Historically, most anarchafeminists have explicitly rejected marriage as a tool of control by the state and/or church, inherently reinforcing the patriarchy. In the early 20th century, this position was known in the Anglophone West as ‘Free Love’ and didn’t necessarily imply anything about the relationship structures of the people involved, although many did engage in what we would now call polyamorous relationships. ‘Free Love’ as a term underwent a semantic shift as a result of its adoption by 1960s counterculture movements, in which incarnation it has been roundly (and rightly) critiqued by feminists. More recently, the word ‘monogamy’ has also undergone a semantic shift, which I argue is actually detrimental to our political understanding of marriage and relationships.[1]

The word ‘monogamous’, taken literally, does not mean ‘having a romantic relationship with only one other person’. It means ‘being married to only one other person’. Despite the semantic shift towards the former that has happened over the past few decades, I argue that we should return to using the word ‘monogamous’ in its literal sense – not on etymological grounds, but on political ones. That is, we should use ‘monogamous’ only to mean the state of being married to precisely one other person (or seeking or being oriented toward such a state).

Immediately, we see that this has two potentially counter-intuitive effects. First, it means we must start calling some people in exclusive, committed, dyadic relationships ‘non-monogamous’, if they are opposed to the institution of marriage or otherwise intend not to enter it. At the same time, it recasts many polyamorous relationships as ‘monogamous’. Specifically, those which have the sort of relationship structure that is centred around a married couple who are practising a sort of gender-equal concubinage with outside partners, who may or may not also be part of monogamous couples themselves.

Before proceeding, let me specify what I mean by ‘marriage’. Marriage is the socio-political institution whereby the state exerts control over relationships and family structures by certifying some as valid while denying the validity of others. It is, in its secular sense, a legal relation and a property relation. I am not critiquing marriage as a religious institution, which from a purely feminist perspective may be more or less acceptable depending on the particularities involved (i.e. can range from extremely patriarchal to not at all) – and which in any case has often been a point of contention between states and minority religions within their jurisdiction. (This is not to say that there are not criticisms of religious marriage to be made; only that they fall outside the scope of my argument here.) Rather, the problem with marriage is that it entails the allocation of legal standing and material resources based on the people involved having signed a particular kind of contract with each other and the state, and state-sanctioned monogamy is thereby blatantly discriminatory both to single people and to polyamorous people.

In the social realm, married relationships are simply taken more seriously in their communities than unmarried relationships, even in purely secular communities where there is no stigma about unmarried partners living together, and even as marriage has begun to wane in social importance overall. When things are going well, unmarried partners might see little difference between themselves and married partners in the eyes of their communities (if not the state) – but mistreatment, abuse, infidelity, and the breakdown of the relationship are all given significantly more social weight if the people involved are married than if they are not. Now, there is a very limited sense in which that is actually appropriate. Partners have the right to make whatever level of commitment they choose to one another, and communities should support that – which includes things like having more social censure for a partner who abandons a committed relationship than for someone who dumps a casual lover. (Obviously, serious mistreatment such as abuse should be taken very seriously no matter what the relationship of the people involved.) The main problem here is not that publicly committed relationships are taken more seriously by their communities than privately committed or uncommitted relationships. It is that the state-sanctioned institution of marriage is often the only way in which this distinction is made.

The word ‘monogamy’, however, even if narrowly defined to refer specifically to marriage relationships and not merely to all exclusive dyadic relationships, can still have a broader sense, because we live in a normatively monogamous society. Precisely because of all of the social pressures towards marriage, it makes sense to call a relationship ‘monogamous’ if it is taking place in a context where all participants understand that marriage is the desirable outcome for a dating couple, and they have not decided any differently between themselves. Therefore, the vast majority of  unmarried relationships in our society could indeed still be called ‘monogamous’, in that they are participating in a normatively monogamous paradigm without challenging it.

It was this relation – marriage, and its social normativity – against which the original proponents of ‘Free Love’ were arguing. While many of them did practise what we would now call non-monogamy, i.e. non-exclusive relationships or polyamory, the term itself did not initially indicate anything whatsoever about the relationship styles of the people involved. It merely meant that they were opposed to the state and the church dictating the forms of their relationships, as well as their legal and property relations associated therewith.

