As my semester ramps up and my workload is beset by ever more fascinating layers of tedious yet exciting social scientific labours, I realised that I might do well to share with you some older essays of mine; reduce, reuse, recycle, I grew up with Captain Planet, baby. What follows here is a review of a cabaret show that I wrote for my German Thought & Culture class back in October 2012. I loved the show and I wanted to share my reflections on it with you all, partially since my last essay on Nuclear Unicorn broached the subject of ‘bridge building’ across identities and experiences. This fits with that rather serendipitously I think. I hope you enjoy, there may be more of these to come; I like to write beyond discretely trans issues and German history is actually a bit of a hobby of mine.
An intimate theatre arrayed much like a speakeasy, a crowd of chatter, wooden colonnades framing a petite proscenium—all washed down with aromatic whiskey; it was the carefree spirit of Weimar as it was. If I had to summarise what I enjoyed most about K.T. Sullivan and Karen Kohler’s Vienna to Weimar cabaret, it was that both women rhapsodised about the human spirit in a way that both spoke to the distinctions of a bygone age, while resonating deeply thousands of miles and scores of years away.
The performance granted a coruscating voice to reality that puts the lie to any notion of traditionalist “good ol’ days.” These were songs about women in full crimson bloom, songs about women in three dimensions: lesbian women, women with their fists thrust athwart chauvinism, women traipsing across lines of class, gender, and sexuality—the songs tell alternating tales of politically sexual confidence with an elegantly militant posture that still wears glamorously in 2012. They capture the currents of a time in Germany where all was in furious chaos and anything seemed possible. Kohler, with a stunning voice, tremendous range, and commanding style in her tuxedo and top hat, seemed herself to be an embodiment of the times, evoking Marlene Dietrich. K.T. Sullivan’s operatic range was equally magnificent—taking us from Viennese waltzes that teased class boundaries and evoked old fairy tales, to brassy and sensual cabaret at its highest peak.
The performance was a beautiful handkerchief flung in the face of stereotypes. Even as the dark clouds of fascism gathered over central Europe, here were feminists and lesbians daring to draw the temper of their foes, daring to sing against patriarchy with the jaunty chorus of “raus mit der Männer aus dem Reichstag!” It is well worth remembering that some of these songs are courageous even today. Their boldness and the triumph of the lived womanhood that sired them become all the more impressive in that reckoning. With that in mind, the weight of a secret but potent history was expertly borne by Sullivan and Kohler, and they more than did it justice.
The show was a symphonic concatenation of a very crimson Germany. On stage Sullivan and Kohler beautifully fanned the flames of gendered rebellion and brought striking images of lesbian love forth through English and German lyrics. The artists themselves provided beautiful, and often funny context in between their sets, granting provenance to the artefacts of their lyrics, reminding us of the origins of such powerful songs as Lila Leid—“Purple Song”, an anthem to the repressed queer folk of Germany. They had the air of glamorous historians in those moments, and their brief but informative interludes curated the production beautifully.
The metaphor of curation is an apt one, for these two women were indeed charged with the expert handling and display of timeless relics. Everything in the performance evoked its period. The subtle surprise of each performer entering from behind the audience, rather than from behind the curtain, the siren-like crooning as they walked among the audience members, drawing them into the music—it all amounted to a brilliantly immersive performance, and allowed me to breath the air of those delectably seedy halls of social rebellion where women would throw off thousands of years worth of chains for one blissful night.
The artefacts themselves were songs that, as previously mentioned, revealed a truth about that age. A hidden truth that tells the stories of those often left out of history textbooks which recount only wheelbarrows full of valueless Marks, the Shakespearian collapse of President Hindenburg, and the storm clouds of the Nazism to come—as if the Weimar Republic were merely the bankrupt semicolon between the Great War and Adolf Hitler. Sullivan and Kohler’s beautiful elegy for the real Weimar, as real women saw it, was inspired—a gay revue both funny and sad, often all at once, that eagerly seized on the bright sparks of freedom that Weimar seemed to anemically offer.
That freedom is best embodied by a song that still strikes a beautifully radical note today, about a masculine and feminine woman constantly changing and upending their ‘roles’—emerging from the happy chaos is a “hermaphrodite” baby that seems to contain the hope of a brighter future where sex/gender distinction is no longer so grimly tenacious and all-consuming. The flying sparks here illuminate not only the lesbian possibilities of the era, but even transgender and intersex ones. The play, here, truly contains impressive multitudes.
But of course, from these Olympian heights of queer-utopian dreams we must descend from the Roaring Twenties into the era of the Depression. It is a testament to Weimar cabaret that it makes you laugh even when it is at its saddest. One song dreamt a fairy tale of fair and apolitical courts that presided over a fair and just republic, amongst other lovely dreams that pined for the Weimar that could have been. One woman sung her dreams, the other sing-songingly rejoined her as a liar; it was a beautiful back-and-forth teetering between funny, inspiring, and sorrowful. As Kohler and Sullivan stood hand in hand, ramrod straight and solemnly singing that “All conflict will cease and we shall all live in peace” I nearly wept; their acting was as pitch perfect as their voices, their faces captured the spirit of the Weimar Republic’s twilight. They stared somewhere far beyond the audience; one could easily envision these two singers as courageous German women living in the underground of the 20s, seeing the gathering terror in the distance and facing it unerringly.
The metaphors about ‘bottling lightning’ come to mind here. What Kohler and Sullivan managed was to somehow, in a brief and economical space, encapsulate an era and its diversity. At once didactic and intoxicating, it was a performance that allowed one to forget where she sat for a brief moment. Each quivering of my note-taking pen made me worry I was missing something on stage, each sip of Bourbon perfectly complimented the smoky and sensual gala unfolding on (and off) stage.
There is much more that one could say, for like the art of Hannah Höch this revue seemed to explode in every direction. On final reflection, however, the most interesting direction for me was the exploration of womanhood. Opera reviewers often imbue singers’ voices with the character of the circumnavigator and say that their voices survey uncharted lands. In that vein, Kohler and Sullivan’s sojourn explored the different fiefdoms of womanhood—both through their eyes and men’s eyes, taking the words of male songwriters and bathing them in a new interpretation at once searchingly sensual and political.
Whatever the intentions of the original songwriters, Kohler and Sullivan gave each piece a feminist resonance. When Sullivan sung “ich bin ein Vamp!” you wanted to leap up and join her. When their much remarked upon performance of “Atilla the Hun” was sung, you felt a swelling of sisterly pride for their proud, confident, demanding sexuality (and did not dwell on mourning the lost virility of that “cute little brute”). And finally, Hollaender’s “Chuck All the Men,” brought me to the home that this queer trans woman’s heart never left—I felt as if I could conquer the world in that moment. This very song was a mantra that armoured me with a measure of Kohler and Sullivan’s confidence after a man harassed me in Central Park not long after the show.
Those songs were a bridge between 1920s Germany and my Bronx-born queerness; something I did not quite expect going into the show, and I’m tremendously glad I walked away with it.
My So Called Secret Identity, the product of writer Will Brooker and artists Sarah Zaidan and Susan Shore, is a comic that seems to blossom out of the implied fissures left by the mainstream comic genre. While its protagonist, Catherine Abigail Daniels, is remarkable for being a non-sexualised star who presents an image of womanhood rarely seen in comic books, she is no less interesting for the fact that she is one of the “little people” in her superheroic city. The big superheroes and villains of Gloria City would be the focus of any other comic; here they are relegated to the background, flying far above the very richly detailed urban world that Cat lives in. “Gloria City is a theater where these big figures fight, posture, pose and self-promote. And if you’re not in a costume and a mask, you’re just little people,” as the promotional summary says.
The story is set to tell the tale of Cat’s intervention into that theatrical landscape, and how she becomes a costumed heroine in her own right. The perspective shift here is dramatically enticing; I can hardly wait to see how this story develops.
