Lost in Trans-Lation II: This Time It’s Personal…er

So begins Episode II of the Lost in Trans-Lation saga. I realise this is, in many ways, a terrible title whose badness is compounded by the fact that it’s yet another bad ‘trans’ pun (and don’t worry, there’s more where that come from) but it’s grown on me and I’m going to keep it around for its humour value. I’m in a new Women and Gender Studies class with the same professor giving the same weekly journal writing assignments, and so I felt that like any badly named movie it needed a sequel. The sequel no one was waiting for. (Rejected titles include Lost in Trans-Lation II: The Two Ivory Towers; Lost in Trans-Lation II: Revenge of the Poststructuralists; Lost in Trans-Lation II: Return of Marilyn Frye. Lost in Trans-Lation II: The Identitarian Menace. Look, do you know how hard it is to make jokes out of words like ‘ethnomethodology’? Give me a break!)

Onto more serious things. In this space I clearly devote an extensive amount of energy to trans issues. In the near future I will write my thoughts on the etiology of transgender and I think that this journal entry I’d written that reviews Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body is a very good place to start that might give my readers some insight into the intellectual underpinnings of the opinions I’ll soon be expressing. Dr. Fausto-Sterling presents a very compelling view of biology, its relation to politics, and the project of sexual dimorphism, with profound implications for how we understand transgender and transsexual people.

It would be difficult to overstate just how vital Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work should be to any discussion of sex and gender, particularly in its ponderous neurological and biological contexts. Her earlier book, Myths of Gender, explored the myriad of problems with simplistic biological explanations for gendered phenomena in society, but Sexing the Body’s implications reach further. She proposes a radically new means of understanding sex and gender. I would not simply say she has proposed a new ‘system’- rather she challenges the need for a system at all, and trading heavily on the examples of intersex people demonstrates the radical implications of it and the need for a vision of sex and gender the centralises the individual rather than privileges the preservation of already-existing groups. In the opening chapter, Duelling Dualisms, she uses illuminating examples that highlight the seemingly arbitrary nature of our present ‘two party system’ as she wryly calls it later in the book, focusing on the topic of Olympic sex testing. While this work was penned in 2000, the very contemporary example of Caster Semenya demonstrates the ongoing, painful relevance of the Olympic examples and the absurdities contained in its assumptions. From a Nazi athlete who disguised himself as a woman in the Olympics for easy gold medals, and then lost to three actual women, to a Spanish runner who found herself under vicious attack after an Olympics sex test identified her as “male” Sterling brings to life a complex issue that we do not often think about. What does it say about our world when we have powerful people sitting in a “femininity control head office”?

Sterling paints a picture of a gender system that is as much enforced as it is naturally occurring, and one that treats exceptions to it not only as curiosities, but even as things to be utterly annihilated, denied, and erased. Such language may seem extreme, but it is hard to look at the surgical alteration of intersex infants in any other way. Her chapter Should There Be Only Two Sexes? demonstrates powerfully why these surgeries appear to be more in the interest of preserving a social ideal than in the welfare of any given child. She demonstrates that while intersex people without surgically altered bodies lead productive lives, including lives that are active sexually, those who undergo the surgery face mixed results and the doctors themselves admit that the goal of such surgeries is merely a cosmetic effect. Virtually no attention is paid to the psychological health of the child or to their future sexuality, which is often irretrievably harmed by the surgery.

I have often said that this failure to treat intersex children properly is best described by one of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s best turns of phrase wherein she says such surgeries constitute “the literal social construction of sex”; contained in those words is the essence of the very problem that intersex people and transgender people are confronted with. Sterling points out that many of our sexual woes are essentially conceptual problems. We find ourselves unable to break out of dualistic thinking on the subject: sex and gender, male and female, nature and nurture. She argues convincingly for a vision that regards the connections between mind and body, as well as body and society, as a Mobius strip where there is a simple but elegant continuity between the two ‘sides.’ This stands in a long line of feminist thinking that has sought to challenge dualism as a destructive idea that necessarily flows from (and thereby reinforces in dialectic fashion) systems of domination and subordination. Starhawk spends much time challenging dualistic thinking in both religious and secular life, arguing that it promotes the idea that one end of the polar split is good and the other evil, a metaphor that plays out on countless aspects of ordinary life with disastrous consequences. Sterling takes this conceptual vision and suggests that we reunite concepts previously held to be opposites, echoing my own long standing injunction “can’t it be both?”

Another problem, as I already alluded to, is that such dualistic cleavages invariably create hierarchies. Quoting Judith Butler, Sterling asks “Why […] has the idea of materiality come to signify that which is irreducible, that which can support construction but cannot be itself constructed?” This echoes my past thoughts about the long shadow Karl Marx’s base/superstructure paradigm has cast on the sciences. Even feminists would come to see it as salvation, allowing them to argue that yes, while biological sex is natural, real, and unchangeable, gender was constructed and malleable, thus social change was possible. It is a compromise argument that has left feminism the poorer and painted it into a corner as it still fights on numerous fronts against biological determinism. Sex is accorded the status of timeless reality, that which simply is, while gender is conceptually granted the possibility of some flexibility but is still seen as an outgrowth of sex’s foundation.

In addition to this, however, she proposes an equally interesting idea that has much merit as well. She holds that homosexuality and heterosexuality are themselves constructed and are predicated on a reinforced binary sex/gender system that only came into full force with the rationalisation of the 19th Century.  She argues that our culture presumes that when a middle aged person comes out as gay that they are revealing something that has been cosmically true all along and invalidates years of prior heterosexual activity. The truth, she says, is more complex and the idea that one is exclusively hetero or exclusively straight (and sometimes bi) is a scientific fabrication enforced by powerful social norms that ensure a general degree of conformity and compliance. Certainly this is true to a great extent. Many gay/queer people who come out later in life feel as if they have been living a lie. It is not to say, however, that heterosexual acts might never have occurred to them in a more tolerant society, only that the stifling burden of compulsory heteronormativity limited their options to a ‘straight’ presentation. That is most certainly living a lie. But does it mean that there is a “gay gene”? Both Fausto-Sterling and I are sceptical.

In Should There Be Only Two Sexes? Sterling makes a brief reference to transsexual and transgender history that is interesting and does ring of some accuracy, but suffers enormously from its brevity. My concern is that readers new to the subject may walk away with a somewhat skewed view of this history. She briefly mentions but does not go into detail about just how powerful medical and psychiatric professionals were in determining the gender presentations of trans people. There can and should be no mistake: trans people, women especially, were a highly vulnerable population that many psychiatrists took advantage of to enforce the most rigid gender norms possible. To the extent many such trans people enacted, and perhaps even internalised, this performance it is assuredly the fault of the psychiatric establishment, not of transgender women, that there was a “reinforcement of a two gender system.” She does also muddy the streams when it comes to the transsexual/transgender distinction, incorrectly making transsexuals seem conservative, and transgender people more inherently liberal or gender fluid. I identify as transsexual but I am certainly no gender conservative, and may even fall into the category of people she says do not surgically alter their bodies but identify as women. She also says something that I agree with, when she says “permanently assuming a transsexual identity that is neither male nor female in the traditional sense.” She is correct, certainly. I identify as a trans woman, maintaining the firm double-thought of that identity and resisting any artificial bifurcation of it. I am not a broken woman in need of correction or fixing. Sterling touches on a debate in the transgender community: some feel comfortable referring to being trans as a “birth defect” or saying “I’m just a woman, not trans-anything” while others like myself consider her transness to be an inextricable part of her identity that cannot be excised and should instead be a matter of pride. I distinctly remember when I first read this book my great disappointment that Sterling did not spend more time on trans people as we are- and I do not think she’d deny this for a second- quite helpful to her general argument. But as I have just pointed out, it is very difficult to summarise the complex politics of identity in the trans community. Perhaps she was avoiding a minefield after all?

Sterling’s photo of a much younger version of herself still makes me smile very broadly. It reminds me quite a bit of myself at her age, endlessly fascinated with test tubes and the other trappings of the great scientist, saving the world through mixing brightly coloured chemicals. I imagine that had I been raised as a cis girl I might’ve been given a similar epitaph “In memory of Katie, who liked space rocks better than boys.” The point she makes about innate inclination versus environment, and how it cannot be resolved or intuited as being convincingly one or the other is a good one. There may well be no way of knowing for sure if she truly was born to be a scientist. After all, the science I decided to pursue after many years of faithfully stealing my mother’s food colouring to better enhance the sciencey look of my fake chemistry sets was, of course, social science. How did she end up a biologist and me an aspiring sociologist? The resolution that she proposes for understanding how these things happen is a sound one, and her flair for apt visual metaphors continues into the final words of the book: a matryoshka doll. For her the famous Russian nesting doll symbolises the various layers of sex and gender, interconnected, each interesting by itself, but only fully intelligible and complete as part of a larger, continuous whole. Each layer- history, society and culture, the mind’s psyche, the physiological organism and so on- shapes gender. How much? That depends on the individual. Individual body, personal history, personal relationship with significant others and society, personal biology. It all adds up to a unique individual. This is the frightening answer that many people do not want to face up to- it fails to offer the silver bullet much desired of those who want an easy and simple gender order.

But it does have the benefit of being correct.

Their Eyes Were Watching Goddess

“Three years after graduation, in an apple orchard in Sonoma, a friend of mine (who comes from an Italian working class family) says to me “Cherrie, no wonder you felt like such a nut in school. Most of the people there were white and rich.” It was true. All along I had felt the difference, but not until I had put the words “class” and “colour” to the experience, did my feelings make any sense. For years, I had berated myself for not being as “free” as my classmates. I completely bought that they simply had more guts than I did- to rebel against their parents and run around the country hitchhiking, reading books, and studying “art.” They had enough privilege to be atheists, for chrissake.”