Moreover, when seeing ‘monogamy’ as specifically descriptive of marriage (or aspirations thereto), it becomes clear that none of the arguments that people might make against marriage can thereby be taken as arguments in favour of polyamory, however much merit that kind of relationship arrangement may have for its practitioners.

Polyamory is neither natural nor political. There is a body of thought – or perhaps it is more accurate to say, a set of inclinations – that I am opposing under the term ‘political polyamory’, but which in some forms might also be called ‘evangelical polyamory’, or in some cases even ‘normative polyamory’. Namely, it is the set of ideas that posit that polyamorous relationship arrangements are “more radical” or in some way better than non-polyamorous ones. There are a few different strands here, which I’ll be treating as different arguments rather than as representative of different groups of polyamory-proponents, as it is quite often the case that proponents of one will also be proponents of one or more of the others, despite their internal contradictions.

First, there is the idea that polyamory (or non-exclusivity) is somehow “more natural” than other forms of relationships. Basically, the story goes, human beings probably practised non-monogamous relationships during most of our evolutionary history – and our closest living relatives, the bonobos, certainly do – therefore this is most likely the most natural form for our relationships to take. Setting aside whether or not that is true or even knowable, it quite simply does not follow from the fact that this-or-that behaviour is “more natural” than another that it is in any way better. For one thing, all human behaviour is a product of our cultures to one degree or another; there is no such thing as a human being without culture. Further, even if it were so, the argument rests on a basic fallacy, known in philosophy as the is-ought problem or naturalistic fallacy. That is: it is absurd to make claims about what ought to be the case, merely on the basis of what is. It is certainly valid to use the evidence often cited in these arguments to show that monogamy is not a natural, inherent behaviour in humans, but that negative claim is the extent of what can be shown; the same evidence cannot be used to make any positive claims about what human behaviour is or ought to be.

Next, there is the claim that polyamory is in some sense “more evolved” or “more enlightened” than traditional monogamy. This argument does not rest on dubious evopsychological claims, but instead takes as its base scenario the traditional monogamy of western Europe and its diaspora. Despite (rather curiously) often being proposed by proponents of the naturalistic polyamory arguments just described, in many ways it makes precisely the opposite sort of mistake: it takes its own base set of cultural values as universal norms, and sees polyamory as an enlightened refutation of these norms.[2] The word ‘evolved’ in this context probably isn’t meant literally, as that would not be possible, but seems instead to be metaphorically referencing a teleologically progressive view of human society, in which ideas or practices that come later are taken to be intrinsically better than those that they replace. “Enlightened”, meanwhile, seems to be deployed as a simplistic contradistinction to the assumed benightedness of the monogamous, as though the only reasons a person might not be polyamorous were because they had either never heard of it, or they are so in thrall to tradition that they would never dare to flout it. In this sense, the argument is similar to naturalistic polyamory in that it shares the assumption that everyone would be polyamorous if they had the option, and is held back only by cultural norms. In both of these cases, the so-called political content of polyamory is in challenging the norms of a monogamous society, and the error is in the assumption that normative monogamy is the only reason that someone might choose to only have exclusive, dyadic relationships.

Finally, there is the idea that polyamory is ‘more radical’ or is more ethical based on radical anarchist principles. In the first formulation, it seems to be just another repetition of what I call the ‘queerer than thou’ fallacy. That is, that because x, y, and z sorts of relationships are proscribed by heteronormative mainstream society, relationships that fall into more than one of those categories are ‘more queer’ than those that fall into only one, with the subtext that ‘queer’ = ‘cool’ and so ‘queerer’ = ‘better’. That is to say that it is making a basic category error, confusing what might be “cool” in certain subcultures with what is politically desirable.

