We’ve reprinted our classic gender subversion poster, “For Every Girl/For Every Boy.” To mark the occasion, we’ve also printed a new poster in homage to the original, celebrating collective resistance to the forms of gender fascism threatening us today. Here, we offer a deep dive into the legacy of the original poster, exploring the tension between gender abolition and gender self-determination.
Twenty years ago, we published the gender subversion poster, drawing on the creative work of Nancy R. Smith, Jacinta Bunnell, Laura Ann Newburn, Irit Reinheimer, and others. Over the following decades, we distributed hundreds of thousands of copies of the poster.
These posters have made their way around the world, into classrooms, libraries, clinics, guidance counselor’s offices, pride marches, dorm rooms, shelters, punk houses, teenage bedrooms, and colleges… I regularly receive texts from friends who spot this poster in all manner of places, sometimes even on a wall in a TV show. Recently, my friend Neko Case sent me a photo of the poster from the green room of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
In September 2021, we let the poster go out of print. At the time, it seemed that our society was progressing towards more expansive ways of understanding gender. Since then, unfortunately, a reactionary offensive led by bigots and far-right politicians has gained ground, using the state to intensify the subjugation of women and to impose new forms of violence on trans, queer, and nonbinary people and those who support them. At the same time, we continued to receive requests for us to reprint the original poster. In the end, we decided to put another run of them in circulation, while also producing a new version that speaks to the terrain of struggles over gender that we face in 2023.
As before, we are distributing both versions for the costs of printing and postage alone. We have never sought to make money off this project, only to do our part to create a world in which all of us can make the most of our potential on our own terms, however that looks for each of us—a more welcoming and supportive world, without imposed gender norms or bigotry.
Struggles Over Gender Today
Twenty years ago, our poster had the audacity to ask: “What would the world look like without gender?” Since then, this question has become even more urgent—and even more challenging to answer.
On the one hand, we’ve witnessed major shifts in cultural understandings of gender. As Jacinta Bunnell explains, when the original poster appeared,
“There was not a culturally unified language for talking about gender fluidity at this point; so much of how we spoke of gender was still either/or.”
Today, nonbinary identities and gender-neutral pronouns have emerged from trans/queer subcultures and online communities into workplaces, schools, and public debates. Trans communities have received unprecedented visibility.
On the other hand, what had been a rising wave of conservative backlash has grown into a tsunami. It is no exaggeration to describe the reactionary program as gender fascism. As the popular saying goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The struggle for gender self-determination has reached the “then they fight you” stage. Today, access to abortion care has been severely restricted in large regions of the US, while hundreds of proposed laws target trans people, especially youth, with restrictions on medical care, participation in sports, bathroom access, legal documentation, entertainment and culture, and more. At the same time, heads of state are citing the preservation of gender roles among their chief justifications for full-scale wars.
Yet at the same time that reactionaries are attempting to use state power to crush gender non-conformity and eliminate reproductive autonomy, the identity politics that emerged from 20th century liberation struggles are experiencing a crisis.
We saw evidence of this on the second day of Donald Trump’s administration in 2017. The Women’s March protests in Washington, DC and around the US were among the most widely attended protests in a decade or more. But anarchists and other radicals largely focused on other priorities, and the massive energy of the mobilization dissipated quickly—in part because the category of “woman” does not suffice to describe all those who suffer as a consequence of gender oppression.
The right-wing culture war offensive on the terrain of gender seeks to take advantage of this crisis. While the breadth of support for abortion rights worries Republican strategists who are concerned with their electoral prospects, the right is gambling that it can target trans people with impunity, seeing them as a small and politically less powerful demographic ripe for scapegoating. By framing their attacks as defenses against existential threats to children, the family, and the gender order itself, they have inflamed their base with a sense of mission that identity-based coalitions have not been able to overcome.
The same social changes that have uprooted fixed notions of gender and enabled more expansive ways of being have also destabilized models of organizing that relied on coherent notions of identity. We need new ways of understanding ourselves to fight the forces that divide and oppress us, new ways to conceptualize who we are and what we can become. As a Brazilian comrade put it,
It is no longer possible to organize a collective action that still holds on to any fiction about “being a woman”; it is not possible to ignore the complicities of white/bourgeois feminism with colonial/racial power. The crisis of feminism is the vanguard of the revolutionary political crisis: there is no longer a subject of history; the demand for recognition/representativeness was swallowed up by neoliberal devices; there is no identity politics that can unite us; really, we don’t want to be part of the same story, we no longer want to organize our desires for a good and dignified life into a state grammar that can govern our lives. The beauty of feminism’s implosion is that it lets us see the hundreds of sharp shards we still have left. Feminism becomes a shattered place, but a place of investigation into what political action can be within life, with life and not outside it; what can make us dangerous again; how are we going to escape all these gender and identity traps?”
These “gender and identity traps” loom all around us, and the stakes are urgent. How do we resist the rising tide of gender fascism without reverting to models of identity that no longer serve us?
Abolition and Self-Determination
One way to imagine our way towards the original poster’s provocation—“What would the world look like without gender?”—is to propose gender abolition. Inspired by the movements against the prison industrial complex that propose not more comfortable cages but an end to caging altogether, we could propose that gender itself is an oppressive system that cannot be reformed. This is not the same as saying that “gender isn’t real”—if it weren’t, there would be no need to abolish it!—but rather to insist that just as it has been constructed, it can be deconstructed.
