means that step is not far off).  They are however making similar arguments about biological sex as given. The consequences are not only anti-trans, they are anti-feminist. When you are critical of gender, but uncritical of sex (sex uncritical = biological sex is given), you tighten rather than loosen the hold of the gender system. We can see the effects of this gender conservatism all around us. We are witnessing increasingly conservative judgement being made in the name of feminism on the basis of women and men’s appearance, organised around the assumption that you can always tell the difference between men and women by how they appear (on discussion forums on social media and also in everyday life, at public toilets, on streets). Many cis women as well as trans women have been caught out by this; they have been told they are not really women because of how they appear. By “being told” I am talking about being harassed. And I have heard it justified by some gender critical feminists that if some women are harassed in toilets by other women because they do not appear to them as women (including, say, butch lesbians) that would be “a regrettable cost” in the broader project of protecting women from men.

Harassment as a regrettable cost: harassment as protection; we are back to the same door. I’ve heard that door being closed before, as a lesbian, as a lesbian of colour. Lesbians have often been told we are not really women; gender conservatism has very dire consequences for lesbians; whether cis or trans. Black women and women of colour too, have had the door closed in our faces; not women, not really, not you. Some of us have been shut out of feminism, told our concerns were distractions from the real thing.

The same door can be a feminist door. To open feminist spaces, requires constant vigilance; we have to keep questioning ourselves, learning from each other about each other.

Let me share a few paragraphs from the conclusion of What’s the Use on queer doors.[16]


A transfeminist project might show how original assignments are themselves constructions. As Emi Koyama notes, “While the concept of gender as a social construct has proven to be a powerful tool in dismantling traditional attitudes towards women’s capabilities, it left room for one to justify certain discriminatory policies or structures as having a biological basis” (2003, 249). Biology can be used as a tool because biology is often assumed to be about what is fixed or immutable. The very idea of two distinct sexes is transformed into an architectural principle by the use of doors.

If we think of biological sex as a door, we learn how biology can function as technology, to return to my discussion in chapter 2. This intimacy of biology and technology helps us to explore the queerness of biology and to consider what Sarah Franklin has called transbiology. Franklin introduces the cyborg embryo picking up on Donna Haraway’s (1991) creative reuse of the figure of the cyborg as well as her use of the concept of “trans-” to describe how new hybrid entities “blast widely understood notions of natural limit” (Haraway, 1997, cited in Franklin 2006, 170).  The cyborg embryo is born and made, biological and technological. The cyborg embryo is a product of what Franklin calls the IVF/Stem Cell interface: stem cell research is dependent upon “surplus” or “spare” embryos generated by assisted conception technologies. Interestingly, Franklin’s discussion of transbiology refers a number of times to doors. She describes how human stem cell derivation laboratories are built adjacent to assisted conception units and how the laboratories and clinics make use of doors to allow the passing through of biological materials—eggs and embryos—between them: “Like the cyborg embryo, transbiology is a mix of control and rogue, or trickster, elements. The hoods are noisy breathers, the eggs are dirty, and the door is queer” (2006, 175, emphasis mine). The door is there because it offers the most convenient way to pass materials through. The door is queer because it is not meant to be there; the lab is supposed to be a clean, controlled, and sealed environment.

We can pick up on the significance of the queer door. An opening created for convenience can have a queer potential: it can mean lessening control of what or who can pass through. The biological would then be about the potential of transfers and transits of many queer kinds. It might seem that doors function to contain us; to be told to use the same door is to be told who we are and what we can be. Perhaps use instructions are only necessary because they can be refused. Indeed, one might think of how the postbox can become a nest only by creating a queer door: the birds turn an opening into a door, that is, a way of entering the box.

Birds Nesting

A queer door can be the effect of unexpected arrivals: openings intended for some things to pass through can end up providing an access point for others.

By considering the uses of use, I have been able to show how the potential for movement can be eliminated or almost eliminated before that potential can be realized in this or that instance. In chapter 1, I suggest that use can lessen the queerness of use; when things are used repeatedly in a certain way it becomes harder for things to be used in other ways. Those for whom use is harder are trying to use things in other ways. Timing matters. If use instructions are made because they can be refused, use instructions are made even more forcefully when they are refused. Some forms of use are corrected, punished; do not use that is saying, in truth, do not be that. Those who refuse the instructions know how they work.