Cat is a character I truly empathised with, and not just because we’re both pursuing PhDs or share (roughly) the same name. The way she moves through Gloria City is an interesting sight in and of itself; it reminds me of my marrow-deep relationship with New York in its manifold rhythms and beats, its light shows, its high and low art, and the scattered constellation of shops, parks, cafes, and corners that are my homes away from home. With an economy of words and a wealth of images, the observational Cat gave me quite a lot to see myself in. Her loving descriptions of bookstore stacks remind me very much of my own literary rhapsodising.
Those powers of observation are part of what Cat’s superpower is meant to be. As one of the creators, Will Brooker, said in an interview with Nerd Span, “It’s the way she can find the links between things, recognise the dynamic and the relationships between the people and places in her world, and realise how they relate to history, theory, politics, institutions and power. Just remembering stuff is impressive, but that isn’t really Cat’s skill. She links things up. She makes connections nobody else has seen, and interprets what those connections mean.” In other words, Cat’s superpower is that she has a sociological imagination. Please excuse me while I swoon.
Her struggles include militating with the oppressive supervillainy that hangs over Gloria City, yes—the first comic literally opens with a bang—but also with quotidian sexism brilliantly and economically sketched on a single comic page that could usefully serve as a definition of ‘microagression.’ She is told she ought to be less academically forthright and confident, constantly made to feel little and ‘modest,’ and thus it feels like quite a stirring victory when she confidently confesses what her superpower is: “To put it simply… I’m really, really goddamn smart.”
Having read through the first issue, posted for free on their website, I must say that this comic—Cat’s life, aspirations, and story—really speak to me. Her struggles at university, for instance, put me in the mind of a recent debacle involving a male professor of mine. Relatable characters are hard enough to come by, but one that actually reflects the textures of a real woman’s life as lived, and then proceeds to spin that tale into fantasy escapism, is truly priceless.
The groundwork is laid in this first issue for the action to come; you get a sense of Cat, Gloria City, and the terrorism that wracks it. It’s not hard to see where this comic is potentially going, and what is hinted at is quite enticing indeed. Can Cat subvert the ‘theatre’ of Gloria City’s superheroes and villains, and perhaps become a true heroine for the “little people”? I’d really, really like to find out.
The comic’s funding scheme, which solicits PayPal donations from the readership, is no less interesting:
Here’s where the money will go:
$700 pays Suze for an entire episode (22 pages) of beautiful black and white line art
$400 pays Sarah for the painted covers, the painted interior colour, and the mind-blowing montage sequences
$100 pays Lindsay to update the website with new costume designs and character sketches in Cat’s Lookbook, each issue
That’s $1,200 per issue. We’re rounding it up to $1,300 because we want to make a donation from each issue to a relevant women’s charity.
For issue 2, we are giving to A Way Out, which reaches out to and supports vulnerable women and their families. Rather than offer a single lump sum, MSCSI will make a regular monthly donation as a partner. How much we can give, and how many charities we can work with, depends on the success of this project. The author, Will Brooker, takes no money at all from your donation, and writes this comic free of charge.
Combining social justice with fantasy superheroic justice; how can I say no? This project is in its infancy, but one hopes that this is the beginning of a beautiful saga. It isn’t often that I see a woman character I can really relate to in comics, least of all one who is the focus of the comic itself. Mainstream comics have had a few decent women characters here and there, but it’s rare that they take centre stage. One gets the sense that once Cat gets her superheroine druthers on no one will be able to steal the spotlight from her.
My So-Called Secret Identity, or MSCSI as the cool kids call it, seems to be the latest example of insurrectionist art that is pushing back against popular lies in mainstream cultural industries. Indie game designers are pushing boundaries without budgets, bending genres and showing us that, yes Virginia, feminine women can be badass video game stars. Increasingly, comic and webcomic artists are showing the way forward by doing much the same with their medium.
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil…, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
~Merlin, from The Once and Future King by T.H. White
I am often asked why I study sociology, and invariably the question is often freighted with the ponderous addition of “how are you going to make money?” I have employment in my field, and I intend to remain employed here: nothing is going to change my will to keep doing sociology and the deeper in I go, the longer and thicker my roots in social science’s soil become. Will I ever make a fortune? No, but that is not the gold that I got into this profession to find. The real mother-lode is the answer to the question of “why?”
In the midst of yet another right wing politician attacking the liberal arts model of education, it’s worth reflecting on the question, why it glitters; and why we, in Merlin’s word, wag.
North Carolina’s governor Pat McCrory said Tuesday, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” The prevalence of such noxious opinions alone recommends the courage of anyone taking a cultural studies course, minor, or major; it is not enough, it seems, to confront all the quotidian challenges of college life, one must also deal with the slings and arrows of people who think your intellectual pursuits worthless.
Yet beyond this it also misunderstands the raison d’etre for liberal education. It provides you with lenses of perspective that enhance whatever one sets her mind to: to have a grasp of gender studies is to understand the dynamics of your workplace and be more productive in it. A better co-worker, a better human resources manager, a better supervisor, union leader (uh oh), and so on. This happens because liberal education is about expanding your horizons beyond the realm of your individual capabilities and recognising what it means to live in a society—a place where you are not alone, where you share rights, responsibilities, and a fate, with countless others whom you’ve never met, and do not know. That is intimidating, but learning history, philosophy, social science, and the arts, gives you handles on that vast world, and it gives you a place to begin. Somewhere to situate yourself, in other words, and a way of engaging with your fellow citizens as citizens; when you speak the common language of music, have a grasp of structures of discrimination, know the history of another culture, know a foreign language, or connect on an intimate level with an intellectual sub-universe you’d never known had existed before, that cosmopolitan ethic allows you to be and do more in whatever job you happen to choose.
In the world of video games, this is starkly evident. Ree Soesbee, with a Master’s in English, and a PhD in mythological studies, is one of the most talented people in game design. On top of everything else, she is a classically trained musician and speaks three languages. She’s also a brilliant writer and helped design the much lauded Sylvari race in Guild Wars 2, which many including myself have praised as a brilliantly original addition to the canon of high fantasy. Perhaps governor McCrory does not think this valuable work, but it is work, it does pay, and it has made countless people happy. Academic perspective, at its best, is a magnificently refractive prism that turns the light of learning into a rainbow that we can all admire. Great art, great writing, great research, add to the magnificent polychromatic tapestry that any culture might produce, and they give us the tools to both enjoy and understand our world. The Sylvari, for instance, are not only a fun addition to a video game, but in their uniquely written biology and culture, are also an interesting mirror in which to meditate about our received notions concerning gender and sexuality: something whose urgency in our very real world should be more than apparent.
Democratic citizenship requires that sort of meditation because it insists we participate in the governance of our society. It is why we cannot simply be together alone, islands adrift aimlessly in a sea of mass democracy, but active and thoughtful people who know whereof they speak and know a bit about the wagging of this world. Liberal education provides the tools and context to make sense of this world’s variegated meanings, to know why the world is the way it is, what its history is, what its anthropology is, what our psychologies are, what the theologies of its constituent religions may be, what the sociology of your street corner is; those scraps of knowledge are lenses that give every citizen a spyglass that extends the boundaries of the world and makes them smarter voters and smarter people.
There is a hunger for that knowledge, too. I’ve long refused to believe that these are the peas and carrots of our lifelong intellectual repast. Throughout my years learning and doing sociology I’ve met strangers on buses, trains, in airport bars, and parties who, upon hearing I’m a sociologist, immediately lean in conspiratorially and ask bashfully if I can explain why humans do x. Sometimes it’s simple: why do people lie? Other times it’s more complicated: why are the Israelis and Palestinians fighting? Sometimes it’s middling: why are people religious? But the point is, the questions bother them, and they want to know the answers. Time and again, in social science and gender studies classrooms I see students get swept up in the discussion as their taken-for-granted worlds are scattered to the four winds of intellectual inquiry. They are not always comfortable, but they do not shrink either. They’re interested, they want to know; they know there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in McCrory’s non-philosophy and they want to hear all about it.