~Cherrie Moraga, from ‘La Guera’

I have often said that transition changes far more than you expect. In my own life I certainly expected to change gender presentation in a very noticeable way, yes, but I never expected my politics to change, my relationship with my mother to change, and my career goals to crystallise so quickly, to name just a few significant things that shifted with the tectonic plate of my gender. But there is one more area of great significance here and I touched on it a bit yesterday. Faith.

When I was younger I was very close to being a radical atheist. I thought Richard Dawkins was the greatest thing to happen to Western intellectual life since Voltaire, I gleefully joined in the intellectually squalid mockery of the religious as “irrational” and otherwise “weak minded” (when I was being nice), and I joined Christopher Hitchens in saying that religion poisons everything. I had, after all, grown up in a Catholic household headed by a traditionalist patriarch who took inspiration from his faith to be misogynist and homophobic, as well as bigoted against various other religions, like Islam and Hinduism. As I grew older I would find myself recoiling against it, and not just because of him. I saw in the news, time after time, the Church shafting women, helping AIDS spread in non-Western countries, bilking the impoverished, spreading hatred of the queer and gender variant among us; indeed when I first tepidly came out, just a few days later the Pope would compare transgender and other variant people to the threat of deforestation around the world. I’ve memorialised my reaction to that in the form of this blog’s very title.

In all of this, how could I not have had a very negative reaction to faith as I got older? But when I transitioned something finally gave way. Even during my heavy flirtation with atheism I did not quite come right out and claim that I was because there was, ironically, a bit of logic gnawing at my mind. Would the world really be uniformly better off without religion when we settle the most petty of secular disputes with equal verve and hatred? Are virtuous people of faith really straw men, or are they people I ought to include in my assessment of religion? Is it right to mock and dismiss the religious out of hand because of their beliefs? On and on those questions worked upon my mind quietly. So what changed when I came out? The woman who helped me find myself was in the midst of another transition: coming out as a woman of faith.

But what made me sit up and take notice was that it was not just any faith, it was a pagan one culled from centuries past. The worship of the Goddess Cybele was often executed by priestesses that we would, today, consider transsexual women. Far from being a stigmatised group, shunned by faith as a threat to the world, they were considered the highest and holiest manifestations of the goddess herself. As my dear friend excitedly explained all of this to me and I did some research of my own I sat back pensively and felt my sociological imagination kick in. If that were possible- trans people being holy instead of utterly sinful- what else could faith do? And I began to realise that even though I knew religion was socially constructed, I had never taken that idea to its logical conclusion: that it could be socially reconstructed, that its meaning was not fixed and that its present form was not its inevitable one. The mythology of her deeply felt faith is profoundly beautiful, and my friend- Jade- found in me a willing counsellor. I couldn’t believe that I had stepped into this role, of interpreting her faith for her and providing her with guidance on how to believe. But it felt so right, and I knew that I was helping her. In her own words Jade describes her faith best: Here she is on sacred sexuality, here on the main myth of Cybelline faith which rendered trans women holy, and here is her beautiful recounting of SRS as a spiritual experience.

To return to my own journey… The hammer fell hardest on my self-flattering delusions about secularism and atheism. I had wanted to believe that those who had no faith would be inherently more tolerant, more reasonable, and more accepting. Yet as I was coming out and looked around I saw any number of things that told me this wasn’t true. Several atheists (YouTube’s infamous AmazingAtheist being a prime example of this) were flagrantly misogynist in the most boorish and typical way possible. Indeed, AA would give my Catholic father a run for his money in the woman-bashing department. In numerous discussions, comment threads, and writings I’ve found I have also discovered that many atheists can be just as callously transphobic as their “theist” counterparts, and oftentimes for the same reasons. It does not matter to me if you tell me that it is God or Allah who holds me as less than human, or if it is your bowdlerised reading of neuroscience and psychology that informs this. It’s all the same bullshit to me. That realisation was actually a liberating one. Christopher Hitchens’ atheism also did not leave him with the wisdom to oppose the war in Iraq or to not heartlessly rationalise neo-imperialism, nor did it leave him with the compassion to avoid Islamophobia, nor the reason to skirt asinine evolutionary-psychological theories about women’s separate sphere.

All of this made me realise that religion was less operative on human sin than I had thought. Atheists were just as capable of bigotry and rank stupidity as the religious were, and people of faith could be possessed of immense kindness and love. All was possible, but religion did not predispose us to one thing or another.

The fault, dear reader, lies not with the stars but with ourselves. What we mould faith into is what matters, but faith itself is merely a tool. The dominant patriarchal faiths of the world have done immeasurable harm, but not expressly because they are religions. We as humans lust after purpose and meaning. Religion furnishes us with this, but it is not the only avenue to those universally sought-after goals. Secular philosophies, political ideologies, and various other beliefs can inspire the same passion, the same fervour, the same devout blindness that religion can. The sacred canopy of faith, that great nomos that binds together the meaning structure of society, is easily replaced with secular strictures that perform the same functions- and will be prone to exactly the same flaws. The problem is neither faith, nor government, nor science, it is us.

When I came out as trans and began to research the history of this group I suddenly found I belonged to I realised that the great antagonists in our lives were not only the patriarchal men of God who pronounced hatred upon us from on high, but also men in white coats who hearkened to the higher power of rationality. Men who would pathologise us as diseased and in need of their shepherding, who would seek to control us. Who would tell trans men that they could not love or marry other men, who would tell trans women that we could not wear trousers, and who would constantly exploit us to enforce their vision of gender and sexuality. The same men who, for a very long time, had pathologised homosexuality. Their descendants, even now, in the forms of J. Michael Bailey and Kenneth Zucker, use rationalism to oppress. They exploit us for no reason other than a desire to increase the volume of their citeable writing and to make names for themselves with esoteric pet theories.

The Catholic Church could hardly have done any worse.

There were other things I came to notice as well as the scales finally fell from my eyes. Atheism’s overwhelming whiteness was one. In their insipid denunciations of the “irrational” among us they completely ignored the different cultural meanings and centralities of faith for people of colour. The Cherrie Moraga quote above epitomises a perspective that, even though I had grown up in a Latino family as well, I had become somewhat blinkered to. I had the privilege of going to the best schools in New York, which pushed me shoulder to shoulder with many who were white, upper class, and rebelling. I gained little to no appreciation for how faith built community in my own neighbourhood and wrote off the role of faith in opposing slavery and segregation.

When Sojourner Truth told a sceptical audience of white suffragettes and men of how only Jesus heard her when she wept a mother’s tears at how slavemasters stole away her children, that meant something. That was not incidental or flavouring. Faith sustained her through her greatest trials, faith helped her to become the powerful presence that stood at that podium to issue an injunction that echoes loudly and proudly to this very hour: Ain’t I a woman?

How could I have ever, ever deigned to spit on that as merely irrational weak mindedness? How drunk on privilege does one have to be in order to make such a judgement?

What Cherrie Moraga said was jarring because I had interpreted my own struggle to free myself from Catholicism as something rather the opposite of privilege. But in truth it was because I inhabited upper class milieux that I even had the breathing room to express myself in that way, where participation in a community of faith was optional. This Color Lines article is rather instructive on the subject from the unique perspective of trans people of colour.

[Monica] Roberts grew up in Houston, Texas, and in the Black church. Her mother is a teacher, and she was surrounded by women who were historians and leaders in the community. She understood the influence of Black women. “You might have a minister up here pontificating on the pulpit on Sunday,” she says, “but the real power behind the throne is the women’s auxiliary that’s meeting on Tuesday.”

Her father, a local radio commentator, tried to groom Roberts for leadership as his eldest child. Yet, it was only after transitioning that Roberts felt able to take on such a leadership role. Perhaps it was due to the toll that living in the “tranny closet” had taken on her self-esteem. But Roberts also noticed a difference in the responses she received from other people to her leadership as a Black woman. She got positive reactions, she says, “because I was basically doing the traditional work of Black women in the community in terms of uplifting the race.”

This is neither small nor incidental, it is something that commands respect and understanding. Not arrogant derision. I learned fast that what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham calls “the metalanguage of race” bears profoundly on how we have constructed atheist opposition to religion. I had never thought of atheism as a privilege. In some ways, it assuredly isn’t. It opens you up to discrimination and other forms of opprobrium. But on the same level as what people of colour have experienced? Absolutely not. What’s more it is also used as a weapon against people of colour, directly and indirectly, as a tool to castigate them for being insufficiently enlightened or intellectual or modern- how ironic that one form of cultural colonialism is being steadily replaced with another. The truth is, I found more enlightenment in a church nestled in the heart of a working class and immigrant community of colour than I ever saw in many so-called rationalists.

I’ll close with a recollection of that church, one the most wonderful memories I have of early transition. Another figure in my own spiritual transition was my Cybelline friend’s mother, Anne;  a minister in the United Church of Canada and herself a lesbian, married to another woman quite happily. She took me one drizzly Sunday morning to her church to speak to her congregation for a service dedicated to Pride Week. By itself that was amazing. The sight of a rainbow flag on the altar beside the sacred ornaments and instruments of Christian faith felt at once natural and exciting. But I would be asked to speak specifically about being a trans woman.

