It's The Penis.
Callan Williams Copyright © 1996
The Secret Word Is "Penis."
What is the difference between men and women?
For many people the answer comes down to about a half-pound of flesh, strategically located between the legs.
As James Carville might say, "It's the penis, stupid!"
The Penis: Friend or Foe?
Talk to feminists, and they happily talk about a day where everyone is free to be who they want to be, to wear what they want to wear. They imagine a world past gender, where everyone is respected for their humanity, is completely empowered to be themselves, choosing from the full palette of human expression.
But ask how we get there, and things get more tricky. One feminist scholar, after expressing this notion, was asked how she felt about the notion of removing the sex designation from official ID, as Martine Rothblatt promotes in The Apartheid Of Sex.
"There is still sexism in this world, and until that ends, I want to be clearly identified as female -- I wouldn't approve of removing sex from documents." How do we get to her dream space if she demands that she still be a woman, different from men?
This is the loop that many feminists find themselves in -- they want a world where everyone is free to be who they are, but where they are still aware of who has the penises and who doesn't, where there is separate space for the non-penised.
Some of these feminists even suggest that SRS is bad, because it allows the role of man to be reinforced by weeding out the feminine ones -- yet they still want to be separate from those who are penised.
Tell Me Right Now: Innie Or Outie?
Where does this separation come from, this belief that by biology or socialization, people with penises are very different than those without, and that we must clearly identify our birth penis status by gender codes?
The basis of all of this is the belief in heterosexism, that we need to make clear separations between the sexes, assign each of them separate territory so that to become whole they have to come together and breed. Women got the emotions, feelings and children, men got the money, property and adventure. This separation is based in some natural predilections of males and females -- but the big lie is that every male is big and aggressive, every woman small and nurturing.
The heterosexist demand that people clearly identify their birth sex on sight by wearing appropriate symbols allows us to know that our desire is right or wrong immediately -- no messy waiting, no wrong guesses.
Of course, that sets up a system where people can be easily categorized, and those categories can be used to stereotype and discriminate against people. We tolerate this system because we understand the rewards for following it and the punishments for transgressing it. We know it has flaws, but since we are taught to believe in binary desire, we can't see a better way.
It is demanded that we gender ourselves -- display our signs of our genital configuration and identity -- or else lose love and accept stigma.
So people who dress to conceal rather than reveal their birth sex are doing it to confuse and trap us -- a very heterosexist notion.
Is Homosexuality About Penises (or the absence of them)?
Does homosexuality transcend heterosexism or simply twist it? We have another binary system, this time oriented to same rather than other, that still demands clear indication of birth sex. It continues the heterosexist demand of clear categorization, with the fear of being fooled. If traditional homosexuality requires clear & simple categorization then it continues the constraints of heterosexism rather than transcending them.
Is transgender about unique expression or about fooling people into thinking you were born without (or with) a penis? It seems to me our answer to that can tell us about how much we have bought into the basis of heterosexism.
Separate Penises, Please
As the US Supreme Court noted when ending racial segregation, "Separate But Equal Never Is." The women's movement knows this too, and that is why many of the leaders of the movement are clear that any group differences between men and women are more a matter of how they are treated in this society than any sweeping biological bases.
It's easy to believe all of this about the limitations that heterosexism places upon all of us.
But that all falls apart when that half-pound of flesh comes into play.
As Long As . . . (I Don't Have To See It)
Women will tell you that they have a very real fear of penises, and people who have them -- or sometimes people who ever had them. "I am a small and vulnerable woman, and am afraid of big people with penises. I just don't want penises around me, and want separate space where I can get away from penises, in the women's room."
Is the mere possession of a penis good grounds for other people's fear? It is true that many who do harm females are people with penises -- but it is also clear that the vast majority of people who happened to be born with penises never harm those born without them. How does the fear of penises map to the fear of blacks as rapists that was prevalent in the south?
Where is the line between taking prudent precautions for safety and being caught in the fear that is terrorism? This is the line that every woman has to find for herself.
Do we hold people accountable or for the fear they inspire in us, or for the actions that actually endanger us? While no one debates that anyone with or without a penis should be held accountable for harassment, rape, or even voyeuristic behavior, at what level do we assume that anyone will engage in illegal behavior and then put restrictive limits on them?
Some women will say they want separate space because people with penises are attracted to women, and therefore may be tempted. If that's true, why are women attracted to women (lesbians) accepted in that space, but not people with penises who might be attracted to women? Simply because lesbians don't have penises?
All Power To The Penis?
Is this the point, that we live in a completely phallocentric world? That if we are for it or against it, it is the size of our penis -- even if that size is 0" -- that counts? Does it all come down to holes, to the shape of our crotch, no matter how much feminist rhetoric -- like "Biology Is Not Destiny" -- that we espouse?
We even have this struggle inside the transsexual community, where post-op transsexuals and others who have not had their genitals surgically altered often debate the primacy of the penis. Of course it is those who have paid the price of shedding their penis who believe that the penis is so important it should be banned from many places.
If this is the struggle -- those without penises against those with penises -- then sexism will always be a part of our lives, because that is the definition of sexism. To let go of sexism in the world requires that we be willing to let go of sexism in our lives -- and that means not making assumptions about people just because of the shape of their genitals, not believing in the primacy of the penis.
Is the world permanently phallocentric, about penises & the absence of them, or is it about hearts, souls, minds and spirits? This is a decisions each of us have to make for ourselves -- but if we better be able to act on our choices, and not just use words of inclusion while keeping layers of fear.