The second – and rather more charitable – formulation also comes down to a category error, although in a much subtler way. It is a basic principle of anarchism, as well as of any other properly egalitarian political philosophy, to be opposed to hierarchy in human relations. There is a naïve sense in which this is sometimes interpreted to mean that every person should have an absolutely equal say in every decision – which, upon examination, is obviously absurd. As well as individuals not having any right to butt in on decisions that don’t affect them, most collective endeavours would not function without some delegation of decision-making powers, even if the people making those decisions are ultimately accountable to their collectives and communities. Furthermore, any society will always have hierarchies of information and therefore differing levels of expertise among individuals. The point of opposing hierarchy is not to deny the specialist knowledge of experts, nor to pretend that someone ignorant of a subject can speak on it with equal merit, but to deny that the holding of any particular expertise, skill, or position in society entitles that person to special treatment in their society as a person. For example: it’s fine for the architect to tell us how to build the building; it’s not okay for her to demand that she therefore gets to live in the very biggest and nicest flat inside of it.

Similarly, we quite naturally form hierarchies of love in our personal relationships. I love my friends more than I love my acquaintances, and I imagine that you do as well – that’s why they’re your friends, after all! I would even say that I love my parents more than I love my aunts and uncles, even though I do love my aunts and uncles very much. And, this is okay. What would not be okay is if I were to claim that my friends and my family are more important per se than other people; but that is not what we do when we acknowledge that they are more important to us. We do not make claims that our loved ones are more valuable than other people based on our love for them; we merely acknowledge that we value them more.

There is a subset of polyamorous people – not all of whom would use the word ‘polyamory’ to describe their relationships – who are explicitly opposed to the sort of traditional-marriage-plus-concubinage style of polyamory referenced up top. However, they see the problem with this not as the marriage at the centre, but as the primacy given to that relationship itself, no matter its legal status. They term this sort of relationship structure ‘hierarchical polyamory’, implying (or sometimes outright stating) that people who have a single primary relationship while maintaining other non-primary (or “secondary”) relationships are mistreating their non-primary partners simply by virtue of those relationships being non-primary. This carries with it the implication that it is impermissible to make different levels of commitment to different partners, as to do so would automatically institute a “hierarchy” among one’s relationships. The error, then, in much of explicitly non-hierarchical polyamory or “relationship anarchy” is to seem to imply that by loving or valuing one partner more than another – or, in some forms, more than hypothetical partners who do not yet actually exist, as in the case of commitments to exclusivity – a person is thereby denigrating the very humanity of the other partners (or hypothetical partners).

Proponents of this view seem to be making the logical leap from the idea that all people have equal worth, to the idea that all of the people they are or might be in relationships with should have equal value to them, and thereby an equal “say” in any conflicts that might arise within or among their relationships. Of course, people seldom do end up valuing all of their loved ones absolutely equally – or in the same sorts of ways – and so in practice attempts to enact this sort of relationship structure often find that established romantic partners feel alienated and devalued, especially when they have high levels of entanglement, while newer partners might feel pressured into a level of seriousness they may not feel. This is not to say that people inspired by these ideas about relationship structures cannot or do not have loving, supportive relationships. However, attempts to impose supposedly non-hierarchical relationship structures where they have not formed organically has, in my observation at least, tended to lead to the person pushing for the “non-hierarchical” structure ending up treating their partners quite badly, and this may be because they are attempting to impose a (confused) political ideal onto a situation where it is not at all warranted.

Of course, much avoidable pain has also come from normative monogamy. This, then, is the point of the matter. If polyamory is not political, it must be stated that non-monogamy – in its narrow-but-expansive definition given at the beginning, i.e. the state of being opposed to the sociopolitical institution of marriage, regardless of one’s actual relationships or the exclusivity or openness thereof – absolutely is political. If there is anything worth saving, worth valuing in marriage, it is that it is the method by which communities support partners in their relationships, helping them to support each other and to uphold their commitments to one another. The problem is that for the most part this is the only way that this happens. How much better might our society become if all relationship configurations were supported in this way? If our communities recognised, respected and supported the relationships not only of those people who were married – or intending or assumed to be married – but also those people in long-term, committed, intentionally unmarried relationships; partially or alternatively committed long-term relationships; short-term relationships of any kind; and indeed all uncommitted relationships, in the ways that those need community support as well; and treated single people as whole people and not as defective, open-ended dyadic halves? That is the politics of Free Love, and it has nothing at all to do with polyamory, except as a term – politically and morally neutral as any other – for a particular subset of the myriad options available to people in a truly romantically liberated society.