It was something I never expected to do, and yet somehow it happened, and as I spoke movingly of my joys and my fears, I also had to spare them a thank you. They’d prayed for me. Not to “cure” me or what have you, but prayed that my father would come to love and accept his daughter. When Anne had told me this, it was like a brick through a plate glass window that finally shattered my militant resistance to faith. I thanked the congregation for their thoughts and their prayers and told my story, which was very well received by them all. As I sang with them and moved to the sounds of their gospel I felt something I had never felt before. At home in a church.

I am not a Christian now, no, nor will I ever be. The faith does not speak to my soul the way it does for some others. The difference now, however, is that I respect that for what it is. I learned the seemingly simple and even obvious lesson that faith is what you make of it, and that invidious mockery of it merely serves to reinforce the bigotry that atheism is supposed to be the antidote to. For my own part, I will admit for the first time here publicly that I consider myself a woman of faith, and probably betrayed what that faith was in my prior article. I do not speak much of it in this space simply because faith is private for me, it’s my own little sanctuary against the world in the embrace of Goddess and God. I do not believe in skyhook deities, however; for me faith is a beautiful metaphor that orders my thoughts and grants me peace.

I came to realise that was enough.

A Hex on Both Your Houses

I generally do not waste too much time expounding on general American political issues because they’re done to death just about everywhere else. For all of your Red vs. Blue, lib vs. con cockfighting there are quite literally hundreds of sites for your fancies. What I try to do here is to shed light on viewpoints that are not likely to, say, be repeated on HuffPo ad nauseam. Nevertheless occasionally something comes along, down that corroded mainstream pipeline that I find is being analysed in a way that elides its most interesting elements.

Ladies and gentlemen: Christine O’Donnell had sex with a witch. Liberals wish for you to know this and meditate on this.

Ms. O’Donnell and I likely agree on nothing save for, perhaps, the colour of the sky and Goddess knows I hope she’s trounced in the November election, for all the good it will do. But in watching the ascent of the Tea Party’s women I’m noticing a familiar pattern emerging here and one I am not especially fond of. When it comes to women like Sarah Palin, liberal men tend to forget that they’re theoretically committed to the idea of being anti-sexist and tolerant in general. Thus, enter one of the infamous “Mama Grizzlies,” Ms. O’Donnell and some video clips of her 11 years ago on Politically Incorrect.

I’ll waste no more words here. In watching the splashy press coverage of this we are expected to accept as uncritical fact the idea that it is scandalous that Ms. O’Donnell was involved in witchcraft, and that she had sex with a witch on what she describes as a “Satanic altar.” This, to me, is not a scandal. I’m going to leave aside the important issue of the fact that “Satanism” and “witchcraft” are two completely different things, and this erroneous conflation of the two on O’Donnell’s part has gone unchallenged. It’s more important to focus on two things here:

  • Yet again, a woman having had a sex life is automatically a scandal.
  • Witchcraft = Bad according to liberals. Thanks, boys.

Usually when this sort of nonsense comes up I’ll typically hear out a liberal apologist who says this is merely about exposing hypocrisy. It reminds me of a debate I had with one liberal cis woman who thought calling Ann Coulter a “tranny” was just hi-fuckin’-larious, and it was okay! Because it just showed up Ann Coulter as a hypocrite and because *she* was transphobic, then it was just all ironic and shit to imply she was a trans woman. You know. Like it’s a bad thing! But that doesn’t mean liberals are being transphobic. They’re just being “clever.”

So it is with Ms. O’Donnell. They’re not hating on pagans or witches, they’re just showing up Ms. O’Donnell as a hypocrite, is all! Cause she’s all Fundie now. However, note how there is precious little explanation of this complexity, nor any attempt in any of the many salacious news stories about Ms. O’Donnell’s indiscretions to set the record straight about what witchcraft is. In any just world, being a witch would be no more scandalous than being Episcopal. Yet, as usual, when it comes to anyone who isn’t white cis men, liberals play a bit of a shell game. They are ‘merely’ exposing hypocrisy while also ‘cleverly’ trading on the stigmas surrounding witchcraft and female sexuality. It’s all for a good cause, of course. Sundering the evil conservatives.

Who cares if you use exactly the same methods people like Christine O’Donnell uses to discredit her ideological foes? And, hey, who cares if you reinforce nasty stereotypes about religious minorities, eh? We need liberalism to protect the weak, after all.

In watching the usual sexist sophistry of mainstream American liberalism from the sidelines this season I’m left shaking my head and remembering why I’ve increasingly come to distance myself from that philosophical stream. For them, defeating conservatives- while a worthy goal- has become an end in and of itself in a grand game of mounted polo chiefly played by white upper class people who are predominantly male and Christian. Periodically, in the service of these “higher” ideals they espouse, they’ll throw people under the bus in parade: people of colour, gay/queer people, trans people (I haven’t forgotten, Representative Frank), women, and now, hey, let’s give the neo-pagans a turn while we’re at it.

If I sound a tad peeved it’s because this is getting old. In fact it was ‘old’ long before I was born. Thus, in that spirit, I shall show you something tonight you probably never expected: behold, a radical leftist feminist transsexual queer woman goes to bat for Christine O’Donnell. For one thing, I don’t care what she did when she was a teenager. I am concerned about the impact of her political views in the here and now. For all I know, she could’ve been more rad than Angela Davis when she was 18, it does not change the fact that there is something glaringly wrong with her contemporary politics. We all did stupid shit when we were young. Myself included. I guarantee you, who ever you may be, did so as well. Maybe you had hot Satanic sex with two people! (Of course, that’s less stupid and more flaming hot, but… you get the idea). I do not need to know this about Ms. O’Donnell’s past. I kind of figured she’s fucked at some point in her life. I assume that about most people I meet. I even assume they’ve probably done weird shit in the bedroom at some point in their lives. I actually assume this about every politician I’ve ever heard of or laid eyes upon.

I would actually hazard a guess that most people do, regardless of social class or education. No one, not a one, is surprised when some rag runs sex scandal stories. Ever.

People change over time. How would you feel if some bit of youthful nonsense you’d dipped your nose into stalked you for the rest of your life? Christine O’Donnell’s contemporary record speaks for itself without this being thrown onto the pile. So, the rub of this is, irrespective of everything else, the fact that she did this in the past does not change Ms. O’Donnell’s sincerity in her convictions, nor does it make her less serious. That is a fact that those interested in challenging her would actually do well to keep in mind. If she ever was Wiccan (doubtful) she certainly is no longer and represents a legitimate threat to liberty. We would do well to not dismantle it on our end by opposing her with witch-baiting and sexist campaigns, yes?

Secondly and finally, Satanism and witchcraft are not the same things, and both Satanists and Wiccans will tell you this, as will many neo-Pagans. The conflation of the two is a Christian creation designed to facilitate exactly the kind of slandering that Bill Maher and other white liberal men are now using to pursue their own short term political aims. “She’s a witch!!” Really guys? The Fundamentalists called, they want their shtick back.

As far as I’m concerned the mainstream liberals and conservatives can have each other. A metaphorical hex on both their houses.

ETA: Apparently us witchy folks are speaking up rather loudly about this now. Note, however, that the criticism is being levelled chiefly at O’Donnell, as well it should since she herself was defaming Wicca/witchcraft in her initial interview. I maintain, however, that the media’s uncritical use of this soundbyte and screaming headlines of “O’Donnell says she dabbled in witchcraft” were meant to speak to a presumed audience of Americans who would assume witchcraft is bad and scandalous, and thus the thrust of my criticism- directed at liberals who sought to make a tempest in a tea (party) cup- remains trenchant, in my view. The headlines were not “O’Donnell insults Wiccan community,”  they were oriented at shaming her for her association, however tenuous and distant in the past, with something vaguely approximating witchcraft.

The scandal was not her bigotry, it was the insinuated association. The media’s uncritical repetition of this meme is reflective of far larger problems than O’Donnell’s individual rantings and it is this, I feel, that merits the most criticism.

Lost In Trans-lation: The Final Chapter/Reckoning/Cliche something-or-other

I’ll not preface this essay with very much, only to say that it is a swan song for the last month and an interesting opportunity that I seized to neatly tie up and summarise my academic and- dare I say- personal journey over the course of the class. My final grade in the course was an A and so was my grade for this essay.

The question I’m answering here is, basically, what did I learn over the course of the last month and how did the readings challenge (or not challenge) me and the views I held when I walked in. My response is as follows:

I walked into the class having done a good half of the assigned reading and with a fair amount of foreground knowledge of both emancipatory politics in general and feminism specifically- both its virtues and its foibles- as well as already being familiar with concepts like intersectionality, epistemological or materials hierarchies, disability studies, pivoting the centre, and many others to boot. Yet I also knew I was going to learn something new, even if it could not be organised in the neat black and white text of printed readings, it would be there etched into my memory. The first thing I ultimately found in the course was a sense of arrival at a new plateau of my own awareness, a realisation of how far I had come and how far I might have to go. While I had already learned many of the basic ideas and issues the class had gone over, they were drawn into relief by the contributions of others to the course material and by the readings I had not studied before, or by re-reading old favourites with a fresh vision. But above all it was the sense that my story, as it were, had value and meaning. As I told the class, I am often leery of alluding to my male past and claiming it gives me some additional knowledge simply because I do not enjoy reminding people that I am a transgender person, and because I fear it undermines my stated gender identity, but I did it anyway because I felt inspired by readings like Gloria Anzaldua’s Letter to Third World Women which rekindled in me a sense of pride in who I was that I had forgotten. For so long I cursed the circumstances of my birth that I felt had made me fall short of the normative standard of ‘white cis woman’- now I embrace them as making me the woman I am. Not normative, but whole. True to herself. That truth is an enunciated one, one that came from speaking up. Several readings enabled me to do that and gave me the impetus to not only tell the class “Yes, I am a transsexual woman” but also that my past gave me insight into the nature of male privilege. I spoke more about my history as a man in front of more people than I ever had before. I put my shit on the paper, yes, but I also had to cast it to the air before eyes I could see looking back at me. A few of the readings helped to make that possible but it was also the context in which these readings were assigned and analysed that helped.