What is gender, after all? As we know it, gender divides a wide range of human qualities and capabilities into mutually exclusive categories, such as “masculine” and “feminine.” This artificial division requires a wide range of forces—social pressures, policing, assorted mythologies, and a variety of technologies from laser hair removal to steroids and Viagra—to uphold the illusion that people come in two standard models rather than a wide spectrum of possibilities. To abolish gender would mean dismantling these varied systems of coercion that force us into one of two narrow boxes while hierarchically ranking them and punishing anyone who pushes their limits.
Unfortunately, some trans-exclusionary “radical feminists” have attempted to appropriate the language of “gender abolition” to describe their own hateful project. As contradictory as this may seem—given their efforts to gatekeep who counts as a woman and their alliances with the anti-feminist extreme right—they insist that gender, as a system of patriarchal social norms, perpetuates harm against people of the female sex. By itself, this assertion sounds reasonable—until they continue that, therefore, trans people are somehow uniquely responsible for upholding gender and thus causing harm to “women.” This cruel argument pits some victims of gender oppression against others, blaming trans people for their efforts to survive in a system they didn’t create. The supposed “abolition” that these transphobic activists pay lip service to only reinforces the rigid essentialism of sex, further stigmatizing efforts to shape our bodies and lives on our own terms. In fact, it can only perpetuate gender as we know it, not abolish it.
Confronting this context, we need to be clear about precisely what gender abolition in the service of liberation could mean today.
As an alternate framework, we propose gender self-determination, insisting on our autonomy to shape our bodies, presentations, and identities according to our own needs and desires. As we argued last year,
By shifting the discussion from the limits of rights to the horizon of self-determination, we propose a radically different world, in which no authorities—neither governments, religions, nuclear families, nor anything else—can confine us within their narrow visions of who we should be and who we can become.
What could this look like in practice? We’ve seen an explosion of creative new forms of gender identification in recent years, with new language and pronouns expanding far beyond binaries of male/female and cis/trans. These are encouraging, but they may not suffice to dislodge the power of imposed gender norms to shape the material circumstances of our everyday lives. Self-determination must mean more than choice in a consumer framework, a maximum of individual options for constructing our online profiles and Amazon wish-lists. In an alienated consumer society in which we are constantly being appraised and compelled to sell ourselves, defining ourselves with ever more precise categories and hashtags will not be enough to get us free.
Others have argued that we can appropriate pharmaceutical and surgical technologies to experiment with producing gender according to our own preferences. That’s an important start—and necessary, even life-saving, for some—and furious right-wing efforts to restrict our access to these methods indicates the threat they pose to guardians of the gender order. Nonetheless, so long as some gendered qualities and categories are valued while others are not, seizing the biomedical means of production to give us more latitude to construct our bodies and identities still will not serve undermine all the different ways that the prevailing gender roles constrain and oppress people.
How might we approach the task of undoing gender, combining the best elements of gender abolition and gender self-determination? By identifying which aspects of gender need abolishing, we can propose some points of departure:
Abolish gender segregation—ensure that people of all genders have access to the same opportunities, resources, social spaces, and forms of agency.
Abolish fixed gender roles—break the association between certain traits and certain genders, demonstrating new constellations of the qualities and capabilities that are currently associated with one gender or another. As the original poster suggests, you can be strong without being a boy and sensitive without being a girl; while this sentiment is increasingly accepted today, how much further can we go towards breaking free of the fixed roles and binaries that organize our thinking about human beings?
Abolish gender hierarchies—End practices that privilege one gender over another, and those that value some qualities and capabilities over others because of the gender they are associated with. Hillary Clinton becoming president would not have served to qualify our society as feminist—if a person of any gender has to outdo all other contenders in demonstrating traditionally masculine characteristics in order to get a foothold in politics, and if all political institutions continue functioning according to patriarchal priorities and protocols, gender oppression remains in effect even if not everyone in a position of power is a man.
Abolish gender gatekeeping—Do away with the boundaries that control who can identify with any gender. Defending trans identity, gender nonconformity, and other departures from fixed binary gender represents a step towards this goal.
Abolishing these dimensions of gender can create the space for the free flourishing of all people outside of oppressive roles and identities. We can affirm both the creative impulses that lead millions of people today to define themselves in gendered terms outside of birth assignments and binaries, while also taking aim at the structural conditions that constrain our lives regardless of how we identify.
As anarchists, we believe that we can only be free when all of us are free, and that everything that expands the horizons of freedom for others will benefit us, too. Nowhere is this plainer than on the terrain of gender.
Gender Subversion Today—A New Poster on a Classic Theme
This is why we have prepared a remix of our classic gender poster. The front of the new version reads,
For every fascist who plans to attack drag queen story hour, there are three anti-fascists ready to defend it. For every boss who harasses you, there are ten workers who will back you up. For every judge who seeks to ban abortion, there are twenty collectives stockpiling Mifepristone and Misoprostol. For every cop who is paid to enforce transphobic legislation, there are a hundred gender outlaws determined to defy them. For every politician who tries to prohibit talking about gender in school, there are a thousand students charting their own paths beyond the binary. For every bigot who wants to etch their biases in stone, there is a movement that is already changing the world. For every person that takes one step towards freedom, there is another who finds the road to liberation a little easier.
The back of the poster presents a revised excerpt from our text, “The Fight for Gender Self-Determination.”
We hope that both of these posters of ours—both the classic one and the new remix—can play a part in new efforts towards getting free of gender norms. May they continue to hang in grade-school classrooms and collective houses, breaking up old models and assumptions.