“A world segregated into male and female categories feels suffocating,” says the nonbinary Robin Dembroff, assistant professor in philosophy at Yale. “Nonbinary identity is a radical escape hatch”, an alternative to the world of “normed conformity” where “everyone forces each other into a blue or a pink box”. This is set out in Dembroff’s recent article Why be nonbinary? which has received well over 5000 Facebook likes. It is one of a flood of pieces pouring out support for gender ideology, heading people away from a real challenge to confining sex roles and women’s oppression.
Gender and traditional sexism
First Dembroff dispenses with traditionalist sexism:
Most people assume that gender is tied to biological sex. For the majority, this means that gender is identical to sex, where sex is taken to be determined by one’s reproductive features. Call this the ‘identity’ view of gender.
For all the huffing about how gender is just body parts, no one in practice holds the identity view of gender. If gender is just reproductive features and nothing more, it makes no more sense to insist that people must look, love or act in particular ways on the basis of gender than it would to demand that people modify their behaviour on the basis of eye colour or height.
No one “in practice” seems to mean that this theory has no cred scientifically or academically; Dembroff wants to flick it away. But it cannot be dismissed that easily. Vast numbers of people watch boys getting each other in headlocks, hear that boys will be boys, and see nature at work. People don’t make the same sort of assumptions about eye colour and height because no mighty vested interests have worked century after century to police the behaviour of short or green-eyed people, and establish visible patterns of behaviour reinforcing the policed messages. We are struggling against powerful material forces, not just wrong ideas.
Gender and socialized sex roles
“For others, following Simone de Beauvoir, gender is the social meaning of sex,” ” Dembroff says. “Call this the ‘social position’ view of gender.”
A distinction between sex and gender, in which genders are the social positions forced upon certain sexed bodies, has long circulated among feminist theorists and activists. And, no doubt, this way of thinking about gender has helped to debunk ideas about how female persons ‘naturally’ should be and reveal widespread social discriminations against these persons…
It is powerful to insist that women and men should be able to look, act and simply be any way they want. Countless people identify as men or women while simultaneously bucking gender norms. For many of them, being understood as a man or a woman is important for describing how they were socialised as children, how others interpret their bodies, or how they feel about their own bodies. This is wonderful: the more sledgehammers we take to gender categories, the better. Some prefer to make these categories gooey on the inside; I prefer to torch them.
In other words, social positionists deserve a nod, but going nonbinary is more radical, exciting and effective. Most importantly: “While other feminisms question the unequal value placed on femininity and masculinity, highlighting the resulting gender inequalities, the nonbinary movement questions why we insist on these categories at all.”
This is the article’s key distortion. Liberal feminists may limit their attack to the “unequal value placed on femininity and masculinity”, but this is not true of radical feminists, socialist feminists and gender-critical Marxists, all of whom want a liberated world in which feminine and masculine sex roles are abolished altogether and people are free to be themselves (Even most pro-gender Marxists would say they support this.) But the distortion is essential to Dembroff’s argument, to establish nonbinary’s special status.
The real problem is, however, is that nonbinary works against the removal of sex stereotypes. This happens in several ways.
Not like other girls?
When women’s liberationists defy stereotypic expectations, they are consciously sending a message to women as a whole: you can all do this, and you should. Nonbinary, on the other hand, presents discontent with sex stereotypes as a minority concern. Debroff applauds nonbinary/agender teenager Kelsey Beckham who declared in The Washington Post that “I don’t want to be a girl wearing boy’s clothes, nor do I want to be a girl who presents as a boy… I’m just a person wearing people clothes”. Debroff says “Beckham’s claim gets at the heart of nonbinary identity.” But in The Washington Post piece Beckham’s defiance of sex stereotypes makes her other: one of a select few: “Being agender, Kelsey explains… is like living on an island apart from the rest of the world.”
Worse than this, nonbinary implies that the mass of working class women and girls are a good fit with their sex roles. As radical feminist M K Fain points out in her own critique of Dembroff’s article, this is a faux-radical version of “I’m not like other girls” – an attitude now widely derided online, as another writer explains:
Modern feminism acknowledges that the ‘I’m not like other girls’ movement carries hints of internalized misogyny, when girls proudly claim that they ‘are not like other girls’, it suggests that this ‘other’ breed of girls is generally shallow and vapid with no other interests besides fashion, fitness, or beauty.
Its “nonbinary” version offers no message to the mass of women and girls in working class suburbia except to do your hair and support the brave interesting minority who are not like them.
Nonbinary and the pink and blue flag
Nonbinary identity, Dembroff says, is “open to anyone”. Anyone and everyone? “I and other nonbinary persons question why we categorise people as women and men at all.” Could we all, then, get through this radical escape hatch? In a purely logical sense you can move from being nonbinary yourself to rejecting sex stereotypes for all, merging with the politics of women’s liberation. In practice, the nonbinary dwell beneath the “trans umbrella”, where a sex-role-defiant woman – be she nonbinary, masculine, gender fluid or agender – remains not only part of a small minority, but a subordinate part, living under the shelter vouchsafed by the trans movement. In return the nonbinary trend helps draw the most sex-role-defiant young women under the umbrella, women who might not be wowed by Miss Transgender UK or the Le Femme Finishing School.
Life under the trans umbrella is saturated in the sexism of gender ideology. This says we have an innate gender identity that can only be expressed through stereotypic behaviour and appearance, with the optional extra of body mod. It demands that we define women not by biology or socialization but only through the things that women and transwomen can share: feminine stereotypes a fact concealed under the myth of our innate, mystical/magical, nebulous gender identity. And since we all have an innate gender identity, and this almost always aligns with one’s sexed body, any feminine ways that natal women display do not reflect oppressive socialization but are natural and inborn. Girls will be girls. It is no coincidence that the trans flag is pink and blue.
And like other forms of gender ideology, nonbinary trivializes women’s oppression by presenting womanhood as something you can opt out of. And, related to this, when you “question why we categorise people as women and men at all” you come very close to denying the existence of women’s distinctive oppression as a sex, within the current system. Within a sexist society female biology guarantees systematic discrimination, a point that Fain drives home.
This fake radicalism makes it very, very hard for sex-role-defiant women to fight their way clear of the new cool sexism. Fain has a telling description of its impact on three women whom she lived with in 2018:
We spent a lot of time together that year, and there were many late-night conversations about the sexism, misogyny, and male violence we had experienced. We talked about not fitting into what society had expected of women, we stopped shaving together, and we encouraged each other to not be ashamed of our natural bodies. We called rape crisis lines, organized protests, and exposed violent men in our communities… The four of us dreamt of what a feminist world could look like… Now, one year later, all three of them identify as ‘non-binary’ — no longer a woman… In our last days together, I tried to show them a feminism that rejects gender rather than embraces its lies — but since I am ‘female’ and they are ‘not’ I could not possibly understand their pain. They said I was hateful.
For women’s liberation
Nonbinary serves as a recruiting agent for the wider world of gender ideology. But, against immense obstacles, women’s liberationists are pushing back against this ideology, particularly in Britain. The spearhead of this opposition is Women’s Place UK. Their struggle against gender sexism is being supported by those Marxists who have not lost their way on this issue.