To name a few examples, deconstructing Judith Lorber’s Night to His Day provided me with a platform to criticise something I’d noticed almost a year earlier, which was the subtle cissexist bend of Professor Lorber’s writing. That was a positive assertion of my identity, not only because I was using my trans female experience as something worthwhile and as a site that could produce truth and knowledge, but also simply because I critiqued it on feminist grounds. I queered feminism and the opportunity to do in a setting that was not Internet-based was riveting and satisfying. I had long since read Judith Lorber’s piece, but what it did for me this time around was open up possibilities of active resistance wherein I could make plain my own ideas and my own experience. That was the experience that told me Judith Lorber’s analysis of gender construction as a process was fundamentally correct, the experience that told me I did exactly the same thing she did on the Subway (gendering babies based on subtle cues added by the parents), as well as the experience that told me in no uncertain terms that her misgendering of Billy Tipton and her flagrant appropriation of trans identities undercut the very point that she was making. Where she had attempted to show there was nothing inevitable about gender, she turned and around and resorted to a conveniently reified binary that took a hatchet to the positively asserted gender identities of the people she used to support her argument. It was one of the first of many things that reminded me of one very important thing: how I know what I know is valuable and meaningful. What’s more, it is not something meant to idle like a gilded trophy or curio on a coffee table, a static conversation piece. It is something that had to be deployed, had to be written, had to be spoken aloud.

To that end, Gloria Anzaldua, a writer I already admired, tipped the balance for me. I had long since taken up her charge to write. Writing is a huge part of who I am, my ideological and physical transition has been blogged and analysed by me in a wide variety of ways. I spoke of my experience and wove elegant tapestries with words that others might know where I stood. Like Paula Gunn Allen I seemed to say “Where I come from is like this.” I cannot speak of Ms. Anzaldua alone, however, because the power of what she said is only amplified by the chorus of women whose voices rose in unison with hers in This Bridge Called My Back. While there were no trans women in that anthology I nevertheless felt a deep and abiding connection with the women who wrote in it. As I often say, being trans is about complex relationships. These women spoke to a great many complicated relationships- with religion, with family, with their culture and the hegemonic culture, with sexuality, with feminism. All of these were issues I shared, and all of them were things that Gloria Anzaldua said must be committed to paper loudly and furiously, riding roughshod over those who would say- directly or tacitly- that what these complicated women had to say had no academic or literary value, or at best would be a ghettoised form of literature for idle curiosities and nothing more. What she did for me personally was to remind me powerfully that even though I was not part of certain privileged classes, my voice had value. Trans women in particular are rarely taken seriously. Cis men may (quietly) seek out our dancing, our sexuality, or stereotype us as savants of gender, while others may think of us as walking comedy routines and nothing more. What Gloria Anzaldua and several other writers impressed upon me was the idea that this was not my destiny. She is not alone in this, of course. Many trans women writers, from Julia Serano to Susan Stryker to Andrea James to Raewyn Connell made that clear to me as well. But Gloria Anzaldua was, unlike the aforementioned women, also a woman of colour who knew about where I came from as a Latina, not just as a woman of trans experience. I cannot overstate how much it meant to me to see writers talking about the Bronx, about the Spanish language, and their intimate experiences with life in a barrio or in a Latino family. Even those who were not Latino also spoke of experiences and tensions that mirrored my own. Unlike, say, Gloria Steinem, I felt as if I could talk to these women and they’d immediately know where I came from and why it mattered.

I had been reading Bridge before I even registered for the class, and thus the resonance of those powerful and radical words was already thrumming deep within me. What the readings and class added was a space in which I could engage in a new form of self-assertion. I had already been writing for anonymous internet readers, but class afforded me a space in which I could also use my experience to teach, and to take a firm stand against dominant cissexist ideas. Encountering Gloria Anzaldua in the readings was just fuel for an already brightly burning fire, I suppose. But I always kept her close to my heart when I spoke because I knew that like her I was refusing to be silenced, refusing to be pigeonholed, and refusing to comport my words to dominant standards of acceptable discourse. I might frame my radicalism and the essence of myself in academic terms- what she called esoteric bullshit- but I make no bones about the fact that that is what it is. It is who I am, writ passionately in florid prose. I would not erase myself and say that I could adequately talk about sex and gender without referencing my trans-ness. I would not silence myself and say that my unique personal history was not of great importance or was not elucidating.

In another way many of the readings were a walk down memory lane, revisiting my initial journey through feminist ideology and canon, and the rapid process of self-awakening it involved. Marilyn Frye’s Oppression was an early reading of mine that helped to shape my views about oppression as an interconnected system, and as something that was not confined to one problem or issue, but rather was found in how that problem was actually linked intimately to a web of unjust actions and impositions. Her birdcage metaphor long ago crystallised for me the perfect definition of confinement, wherein focusing on just one bar occasions incredulous thoughts about how such could confine anything, taking that needed long step back to apprehend the whole cage to which that bar is connected reveals the reason for being trapped. Sojourner Truth’s timeless Ain’t I a Woman? was as evocative to me now as it was when I first read it. Her words were a righteous injunction against the racism in the suffrage and abolitionist movements, but also provided such tireless muster to the countless women like myself who never want for occasions to remind others that we are indeed included under that generic term “woman.” My experiences are dismissed by those who wish to claim that I am not a woman, or at best some lesser form of woman whose identity is tolerated at the pleasure of those whose genders are too privileged to question. But Sojourner Truth always impelled me to ask her endlessly echoing question bluntly and insistently. As she eviscerated the white male supremacist stereotypes that had bound her, and took to task the women who were handmaidens of those ideals, she provided hope for women many generations after her. Resistance is always possible, she seems to say. My experiences do matter, she enjoins. This too had a formative influence on me and I smiled as I revisited it in concert with my classmates.

But there was also another shift that the readings drew into a very vibrant definition which was embodied in several readings like Professor Bonilla-Silva’s Colour Blind Racism and of course Angela Davis’ gripping Women, Race, and Class. I was very receptive to these readings because the groundwork had already been laid, so to speak, but what they did was to give voice to musings I had been having as well as ideas that were slowly beginning to coalesce in my mind. Angela Davis’ elegantly stated radicalism drove many points home for me such as how slavery was not just about race, how the myth of the black male rapist serviced sexist and racist systems, how the suffrage movement was a home to both radical revolutionaries and selfish conservatives, among many other things. What struck me one night as I was excitedly telling my mother all that I had learned from her about various tragic episodes in American history and how they related to white supremacy was her response to all of this. She told me with a smile that I never used to talk like that and that I would just as often criticise her for saying negative things about white people. It made me step back and realise that in my younger years, right up until fairly recently even, I had been a dutiful handmaiden for white privilege and adopting many of the very same vapid arguments that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva so deftly dissects with regards to “colour blindness.” My mother reminded me how much I had changed and joked that she had to get used to it. My reply to her seemed weave various ideas from class into its warp and weft. I told her that she was right and that I apologised for questioning her experiences in the past, and apologised for dismissing her experience and her life growing up as invalid or arbitrarily “in the past” and no longer relevant. I told her that above all her life taught her as much if not more than I was learning in class, and that what she knew and could summon from her memory had great value even if it was not signified with a piece of paper signed in calligraphy.

A note must also be spared for Michael Kimmel’s Masculinity as Homophobia whose simple and I would argue misleading title belies Kimmel’s more complex and interesting points, such as that masculinity is racialised as well as simply gendered and that homophobia is often part of attempts to ‘prove’ ones adherence to true manliness. Kimmel is much closer to the academic feminist mainstream whose writing is more ‘professional’ and geared towards a style that is (mostly) impersonal and attempting to present theory in a magisterial voice, and thus lacked the deep resonance that, say, Nellie Wong or Gloria Anzaldua could sing with. Nevertheless Kimmel does draw on a little experience (like the silly games he and other boys would play) to make his points about how masculinity is constructed in a complex series of oppositions, and he reminded me that my lived experience as a male in society is valuable too and shouldn’t undermine me. This is an element of my thinking that is definitely a work in progress but over the last three months or so I have begun to seriously ‘revisit’ manhood and particularly that which I was socialised to express and pretended to for many years. It is, in a way, part of a long term project in which I try to undo my internalised transphobia and make peace with who I was rather than simply adopt a scorched earth approach to the matter. I have read with eagerness progressive work and theory on manhood in society and while the reflection of myself in such was far dimmer and distant for various reasons, I still slowly (and am continuing, slowly) came to realise that I should think just as critically about who I was as I do about who I am, and to accept that as a valuable standpoint as well. I often point out that I do not claim the same standing as a cis or a trans man when it comes to manhood. Being a pre-transition trans woman is indeed its own subjective experience that I do not intend to overinclude in discussions of masculinity. But what Professor Kimmel’s piece reminded me of was the fact that I had a lived experience in the subject position of ‘young man’- even if it was forced, false, and unasked for, things happened and I experienced life through something approximating that subjectivity. This is not a small matter nor something I should ever overlook. Sorting out its meaning will likely take me to many more distant places than what Professor Kimmel explored but gender scholars like him who think analytically about manhood have helped me realise that I could do the same.