[1]    Please note: throughout this essay I am speaking from and largely to a very specific cultural context (or set of contexts). Namely, that of radical left-wing political communities and polyamorous/non-monogamous, queer, and other “alternative” minority-sexuality subculture-communities within the Anglophone West. My experience and observation comes from participation in these communities, both in person and online, over approximately the past decade; unfortunately most of the trends and phenomena I describe are therefore not citeable in any traditional way, as they come from either direct participation or from observation of largely ephemeral forms of communication. My observations are my own, and should not be taken as definitive of any group of people.

[2]    In fairness, proponents of this view are generally aware that there are other cultures where monogamy is not the norm, or at least is not normatively enforced. However, to the extent that they engage with this information at all, their engagement tends to be tokenising. That is, there is a general tendency among (especially white) Westerners to pluck ideas and activities from the rest of the world as though they were whole and undifferentiated consumable objects, rather than culturally embedded practices which may not make sense outside of the context in which they were developed. Furthermore, consumption of these alienated tokens is often itself seen as an “enlightened” activity, presumably by the logic that it is only the ignorant and simple-minded who are aware only of their own cultures, and therefore to visibly consume the practices and artefacts of other cultures is necessarily an “enlightened” activity.

A version of this essay was presented at the 2016 Anarchist Studies Network conference in Loughborough. It has been lightly edited.


As an anarchist, I have no illusions that my voting will actually do anything at all to enact positive change in society. It is only ever, at best, an imperfect means by which to hinder the ruling classes in being even more rapacious than they might otherwise be. But that’s not nothing. I’ve never voted for a politician in my life, but I’ve sure as hell voted against some others … in a way that happens to be indistinguishable from voting “for” their opponents, because that is the only means the system allows. Yet, if it’s there, why not use it? Use it cynically, use it with open eyes, but what exactly is the point of eschewing the one tiny scrap of power given to citizens of representative “democracies”, even while working to overturn the whole system?

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal!”
Sure. But doesn’t that well-worn slogan actually prove the opposite point to the one it’s generally deployed in favour of? It’s hard to see the history and current realities of deliberate disenfranchisement and voter suppression and  not see the ruling classes as actually running scared at the power of the electorate. They may be largely over-worried about that (see: most actual communist governments), but the aggregate power of the populace — shrunken and circumscribed though it most certainly is — is a genuine check on their power.

Voting legitimises the state (and/or whomever you vote for)
This is ultimately a philosophical point, and one where I tend to disagree with most anarchists. My disagreement, interestingly enough, stems from the very process that led me to anarchism in the first place: the academic study of the philosophical arguments by which governments claim legitimacy. See, they’re all bullshit, every last one. Social Contract Theory probably comes closest to actually being justifiable, in that it at least tries to involve the consent of the governed in being ruled by the state, but even it ultimately rests on the bullshit idea of “tacit consent”, whereby by simply existing under the rule of the state, the people have somehow agreed to be ruled by it.
All of which is to say: your consent is not required. It is simply assumed — even among electorates with voter turnout percentages regularly in the low 30s, it is assumed — and you are merely asked to choose among your oppressors. But some oppressors genuinely are worse than others, and given that the option of ‘no oppressors’ isn’t even on the table, I see no contradiction in using what little power you are afforded to try to ensure the less evil option (that is, to improve or sustain the actual material wellbeing of people in your society), and at the same time trying to flip that table altogether.
The more general point here is that participating in a system does not legitimise it. At least not where one is not given a genuine choice in whether or not to participate — and as we see from the general interpretation of low voter turnouts, simply not voting is not sufficient to be counted as “not participating” in the system. As far as I see it, voting doesn’t legitimise government any more than, say, having a bank account legitimises money, or having a job legitimises wage slavery.

Voting is alienating
Yep. Sure is. No argument there. I want to be clear that I’m not writing this as any sort of active encouragement for anyone to vote, merely as a counter-argument against some specific arguments against voting. Voting is quite literally alienating yourself from your real political power, and I would never shame someone for choosing not to do that.

Electioneering drains the energy of the radical working class!
Woah, woah, woah, now. Slow your roll, anxious anarchist abstentionists. I said voting. I didn’t say anything about campaigning. I absolutely think that it’s a waste of time for anyone seeking revolution[ary change of any kind] to bother spending any significant time working to get So-and-So, the Left’s new Great White Hope, elected into office. There are plenty of people who haven’t yet come around to genuinely radical politics; let them do the electioneering. You and me, we can keep working on the same shit we’ve been working on. But given the minimal effort required to actually cast a ballot, when elections do come around, why not vote?

