This wording “female-identified” or “woman-ID” instead of “woman” or “women” has really taken off recently. When I was on twitter I used to see it at least once a day, usually from cisgender women. This phrase drives me absolutely nuts.

It’s being used in a lot of different contexts, but I will use advertising an event (like a try out for a team that plays in the women’s division) as an example for why I don’t like the wording. Imagine a team that competes in the women’s division tweeting, putting in the descriptor of their FB event, etc, “women-identified mixer!”:

My solution to this particular quandary is to say, “eligible W division players” “people eligible for the women’s division” etc because that is what we actually mean. Those are the restrictions. That is the actual line dividing people from welcome/unwelcome (I hope). Including other qualifiers is either wrong or unnecessarily exclusive. It also puts the focus on a person’s identity as a source of whether or not they will be welcomed, and what we actually want is for the focus to be on character. All good humans, loving teammates, hard workers, committed athletes, and people within the women’s division striving to be the best player they can be are welcome. And will be valued for those things, not their identities.

My advice for other questions of language is to be as specific as possible. If you want to denote people playing on Riot, say “Riots”. If you want to represent your team without representing everyone’s identity the same, say “we play in the women’s division” rather than “we’re a team of women” (or maybe everyone on the team is a woman, and that’s the language you want to use! That’s sick too. Intentionality is the most important piece of this.)

Another angle that I urge folks to consider when thinking about using the language “female-identified” for themselves, others, and for their spaces and events, is what sort of framework of gender you are reproducing. The focus on gender as something that is personal and everyone just gets to choose for themselves (I identify as x!), while important in some ways, isn’t the whole picture.

There are lots of things missing, but one of them is that gender is a social construct and a social interaction. Imagine that you were born and lived alone on an isolated island: you wouldn’t have a gender. The gendered signification that has been assigned to certain parts of certain bodies would be gone. You would just go around naked and think nothing of it. Just because we are living in society, it does not make gender any less of an arbitrary construction. It is “real”, but only in the sense that everyone believes that it is real, and all of our social systems are set up to reproduce it. It is a social category, not a natural one. So, yes, gender is an identity… and a collection of social scripts, a tool of the state, a tool of the patriarchy, an assortment of norms that reinforce male supremacy, an assortment of norms that reinforce white supremacy, an assortment of norms that reinforce capitalism, etc etc.

When cis people say “I’m female-identified!” it implies that cisgender people choose their gender, and ignores the fact that everyone is socialized to be a cisgender member of the system. Probably this chafes everyone to some extent, and chafes some more than others (ie queer folks). But no one wakes up and chooses to be cisgender; we’re all socialized to be that way, from in utero. It also implicitly reifies the idea that we are all born with “man” or “woman” in our genes; that gender is a stable category, and a biological reality rather than something constructed socially. This is only one short theoretical step away from biological determinism. Instead of promoting this model, where everyone has ‘man’ or ‘woman’ or ‘nonbinary’ written on their brains (even with the addendum “some brains might not match their bodies” which isn’t quite right either) I am promoting a model of gender in which everyone is picking from a limited and limiting list of what “gender” might be.

Let’s support and welcome and include and listen to trans folks and gender nonconforming folks. But let’s not reify and renaturalize the oppressive categories of gender that render them Other any more than we have to.

If this feels convoluted, that’s because it’s really hard to use layman’s terms to describe gender. There is a whole field of excellent queer and feminist theory that deconstructs gender (and sex) in simple and complex and brilliant ways. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1989), or Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993) are landmark works that destabilized identity politics for queer and feminist theorists long ago. I recommend reading them, though the theory is not for the faint of heart.