In many of these recollections of where the various readings took me I often make a point of saying that I already had some grounding in the material and in the ideas presented. Certainly this class has not radically changed my life. I and the people I love did that. What it did do, however, was provide a temporary but powerful focus in the midst of that transition. The class and the readings therein were part of a continual flow with no easily defined beginning or end. It would be easy to say that I was one way before I walked into class and another after the semester finished. But it would also be lazy, deeply inaccurate, and uninteresting I feel. At least in my own case since it is patently untrue. But these readings were, nevertheless, significant for me. At this phase of my journey through life, this class was something I needed to be a part of. Through the prior semester I had scrupulously kept silent about being trans, selectively stealthing while I was in all four of my classes because I feared losing the goodwill of teachers and students alike, and because I value being understood as a woman. This class was my opportunity to at last stand up and speak out. In many of the readings the contextualising that occurred in class also helped to bring them to life in a way that I did not quite experience in reading them alone in my room or on the train as I so often did in the past. Furthermore, I actually found myself reflected in some of the readings, old and new, which is always a unique and uniquely wonderful experience. Finding yourself in a reading is like seeing through a spyglass and apprehending your refracted face, knowing it for the first time; then you see past it and find the whole world magnified afresh.  That was how I felt as I tore through This Bridge Called My Back, for sure. Talking about it in class somehow only made those voices louder and more insistent to me, a firm reminder to never forget Gloria Anzaldua’s words and to never stop writing. If there is one thing that the readings prompted me to do for various reasons- be it to boost their signals, to challenge or critique them, or to speak passionately about their effects on me- it is to put my shit on the paper.

At the Crossroads and Other Mixed Metaphors: Intersectionality

This essay, as I mentioned yesterday, got an A (which is the highest grade my professor will bestow as he doesn’t believe in A+s for one reason or another). The ‘question’ I had to answer was really more of an essay unto itself but here it is:

This essay has three parts, which should be integrated into a single essay, and not answered separately.

  1. Explain the concept of intersectionality. You should discuss at least race, class, gender, and sexuality, but you may also discuss other aspects of social inequality we’ve talked about in class. This section should focus on Crenshaw and the Combahee River Collective, but you may use other texts as well.  Do not just quote a definition here, explain the concept in your own words and in detail.
  2. Discuss one or two particular historical events, periods, or issues in the context of an intersectional analysis of multiple axes of oppression. Use at least two readings not including Crenshaw. How does your choice demonstrate some of the subthemes used in Crenshaw’s piece (over- or under-inclusion, structural subordination, etc.)?
  3. Evaluate the concept of intersectionality as it applies to feminist analysis. What does it add to, complicate, or perhaps take away from analyses based only on gender?

My answer to this is as follows and I hope it provides at least a mildly interesting read:

In the many turns that various feminist and liberationist theory has undergone in recent years, one of the most significant has been the move towards what is now commonly known as intersectionality.  In brief it is a lens of analysis that openly seeks to ask how multiple types of oppression can act on a person, group of people, or on a given event, and considers various types of oppression as a confluence of influence rather than as fully discrete entities. Intersectionality, then, is a concept that elucidates on the often complex reality of peoples’ experiences with various systems of domination; whether sexist, racist, homo/transphobic, ableist, and so on, intersectionality promotes the belief that bigotry can take more than one form simultaneously. Thus something can be both racist and sexist, and intersectionality is syncretic rather than zero sum. It holds that such considerations add to understanding, rather than take something away from someone. Intersectionality adds a great deal to feminist analysis, as well as various other emancipatory epistemologies for the very  good reason that it is best able to reflect the multilayered realities of lived experience that many people; it also provides a means to identify strategies that can truly ameliorate oppressive conditions in our society by actually understanding what the problem is for the first time. Kimberlé Crenshaw and many other theorists like her, as well as liberation movements like black feminism and gay lib all laid the groundwork for understanding that people can be affected by more than one type of oppression simultaneously and that the unique positions thus created were worth understanding on their own terms.

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s ‘Traffic at the Crossroads: Multiple Oppressions’ is a brief but illuminating overview of the simple reality that you cannot understand oppression without considering its many starting points.[1] She argues cogently that immigrant women, black men, and women of colour, to name a few examples, all face different types of unique oppression that are a product of all of their backgrounds. What happens to them is often not just racist, or not just sexist, but is best understood as being influenced by several types of discriminatory ideologies. For example, she says that US immigration laws that require non-resident spouses to stay married for two years in order to become permanent residents discriminate heavily against immigrant women who suffer abuse and must choose between staying with a batterer or losing their best hope of citizenship and the privileges that come with that. She holds that both anti-immigrant sentiment and sexism are acting upon immigrant victims of domestic violence and you cannot fully understand the causes of their predicament without examining both axes of oppression, and any others that may be relevant to her situation as well. Angela Davis makes very similar arguments in ‘Women, Race, and Class’- a book which is predicated on a very powerful metanarrative of intersectionality- when she points out that slavery in the United States cannot be fully understood without examining the specific ways in which black women were abused both because they were women and because they were black slaves.[2]

Davis challenges very strongly what Crenshaw might call the ‘over inclusion’ of black women in the broader category of black people; in other words their struggles are understood through a racialised context that considers the brutal racism of slavery, but not understood as being equally gendered in the specific case of black women. They would not only be beaten, whipped, and mutilated (many were disfigured, or tortured by having their teeth pulled) as black men were, but also raped and sexually assaulted. Davis shows that abusive white slave masters, who were not only white but also male, would routinely try to stifle black women’s resistance to their brutal subjugation by raping them. It is a terror that echoes with a terrifying scream throughout history- the attempts by men to use rape to silence or break women who resist or otherwise are not in their ‘place.’ Davis enjoins us to understand that the rape of black women was racist as well as sexist, however. It was a crime often legitimised by a deeply white supremacist idea that held black women were animals who could be treated as less than human, and who ‘asked for it’, giving the classic rape apologist rejoinder a racist twist that imbues black women with an essential quality of needing to be raped or otherwise used as a sexual object. The over inclusion of black women in the consideration of slavery, however, elides most of this. It erases the pregnant black women who were whipped in ditches specially dug for them (rather than against a tree) so that the master’s lash was less likely to damage the ‘valuable property’ in the black woman’s uterus. It erases the black women who found themselves mutilated or lashed until their backs ran red with blood for resisting a slave master’s sexual advances, or those of his son who was considered equally entitled to ‘have’ a black woman as a sexual object. All of these utter atrocities were visited on black women because they were not just women, or because they were black but because they were black women. Intersectionality holds that white supremacy and male supremacy must be considered together for a proper understanding to be had of black women slaves’ particular subordination and their resistance to it, which was often very vociferous and active.

The Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement”  provides another powerful illumination of intersectional analysis’ strength.[3] Their very name symbolises it; it is so named in honour of an 1863 guerrilla action by Harriet Tubman who, in Port Royal, South Carolina, led an insurrection that freed more than 750 slaves and remains the first military action recorded in American history that was led by a woman. Just as black women were oppressed in ways that have to be uniquely understood, so too did they rebel and resist in ways that we would do well to understand on their own terms. Carrying on that spirit of a particularly black female resistance to all forms of tyranny and oppression, the Combahee River Collective put forth a manifesto that outlined their commitment to principles that were fully cognisant of the uniqueness of both their subject position, and that of others who stood at Crenshaw’s crossroads. There is much that is worth quoting, but its fundamental thesis which defines the theme of the entire paper is perhaps the most evocative: “Black women have always embodied, if only in their physical manifestation, an adversary stance to white male rule and have actively resisted its inroads upon them and their communities in both dramatic and subtle ways.” In this is contained much of the gist of intersectionality, as well as one very important point hitherto undiscussed: personal perspective becomes expertise in this understanding. Thus the Black Feminist Statement recognises that black women know the myriad complexities of their experience with oppression simply by having lived it and that this knowledge is both worthy and factual. Forming an activist coalition that worked on multiple axes of oppression was, in their words a means to “develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men.” In other words, a way out of the zero sum traps of single subject position identity politics. Such things forced black women (and many other people besides, whether it was disabled women, working class women, immigrant women, queer and trans people who came from any number of backgrounds, or various subjugated men) to choose one avenue of resistance over another, which was an incomplete solution to their problems at best.

The Combahee River Collective’s famous statement emerged in a critical historical period in the midst of which a new feminism was rapidly emerging and evolving with alacrity. It was a time during which Second Wave feminism evolved out of the white male dominated New Left, and during which many different feminisms quickly grew out of that Second Wave as different groups of people realised that univocal dominance of white cis women from the middle classes left them and their unique experiences with sexism unregarded. This manifesto and many documents like it, including anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back, were part of a vital historical moment in which women of colour drew strength from multiple emancipatory ideologies and put the most modern twist on them. The purpose of this maelstrom of theorising was to, as the Collective put it, know what was really happening in their lives, and this required something that went beyond understanding, say, patriarchy or capitalism as the ultimate oppression, and understanding their liberation not “as an adjunct to someone else’s” but as a virtue and dignity in its own right. Embodied in this is a rejection of demands made on them by others, such as lesbian separatists who insist that women should build communities away from men. Such a position may have currency with the experience of white women, who need no solidarity with white men against any kind of racism, but it is an impossible and even ridiculous thing to suggest to black women, even those who identify as lesbians, because they need each other in the struggle against white supremacy. On the same token, says the Collective, they also stand against patriarchal expression within their communities and struggle with black men on the issue of sexism. This double consciousness is an example of intersectional thinking that holds many understandings together simultaneously to describe a complex position in society.

