Bioessentialism, a shorthand for biological essentialism, is the idea that we are born with specific, immutable traits by virtue of our sex. To a bioessentialist, sex maketh man. “Sex,” in this case, means everything from hormones like testosterone to “manly” traits such as not displaying emotion. This line of reasoning formed the cornerstone of traditional patriarchal structures: “Men are stronger, less emotional and better suited to lead.” It persists today in the form of gender roles, gender-based exclusion, and transphobia.
The harms of bioessentialism
Why is bioessentialism so harmful? The answer is long but simple. On the whole, bioessentialism reduces individuals to their parts. It restricts free expression of gender and sexuality, limiting our self-presentation critically. It gives rise to harmful stereotypes that marginalize every one of us who cannot conform: men who don’t subscribe to the traditional ideas of masculinity, women who rise above their stations, and transgender and gender-non-conforming (GNC) people. Of these groups, the trans and GNC community suffers most disproportionately. Their struggle is also the most ignored.
What is frustrating is that few outside these communities appear to care about bioessentialism. Even some of those fighting for liberation and equality seek to uphold rather than dismantle this structure.
Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists
One example of a group advocating for equality while simultaneously promoting exclusion is TERFS, which stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. This faction of feminism describes itself as “gender-critical,” a euphemistic way of saying that they believe in women’s rights, but only if the women in question are cisgender.
TERF rhetoric, dressed up in the language of feminism, can often appear misleadingly well-meaning. In a subtle attempt to alienate transgender women from mainstream feminism, TERFs generalize the “universal experiences” of women, e.g. having a uterus or menstruating. The prevalence of “pussy hats” and other bioessentialist tokens also implicitly marginalize women who cannot identify with them.
Worse yet, however, TERFs often don’t even admit to being transphobic. They take offense to even being called TERFs and frame it as a misogynistic smear. Others assert that they merely believe the fight for cisgender and transgender women are distinct. Both arguments boil down to the same fact: that TERFs do not believe transgender women are real women, because they do not have the same experiences and parts that cisgender women do. This is even more ridiculous when you consider that even among cisgender women, experiences of womanhood are far from universal.
Transgender women exist at the unique intersection of transphobia and misogyny, known as transmisogyny. As such, they are uniquely vulnerable to abuse and discrimination on account of their womanhood. Yet TERFs claim that their struggles are not a vital part of the feminist conversation. This is deeply hypocritical given that feminism has always been about dismantling abusive patriarchal structures. How does imposing rules on what real women do or look like progress this fight?
Transphobia within the LGBTQ community
Unfortunately, transphobia doesn’t start and end with TERFs. Even within the wider cis LGB community, bioessentialism is well and truly present.
“Drop the T” is a movement of cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual people who want LGBTQ+ organizations to, as their name suggests, stop supporting the transgender community. Many cis gay men and lesbians cloak similar beliefs in “preferences” that invalidate gender identity inconsistent with biological sex. For trans people, dating can be a nightmare; many feel pressured to disclose their identities at the very beginning to avoid unpleasant confrontations later on.
Even the media is guilty of perpetrating transphobia while trying to be inclusive. The usage of terms like “same-sex love” as a stand-in for gay love by default excludes trans people who experience same-gender attraction. Stories about gay and lesbian trans people, especially those of color, hardly ever break into the mainstream. Few that do are genuinely responsible for handling these identities and plot-lines. How many times have you seen a transgender character truly celebrated for who they were? Shows like Sense8 and Pose are only as magnanimous and representative as they are because they are spearheaded by actual trans writers and casts.
The pressure to transition
The solution many propose, when told about these struggles, is deceptively simple. If you want to be seen as what you are, then present as what you are! Society polices trans people on what they wear, how they act, and the names they choose after coming out. While we celebrate cis men for dabbling in femininity, trans men are denied the same freedom of expression. Trans women are also expected to “pass” (present as the gender they identify with) if they want to be validated. Harmful terms like trans-trender only complicate this further. Many trans people feel pressured to medically transition or undergo reassignment surgery so they will be taken seriously.
Why might a transgender person not want to transition?
For starters, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and/or sex reassignment surgery can be expensive and inaccessible. Not every healthcare provisioner covers HRT, and without insurance, these procedures are often out of reach for many trans people — especially those who have been turned out of their homes and are financially unstable. Furthermore, clinics that provide these services are not available in every area; there is also inequality across the globe as to the quality of these services. Closeted trans people living in hostile families or communities may not seek out this treatment even if it is available for fear of losing their place in society.
Transitioning aside, some trans people may not want to change their name and sex on official documents either. A common reason for this is convenience. For some, it only involves a trip down to the local DMV. For others, it can take years of discomfiting talks and mounds of paperwork. A popular assumption is that all trans people hate the names they were assigned at birth; however, the transgender community is not a monolith and there are many trans people who keep their birth names after coming out.
Most crucially, however, not every transgender person wants to transition. And they shouldn’t have to.
Feminisation surgeries, chest-binding, sex reassignment surgery…these are all choices that should be made for the benefit of the individuals themselves. Trans people do not owe the rest of the world anything, and especially not conformity with bioessentialist structures. No matter what somebody looks like, calls themself or behaves, they are what they say they are. They shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to be accepted.
Unlearning Bioessentialism, One Day at a Time
Bioessentialism hurts people. It teaches men to hide their emotions and tells women to stay in their place. It shifts responsibility for toxic masculinity away to the shaky construct of gender. And like we have discussed throughout this article, it invalidates and marginalises trans and gender-non-conforming people.
It’s easy to say you support trans people, but much harder to disavow bioessentialism as a whole. After all, we’ve grown up with it. Since birth society has socialized us to accept our places according to a predetermined framework. Recognizing these biases allows us to correct them. This correction is not a day’s work, but a conscious, continuous process. Trans lives matter. We should never let anyone, especially not ourselves, undermine that.