The danger of McCrory’s vision, of the world he imagines, is that it is more plastic and static than a Lego town (which at least has the imaginative dreaming McCrory denies the importance of). Not only does he, as a matter of pure economics, get the order of operations wrong (technical training or no, the jobs simply aren’t there, and the cause has much more to do with the failings of capitalism than the number of students taking African American History or Kantian Philosophy), but he also seems to think that the social world we have, with its history, politics, and economics, simply fell out of the sky. His vision of America is equally static, and that myopia emerges in his lambasting of learning Swahili; he seems to forget, or simply not know, that we have large communities of Swahili speakers in the United States.
For McCrory, it seems, we are the way we are because that’s the way we are, the end. It’s as frightening a view as saying that we should not try to understand the majesty of the night sky or the deeps of the ocean—that we should accept that they exist and move on to more important things (whatever those are). Yet our world, our social world, the universe we as humans created with our imaginations—for good and ill—has a history, has a sociology, has a psychology; it’s a story worth knowing, worth debating, and worth living with as a citizen. As a human being. We cannot let it lie because, if we’re going to talk about jobs, there is a ton of work to be done here.
If McCrory wants to create jobs, perhaps he could find a way of paying the armies of students in his state who are working to end poverty, volunteering at domestic violence shelters, churches, family planning clinics, trade unions, or who are teaching and tutoring for free, or who are working to end homelessness, give dignity to jobless and wounded veterans, protect and enrich the lives of the LGBT community, getting people registered to vote and driving them to the polling stations, supporting the incarcerated; this is all labour of the hardest sort. I am surrounded by people who practically give of their flesh to labour at doing the right thing in this country—who organise communities into actively participating citizens who can police their own streets, help their kin, support their children, build their homes; it’s the hard work of using the law to help people, not hurt people; the hard work of creating a “citizenship” that is about democratic participation, not your immigration status.
All of this is work, and every iota of it has benefited from engagement with this world’s great ideas, great literature, great art, and great science. An understanding of sociology not only benefits me at my day job, it follows me into my volunteer work. It helps me do both to the best of my ability. Understanding at least the first elements of how and why the world works as it does helps me to be a part of this democracy in a way that, I hope, benefits more people than just myself, and makes “We the People” a reality, not merely a slogan.
Forgive me if it’s elitist to think we might all benefit from knowing why this world wags.
If transgender people have a “superpower” it is our remarkable ability to stand for anything: living, breathing “floating signifiers.” Our meaning d’jour is, for some on Fleet Street, “a professionally offended, Left wing lobby group” that is now the latest “post-Leveson” threat to free speech and a free press. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of things—fleeting as these meanings are, such that we can even speak of stable oppositions—Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill had accused trans people of dividing and distracting the Left from its “important” goals and its “true” cause.
If this seems exasperating and contradictory, you ain’t seen nothing yet, as they say.
But for now, it is enough to deal with these two absurdities one at a time and bring a bit of light to a decidedly un-illuminating heat.
Free Speech: From Posturing to Substance
Toby Young and all the other vacuous, fly-by-night defenders of “free speech” filch lovely rhetoric that whistle stops past all manner of liberal democratic tropes while failing to specify the connection between, say, hate speech and liberty. They use language meant to bypass both the intellect and one’s reason, while subtly refusing any attempt at being substantive. To do so would be to pull back the curtain at Oz and reveal the great democratic wizard to be nothing more than a petty would-be tyrant in disguise. In his entire blog post, Young does not mention the content of Burchill’s article once, instead gesturing to the void indirectly by casting trans people as some monolithic left lobby opposed to free speech.
He has archived Burchill’s piece for the world to see, so readers can judge for themselves, but it is a curious choice—to say the very least—to use an article that was almost entirely vapid schoolyard bullying and name-calling as some kind of heroic exemplar of courageous speech. He takes this to a laughable pinnacle by comparing Burchill’s screed to The Observer’s opposition to Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his 1956 invasion of the Suez Canal, now widely regarded by historians as the last gasp of the British Empire. Clearly these were equal acts of great courage.
Yet, if one refuses Young’s attempts to cut their intellectual brake lines, it’s plain to see that Burchill’s article was no Watergate, no “Pentagon Papers.” To compare Burchill’s privileged tantrum to great acts of journalism is offensive to the profession (and if one wants to read incisive feminist journalism, I cannot recommend Ms. Magazine more strongly—their investigations into the plague of rape in the US Military, and the anti-abortion lobby’s links to terrorism are, alone, reminders of what truly courageous pens might write).
Instead of asking substantive questions about Burchill’s writing, Young thoughtlessly defends it without any regard for its content, nor any attempt to engage with it meaningfully. This is profoundly anti-democratic. We do not, in a truly free society, throw our hands up in childlike awe and say “Oooh, there are so many ideas out there, that’s nice!”—ideally, we engage with them, we debate, and we argue; we consider them on their merits, weigh them, and are fully allowed to find them woefully wanting.
That is precisely what trans women, our loved ones, and allies did with Julie Burchill’s codswollop. And it is here that we come to what else is so utterly pernicious about Young’s unthinking editorialising: he has completely misrepresented and lied about the motivations of Burchill’s critics. Many of us, myself included, did not want the Observer article taken down. What we wanted was to be heard, and to counter the spreading of hate. Some of us wanted Burchill to apologise, and some wanted the piece taken down, yes, but I’d not say the latter was a widespread, agreed-upon, much promoted goal. It is certainly fair to say that few of us are mourning the piece’s loss. It is no Vindication of the Rights of Woman (quite the opposite, in fact), nor is it Candide. It was gutter trash of the lowest order, and even if you don’t give a toss about transphobia, one would have to concede it was tenth-rate writing. Its deletion from the Observer’s website is no loss to anyone.
And yet, while Mr. Young may think himself a dutiful democrat for preserving and republishing the piece, he might be surprised that he was beaten to the punch by many of the same trans activists he was attacking. Most of us had a problem with the article being used as “link bait” for the Observer, driving up their ad costs with every click. This shock and awe tactic is, tragically, a commonplace in online news websites. Many of us, who wanted to preserve the public record of Burchill’s hate, have reposted the piece elsewhere—both to ensure that it was not flushed down the memory hole, and to ensure that people could read and judge for themselves, while denying The Observer profit-from-hate. If Mr. Young had bothered to talk to any of those faceless and nameless activists he decries, he might have seen that our motivation was not to punish “political incorrectness” but to add to the discourse, with the urgency that hate speech always demands.
That is democracy.
It is also worth remembering that if one wishes to defend free speech, one must know what they are defending and why. More of those nattering specifics that tend to deflate gassy rhetoric, yes.
Speech does something. That is why it’s so powerful, cherished, and defended as a fundamental right. But like any right, it can be abused, used to the detriment of others, and cause great harm. Citizenship, by contrast, is the craft of using rights and liberties to further the cause of freedom. Burchill’s piece, on the other hand, was both puerile and dangerous in the most vulgar way. Words like hers are hurled along with glass bottles at trans women fleeing for their lives from angry, hateful cisgender men. Ideas like hers fuel housing discrimination, see trans people excommunicated from their families, usher us with sibilant urgings to suicide, and are deployed by people who need to justify violence against trans people.
Burchill’s words and ideas, to the extent they have any substance at all, are simply the anima of hatred; hatred that revokes trans women’s rights. It sees our free speech muzzled, lest we be attacked for naming our experience and concerns. It sees our right to life snuffed out and declared conditional—less important than a privileged journalist’s right to lose her intellectual lunch in a national newspaper. It sees our right to free movement drastically curtailed, our right to healthcare passively but firmly denied.
None of this has a whit to do with “being offended.” It has everything to do with survival.
Our speaking up—as feminists, LGBTQ activists, and concerned citizens—was an attempt to ensure that Burchill’s article, which ended with an unambiguous threat and was essentially one long piece telling us to “shut up” (where was Mr. Young then?), did not have its intended silencing effect. If Mr. Young seeks enemies of free speech, instead of rudely stereotyping trans women he might well simply look in the mirror.