An Open Letter to Rapists

Hello Rapists,

“Who, me?” I hear you saying, “Why, I’m not a rapist! I never even lurk in bushes, let alone burst forth from them to attack lady passers-by!”

Ok, let me stop you right there. While stranger-attack rapes do happen, stranger-rape actually falls outside the scope of this letter. (Sorry, not sorry, stranger-rapists.) So, too, for different reasons, does the much more common occurrence of partner-rape. No, I want to talk about what’s often referred to as “date rape”. That’s when you go on a date with someone, and then rather than going through the normal routines of consensual making out and maybe sex or whatever, you just go ahead and sexually assault them.

Now, obviously, this is reprehensible. I’m sure you know this, and if you’re not sure whether or not this is something you have done or make a habit of, there are plenty of resources out there that will explain sexual consent to you. However, much as it pains me to do so, I want to just lay aside morality for a moment here. Various psych- and sociological studies have shown that there are several people among you who most certainly do make a habit of this — that you’ll even generally admit to doing it, so long as the words ‘rape’ and ‘sexual assault’ are avoided in asking you about it. So, as a purely pragmatic intervention, I want to talk to you on (what I assume are) your own terms: sex. Sexy, sexy, sex, and how to get more of it. So, let’s all acknowledge this, loud and clear:


See, every time you interact with someone, that interaction happens at a particular time. That time will be succeeded by future instances of time, in which your rape victim, if you have created one, will remember what you have done (or remember the suspicious blank in their memory following other things you have done). This memory will then colour their future interactions with you. That is, people treat you differently based on how you have treated them in the past. This shit is really not that difficult.

It’s a reasonable assumption that, if someone finds you sexy and charming enough to want to put themselves in a sexual situation with you, they’re going to want to do that again in the future, if you treat them well in this one. If you are attentive and caring and interested in their pleasure as well as your own, then odds are (NB: not necessarily, but it’s pretty likely) that they’ll want to have sexytimes with you again. Great! Net gain of sex for you! But if you just go ahead and ignore their wants and needs and boundaries — if you pressure them, if you plead and wheedle at them, if you just ignore their hesitations or demurrals or outright refusals — then HELL NO are they going to want to have sex with you again! Not only that, they may even tell other people about what you’ve done, and then none of those people are going to want to sleep with you either. NET LOSS OF SEX FOR YOU. EPIC FAIL.

So please, for the love of sex, just stop fucking raping people. Ever. 

When news was announced last week that the government was introducing a new NHS surcharge for incoming migrants, I saw several friends posting about it with the usual tutting “isn’t this terrible” comments, as though the main problem was the further plight of the poor beleaguered immigrants, the least of these in our society, etc. Which is a point, sure — having an extra layer of bureaucracy and a further £150 or £200 tacked on to an already expensive and time-consuming visa application process is a hardship. However, it misses the much more fundamental problem, which is that this policy is the thin end of the wedge that would end free-at-point-of-use NHS healthcare altogether.

This move is blatantly ideological. If the worry were truly budgetary, the government could simply have raised the fees on visa applications. This would actually bring more money in for the NHS, since it would remove the bureaucracy costs of processing an entire separate fee, on another website, with all of the attendant costs of having human beings explain the inevitable confusion, rewrite and reformat all of their forms, and so on — compared to which, the work that would go into changing the digits of a single number, even across all of their forms, is trifling. The government could even make exactly the same claims to garner popular support: “We’ve raised visa fees by £150 to £200, so that immigrants are making a fair contribution to their NHS care!” That they have instead chosen to go with the more expensive option of making the new fee explicitly about paying for said care, they show that what they really care about is changing the culture and perception of the NHS, from a service that is and should be free for all users, to one that people should have to pay to use, directly rather than only through taxation.

After all, to an American, at least, £150 or £200 for two to five years of health insurance looks like an absolute bargain. And that is the point, the ultimate goal of this sort of policy change.