You come to know the instructions, when you are hit by them, when a door is slammed in your face. Maybe sometimes we might make use of doors ourselves, to create spaces, shelters, in which we can breathe, to survive the harshness of being shut out.  To turn that door into a wall, a way of stopping other people from entering, by treating the closing of the door not as a decision, as temporary, a product of labour, what we have a hand in, but as natural, as permanent, is to turn a shelter into a fortress. We cannot afford to do that. We can never afford to do that. There are too many lives at stake.

I wrote this post to work out what the same door is doing. I also wrote this post in response to the setting up an LGB alliance. Removing T (also I, also Q) is shutting the door, the same door, on those who are part of a shared struggle against forms of power and authority that work by restricting ideas of what life can be, what it means to be a woman or man or not a woman or not a man, to be both, to be neither, which restrict who we can love; how we can love. We were in the same bars, laughing and living, surviving the worlds that decided our lives were lifestyles, our choices whims; our ideas false; that we were selfish or dangerous because of what or who we refused to give up. We marched in the same marches, recognising something of ourselves in each other, as we fought for a world that could reflect our own images of ourselves back to ourselves; however tired, however worn; we loved what we could catch in each other’s reflections. We called each other family because we turned up for each other when we are cast out from our homes, our communities. Perhaps we are sloppy, rather messy; we are not unaffected by the trauma of being rejected. Perhaps we got things wrong; when you have been treated as wrong, it can be hard not to inherit that judgment. We have been at times confused with each other or turned into inauthentic versions of each other.[17] Maybe if we were confused with each other it is not surprising we are sometimes confused by each other. But that confusion becomes what we share: we work it out by working together. We can’t sort it by creating new distinctions, by separating ourselves from each other. At this moment, they are slamming that door in your faces; trying to close our shared struggle for freedom and justice to those of you travel under the sign T.

Well: they are shutting the door on us too; the same door; turning their backs on us too; their backs become doors.

We created our letters, our assembly, LGBTQI, fragile, fabulous, furious, because we needed each other; we needed to become each other’s resources.

We needed each other; we need each other; we still do.


Beauvoir de, Simone (1997). The Second Sex, trans. by H.M.Parshley. London: Vintage Books.

Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Delphy, Christine (1993). “Rethinking Sex and Gender,” Women’s Studies International Forum, 16, 1: 1-9.

Dworkin, Andrea (1972). Woman  Hating. New York: E.P.Dutton.

Franklin, Sarah. 2001. “Biologization Revisited: Kinship Theory in the Context of the new Biologies,” in Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon eds,  Relative Values: Reconfiguring  Kinship Studies. Durham: Duke University Press.

Germon, Jennifer (2009). Gender: A Genealogy of an Idea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hamraie, Aimi.(2017). Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Oakley, Ann (1972). Sex, Gender and Society. Maurice Temple Smith.

Oakley, Ann (1997).  “A Brief History of Gender,” in A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (eds) Who’s afraid of feminism?, London: Hamish Hamilton; New York, NY: The New Press.

Rich, Adrienne (1993). ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ in H. Abelove, M.  Barale, and D. M. Halperin (eds), The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, New York: Routledge.

Sanz, Veronica (2017). “No Way out of the Binary: A Critical History of the Scientific Production of Sex,” Signs, 47, 1.

Spade, Dean (2006). “Gender Mutilation,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds).  The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge. pp.315-332.

Stone, Sandy (2006). “The Empire Strikes Back: A PostTransexual  Manifesto,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds). The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Young, Iris Marion (1990). Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays. Bloomington Indiana University Press.

Wilchin, Rikki (2014). Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Riverdale Avenue Books.

Wittig, Monique (1992). The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

[1]So for instance in my diversity research, published as On Being Included, I reflect on how diversity practitioners often talk about walls in describing their work. But I did not notice the walls until after I completed the research – I came back to the data a few years after completing the work having finished a book on happiness. I know wonder if writing about feminist killjoys is what helped me to notice the walls.

[2] It is interesting to note here that presenting the use research as a power-point changed how I presented the book. With power-point I kept using the same image but with different captions. And I noticed how this allowed me to make the points more concretely. In this first version of the book I used each image once – for example the well-used path – and then referred back to that image. In the final version the well-used path keeps reappearing with different captions: the more a path is used, the more a path is used; a longer neck; a stronger arm; an old policy; more can refer to how many; the more he is cited, the more he is cited; heterosexuality, a path that is kept clear.