Solidarity and the “Real Issues”
Only a briefer note is necessary to deal with the odious counterpart to Young’s Left-baiting, and that is Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill’s snide suggestion that we are a single issue group devoted to a myopic cause at the expense of wider solidarity. Never mind that this exact argument has been used against feminists since the 19th Century and is a common silencing tactic.
I am proud to work for an organisation that is devoted to precisely the kind of solidarity that Burchill so disingenuously “defended.” The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is concerned with those wider economic issues that structurally oppress so many in our society—the austerity and cuts crusades now being trumpeted from Whitehall to Washington. We’ve been on the front lines trying to fight the manifestations of that malignancy as they particularly affect low income trans people of colour, and do so in solidarity with organisations and nonprofits serving different communities. Our goal is to not only provide our clients with basic legal needs and representation, but also to help them join activist communities of their fellows, educating them about often opaque and esoteric rights they may have (in the social services system, for instance), and enjoining them to take part in discourse, education, protests, and the fight for justice.
This is not done through an artificial focus on trans issues, as if they can they be neatly and discretely parcelled away from all others, but through recognising that whatever “trans issues” are, they are made up of class politics, immigration politics, racial inequality, social-structural sexism, a culture of policing and incarceration, and so on. These are inseparable from each other, and necessarily inform our response to the issues of our time.
It was one of many reasons that I found Moore and Burchill’s claims to be both divisive and fatuous. So many trans people learn the true meaning of solidarity the hard way, and many of us who are feminists and rights activists are part of organisations that—far from being ‘single issue distractions’—are deeply embedded in broader struggles against austerity, sexism, racism, and the ever widening wealth gap in the West; others fight with a tighter focus on neo-colonialism and foreign policy. But we are all immensely concerned with the battle for wider, meaningful liberty, and it is nothing more than a hateful lie to suggest that we are not, simply because we have the audacity to defend ourselves when attacked so viciously by name.
It is altogether fitting that on a day when my own father yelled at me for being a feminist, and got angry at me for introducing my brother to novels by women, about women, that I should come across Julie Burchill raging against “shemales” in the Guardian. It was very much in the spirit of an evening where I was told to my face that I’d do more good for feminism if I’d “been a man” and not a woman; it was a day where I had to listen to a man witheringly declaim literature about “women’s stuff,” and a day where I was attacked for my anger and verve in defending our right to write and speak as women.
So in that spirit, I shall continue to write, and to speak.
I shall continue to write in spite of having been threatened with rape, in spite of having been told that I’m a “shemale feminazi with too much sand in her fake vagina,” in spite of having been called every misogynist, transmisogynist, and transphobic slur in the book many times over, and in spite of having been accused of “man-hating, race-baiting, white-hating,” and the utterly unreal crime of “misandry.” In spite of being called too loud, too shrill, too whiny, too sexist (against men, of course), and “heterophobic.” In spite of being told I should avoid graduate school unless I had a “rich boyfriend.” In spite of all that, I speak.
The path I’ve walked is littered with those fell arrows, spread behind me like a sinister field of bent and blackened straw. So when I see something like this:
“Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully us lowly natural-born women, I warn you. We may not have as many lovely big swinging Phds as you, but we’ve experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment and many of us are now staring HRT and the menopause straight in the face – and still not flinching. Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.”
I can only shake my head. Not so much at the transmisogyny that runs through Burchill’s article like streaks of blood, but at the failure of empathy and sisterhood such a paragraph entails. After everything I’ve put up with hearing in my life, after all the sexual harassment and moments where I’ve feared for my life and safety—moments any woman, trans or cis, would know all too well—after everything I’ve listed above, Burchill still sees trans women as so inscrutably and ineluctably ‘other’ that we are incapable of even being on the same side of the great political divide. It seems impossible, in Burchill’s world, that I exist—as a woman and a radical feminist—because I can only ever be a “shim” in a “bad wig” and a dress. More than anything else, I think, what saddens me are the profound and abiding consequences of failing to see trans women as women, and as sisters in struggle.
Our Old Friend “Authenticity”
Throughout the piece, she excoriates trans activists (most of whom are likely feminists, and many of whom may also be cisgender) for essentially being overeducated toffs who do not know the meaning of suffering, depravation, and struggle. “To be fair, after having one’s nuts taken off (see what I did there?) by endless decades in academia, it’s all most of them are fit to do. Educated beyond all common sense and honesty, it was a hoot to see the screaming mimis accuse Suze of white feminist privilege.”
I’m not British. But I am a Puerto Rican American who both grew up in and still lives in “the ghetto” and my struggle with class in this country is as much a part of my life, my experience, and my activism as gender and its manifold vicissitudes. Further, it is still a matter of routine for feminists in general to be slapped by accusations of overeducation and ivory tower moralising: jeremiads against “the sanctimonious women’s studies set” are a staple of populist editorialising these days and have been for a generation now. I have not the slightest quarrel with Burchill’s working class background– to hate her for that would be to hate myself. I’m merely baffled at the fact that she antagonises women like me for speaking by suggesting that our attempts to get an education are a bad thing.
It never fails to surprise me to see women like Burchill and Bindel resort to the tics of patriarchs when defending their own bigotries, just as it surprises me to hear her extol her working class roots while mocking “wretched inner city kids” in another breath, rolling a horrifically complex social problem and the people who live it into a neatly poor analogy that insults with stunning economy but does nothing useful.
Indeed, going beyond the misogyny, classism, and transmisogyny that is this article’s raison d’etre I would say that what is most disturbing about it is how stunningly and embarrassingly petty it is. It is more or less in the same category as a bullish op-ed by a cis male misogynist that was 50% “bitch, cunt, whore, slapper, slag, cow” and 50% bad clam jokes. Genitals and transphobic insults are the vast bulk of this article. The rest is comprised of invidious distinctions, such as the disgusting attempt to assert that trans feminists are opposed to Julie Bindel’s properly feminist work, and not just her transphobia, or to claim that trans women think their issues are the most important at all times.
The final dollop of a column centimetre that remains is, perhaps, her sole argument: that her friend, Suzanne Moore, should not have been called out for transphobia because she was doing something much more important with her article—the noble work of criticising the Coalition government’s oppressive and often misogynist social policies. But this is a weak argument, no more acceptable than a male socialist seeking forbearance for a rape joke used in an editorial about saving the NHS. Important work does not justify prejudice, even as a “joking” aside. Least of all prejudicial articles where women are objectified and find their appearances to be the subject of uncouth navel-gazing (see: all the remarks about wigs, dresses, cocks, etc.).
An Ironically Missed Opportunity
What is especially irritating about all of this is that feminists have the tools to understand why all of this is problematic: why “it’s just a joke” is not an excuse, why slurs are hate speech, why and how language constructs prejudicial realities (just as “mankind” biases us to thinking of men as more human than women, calling trans women “men” biases us to discriminating against them), and so on. Feminists, more than most people, have the tools to understand all of this.
But what troubles me even more is the attempt to put feminists on one side and trans women on the other. As if trans women cannot be feminists, or as if cis feminists could not be deeply troubled by the implications of Burchill’s piece. This is what is most potentially destructive here: the neat, artificial distinction that keeps trans women away from that great sisterhood of feminism, and from the healing and empowerment it can engender. And for what? For the sake of a cheap thrill in the Guardian?
Oddly enough, the innocuous subtitle of her article is “It’s never a good idea for those who feel oppressed to start bullying others in turn,” a point I fully agree with. We do have a problem with “call-out culture” in our feminist and queer communities, we do have a problem with unchecked egos and with activist-cum-academic aesthetics becoming more important than material results. There is a real, meaningful discussion to be had about whether the Tumblr-isation of activism has been a wholly good thing, or whether it breeds reflexive semantic policing at the expense of necessary work.
But Burchill forewent that entirely, instead launching into an article where she failed to take her own advice and did so with an ineloquent flamboyance that betrayed little besides prejudice and lack of self-awareness. Instead of possibly seeing trans women as sisters and allies in both forming a more perfect activist culture and in fighting patriarchy, she—who by her own admission knows nothing of the trans community save through Julie Bindel and this recent episode with Ms. Moore—simply writes an article groaning under the weight of its slurs and insults.