In their critique of lesbian separatism they affirm the idea that even white women’s oppression may not have a single source, i.e. patriarchy, but come from multiple locations. Put another way, what we consider patriarchy is a broad socio-political framework engendered by multiple intersecting ideologies about race, class, gender, and sexuality. To again return to Crenshaw’s ideas about oppression, the women of the Combahee River Collective believe that lesbian separatists (who were mostly white) underincluded women of colour and poor women in their analysis of sexism and patriarchy in society, as well as the men who did not benefit from what sociologist Raewyn Connell calls the ‘patriarchal dividend.’ Her own analysis of men at the margins of society finds that their own oppressive behaviour, while certainly patriarchal, cannot be understood without attention to the class position they occupied and just why it was that they were ‘marginal’ relative to more privileged men and women.[4] What this under-inclusion serves to do is to render invisible the intricate and deeper effects of what is now called Kyriarchy (a term used to describe the overarching system of interactive oppressions). This under-inclusion holds that women are oppressed- an undeniable fact- and yet refuses to grapple with those women whose class, race, sexuality,  gender identity, or disability oppresses them, seeing the only antagonists as raceless, classless men. This analysis will never reach a full understanding of sexism, never mind anything else.

Thus it is that the question of what intersectionality does for feminism is addressed at a stroke. It is not only convenient or useful, it is absolutely vital and essential that an intersectional perspective is considered. This paper has focused primarily on the illuminating examples of black feminist theory and experience, but intersectional analysis also sheds much light on the experiences of a great many people who feminism has left behind. Transgender women for example occupy numerous crossroads in various societies around the world. Trans women of colour have a shockingly high rate of HIV infection; trans women sex workers face very deep dual stigmas- both of being trans and of being sex workers; trans people who are poor have a hard time actualising their gender identity which is often gated by a patriarchal psychiatric profession and through various other arenas that cost money to access. Trans people of colour also face many other distinct issues besides, wherein they have a relationship with gender that is already complex, but complicated further by the consideration of the racial oppression they experience. For example, while many trans men who meet societal expectations for male behaviour acquire certain privileges, black trans men move into the category of being black men which is a highly stigmatised subject position in American society and acquire all the stereotypes and risks associated therewith.[5] The discussions could go on endlessly.

Yet, they do not, at least not in academic circles. Because trans people are rarely understood as people with unique experiences due to their trans-ness, their experiences with sexism, racism, classism and so on remain poorly understood, and if regarded at all are usually overincluded, by the broader cis population. In everything I have outlined in this paragraph lies the reasons that intersectional analysis brings a lot to feminism. Yes, it most definitely complicates and in some cases destroys the thesis that gender alone can provide a sufficient lens for understanding our society. But that is most definitely a good thing when one considers the fact that while we are all gendered, that is not the sum total of all our lives, necessarily. To truly solve a problem, one must identify in full what that problem is. Intersectionality offers feminists and many liberationists the opportunity to return to the real world and know it for the first time through the eyes of their sisters, brothers, and siblings in struggle.

What intersectionality adds to the understanding of gender is that how we do gender is vastly differentiated throughout various groups in various societies. To know gender as a powerfully active force in our lives is to hold one of the great keys to knowledge of our world. But gender is not a skeleton key. The lock that bars our consciousness requires many keys, which requires not just a multifarious understanding that includes the now well-worn subjectivities of race and class in addition to gender, but also a multilayered understanding of gender itself that does not over-privilege or universalise the gendered experiences of white women as being indicative of all women everywhere. It would even hold that womanhood is not the only thing worth understanding in this context. Masculinity in its various forms is also worth taking into deep consideration, as are transgender and genderqueer genders and sexualities. Transsexual peoples’ gender can be very binary and thus similar to the subject position of most white feminist women, or it can be more complicated. But in any case, the specific textures of simply being trans in this society make it stand out, and intersectional analysis allows for that. Thus what intersectionality brings to gender is perhaps the most sophisticated understanding of it to date. Such knowledge can only be manna from heaven for anyone interested in gender liberation.

[1] Sisterhood is Forever, by Robin Morgan, ed., p. 43. Traffic at the Crossroads: Multiple Oppressions, by Kimberlé Crenshaw.

[2] Davis, Angela Y., Women, Race, & Class, 1983, p. 5-30.

[3] Anzaldua, Gloria, et al., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour, 1981, p. 210, A Black Feminist Statement by the Combahee River Collective.

[4] Connell, Raewyn, Masculinities, 1995, p. 114.

[5] http://www.colorlines.com/archives/2008/01/becoming_a_black_man.html

Lost in Trans-lation: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Part IV

So, it has been a while since a preface was put on one of these. I should provide some more background on what’s happening in class and what the environment is in which these essays are being written. First and foremost I should talk about the grades as well as what has been going on in class. A lot of my writing for class makes no bones about trans issues and what I will post today is quite blistering in that respect. My teacher also knows I’m a trans woman since I outed myself to him. What my writing and my commentary in class has done, much to my surprise, was prompt my professor to devote a couple of class days to transgender issues specifically, the first of which was this evening. It went quite well, I have to say. I also got the grade back for my first essay, which I will post tomorrow. It was an A. All the articles you’ve seen posted since Part I have received perfect scores (10 out 10 on the grading scale he uses for these journal entries) and this one was no exception- he actually thanked me for taking the time to write it.

This is all, in various ways, monumental. It means the world that in the very bastion of feminist theorising where once stood transphobic cis women who used their perches to rain fire down upon their sisters and brothers of trans experience that I am now so openly accepted and finding my trans perspective acknowledged, embraced, and graded highly. It also is quite telling that by speaking out, by refusing to be silent, my professor owned up to what he himself described as his privileged oversight of trans issues in the syllabus and bits of transphobia in some of the readings, which have already been explained at some length in this space and in the class itself. By speaking out, I made my voice heard and ensured that all of the other students were given more education on trans issues than they would’ve otherwise had. It’s a tiny step, but it’s still something from which I take a good deal of hope.

The class tonight was relatively good. I was more than a little disheartened when the professor had to write the names of two trans writers we were reading today (Jamison Green and Susan Stryker) with the respectively appropriate ‘he’ and ‘she’ pronouns beside them because people kept misgendering Mr. Green even as they seemed to agree with a lot of what he was saying. Nevertheless, when I came out to the class it appeared to be well received and a good discussion was had to which I unashamedly contributed. I had often spoken up about trans issues throughout the course (and many other things besides, I should hasten to add) but often from a third person perspective. Today I was able to say “I” and “we”- that was powerful and it felt good, it felt right.

It gave it a bit of a twisting dagger effect when I spoke of trans chasers who over idealised trans women as somehow more docile and submissive to male power than cis women, to which I said “and I often think ‘well, you haven’t met me, brother.’ ” I got a few smiles and laughs for that, and that was the power of the positive seizure of my identity as a trans woman in a public space.

So, that’s where things stand. Matters are going very well in class, both academically and socially. What follows is a piece whose fire was born directly of the readings it cites and is something whose boundaries fall far outside the walls of my classroom. It was a piece that surprised even me as I was writing as it carried me to many places I didn’t fully expect. It details one of the realisations I’ve had recently- that more than my gender has changed. My outlook and my politics have changed, quite powerfully and radically. From my transition came second thoughts about my culture and my place in it, what it meant to be Latina rather than Latino among so many other things. It’s a piece that I think fits in fairly well with my autobiographical entries and it charts an element of transition that most people don’t think of when they imagine a transsexual or transgender transition. Without further ado, here’s entry #4 of 5 in our ongoing series:

In No Turning Back this week Estelle Friedman explored women in art in broad strokes overviews that provided a good smattering of information on the subject, and she began with the seemingly unrelated issue of language in regards to sex and gender in society. Along with Laurel Richardson in her thoughtful essay “Gender Stereotypes in the English Language” it provides a formidable introduction to the subject of linguistic politics. We often understand language as being value neutral and simply reflective of the realities we are surrounded by. The points made by both Richardson and Freedman illustrate that language often reinforces cultural subordination and social stereotypes. The pseudogeneric “man” is perhaps the best example and is quickly used by both academics to buttress their arguments. The widespread idea, weakened now but still powerful, that both men and women can be presumed to be included under “mankind” and the generic “he” and “his” is illustrative of how men are still socially perceived to be the default sex, the unmodified human, whereas women must be specifically marked- whether it be through the use of suffixes or titles like Mrs. that construct the woman in relation to a man in her life, or in relation to men in general. The backlash against efforts to change this language as so much “political correctness” is evidence of the fact that in some quarters this language is still deeply cherished.

I feel Freedman deserves credit also for shining a light on the fact that linguistic questions are not just a preoccupation of western or white feminism, but have also long been understandable concerns of non English speakers with their own languages. One of the best parts of No Turning Back, I feel, is that Freedman does more than most of her contemporaries to at least introduce readers to feminism as it has been expressed globally, and by women of all races throughout the last two hundred years. Although her narrative on non-Americans feels like a “oh and these people did this too” at times, it feels much more expansive and insightful than most histories of feminism and definitely introduces even to experienced activists events and issues they may not have known about.