[3] I began working on the uses of stranger danger as a frame in my second book, Strange Encounters. Most of my work has been on stranger danger as a technique of racialisation. A crucial aspect of stranger making is that the stranger, however singular as a figure comes to stand for a group. It is crucial to understand how this work in the media reporting of violence. Take anti-Muslim racism: if a Muslim person commits an act of violence, that violence becomes expressive of the violence of Muslims (which quickly then becomes an argument against immigration or for increased securitisation and so on). Much transphobic reporting works to make an instance of violence made by a trans person as expressive of the violence of a group (which quickly then becomes an argument against “gender ideology,” or allowing trans people to live in accordance with the gender identity and so on).

[4] We have to become good readers here about how narratives of danger work. You do not have to say “all gays are pedophiles” or “all gays endanger the well-being of our children,” all they need to do is put the category of pedophilia near to the category of homosexual to create this effect. Or note how if a lesbian or gay person is involved in child abuse, the category of lesbian or gay will often be made explicit in media reporting, which becomes an implicit invitation to make being lesbian and gay part of the problem: but when a heterosexual person is involved in child abuse (much more commonly) their heterosexuality is less likely to be brought up in the description, which allows heterosexuality to disappear from the problem.

[5] Those who speak against the rights of a minority will thus almost always position themselves as the minority. They are not. Critical feminist voices have been over-amplified by the media – and of course if you will ask people if they are not allowed to speak about x, when x is the site of a controversy, you will find those people very easily and very quickly. We can witness how this mechanism works by how much the same people speak about not being allowed to speak at all (no platform has become a big platform for a reason). I would add here that this is also the case for other positions. You can find many white academics who are involved in the new eugenics (which is the old eugenics in dressier form) who would go onto the television and talk to newspapers about how they are harassed because of expressing critical viewpoints, how talking about white displacement or differences in IQ between racial groups or colonialism as a moral project is not racism and how other people calling it racism is how they are censored. We know they could do that because they do do that. Much harassment is justified as freedom of expression. Note: all of our equality commitments are about the imposition of restrictions on what people can do and say. If some people understood these restrictions as restrictions on their freedom, you are learning about their sense of entitlement. When some gender critical academics say that “out of politeness” they respect pronouns of their students they are implying they are free to do so or not to do so. They are in fact not free not to do so; they are required to do so under existing equality law (the guidance to the Equality Law 2010 by the EHRC uses deliberate misgendering as an example of harassment of persons with the “protected characteristic” of gender reassignment). Also, using theory to justify misgendering (I can call you he because my theories mean I don’t recognise you as she) is no less harassment than it would be without said justification: your theory does not exempt you from the requirement to act in a certain way. One has a sense here of the political stakes of the attack on “gender theory.”  I would add many people justify verbal forms of harassment as expressions of freedom – and also sometimes use “my theory gives me permission to say x” as well. I know this from my complaint research: I have collected many examples of sexist and racist as well as transphobic speech being justified not only as freedom of expression but with reference to a person’s “theories.” For example one student who objected to a sexist expression was told: “I don’t need to talk to you about discourse analysis and post-structuralism, and we can all do a discourse analysis on x; and we’d all come up with very different meanings.”

[6] Stranger danger can be dangerous. It can be dangerous to those deemed strangers: those who tend to be treated as dangerous are often those who are most vulnerable to violence. But it can be dangerous because of where it does not locate danger: here, at home, in the family. Women for instance are much more at risk when they are home. Stranger danger is how the violence that is close to home is often overlooked.

[7] As Sarah Franklin has noted, biology can refer to both a “body of authoritative knowledge (as in the science of reproductive biology) and a set of phenomena” (2001, 303). Biology can thus refer both to studies of living organisms and to the living organisms themselves. This confusion of different senses of biology is evident in some of the wider discourse, which has had the effect of treating “a body of authoritative knowledge” as if corresponds to a set of phenomena.

[8] Transphobia seems to create a moving target.  I am exploring in this post today how and why “biology” and “biological sex” are the main terms in use. At other times it is not biology but “socialisation” that is used: trans women cannot be women because they were socialised as men and benefited from male privilege. Here it is the social rather than the biological that becomes what is immutable: as if socialisation goes one way, relates only to one category (sex) and is not contested and disputed in everyday life depending on how one might not embody or not embody that category. Feminism itself depends on the failure of socialisation to bring about willing gendered subjects. Another typical argument is that “transgenderism” as a set of medical practices depends on essentialist notions of gender because it corrects gender nonconforming behaviours and is shaped by a heterosexist imperative.  Of course there has been decades of scholarship by transgender theorists that is critical of how gender and hetero norms become an apparatus of truth within medical institutions; that has shown how in order to gain access to surgery and hormones, trans subjects have to tell a narrative that is legible to authorities because it maintains gender scripts: from Sandy Stone’s wonderful “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto” ([1987] 2006) to more recent work by Dean Spade (2006) and Riki Wilchins (2014).  This work shows how not to be accommodated by a gender system (which requires you to “stay with” an assignment made by authorities at birth) can involve becoming more vigilant and reflexive about that system (although it is very important not to expect those who are not accommodated by a system to become pioneers or transgressors of norms, either). I think what is going on in anti-trans feminist work is the desire to exclude and police the boundaries of “women” on whatever basis can be found (hence the target is a moving target).