That saddens me more than anything else. It doesn’t have to be this way.
The other sad thing is, I completely get why she’s doing this. From her perspective, trans women are not women. We’re overeducated fops who are whinging about getting our feelings hurt and throwing male privilege around, so far as she is concerned. She could not be more violently wrong, but that fundamental belief animates everything else she says. I would like to think that if she actually, sincerely knew us—that if she were the godmother of some of our daughters as well—she might think very differently, and that she might be confronted with the mountains of empirical evidence that we’re really not so different from her.
She might see that, in the spirited words of Eowyn, I am no man. That her words have profoundly deleterious effects for very real (not imagined) women.
But what also troubles me is that she suggests that women should prove that they can be hurt by patriarchy by showing how they have. Why? Why must I strip off and reveal my scars to prove myself? Why must I revisit traumas to satisfy her and earn my place? Why must I always return to those places and times where I felt death gather around me in order to prove that I “know the meaning of suffering”?
My feminism is defined by what I do—by what I write, by what I orate, by what organisations I work for, by the research I do, by how I confront a patriarchal world and try to change it. It is not defined by my many wounds. Neither, for that matter, is my womanhood.
To be honest, I do not want Burchill to apologise. I do not dream of apologies. Rather, I wish Burchill could see what I see. That she could see the indefatigable sisterhood of women, trans and cis, working side by side to shatter each other’s chains, that she could see my friends and loved ones who I keep in mind every working day. I wish she could see, through their eyes, why words like hers can feel so profoundly dehumanising.
I wish that she could see the evil that trans women have had to face—the same violent deaths that befall too many women in our world—the same objectification, rape culture, risk, and quotidian hatreds, and see how it can shatter us in our fragile moments of being all too human, while also seeing how we manage to rise above it at our very best. I wish she could see us as the very human women that feminism has always striven to empower and render visible in a sightlessly woman-hating world.
I wish she could see me.
In that moment, I’d like to think, we could be sisters.
 It should go without saying that in an article which Burchill seemed to assemble from a transphobia Bingo sheet, she—in a particularly bizarre aside—treated the word ‘cis’ as an insult of some kind, and in a cunning rhetorical move decided to call us trannies as a result—because after all, that would be the mature and erudite thing to do. Perhaps she thinks the word “heterosexual” is an insult, too, that merits a rejoinder of “faggot”?
 Wait, I’m a poor Puerto Rican trans girl, maybe I shouldn’t use hoity toity phrases so I can prove I’m totally authentic? Oh crap, I use international English spelling too!
It would seem impossible to regard Lady Macbeth as anything other than an out and out villain; she seems at best incompetent in her malevolence, and at worst an almost demonic manifestation among humans who spreads her sickness to a far more powerful husband. Yet, on close reading of the text we see that Lady Macbeth has an urgent and bright moral centre, one that ultimately refuses to let her live; she shows regret and repeatedly evinces a morality that her husband is increasingly bereft of. As Macbeth’s better angels flee his increasingly sickened spirit, they seem to spread their wings ever more around Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth might be better understood as a tragic hero, in the mould of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, whose fatal flaw is her vaulting ambition; like Caesar she flew too close to the sun and paid the ultimate price. But unique amongst such Shakespearean figures is that Lady Macbeth is undone by patriarchy as well; it was misogyny that had so cribbed her in that using a male surrogate to gain power became an ineluctable necessity, creating a monster that would run out of control.
Yet from the start we are given a number of textual glimpses of Lady Macbeth’s empathy and restraint; “compunctious visitings of nature” would not shake her “fell purpose,” but in the end her own morality did. Such a view stands athwart not only popular notions of Lady Macbeth as an unalloyed villain, but also against some feminist interpretations that regard her simply as a failure, or as little more than a shadowed reflection of unadulterated sexism (Klein 169). It is certainly possible that Shakespeare’s intentions with Lady Macbeth were less than egalitarian in spirit and that he meant for her to be seen as a villain; these things are irrelevant to textual analysis, however (Wimsatt and Beardsley 469). What is in the play itself matters most, and they point to an interpretation of Lady Macbeth’s character that is a good deal more favourable to her.
Hardly Infirm of Purpose
First it will be necessary to dispense with the idea that Lady Macbeth is simply a “help mate” or other purely misogynist diminution. Joan Larsen Klein argues that Lady Macbeth’s “particularly feminine” anguish represents a kind of punishment for her abjuration of women’s purportedly proper role (169). Lady Macbeth is “enfeebled” by this punishment, the “awareness of her sin” (a particularly passive kind of awareness) driving her to madness (171). Klein even attributes Lady Macbeth’s feint of a faint in Act II to “weakness” (174-175). She portrays Lady Macbeth as not only doomed from the start, but utterly benighted from her first line, a bumbling infirm who serves as little more than a misogynist object lesson. This is to give Lady Macbeth far too little credit for both the depth and truth of her struggles, and to neglect the fact that she actually does not act “particularly feminine” in any way that is actually sincere. Sociologist Raewyn Connell calls compliant, male-oriented femininity (that most enfeebling and degrading kind) ‘emphasised femininity,’ arguing that it is “organised as an adaptation to men’s power… emphasising compliance, nurturance, and empathy as womanly virtues” and that it is “performed, and performed especially to men” (Connell 186-188). Crucially, however, this is a femininity that seeks the marginalisation of its rivals. It is the impetus to be a “good girl” in relation to men, and suppress any women who interpret femininity differently. If this sounds nothing like Lady Macbeth, there is very good reason for that.
To whatever extent Lady Macbeth “performs for men,” as she does in Act 2, Scene 3 when she faints, it is a decidedly expected, high feminine behaviour, except that it can be strongly argued that Lady Macbeth—fully seized of and aware of what she has done, and hardly in a position to be given the vapours by the mere mention of blood she had already dipped her hands in—deliberately faked her faint so as to distract attention from her husband’s flailing excuses. This “performance for men” manipulates them and uses their sexism against them. When Macduff says to her “O gentle lady, ‘Tis not for you to hear what I can speak: the repetition, in a woman’s ear, would murder as it fell” (2.3.85), there is no small amount of deliberate dramatic irony at work here which makes the scene incredibly effective in its brevity. We know Lady Macbeth would hardly be ‘murdered’ by the naming of the deed that she, no “gentle lady,” had just taken part in. She is, in this scene, trying to control events with the meagre tools available to her, a theme of her character from her first scene.
Her husband was one of those meagre tools, the implement that she prayed for the strength to use; these are not the actions of a woman wallowing in the performance of emphasised femininity, but rather one who is trying to manipulate it to her advantage in a particularly cunning way. There is no doubt that she is confined by sexism here and belittled by Macduff’s words. But those societal circumstances are best understood as the tragedy that the world of the story has set up for Lady Macbeth. They are part of her individual journey down the road to tragic heroism.
The Unimportance of “Unsexing”
It is here that we work backwards, to Lady Macbeth’s infamous opening speech which appears to at a stroke foreclose any consideration of her as a “hero,” tragic or otherwise. It is here that Klein finds her central idiom for discussing Lady Macbeth’s failures; the analysis turns on whether or not Lady Macbeth could be “unsexed,” as she so energetically demanded of the heavens. Klein concludes she was not, and that she remained fatally connected to womankind in ways that would be her undoing (169). “As long as she lives, Lady Macbeth is never unsexed in the only way she wanted to be unsexed—able to act with the cruelty she ignorantly and perversely identified with male strength” (179). But Lady Macbeth’s prayer to be unsexed matters less in its literal success or failure than its poetic plea to transcend the limits of her gender, of which she was all too conscious. It was an elegant gesture to her worldly circumstances, haunting poetry that says—more than anything else— that she recognises the patriarchy that surrounds her. That awareness in and of itself, so often forbidden to women in older literature, is striking, and speaks profoundly to Lady Macbeth’s agency. It is the evil that she struggles against (albeit in perverse ways).
