for some reason, i’m thinking about essentialism this morning and the perils and benefits of it.
essentialism has become a four letter word in trans discourse. for good reason too, since — as a whole — the concepts and ideas have largely been used to deny trans womanhood and they feed into a medical model of transgender that entirely works to dehumanize and (ultimately) kill trans women. as a theory, it is used by radfems and conservatives and liberals alike as a way to systematically denie the womanhood and dignity of twoc.
the problem i’m suddenly having with this is that just talking about ‘essentialism’ collapses a whole bunch of distinct theories/conceptions about gender into one subtype of essentialist thought.
in reality, the type of essentialism that leads to the above ills is of the biological type. biological essentialism =/= essentialism. what i mean by this, is that the ideas and concepts within biological essentialism is a subset of essentialism as a whole, but it is definitely not either representative of the whole nor can the whole of essentialist thought be reduced to biological constructions of the theory.
biological essentialism is definitely the type most frequently used by radfems, truscum, conservatives, HBSers, liberals, etc. as way to both deny the womenhood of trans women of colour but also to ensure that our identities and selves must always be mediated through a colonial, medical system. it is biological essentialism that reduces our lived-experiences to genitals, secondary sex characteristics, to ‘sex,’ to our genes/phenotypes, to our hormone levels, etc and so on.
and, obviously and without question, biological essentialism absolutely MUST be resisted for the violence it enacts and perpetrates against twoc bodies.
it absolutely does not follow that because biological essentialism ought to be resisted that all essentialist conceptualizations of transness must also be resisted or expunged from how we understand our bodies and genders and their relationship.
while it is the case there are some non-biological forms of essentialism that also must be resisted (see ‘born this way’ theories of queerness and transness in white liberal circles). but even in these cases… we must be clear about why one theory is bad and the other good.
when we talk about the white, liberal rhetoric of ‘born this way’ a lot of the problem adheres not to the fact that it is an essentialist understanding of gender or sexuality, but because this is a rhetorics of apologism. white liberals assert ‘i was born this way’ as a means to explain, excuse, justify, and legitimize themselves to their oppressors. it is a way of asserting ‘pls stop oppressing me, i was born this way, i can’t help it’. it is a rhetoric borne out of a need to defend themselves against the conservative framing of gender/sexuality as something ‘chosen’.
if you notice… a lot of the problems here are a consequence of the context in which this discourse takes place. it isn’t really about the validity of the claims themselves.
i remember reading an article a while back about bakla/trans women/transpinay ppl in the PH and how they understood themselves… the PH is a predominantly catholic country bc of spanish colonialism. this means that a significant percentage of the subjects in the article attributed their identity to God. this is a type of essentialism as well. it isn’t biological essentialism. and it isn’t the same type of… ‘social’ essentialism mobilized by white trans and/or queer ppl.
at its most simplistic, essentialism is the assertion that there is an ‘essence’ within people/things that makes us uniquely ourselves. that there is something inherent to our being/selves that makes us, us. that without this inherent quality, we could not be ourselves.
within a catholic worldview, we cannot be ourselves without God having created us. God makes all things and people and living creatures. thus, if you exist, God created you. and if you exist as a bakla/trans women/transpinay, then God created you like that.
without getting into the mess of trying to reconcile an indigenous gender (bakla) with a colonial spiritual system, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with asserting an essentialism predicated on God creating you (ie, this is the way your soul and body is, because God wanted it this way).
if we take a step back from the catholic parts of this to look at some of the folk explanations for being bakla… we can see that some regions/villages have a theory of essentialism that ascribes the reality of being bakla to having the heart of a woman.
now, if we were to assert biological essentialism, we’d have to understand this fairly literally. bakla have the physical heart of that women do. on this literal interpretation, we come into a type of biological essentialism that doesn’t quite seem to fit into the above colonial, white model of biology. as far as white biology is concerned, it is a pretty incoherent statement to assert that physical organ in charge of pumping blood in our bodies is gendered and different in men and women. not only different, though, but phenomenon of having a heart gendered/sexed differently than the rest of your body causes you to express/present/embody a gender that cannot actually exist within the white medical model.1
but what if this is meant figuratively? well, then we are still operating within an essentialist notion of gender, but one that isn’t biological. it basically asserts that human beings have a this essence called ‘heart’ and that — of other possible relations — one of the things this heart-essence determines is your embodied gender.
either way… i don’t really have a personal problem with this essentialist theory for why i exist as i do. i wouldn’t be inclined, additionally, to try use this as an explanatory model for all gender and for all peoples.
like. i’m 100% ok with another pilipin@ telling me that god made me as i am. i would be 1000000% not okay with any white person telling me this ever.
you’ll see that one of the key differences between these theories and how they play out into the real world, is how the white medical brand of biological essentialism
becomes institutionalized into actual systems that end up having meterial and real consequences for people
that white biological essentialism is (and always has been) a colonial tool of violence (see also biological racism — which likewise depends on biological essentialism).
be specific about what ur criticising and why. being general and unspecific when u say ‘essentialism is bad’ simply serves to entrench white discourse as the dominant and default one. it erases indigenous and/or poc ways of conceptualizing gender that might, in actual fact, be essentialist. so. yeah.