On the subject of elevating historically unheard voices, we turn now to Gloria Anzaldua’s powerful Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers, which in many ways I felt was speaking to a part of my soul that I had long suppressed. I’ve owned This Bridge Called My Back for a couple of months now and each reading feel as if it reawakens and reinvigorates something I had trained myself to suppress. I was once ashamed to be Puerto Rican and very much an apologist for white privilege. “White liberalism” was a concept I only began to understand in the last two years but it was something I had lived for many years before that. This is the backdrop to my very personal response to Speaking in Tongues and indeed much of Bridge as well. Many of the articles are united by a sense that has stalked me all my life, a sense of being caught between worlds and running between consciousnesses, a never ending struggle to reconcile different worlds I inhabit, and being the titular bridge that people use to understand others different from them. What it meant to be a writer and a thinker in the midst of that also preoccupies many of Bridge’s authors. I always found myself- and still find myself- struggling to hold together my academic bend and lived reality, doing everything I can to let the latter inform the former, rather than letting those from on high tell me how I should articulate my vision. That struggle is, in part, at the core of Anzaldua’s Tongues piece. For me I have tried to pull together the white milieux I have often inhabited with my Puerto Rican heritage, and the fact that I was socialised male with the reality that I was female, and all the myriad complexities of gender that come with simply being a trans woman. The battles great and small, the little daily negotiations, the stray hair on my wrist, the croak of my voice, the fear walking down the street. This is what fills my pen even as I write my most turgid academic prose, and when I read Gloria Anzaldua’s piece for the first time I felt like she was describing some of the conflicts I felt as I tried to do so. I do not want to sell out, to be la Vendida, I do not want to forget where I came from; indeed I put a grinding halt to my decade long effort to do so, not coincidentally after I came out and understood oppression for the first time.

As I read Tongues I found it suffused with the same passion and glorious rage that often guided each stroke of my own hand, each thrust of my finger on the keyboard, and my soul sang out once more as I felt acknowledged in reading this. She was talking to me, I thought. Here is, at last, a powerful, intellectual feminist activist who knew where I came from and could scold me for not taking more pride in it. Here is someone who knew the streets I walked down, who knew my abuela’s voice, my father’s abuse, who knew the symphony of a subway train, and the hot summers of the inner city. I had the same feeling when I read earlier pieces in this anthology, including “…And Even Fidel Can’t Change That!” by Aurora Levin Morales whose words still haunt me for how true they rang with me. She too was a precocious and intelligent Puerto Rican girl from the South Bronx who was all too keenly aware of the gossamer thin line between her and the many people around her who “didn’t make it”- who fell into poverty, drugs, and prison, who was keenly aware that luck saved her from that. Not her intellect or her skill, sheer good fortune at having a father who could access the middle class saved her. Morales made me confront the fact that I knew exactly the same thing, and I nearly  wept because I knew in my heart- knew beyond knowing- that it was true.

Anzaldua enjoins us… enjoined me… to reach inside and find that part of myself that I had buried, that had denied the fact that I was Latina, that even whispered to me in words dripping with temptation to use and abuse my passing privilege to forget I was a transsexual woman, to leave behind my brothers and sisters because I had a shot at power, at conditional privilege. I know now I would rather listen to her and the benefit of her hard won wisdom. She exhorts us to cast aside pseudo-objectivity, that ‘point of view from nowhere’ that Donna Haraway rightly identified as something that obscures reality and silences voices that do not conform to those who get to decide what objectivity actually is. Gloria Anzaldua does not just entreat us to consider an alternative, but openly cheers us on to embrace our deeper voices, our emotions, our passions, and above all our actual lives. She reclaims the lived life as a site of epistemology without equal for both Third World women and all marginalised peoples. In that oppression, she seems to say, we can find the strength to propel past its strictures and dare to raise our voices, dare to be heard, and dare above all to be real and true to ourselves as we speak.

Being trans is a lengthy and ongoing exercise in being true to one’s self. I came out as a woman in perhaps the ultimate exercise in doing so; it was a fundamental rejection of conformity, knowing all the challenges I would face and the immense privileges I would be conceding, I did it because truth to who I was mattered above all else. I know now, in no small part due to writers I admire like Gloria Anzaldua, that once that great act of magic is performed, there is no stopping it. It is a gale force storm you summon, whose wind changes everything you thought you knew. I had felt that all that would change when I came out was my gender. I didn’t know my writing would go with it. What fills my pen now, what makes the swirls appear on my page is something altogether different that Gloria Anzaldua pinned down perfectly in this piece. It is the accessing of a rich, powerful anger that arises from both experience and a potent, perspicuous sense of justice.

It is hard for me, if not impossible, to remain “objective” when speaking about Bridge and that is altogether fitting. This is what Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua wanted, I believe. That emotional reaction that can only come from a woman of colour seeing their faces shimmer in the reflection of their blood red words. Many of these authors spoke to me and identified parts of my soul that make up the woman I am. La mujer de color that I am now proud to say I am. They know my struggles with my words, with “unlearning the esoteric bullshit and pseudo-intellectualising” that I picked up from years of schooling and reading the New York Times. What I got from that was not that I should break up my often ponderous writing style, because that multisyllabic pattern is very much my own. I will always be the geeky woman. But I will no longer be simpering or an apologist. I will no longer deny myself the power and the fuel I need to write with potency and meaning. I embarked on that project long ago when I first came out, and the difference showed, the new self awareness showed. What I have written, the words that flew from my fingers, powered by Katherine-who-is-trans, by I who said from the beginning I would not be ashamed of being trans, has moved people to tears, has inspired them, has helped other trans women come out, has comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable…

That is power that makes known to me the visceral veracity behind Anzaldua’s words.  It was how I knew what she said was utterly true even as I read the words for the first time. I knew my strength came from taking power from the truth of my life, my self-knowledge, and my experience. Not from trying to regurgitate a cis-friendly, cis-centric perspective on my life. As I go forward I will try to relearn and recapture what I had denied myself of my Latina heritage, which will take more time. But coming out, I find, is a journey that never ends.

That is what I got from Speaking in Tongues. I hope I do Gloria’s spirit proud.

Lost in Trans-lation: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Part III

The early chapters of Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class were palpably powerful and forthright in their analysis of black women’s enslavement and empowerment in 19th Century America. These twin, interwoven narratives tell a story whose importance demands one’s attention. For my own part her vivid descriptions of the horrors visited on black women in the institution of slavery caused me to pause in my reading, staring at the page before finally closing my eyes for a moment, offering some feeble form of remembrance for the women whose stories she brought to life. They were not just passive recipients of abuse, however, but active agents in their liberation. Brave resistance seemed to meet, blow for blow, every whip, cruel word, sexual advance, balled fist or backbreaking labour that these women’s masters could bring to bear or muster.

In this lies the point of Professor Davis’  narrative. This point is twofold: one, it is meant to elucidate on the gendered realities facing black women in the institution of slavery, and two it is meant to show that black women are best understood as oppressed but also as very active in resisting that oppression (which is why she spares no harsh words in criticising Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its portrayal of a passive black female slave who was somehow oblivious to slavery’s horrors until her masters threatened to take her children away). The next few chapters expand on her analysis of  that resistance from multiple angles. She looks at the early participation of black women in the broader struggle for women’s rights, how black women problematised a universalist concept of womanhood early on, and how some radical white women saw the struggle against racism as one with the struggle against sexism.

The crucial realisation for me was that in her lengthy narrative, suffused with many compelling excerpts from primary source material and personal testimony from men and women of the time, was a very different story about the abolitionist movement and the fight for women’s rights than what I had been taught growing up. She immediately takes a torch to the idea that the women’s movement only began at Seneca Falls and demonstrates quite convincingly that the foundations of feminism had deeper roots than even that. Many American students know Susan B. Anthony, and a smaller but still significant number will have heard the name Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Yet not even Microsoft Word recognises the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two radical white women who were literally bullied and forced into an all too premature retirement from their forceful oratory that spoke passionately for the liberation of blacks as well as women in America. Few people would associate Frederick Douglass with the women’s rights movement, despite the pivotal, almost keystone-like role he played in the suffrage movement’s heady early days. His article “Why I Became a Women’s Rights Man” can be found in a few latter day feminist theory anthologies. But neither his face nor Sojourner Truth’s made it to the back of a US quarter.

The prominent figures in Davis’ history are certainly altered. Stanton and Anthony, while praised for their foresight in some areas, find their flaws and personal racism writ large in the story woven by Professor Davis, and contrasted very unfavourably with heroines whose names are shadowed beneath the sands of our dominant historical narratives: the Grimke sisters, Frances Dana Gage, Myrtilla Miner, and Prudence Crandall. It is curious that the names of these white women are lost to history while the two whose racist demons plagued the early women’s movement have now become forever synonymous with it. Angela Davis’ historiography does much to correct this imbalance. In my own mind, Anthony and Stanton did well. I have a good friend who has made it her mission to unearth some of the more radical writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton from academic obscurity and I wish her well in this endeavour. She- like myself- is conscious of Stanton’s racism but also of her more intellectual contributions which have been elided even as she and Susan B. Anthony have been valorized as suffragette scions. Nevertheless, their failures would be drawn into sharper relief by the examples set out by Angela Davis. Proof that it was possible for white bourgeois women to overcome their racism and stand astride the artificial divisions that so ensnared those in Anthony and Stanton’s milieu.