But Klein portrays the arc of the story as being one simply of failed transcendence; Lady Macbeth could not ascend to the heights of being “unsexed” and tragically fell to earth, into the muck of emphasised femininity and in the end is nothing more than an object of pity. I would not be so quick to use such a stark, zero sum dichotomy here, however. In a very large sense, Lady Macbeth did transcend the limits of her gender; she died not because of ‘womanly weakness’, but because of a morality that is shared among all people, regardless of gender. Klein suggests that Lady Macbeth perished because Shakespeare wished to show us that a woman could not help but have these enfeebling pangs of empathy and remorse. This point is irrelevant. What matters is that, in the world of the story, men also have these feelings of empathy and moral outrage, suggesting there is more to the “milk of human kindness” than femininity. The men that appear heroic, like Macduff, are shown as ‘feeling’ men who have access to the very virtues that Macbeth has, with a chilling lack of error, shorn from himself. When Macduff learns of his family’s murder, he avers that he must not only dispute the crime as a man, but “feel it as a man” (4.3.220).
We come, then, to an interesting symmetry between Macduff and Lady Macbeth. She too mourns Macduff’s loss: “The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now? What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” she says during her painful sleepwalking confession (5.1.45). She shares Macduff’s pain, but from the guilt-riven perspective of the one who fears that she made the killing possible, that she created the monster who robbed the Thane of Fife of his “pretty ones.” This connection, which reveals to us men and women sharing the same deeply empathetic mourning, does suggest that Lady Macbeth’s moral malaise is about something more than mere emphasised femininity. Lady Macbeth dies and Macduff lives, but Lady Macbeth’s necessary guilt is responsible for that—and it is, again, a very human guilt.
The Second Sexing of Lady Macbeth
Lady Macbeth did indeed escape some of the limitations of womanhood—by demonstrating a keen awareness of her social condition and then acting in ways that would allow her to deal with the deck stacked against her, she showed that despite her ultimate failure, it was not a collapse into typical Renaissance womanhood that sundered her. Rather, we should give her the dignity of saying that she fell on the sword of her own designs—a fact we would surely admit if she were a male character from the outset, all other things being equal. But another question must now be addressed: even if all of this can be granted, surely this just makes her a more complex villain than Klein and others credit, and in no sense a tragic heroine? Lady Macbeth’s struggle against the gender roles of her time, and her ability to make the best of the difficult hand she has been dealt, both speak positively of her; in the end and in the full context of the play, her sinister prayer to have her milk taken for gall appears less as a statement of true character than as a desperately beautiful moment of fleeting pique and poetic exposition. At almost every other point in the play, pinpricks of Lady Macbeth’s virtues are revealed. When she has a moment of empathy upon regarding the sleeping Duncan, we see that side of her (2.2.13). Lady Macbeth, further, demonstrates great self awareness upon recognising her lack of contentment and the reasons for it (3.2.5); all in a scene that markedly contrasts Lady Macbeth to her husband, whose “mind is full of scorpions” because he seeks to become yet more bloody in his rule. It can even be surmised that Macbeth realises that his wife is a far better creature than he when he refuses to tell her of his plans to kill Banquo. The tension in this scene, where Lady Macbeth tries to get her husband to cease worrying about Banquo and his issue, arises from the fact that she has a dawning awareness of the monster awakening in her royal husband. Still to come is the famous, even cathartically bone-chilling hand-washing scene, which should leave us in no doubt about the torment of Lady Macbeth by her better angels.
Lady Macbeth’s two, intimately interwoven, fatal flaws are her sweeping ambition and her cynical view of politics; for the latter she can hardly be blamed, however. The Scotland of the time was a bloody game of swords—she could be forgiven for thinking that politics red in tooth and claw was the only way to achieve one’s ambitions. And it was Lady Macbeth’s own ambitions that drove her to urge her husband to make good the Weird Sisters’ prophecy; the scale and sweep of those ambitions, their impatience, and—most importantly—their uncritical endorsement of hegemonic masculinity, were her undoing. As the play grinds forward, Lady Macbeth reveals her bright moral centre all the more, and the towering tragedy was that she had snuffed it out for but a brief space in time that would end her life—remember that the hatching and execution of the regicide took place over the course of less than twenty four hours. But for this one fit, this one moment of profound and fatal moral weakness (not femininity-as-weakness), she would live, and with a clean conscience. It is worth noting that it is not her femininity that undoes her in this reading, but rather that moment of darkness with only the gold of the crown glinting in Lady Macbeth’s eyes where she gives into a profoundly masculine temperament—a hegemonically masculine one premised on emotionless, bloodless, heartless and savage strength. That is the weakness that undoes her.
The point has been made by gender scholars that Lady Macbeth and other strong women in fiction are very easily dismissed as villains and attacked due to their gender; we view them in the particular as “women” rather than as “women who are political actors” or “women with moral paroxysms” engaged in a deeply human struggle. Cristina León Alfar has called for a broader view to be taken of Shakespearian “villainesses” that would restore to them a context of fuller humanity, rather than simply presuming an utterly confined and inhuman feminine archetype for them before exegesis ever occurs:
Because the gender prescriptions [Shakespearian women] ostensibly fracture have never been adequately explored in relation to the dynamics of gender and power that inform their tragedies, they are read within their designated domestic roles as daughters and wives. Consequently, the political context of their actions is ignored in favour of a reinscription of obedience, mercy, and compassion as natural and appropriate feminine behaviours (Alfar 26).
In her analysis of Macbeth and other Shakespeare plays Alfar says she will “reread them as political tragedies that put pressure on orthodox notions of gender and power.” This is precisely the vein in which I have been reading Macbeth here: as a play where patriarchy clearly exists, but where the drama unfolds nearest the hairline fractures in its edifice. The indictment of hegemonic masculinity, Lady Macbeth exploring the outer and inner limits of herself without regard for the delimiters of wifehood, Macduff’s epiphany about “feeling as a man,” the Weird Sisters beards, all give testament to that emergent gender anxiety just beneath the play’s surface. It is in that world that Lady Macbeth’s tragic flaw—the very human flaw of ambition—takes flight. But I argue that this is difficult for us to see because we become too caught up on the fact that Lady Macbeth is a woman.
Sexism, like a saboteur in the night, silently cuts our moral and critical brake lines, leaving us vulnerable to antagonising women for flaws that we would deeply qualify, excuse, or complicate, if we were beholding a man in similar circumstances. We may simply think that our moral indignation is the objectively mechanistic result of a character’s genuine moral failings—we dislike Lady Macbeth because she is “bad”—but we fail to recognise the higher standard to which we hold her because she is a woman. She is less likely to be allowed to exist as a morally complex, tormented, even heroic figure; she must either be an angel or a demon; Madonna or whore. Yet her tragedy here lays primarily in an epic mistake occasioned by the unfortunate confluence of social and personal forces at the wrong moment in Lady Macbeth’s life.
The play clearly gender stereotypes on one level, associating certain virtues with masculinity and others with femininity. But it is hegemonic masculinity that comes across as a clear villain, due to its merciless demands for dominance and the self-abnegation that results from it (Connell 184). Lady Macbeth drinks briefly but deeply from that intoxicating elixir, and almost immediately realises that she has committed a grave sin as a result. But she does not end, as Klein suggests, in an enfeebled state of emphasised femininity. She is a complex character who achieves instead a deeper understanding of her own humanity, but at the tragic cost of her own life; it was the only penance she could offer in the depraved, bloody world built on fear and daggers that her husband, whose hegemonically masculine monster she helped to unleash, had created.
Yet her heroic qualities are demonstrated, first and foremost, by the world the story creates, partially through the easily discerned web of gender stereotypes that threads through the play, but also through Lady Macbeth’s awareness of patriarchy and the condescension shown to her by many of the men around her. She has to struggle against this to do anything, including advance her career. She retains a number of virtuous qualities, such as her capacity for remorse and empathy, and the great tragedy of the play is observed largely through her. We see through Lady Macbeth’s eyes not only the utter collapse of her plans but also the shocking moral inventory she performs throughout the play, accepting her culpability in the terror around her and watching with horror as her husband spiralled out of control, seeing the wages of her enjoining him to “manliness” writ starkly in blood before her.