With all the background-privatisation, budgetary neglect, and general financial dickery the Tories have perpetrated over the last five years — continuing, let’s not forget, on the same trajectory started by Labour, who were themselves merely carrying on the Thatcher/Reagan neoliberal “consensus” that absolutely every service ought to be operated by or like a private, profit-making company — the head of the BMA has already stated worries that the next government will introduce charges for the NHS even without reference to the new charges being made to immigrants.

This does not seem quite politically feasible just yet. On Thursday night’s leaders debate, even old-fashioned novelty racist Nigel Farage felt the need to emphasise that it ought remain free at point of use (although you could point out that the fact that that question even appears to be on the table is itself evidence of the degree of slippage that has already occurred). But in a few years’ time, after what we can only assume will be a few more years of neoliberal austerity, with privatisation driving up costs and UKIP’s constant scaremongering about immigrants having been answered by explicitly charging immigrants to use the NHS, and everybody having got used to the idea of some people being explicitly charged for it — how will it look then?

Trigger Warning: Contains discussion of suicide, mentions of methods of suicide, and descriptions of suicidal thought processes.

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I wrote in Part 1 about how I came to see myself as agender, and the theoretical frameworks by which I understand that term. This post will deal with the intersections of privilege and oppression that come with trying to navigate such an identity as a person who is perceived as unambiguously female.

I. Oppression

Once, in the midst of an emotional confrontation, someone accused me of using “male-like privilege” to shut him(!) down in our argument, reasoning that my “rational mode of speaking” was a typically masculine-identified way of communicating that is often used to try to negate or discount the input of the interlocutor as “too emotional”. I pointed out that, a) the dynamic he was describing is one wherein someone pretends that it is somehow “reasonable” or “logical” to discount feelings, which I was not doing; but moreover, b) as a woman, I am structurally incapable of accessing male (or, presumably, “male-like”) privilege anyway. “But,” he said, responding to the latter, “You’re not really a woman, though, are you?”

This was fairly early on in my process of gender-questioning, and he was one of the few people I had spoken to at length about my thoughts that I might actually be agender. To have this thrown back at me as a reason to discount my experience of structural oppression as a woman was jarring, to say the least.


In common with most(?) anarchists and other radical socialists, I view gender as a class structure. That is, it is a hierarchical system whereby men are privileged, as a class, and women are oppressed, as a class. This is not a definitive description — it is not the case that what it is to be a man or woman is to be part of the structurally privileged or oppressed gender in society. However, it is certainly the case that, contingently though it may be, part of what it means to be a man or woman at this particular time and place in history is to be part of the structurally privileged or oppressed gender groups, respectively.

However, this particular axis of oppression has little, if anything, to do with its object’s gender identity. Rather, it is based on how they are perceived by those around them. I am not subject to misogyny based on my identity as a woman, but because people see me as a woman, regardless of how I see myself. As such, I find it useful, as a point for organising around issues specific to the oppression of women, to continue to identify as one.

This is something I’m still thinking through. I worry that by failing to take up a more explicitly non-binary gender identity, I am contributing to the overall invisibility of gender minorities. On the other hand, I worry that by expressing a non-binary gender identity when my actual gender identity is more “IDGAF, woman-I-guess” than “definitely neither man nor woman”, I would simply be appropriating an identity that isn’t rightfully mine (a fear, I note, remarkably similar to the rather common fear among bisexual women that someone is going to come and take our queer cards away if we end up in exclusive or primary relationships with men).

II. Privilege

The thing is, though, whether or not I call myself cisgender, I have quite a lot of cis privilege.

Namely, precisely because I am agender in such a default and uncaring way, it doesn’t actually cost me anything to simply continue to identify as a woman in a default sort of way. Yes, I may have awkward and ridiculous conversations like the one recounted above (an accusation so absurd that the person later denied even having made it). But, for the most part, I am able to pontificate about gender identity mostly as an abstract exercise. All of this has very little effect on the way I present myself to the world, or on how my gender is (usually) read by other people. I may feel like I’m “in drag” if I dress up all femme as much as if I dress in very masculine-signified clothing, but (at least for me) that amounts to little more than a trifling psychological quirk. And sure, I am subject to the same oppositional-sexist policing of my gender presentation as anyone else — but no more so than many unambiguously cisgendered people, and certainly less than some.

