Gender identity and sexuality are often understood as either entirely biologically determined, or entirely socially constructed. In your book Excluded (2013) you called this the “dreaded nature vs. nurture debate”. Can it ever be one versus the other?

Many people seem to think so. People will often point to biology as the reason for a lot of male-centric and heterocentric ideas in our society, saying that prioritising maleness and straightness is biologically inescapable. Understandably, feminists and LGBTQ+ activists have challenged this biological essentialism in a lot of everyday theories about gender, pointing to the ways that they support sexist and misogynistic understandings of femaleness and femininity. Biological essentialism is deeply flawed – there are obviously a lot of social, experiential, and environmental elements to our genders and sexualities – but I don’t believe we should count it out all together. Biology and social and environmental forces come together in an unfathomably complex way, in order to generate the gender and sexual diversity that we see. By acknowledging that point, we can both challenge biological essentialism and also challenge the overly simplistic idea that we should only behave in certain gendered and sexual ways that ‘oppose’ biological essentialism.

You have changed the terms of the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate in Whipping Girl, by arguing that we have a ‘subconscious sex’ that is inherent, but can be different from the gender we are assigned at birth. Can you tell us a bit about ‘subconscious sex’?

‘Subconscious sex’ is the term I use for the inherent feeling of belonging to a certain gender (or being non-binary) that is not related to your physical sex or how other people see you. I use that term specifically because while ‘gender identity’ can be useful, to many people it makes gender sound like something that is consciously adopted. For example, the term ‘gender identity’ doesn’t address the internal predispositions that led me to understand I should be a girl when I was a child – that wasn’t a conscious decision. I wanted a word for that unfathomable aspect of our genders: even though we’re being socialised to be particular ways, some of us find ourselves inexplicably drawn in other directions. To be honest, I have no idea why I became a bisexual, femme, tomboy, trans woman! I used the term as a way of acknowledging the fact that there’s some incomprehensible element to all of this.

Why is the way we define ourselves through language so important?

Almost every phrase that you could use to describe a lot of trans people’s experiences fail for one reason or another – we need to come up with alternatives that are able to articulate what we’re experiencing. For example, in Whipping Girl, I put forward the term of ‘transmisogyny’ because I felt it was important to have a word to talk about the ways that traditional sexism and misogyny informs transphobia. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the fact that trans people are viewed through a lens of traditional sexism where femaleness and femininity is seen as less legitimate than maleness and masculinity. That defines the way that trans people are interpreted and treated and I think it’s why most of the sensationalising and demonisation of trans people focuses on trans women, or men who want to be female or feminine. I think that also explains why there’s a lot of invisibility for trans male and trans masculine people.

Historically, to be queer or trans hasn’t been so much an identity but a psychological diagnosis. Why are trans and queer people so commonly pathologised?

In general, I think there’s a tendency in our society to portray anyone who fails to live up to ideals or norms of society as sick or unhealthy in some way. As there’s not a physical marker of ‘queerness’, people have tended to discount what trans and queer people have to say about our own experiences of gender and sexuality, dismissing those experiences as the products of delusions or faulty thinking. As trans activists, we have fought against this pathologisation of our existence – the idea that being trans is evidence that there’s something wrong with us and we need to be ‘cured’. But the problem is that legally you often need to have a diagnosis from a medical professional in order to access trans related health care. Our detractors will point to these diagnoses to claim that we have mental illnesses, and that we lack the mental competence to make decisions about our own bodies.

Often, cis people seem to see transsexuality as a threat, as though the very fact of trans existence undermines the stability of their own. Why do you think this is?

We are all socialised to believe that male and female are not just different, but that they are mutually exclusive ‘opposite sexes’. This informs how most people view their genders and sexualities. Transsexuals seemingly call this notion of ‘opposites’ into question, as we live as members of the sex other than the one we were assigned at birth, and in some cases our bodies may appear to have both female and male qualities. Granted, most transsexuals are not actively trying to blur the distinction between the sexes (we are just trying to be ourselves, to be happy in our own bodies), but we are often perceived that way by the straight mainstream. I have heard women question their own femininity upon seeing a trans woman who is more conventionally pretty than them, and I've heard plenty of stories about heterosexuals who begin to question their sexuality upon discovering that they have found a trans person attractive. I believe that a lot of the animosity people have toward trans people stems from this fact that our existence calls their understanding of themselves into question.

Why is it important for these issues to be understood outside of activist and academic circles?

We’re at a point in time where instead of seeing trans people as abominations or deviants, most of society now accepts our existence. There’s definitely a certain amount of progress, but with regards to our sexualities, our genders, and our bodies, people still tend to see trans people as less legitimate than cis people. The difficulty we’re in now is getting the average person to understand that the double standards they have in relation to trans people are destructive and are the root of so many invalidations and microaggressions. People will immediately react to the stories of families rejecting their trans children or to statistics about transphobic violence, but they won’t acknowledge the hurt caused by the seemingly small things like occasional misgendering, or pronoun slip-ups, or having an attitude where you think you’re accepting, but you still make jokes about people who are attracted to trans people. I think that these are the smaller things that need to be challenged, and that’s why it’s important to come up with language and ways of talking about these issues that everyone can understand.

So, how do you tackle changing people’s minds?

I think that’s the hardest thing confronting us as activists. In some cases we do change people’s minds, but I think that in a lot of instances people are only changing their superficial behaviours, and still holding onto their negative views about women or queer people or trans people. Sadly, there are some people whose minds will never change. But today, people are receiving messages about treating women equally and viewing queer and trans people as legitimate at a younger age – they are increasingly likely to actually hold those views, rather than superficially policing their own behaviour so that they don’t come off as sexist, homophobic etc. What I’m trying to promote is acceptance of difference. Once we stop policing what people do with their gender and sexualities, then we can move forward.

Julia Serano published her second book, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive in 2013. A second edition of Whipping Girl was published in early 2016.

Interview by Sadhbh O’Sullivan and Illustration by Katharina Bourjau

This piece is featured in the Mind Issue, now available for pre-order.