So if we can find in Caesar a tragic hero, whose hamartia was ambition, then we can surely find the same in Lady Macbeth who also fell on the sword of her hubris. It is not punishment for her being a woman, per se, but rather a story of sin and atonement that is as human as any other, where Lady Macbeth’s “fell purpose” is ultimately shaken by her heroic qualities—her humanistic virtues. The fact that Lady Macbeth is a woman in a patriarchal society does, indisputably, change things somewhat. But only to the extent that it adds to the complexity of the story’s political context and gives Lady Macbeth additional confinements that add to the depth of the tragedy; for this is decidedly a tragedy of gender, of the fatal flaw that is hegemonic masculinity, and the mistake that Lady Macbeth makes in using it, however briefly, to overcome the societal sexism to which she is so justly opposed.
Alfar, Cristina León. Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: University of Delaware Press, 2003. Print.
Connell, Raewyn. Gender and Power. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987. Print.
Klein, Joan Larsen. “Lady Macbeth: Infirm of Purpose.” Shakespeare: Macbeth. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: Signet, 1998. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. New York: Signet, 1998. Print.
Wimsatt, William K. and Monroe C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” Sewanee Review 54 (1946): 468-488. Print.
If I were to give a measured reaction to Riki Wilchins now infamous “Transgender Dinosaurs” editorial in The Advocate, it would amount to this: it is yet another example of hierarchal inversion where we assign a moral-political value to genders and then exile the ones we disapprove of. The kind of visibility Wilchins writes about is based on a trendy ethic that suggests if you aren’t visibly out of the mainstream, then you’re The Man, and part of The Problem. This, however, neglects the fact that ‘standing out’ in that way carried unacceptable risks for most trans women, historically. It also ignores, from a moral perspective, that if we attach moral value only to accoutrement—or suggest that the latter is indispensable to moral behaviour—then we are creating an exclusionary, even bankrupt political ethic that is based simply on what is fashionable, not what is politically necessary.
We begin with this quote which, in a way, neatly sums up everything that is wrong with Wilchins’ ideas:
“Never having passed as female as I’d grown older I’d finally given up trying. Besides, it seemed somehow counter-revolutionary…”
A revolution is about a substantive change in material relations of power and ruling; it is about making the world less violent, less oppressive, more equitable and just. It is not about whatever Wilchins is suggesting is revolutionary here, which seems to be little more than “women should dress and look the way I want them to look” and “trans people should express their gender in the way I want them to.” Do I even have to say something to the effect of “As a feminist, I think that’s sickening”?
But Wilchins’ transmisogyny goes beyond that. The entire story, an efficient distillation of radical transphobia, pivots around a woman with no voice, a girl that Wilchins renders a mute doll in order to make her trendsetting point that trans girls and women are now insufficiently transgressive, beginning immediately with the kind of objectification that characterises most mainstream media coverage of those same women. Continue reading →
Over the last several months writing has become a true labour of love; I’ve endured the fiery trials of editing and peer review, coming out the better for and bringing my work to a wider audience. As the links below will show, that has– remarkably– come to fruition at long last. So, to everyone here (all three of you) thank you for your readership and support, which has given me the confidence and thought-provoking commentary that I’ve needed along the way. I shall keep nuclear unicorn’ing away!
In the meantime, you can entertain yourselves with Game Changer, an article I wrote for this season’s Bitch Magazine which explores the sociological reasons behind the viciousness of online bullying. Why, I ask, does prejudice reach a frenzied, uncivilised pitch in gaming? Is it because of anonymity? (Spoiler alert: no.) I argue instead that we fail to hold people accountable because we think of the internet as being “less real,” thus facilitating actions that a moral framework in an unimpeachably real space might not so readily entertain. By accepting the virtual world as part of the ‘real world’ and by challenging the arguments of those who claim they need to be bigots in order to have fun, we can make the internet a more humane place for us all.
Also this month, I’m being published in Women Studies Quarterly, a major academic journal in gender studies put out by CUNY’s Feminist Press. In this season’s Enchantment issue, which assembled articles about the role of fantasy and imagination in life and politics, I wrote a lengthy peer-reviewed paper– entitled ‘The New Laboratory of Dreams’– which posits roleplaying games as sites of resistance and politically imaginative creativity. By encouraging people to construct lives, worlds, and scenarios, such games implicitly reveal the constructed nature of the real world and facilitate useful thinking about how it might be changed, or to simply experiment with this, that, or the other social environment. Such imaginative spaces, I argue, democratise the culture-making tool of game development and make game design “a domestic leisure activity.” Building on my own experience of discovering my womanhood through roleplaying, I examine how such social reconstruction can occur through gaming as a whole and use the RPG Eclipse Phase as an example of a brave new genre of intelligent, politically thoughtful games that push us beyond our comfort zones.
I haven’t written much about mainstream politics here since that’s done to death in a variety of outlets all over the place– from private blogs to every news agency the world over, the US Presidential election has enough people saying almost everything under the sun about it. But a few nights ago I was moved to comment on the matter via Facebook; at length. I felt I’d be remiss if I did not, with some editing and additions, republish those thoughts since they speak to an often ignored debate on electoral politics. On the political left there is intense discussion about the value of the presidency and voting, and whether radical change can truly come through morally compromised candidates. What follows is a qualified discussion of the stakes, and why I stuck with this president. The first section was composed on election night. The second was composed early the next morning.
Why I Voted for President Obama
My choice this year should surprise no one. The reasons should be clear. The purpose obvious. Obama’s has not been a perfect presidency, and it was stained before its time by profound moral failure– Guantanamo, drone warfare, illegal arrests here in the US. But the reality, and the choice, we face is this: we will get all of the above with a Romney administration, and with none of the benefits of the current government.
I will vote, not for the lesser of two evils, but for the government that secures healthcare for all Americans and begins the long and difficult road to full-insurance, for a president that supports women’s right to choose– and has a holistic vision of bodily autonomy, for a government that passed legislation requiring health insurers to take trans people on board, for a government that fought tooth and nail for increased Pell Grants, for a government that allowed me to change my passport to reflect my gender, for a government that rolled back elements of the draconian REAL ID programme and made life that much more liveable for trans workers, for a government that supports an inclusive ENDA, for a government that changed INS policy to allow trans immigrants to more easily change gender markers on their IDs, for a vice president who called transgender rights “the civil rights issue of our time,” for the president whose first signed bill was a gender pay equity act, for a president who puts women with progressive views on the Supreme Court.
This endorsement should not be construed to view the victims of American foreign policy as an acceptable margin of error. On their backs, and with their blood, was Obama’s posturing in the third debate made possible- and that is a moral crime that must give us pause. We must never, ever be silent about this administrations failings here and abroad. However we vote tomorrow, that ballot is a beginning and not an end. A vote for Obama will not solve our woes. Every single issue that I mentioned above came to the bright lights of federal politics because of the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears of honoured foremothers who fought and died for that recognition. My vote honours their sacrifice with one small vigil– but it is our life’s work that truly carries on their legacy, and that work neither begins nor ends at the polls tomorrow.
For us, Obama’s triumphs and failures are part of a complex web to navigate. I’ve found my way, and I begrudge no one who finds Jill Stein preferable. But I also implore you to reconsider the role of government in this. Keeping Obama in office is an exercise in harm reduction. We will keep fighting as activists one way or another. But we do still have a president to elect– and the choice is clear. Which ever man wins on Tuesday, we will still see drone planes terrorising people abroad, and that is a towering tragedy of this election. But Obama can be worked with– and the domestic stakes are too high to give the race to a man who will not only continue an aggressive foreign policy, but also retrench terror here at home. I will not allow that to happen.
Thus it is that I do not vote for the lesser of two evils, but see myself as voting affirmatively for the immense good this administration has done.