I have heard several people express the opinion that ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are not a spectrum, but a strict binary: that everyone who is not trans is cis, and everyone who is not cis is trans. I don’t know whether they are a ‘spectrum’ as such, but I do know this: nature abhors a strict binary system. The entirety of biological science is filled with almosts and admixtures and grey areas, and I don’t see why human gender, being either a biological construct, a social construct made by gooey biological creatures, or some mixture of the two, should be any different.

As such, I tend to identify as ‘cisgender’ or not based largely on the circumstances, and on who’s asking. That is, if someone is just wanting to catalogue the various sorts of gender identities people might have, I’ll raise my hand as genderqueer. However, when it comes to talking about trans oppression, I feel like I would be remiss not to identify myself as cis in terms of privilege.

Every so often, you come across one of those ideas that crystallizes everything. That slots into your mind like a perfect tetris block, and suddenly everything is clear.

For me, the most recent of these was reading Julia Serano’s excellent book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. There’s much in there that I would love to discuss at length — such as the idea, one that I share, that much of what gets called ‘homophobia’ is in fact a species of misogyny — but for the sake of tidiness, I’ll stick to just one concept. Namely, Serano’s hypothesis that there exists some sort of ingrained, inherent and potentially immutable ‘internal gender’ in every person.

She illustrates this, she says, by asking workshop participants what amount of money it would take for them to choose to transition, to live the rest of their lives as another gender to their own. For most people, apparently, no amount of money seems worth this; or, even if they think they’d do it for some large amount of cash, simply working through the thought experiment leads them to realise that, even if they were to live as another gender, they would still feel that they were ‘really’ their own gender, all along, ‘on the inside’. But my only thought was, “Hell, I’d do it. I don’t want to have invasive surgery, or go through the hassle of re-teaching myself how to walk, move, and interact, but if you could somehow magic me into maleness, I’d do it for a pittance. I’d do it for free, even, if I had some reason to.”

Yet, at the same time, I have no particular desire to, either. This, then, was the revelation: if there is such a thing as an ‘internal gender’, I don’t think I have one. Note, please, that this is different from claiming that no such thing exists. There are children who will never develop wisdom teeth as adults; but that does not mean that these teeth are not lurking inside the jaws of most children and teenagers, waiting to emerge as they become adults.

Furthermore, the reason this felt like such a revelation to me is that I had had reason to think, for some time, that my conception of my gender is very different from most of my peers’. The inquiry began with someone’s offhand suggestion that perhaps all these TERFs, who insist on denying trans women’s experiences of their genders, are actually agender. I believe this was meant, in the context, as a (deeply problematic!) joke, but as a suggestion I thought it might have some explanatory power. That that’s why they’re so insistent on [oddly restrictively applied] social-constructivist theories of gender: because they’ve only ever understood their own gender as an arbitrary category imposed on them by society, and cannot fathom someone feeling differently — even to the point of insisting that those who say they do are somehow ‘deluded’, rather than accepting that other people may have different phenomenological experiences of their own genders.

I had never considered myself as ‘agender’ prior to these conversations, because everyone I’ve known who has identified as agender has expressed, very strongly, that they felt themselves to be neither male nor female. They’ve had a strong sense of a truth-value gap, as it were, in terms of their gender. (And can be contrasted, incidentally, with other sorts of gender-queerness, such as feeling like one is both genders, or in-between, or a third gender.) But I never felt any of those things. I just didn’t care. People told me I was a woman, and I believed them because the way they treated me was consistent with my understanding of that category. I never questioned the feeling of arbitrariness, because I naively assumed that other people experienced their own genders in the same way.

I began polling my friends about their own experiences of their genders, and found that, indeed, most of those who identified as one of the two primary binary genders felt like it had some inherent quality, which I would later be able to describe with Serano’s concept of an ‘internal gender’. Not all, though. In fact, it seems that my own feeling of simply not having an internal gender might be rather common, at least in the sense of being a trait shared by some significant minority of people, and not a special snowflake condition unique to my own psyche.

Coming up in Part 2: Why I choose, nevertheless, to identify as a woman, despite evidently falling somewhere within the category of genderqueer.