[9] For a discussion of how the “sex-gender” distinction was imported into Gender Studies (via the work of John Money on intersex communities) see Jennifer Gorman (2007). Gorman also explores the link between Gayle Rubin’s model of the “sex-gender system” and Money’s work.

[10] This reversal was also performed by Judith Butler in her classic Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), which drew on many other feminist theorists to show how physical and sexed bodies are shaped right from the very beginning (or even before a beginning) by social norms and values. Following the “uses of use” deepened my understanding of the complexity of chains of cause and effect. When effects are treated as causes there are further effects (including on causes). If sex is an effect of gender, the assumption that sex is a cause is what gender effects. The very assumption of causality brings worlds as well as bodies into existence. Doors are especially useful to help us address the materializing effects of assumptions.

[11] It is also worth remembering here the strong lesbian feminist critique of the category of “women.” The history of the word “woman” teaches us how the categories that secure personhood are bound up with a history of ownership: “woman” is derived from a compound of wif (wife) and man (human being); woman as wife-man also suggesting woman as female servant. The history of woman is impossible to disentangle from the history of wife: the female human as not only in relation to man but as for man (woman as there for, and therefore, being for).  We can make sense of Monique Wittig’s (1992) audacious statement “lesbians are not women.”  She argues lesbians are not women because “women” is being in relation to men: for Wittig, “women” is a heterosexual category, or a heterosexual injunction. Wittig calls the lesbian an “escapee” from this system.

[12] Those who are not at home, come to know categories more intimately, which is why some of the most important work on gender, sex and sexuality is coming out of trans studies. Can I also add that to dismiss “identity” and “emotions” as somehow immaterial relative to “sex” as “material” is to forget so much previous feminist work. I have even heard a gender critical feminist say she doesn’t believe in gender because she is a materialist!  I am tempted to quote here from Marx on matter and labour but I won’t.  There is a huge and important literature that teaches how emotions, how we feel in relation to objects and others, are physical and embodied as well as being about judgment or cognition; how we come to know about ourselves as well as worlds. If your body does not feel right, if you feel wrong, it takes a huge amount of work, a difficult transition, to get to a point to where things feel right. I am myself a cis woman, but I have learning so much from trans people’s accounts of transition and of the emotional and physical nature of this process. On what it means to feel wrong, or in thinking about how wrong feels, it is hard not to think of my own experience of heterosexuality. I remember the work it took, how long it took, to let my bodily feeling “this is wrong,” however powerful and palpable that feeling was, to lead me to change my situation. Sometimes feelings can be traumatic, because you realize from them just how much you have to do to rearrange yourself, your life, so you can breathe, even if there is joy and hope and possibility in that rearrangement. To dismiss other people’s feelings about gender as immaterial, as I have heard people do, is deeply unethical. I can’t breathe in this version of feminism.

[13] Please also consult with the incredibly rich domain of feminist science studies. For an article that reviews the “critical history of sex” with reference to feminist science studies see Sanz (2007).

[14] Of course there is a lot of confusion about categories as the same categories are being used differently by different people.  For example gender now tends to be used on equal opportunities forms rather than sex – I think gender is used almost like polite speech. But to make clear distinctions when in everyday life those distinctions are unclear would be to remove ourselves from everyday life. Yes, we can make provisional definitions, but these are working definitions: we use them to do certain work; we have to keep working on them. We have to keep working things through because or when they are messy.

[15] Gender and sexuality are not the same thing but neither can they be separated. What Adrienne Rich (1993) called “compulsory heterosexuality” is also a gender system (we could call this system hetero-gender); it rested on ideas about what men and women were like and could be. The implications for our activism ought to be obvious.

[16] These paragraphs are from the section “Refusing Instructions.” Citations for the material in this section are listed in What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use.

[17] Anyone who knows the history of sexology will know about these confusions, many early and varied  categories such as that of “inversion” rested upon them (if a person wanted someone of the same sex, that was because they must really be the other sex or if a person wanted to be the other sex, that was really because they wanted the same sex).


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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