For all the people here that I have met through my work these last couple of years, it would not have been possible had this administration’s policy changes not enabled me to get travel ID that matched my gender. Loved ones abroad would have been much harder to visit if the Obama/Clinton State Department didn’t give me the opportunity to cross the border with dignity. In turn, this has bettered my ability to do radical work and support the organisation I work for. It is this small but potent facilitation effect that Obama’s iterative policy changes have had.
It is up to us to use these opportunities and continue the hard work of making real change happen in our communities– and a vote for this president does not undermine or compromise with that. The rights that my sisters and I have won these last four years will not be crushed beneath the weight of cynicism nor snarky leftist memes about the ‘lesser of two evils.’ I see no contradiction between my work and my impending vote.
We do not need to agree with everything a political candidate espouses to cast a vote in her favor. Voting is not an unequivocal endorsement—of a particular candidate or of the systems that structure our participation as “citizens.”
Voting is participating in a process that allows us to select figures with whom we would prefer to engage. That is to say, voting allows us to have some say in the parameters of future political struggle. It lets us decide with whom we want to struggle. And struggle we must.
Voting is not an end, or even a means to an end. Black feminist politics are far more expansive than electoral politics. They’ve had to be. Black feminist politics are what allows us— as young black queer and trans feminists—to fight to have liveable lives, to cherish our own survival and delight in the miracles of making it to the next year, day, hour. Voting does not interrupt our black feminist politics any more than it vanquishes the myriad structural and sociohistorical inequities that make those politics necessary.
I would argue that this is a good rejoinder to all cynical radicals on the question of voting and mainstream political participation.
The Morning After
In his victory speech President Obama echoed an idea I’ve long championed: that the exercise of citizenship does not end at the voting booth. Who do you think President Obama was talking to when he said that? There are many issues that matter to us as individuals, especially on the left where we have given voice to the voiceless for generations, where we have counted the last to be counted. There’s so much more work to be done– on voting rights, on incarceration, on trans rights, on immigration, on foreign policy. That’s where we come in over these next four years.
It is us, the new radicals who must carry the torch and do the hard work. As I said, tonight is a beginning, and not and end.
But it is also not an hour for despondency. Wall Street did not win tonight, any more than war crimes or terrorism. We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and we must remember that the ‘lesser of two evils’ is not only a tired line devoid of content and meaning, but an aphorism that surely brings a smile to the faces of lobbyists, corporate plunderers, the far right, avaricious elites and so on. Why? Because when we give up on this process, the great levers of institutional power that are this state do not go away. When we cynically concede to the idea of the lesser of two evils we concede a field that our foremothers fought and died for the right to occupy. Yes, occupy. Occupy your government, and your electoral process.
When we withdraw from electoral politics and we grouse about there being only two evils from which to choose, that suits the suits just fine. They’re happy for you to think that. They want you to go away, and leave the politicos entirely in their hands, leave the process entirely in their hands. Cynicism is their friend. Why do you think it’s so popular? Why is anti-politician rhetoric so mainstream that Leno and Letterman bathe in it nightly? It hardly seems radical when “politicians are all selfish, lying egomaniacs” is practically a consensus view. Even the Tea Party is premised on this ‘politics of anti-politics.’ Thus it is that I’ve come to the conclusion that the real radical politics is whatever cuts through the pea soup haze of cynicism that cedes the colonnaded political realm to apparatchiks who will fulfil every dark prophecy made about politics.
When this president appointed a Latina from the Bronx– like me– to our Supreme Court, that was a proud hour for us that political abstinence would have denied us. Amid the arcane shadow theatre of Supreme Court politics, that moment has always stayed with me. Just as my joy at the appointment of Amanda Simpson was a watershed moment for trans women– it seemed not a little strange that for all the professed radicalism of the queer left, a feminine trans woman made it in the Commerce Department, while it can still be a struggle to see any trans women at queer events or in Gender Studies Departments across the nation.
For that reason and others, I find radical mockery of ‘inclusion’ to be harder than ever to take seriously. It remains the same arrogance that saw Judith Butler mock Venus Xtravaganza (from the pages of an academic tome read primarily by the educated middle class) for her seemingly bourgeois aspirations; this curiously hypocritical politics of perfection that has come to define certain sectors of radicalism is also at the heart of some of its anti-Obama sentiment.
And so we come to Election Night– my mother, for whom I fight, and to whom I’ve dedicated so much of my work, was crying tears of joy. She took my hand and squeezed tight, thanking me for the days and weeks I spent reassuring her that the president was going to win. Is she a dupe? She, who’d given up on voting for decades but went back to the polls in 2008 with genuine hope that four long, hard years, have yet to snuff out? She whose current interest in feminism and LGBT activism has been fuelled by the innervation of the Obama years? She does not castigate my more radical work but wholly encourages it. And she is a proud Obama voter.
I voted because I must; I voted in part because there are people trying to stop us, and with good reason. “Us” refers to a whole swathe of people: transgender people, people of colour, women, queer folk. Even from the narrowly circumscribed field of choices in this election, our likely choice frightens many of our political enemies. I still believe in our political process, and I still believe that activism must march with it, as well as lead it. I refuse to give that up.
As a trans woman, one sees herself reflected in academic texts as if peering into a cursed mirror; the woman, if she is allowed to be called such at all, stares back with a postmodern face.
It is a thought that has struck me as I have made my rounds through journal articles and discussions about trans women—written by or conducted by cisgender people, and occasionally by trans-masculine folks—when I am left wondering where precisely I am meant to stand in this increasingly fragmented movement of ours. What seems to arrest the academic luminaries most concerned with transgender people are questions of identity and transgression, of political meaning neatly cleaved from political reality.
In characteristically gentle and cautious prose, Raewyn Connell makes this point well in her recent paper “Transsexual Women and Feminist Thought: Toward New Understanding and New Politics” :
“The first is that major issues in transsexual women’s lives, especially social issues, are not well represented by identity discourses of any kind. These issues include the nature of transition, the laboring transsexual body, workplace relations, poverty, and the functioning of state organizations including police, health policy, family services, education, and child care.
The second difficulty is a powerful tendency in transgender literature to degender the groups spoken of, whether by emphasizing only their nonnormative or transgressive status; by claiming that gender identity is fluid, plastic, malleable, shifting, unstable, mobile, and so on; or by simply ignoring gender location. A great deal of recent research and writing, while acknowledging diversity at an individual level, lumps women and men into a common “transgender” story (e.g., Couch et al. 2007; Hines 2007; Girshick 2008). It is difficult to find in any of this the intransigence of gender actually experienced in transsexual women’s lives.”
The emphasis here draws deeply on the work of Viviane K. Namaste, who Connell repeatedly cites approvingly, and on Connell’s own avowedly structure-conscious perspective. For Namaste trans people are more than the sum of their identities, but people with complex relationships to institutions, the state, citizenship, rights, and politics more widely. We have something to do with both bread and roses. There is a practical dimension to trans lives as lived that the unsubtle instruments of abstraction-for-the-sake-of-abstraction cannot possibly comprehend.
Namaste and Connell both see trans women’s interactions with the neoliberal state, to give one example, as being of considerably greater importance than our “transgressive” value; the obsession of a philosophy that sometimes seems to forget what it is transgressing against in the first place.
None of this should be quite so controversial. After all, social science makes a none too subtle demand that our theorising should arise from the practise of everyday lives. Yet it is precisely this issue which remains very controversial in academia—in the social sciences and elsewhere—and trans women’s bodies are one of several battlefields on which this battle is being fought. Time and again we are talked about as if we are unreal; simulacra of ourselves floating context-free among great minds unmoored by the trivialities of social practise.
Put more concretely, postmodern thinking on trans women seems to argue that because something can mean anything in theory, it actually does mean everything in practise. The word “tranny” is a perfect example. This past year, friends of mine had to listen to a cis queer male professor piously intone about the infinite variability of “tranny’s” meanings, and why the word was not in any “real” sense offensive or prejudicial. It was “just a word,” after all, and words can mean anything. Therefore they mean everything.