I was excited to read Julia Serano’s Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. I touched on exclusion in my Master’s thesis on queer utopian communities, as well as experiencing it first-hand during all of my time participating in the LGBTQ community as a bisexual femme. It’s an important issue that I firmly believe more people need to be talking about. After finishing the book, however, I must admit it’s not all that I’d hoped it would be.
My first critique is that it took me literally (and I mean LITERALLY, not figuratively) 150 pages to understand that Serano is not coming to her critiques of feminism and queer culture from an academic perspective. This might stem from my own assumption that people writing books about these subjects are academics, but I didn’t see Serano’s 10 years of work as an activist to be mutually exclusive of an academic understanding of gender and sexuality. Perhaps I also (wrongly) presume that activists would do a lot of research in order to inform their work and arguments surrounding these topics. Serano does a good job of making it clear in the introduction how she is defining words like sex, gender, and sexuality, but nowhere does she clearly state that she’s not an academic herself. Perhaps because I’m familiar with this type of introduction from my own academic endeavors, it caused me to incorrectly assume an academic background for Serano.
This is a profound critique, however, because Serano is talking about concepts like gender essentialism and gender as performance in ways that bear little relationship to how I (as an academic) understand them. It wasn’t until Serano stated halfway through the book that these are the ways other activists are using these terms that I finally understood it wasn’t just Serano using them (to me) incorrectly. My fear is that someone without an academic understanding of gender and sexuality who starts reading this book will mistakenly take the definitions Serano outlines at face value, when my own understanding of these terms is much more nuanced (and much less cissexist).
There were many times throughout the book when what Serano was arguing as the way a term should be used is actually what I understand that term to mean already. So often, when it appeared on the surface that we were on two different sides of an argument, we were actually on the same page. It’s just that Serano was arguing against a particular piece of terminology itself (because it is often misappropriated in activist circles) rather than arguing against the ideas behind that same term as I understand them. In fact, Serano’s entire argument about developing a holistic view of gender, sexuality, and feminsim is something which academics have already done. Serano is critiquing ideas which came out of Gender Studies and Feminism decades ago, perhaps, but the current theory has already answered the critiques Serano is bringing up, even if the action and activism on the ground hasn’t.
In some ways, this means Serano is doing the very thing she argues against doing in her book. In the same way that Serano critiques the linguistic shift from lesbian to dyke, for example, as a way to marginalize individuals from within an already marginalized identity, talking about holistic feminism rather than just “feminism” delegitimizes those who currently identify as feminists by saying they hold backwards, trans-misogynistic, and gender artifactualist ideals, creating the very kind of double-standard Serano is arguing against. Which just goes to show (and Serano does point this out later in the book) how insidious these double-standards are and how we are all complicit in systems of marginalization, no matter our own personal levels of societal privilege.
It is troubling to think that there are queer feminist activists who have read five paragraphs of Judith Butler and think they know what gender as performance means, but I don’t think the answer is to get rid of those kinds of concepts altogether. Instead of creating a whole new set of terminology, why not teach activists what terms like gender essentialism and feminism actually mean according to the current academic discourse? Because without that education, there’s no reason to think a term like holistic feminism won’t be misappropriated ten or fifteen years down the road, forcing someone else to create another whole new set of terminology.
Serano also conflates sex and gender in some of her arguments. This might be part of the trouble with using the term “transgender” to sometimes include “transsexual” (which has fallen out of cultural favor), making the distinction between the two that much more difficult to parse out. For example, Serano is right to critique the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (http://www.michfest.com/) and their “womyn-born-womyn” policy. But the trouble isn’t necessarily that these individuals are creating a sex-segregated space. It’s that they aren’t being entirely honest, and are pretending to create a gendered space. Serano can’t seem to understand why butch lesbians and transmen are allowed in the space but not transwomen. But it’s because the festival is creating a space for people with (or born with) vaginas and uteruses. It’s okay to make those spaces, and sometimes necessary. But it’s not okay to pretend to create a feminine space, while really creating a space for people with vaginas and uteruses, because those two things don’t always line up. It’s important for us all to be honest about whether we’re segregating spaces based on sex or gender, but it is also okay to create those spaces, just like it’s okay to create a space only for people of color or only people with disabilities.
I appreciate Serano’s explanations of the double-standards and double-binds people with marginalized identities face. She is also right to point out that we need to accept the heterogeneity of all identities, not privileging one way of being queer or one way of being a woman over another, for example. I also appreciate her insistence on the importance of looking at our own patterns of desire and attraction to see where they might be influenced by the cultural hierarchy which privileges some individuals, identities, and forms of expression over others (and I agree that the polyamory and BDSM communities have a leg up on the LGBTQ community regarding this). I like the idea of an ethics of gender, and I think that could go a long way toward making all forms of gender identity and expression legitimate and beautiful from a cultural or societal standpoint. I agree with Serano’s acknowledgement that the heightened awareness of oppression one develops by being an activist can make one see marginalization where it might not exist. We could all be kinder toward one another in this process, accounting for miscommunication and slip-ups instead of pointing the finger at those who have chosen to fight beside us and accusing them of being the enemy.
Overall, Excluded isn’t a bad read. Serano is a little wordy, and also a little ranty in places (which is understandable for anyone coming from a place of marginalization within an already marginalized community). I think she could have done well with a better editor who could have assisted in making some of these arguments a bit more concise and straightforward. But then again, perhaps the repetition is helpful to those who don’t have a firm understanding of gender and sexuality already. Serano is also compiling several of her past writings into this book, and might have been better served by re-writing those sections instead, if only to make the entire book a little smoother and more coherent when read as a whole.
I might hold off on this book if you don’t already have a firm background in gender and sexuality theory, or at least take Serano’s arguments with a grain of salt. I do think it’s important to have these type of conversations, and we need to find a way to give everyone’s experiences and identities the same level of cultural legitimacy. But it will be a long, hard road to get there, and I don’t think any one book can provide all the answers. I do know that in-fighting only hurts us all, because all oppression is linked. If Serano’s book gets us one step closer to more people understanding the importance of intersectionality, especially as it relates to feminist and queer politics, that’s okay by me.
This review was first published by The Horn on 05/22/2014.