Yet even more important was Davis’ elevation of previously unheard black women’s voices in the movement for Black liberation and for women’s rights.  Ida B. Wells and Frances E.W. Harper were two women of letters who are not often associated with the various rights struggles of the time, but their acumen was no less keen than that of the white luminaries that history better remembers. Sojourner Truth, to whom I will return, also lent a voice of unparalleled conviction to these interlocked causes of freedom. The crux of the story Angela Davis tells in these chapters is how racism would come to divide the fragile alliance made between black liberationists and early feminists, particularly over the acrimonious debate that followed black men being given the franchise but women (white and black) being left behind. Davis’ analysis is penetrating; not only does she condemn the outright racism that underlay many of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s claims about black inferiority, but also the liberal ideology that held the vote as an end in itself. Suffrage, she claimed, was not the sole determinant of freedom or citizenship, and it was hardly a panacea. The ardour with which some bourgeois white women fought for it, however, indicated that they did indeed see that as one of the only obstacles to their full actualisation as citizens. Davis critiques this view and points out the plain fallacy of Anthony and Stanton’s view that black men were now somehow ahead of white women in the post Civil War era. Yes, she argues, they had the vote, and precious little else. Indeed, in a few short years, even that solitary right would be denied them by the force of Jim Crow.

In the midst of the maelstrom that defined the progressive politics of this age came Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. Davis describes it in hortatory terms and in my own estimation it deserves every word of praise the scholar can muster for it. Truth’s words echo down the decades and centuries to follow as a rallying cry for all women who find themselves at a crossroads of oppression in their lives. Native women, transgender women, queer women, labouring and working class women would all take up the clarion call of Truth’s blunt challenge to not only male supremacy, but also to white cis female racism and classism (and later, trans and homophobia). It was a double bladed sword she thrust and parried at those who would presume to rob her of her dignity. In a timeless evisceration of the classic patriarchal argument that uses imposed chivalry to justify women’s subordination, she deftly remarked that she had never been the recipient of such chivalrous acts and had indeed been made to labour as hard as any man with no special treatment; the dainty artifice attached to upper class white womanhood was utterly foreign to her- and to many other women besides. Like a lightning strike on a dark night she illuminated with stark clarity a great truth hidden in plain sight: black women were living proof of the fact that women could work on a par with men, that chivalry was not necessary, that strength of all sorts was as much a woman’s lot as nurturing was. In the terrible conditions foisted on women of colour and immigrant women lay the grand contradiction of the emerging industrial patriarchy: the myth that women were weak dominated a society that was in great measure held up by women’s hard labour.

To this day we still live with the myth that men were the only ones whose labour was exploited in this time, and that the industrial economy of unsafe hard labour was the sole province of men. While it was often conceived of as such, and reified through popular imagery of the white housewife and mother, the reality was far more complex and embodied in the muscle that Sojourner Truth bore to the audience gathered in Akron as she enjoined them to answer her timeless question. In laying bare these complexities and stark but unregarded realities, Davis continues the legacy of powerful orators like Truth who, as later folks might say, tell it like it is.

Lost in Trans-lation: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Part II

Here follows part two of the amazing epic story, nominated for six Golden Raspberries, and a Grammy for Best Kazoo Solo: Lost in Trans-Lation. The witty title of this series will, I hope, reflect, what focus on trans issues I can provide in the context of our readings. But as you’ll see today, save for one cisfail at the end, there wasn’t much discussion this time around. That said, the connections that exist between all three of these readings: biology utilised to buttress discrimination, power and privilege, and neo-bigotry disguised as liberalism all bear heavily on transgender people in our daily lives and are part of understanding our particular social locality.

There is also the fact that while quotas may not exist for affirmative action, this blog has a quota for a certain number of trans-puns per year. So, bear with me on that. Now, without further ado, the curtain rises on our gallant heroine going way past the page limit of her homework assignment…

The New York Times article “Do Races Differ? Not Really, Genes Show” is an interesting overview of contemporary genetics and the view increasingly common among researchers that race is nearly a wholly political rather than biological question. Clearly, race matters tremendously and as a subject remains one of the critical fulcra on which our histories and cultures remain precariously balanced, and yet race has precious little biological basis: we are far more alike than we are different, in other words. Thus it’s clear, from the statements of many of the scientists in the article and the results of recent research that what makes race matter is entirely social; such power as race has was given entirely by us, particularly by the group of “us” that has historically held more power along racial lines.

The reification of racial distinction was bound to enlist the nascent science of biology in its social legitimation process in the 19th Century, just as the reification of sex/gender differences was doing precisely the same thing. Dr. J. Philippe Rushton’s views on the subject of race are, certainly, very disturbing and seem to chase cultural stereotypes rather than any kind of objective facts, but while many today might balk at his ideas, they defined what was collectively understood to be science for generations. The pseudoscience behind Social Darwinism and Phrenology had great influence on the minds of the powerful for a very long time. The changes now afoot that Times reporter Natalie Angier documents are, in many ways, the result of political struggle as much as new science. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling has spoken at length about how science is often shaped by the culture, rather than the inverse.

When the prevailing political winds legitimise overt sexism and racism, science is marshalled in its service and used to justify and reify its existence (“women are naturally more weak or more nurturing, thus they should do x, y, and z” and so on). But in the post-1960s era, overt racism has become more passé and more taboo than it has ever been in the West. This hardly means that bigotry is gone, simply that it has taken another form, which will be discussed shortly vis a vis the third article. But this evolution has seen science follow along to catch up with the culture and at last recognise what people for many centuries have known- that what divides us is of our own doing, largely.

Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege and Male Privilege” is another well traveled read in gender studies classrooms and with good reason. She delineates with clarity what, exactly, white privilege is and can look like with a carefully numbered list of privileges great and small. Her ‘invisible knapsack’ metaphor has passed into common use in academic and activist circles along with her list format, which has been reproduced many times over for several groups. In seeing Ms. McIntosh’s name writ large in textbook after textbook it is hard not to see the veracity of point number nine: “If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.” Indeed, she has found several dozen and a kind of immortality in gender studies departments right around the country. There is a certain irony, perhaps not lost on Professor McIntosh, in the fact that the leading paper on white privilege has been written by a white woman. That metanalysis is very material to Professor McIntosh’s point, however, which is that simply put opportunities are not equal.

She may well come under fire from whites for her statements, but there is no doubt that her writing will not reflect badly on her as a white person, nor be seen as selfishness. She herself makes that point in her list. Her ideas will be disagreed with, but she will not be seen as an envoy of whiteness by most of her critics, many of whom are also likely to be of her racial group. If a black author had written this, however, she/he/ze would be more than likely to be accused of bitterness, “reverse racism,” or otherwise simply being too selfish. This ties into her thirtieth point: “If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t [one], my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of colour will have.” Among whites (and others as well, frankly) she may be seen as more credible precisely because she is white. This is, in and of itself, another privilege. Despite the fact that she has little to no direct experience of racial antagonism, she becomes an authority on it precisely because she isn’t discriminated against. Hegemonic thinking in our culture presumes victims of discrimination to be “biased” and “angry” rather than, say, experts on the experience with something to teach.

What is compelling to consider is how many of these things tie into male privilege as well. Men will have an easier time finding publishers, men will be taken more seriously when discussing matters of gender, and so on. Men will be construed as less biased on the matter of discrimination against women, whereas women speaking out against sexism will be seen as selfish or otherwise partisan. Membership in a historically marginalised group can often be intuited by seeing if the person’s attempts at reclaiming their dignity are met with cries of group bias. It’s a curious projection of institutional racism, sexism, and so on, that many whites, men, cis people, able bodied people et cetera presume a binary, zero sum system when regarding the progress of marginalised groups. If women gain, men must lose and women will only ever look out for other women whilst trampling on men. Substitute ‘women’ and ‘men’ for any two groups and you’ll have a pretty accurate picture of the dominant view of racial and sexual progress.  This is, in large part, down to privilege. The idea that women and minorities should be content with what they have and not dare to dream for more, lest they ‘take something away’ from the dominant groups who have reified their worthiness of that dominance in several ways.

She also identifies small ways in which we reinforce popular cultural ideas about race, such as the fact that bandages are often a colour more closely approximating white skin colour, or that “flesh” as a colour is conspicuously similar to white European flesh whereas darker tones are never called that. She also testifies to white normativity; as mentioned earlier she explicates how she is not viewed as a representative of her race. She may well be viewed as a spokesperson for her sex, which relates to male privilege, but not for white people as a whole. Thus anything she does that is culturally unacceptable for her class, be it showing up late, being unkempt, talking with her mouth full, having a particular ‘bearing’ or body odour, and on will simply not make people stereotype whites in a certain way.

Time and again I have seen and heard from whites who say that many blacks or Latina/os “are like that” because they met a handful that fit a certain stereotype. This segues beautifully into the final piece, which is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s “Colour-Blind Racism.” This piece makes many very critical and important points and speaks to what I meant earlier about the evolution of racist practise in our society. It has gone from being largely overt (a la segregation and explicitly enabled legal discrimination) to covert (nominally equal under the law but not in social practise and elided with neologisms and circumlocutions like ‘political correctness’ and ‘reverse racism’). Professor Bonilla-Silva goes through several ways in which modern racism is executed in a way that grants plausible deniability to its speaker. Instead of appealing to an overtly racist ideology, he says, they instead appeal to the seemingly liberating ideology of liberalism- everyone is free, justice is blind, equal opportunity for those willing to work, and so on. Many white racists use anti-racist language in demeaning minorities now such as saying that affirmative action is racist against whites and does not involve choosing the best person for the job, implying quite firmly that a white man is usually going to be best and that no racism or sexism ever undergirds such choices in hiring.

There is a tremendous amount to be gleaned from Professor Bonilla-Silva’s opus here: the idea that racism can be unconscious, the idea that the ‘lone bigot’ is not the most important or significant reproducer of racist ideology, the idea that there is a ‘New Racism’ that is more subtle and no less pernicious than its predecessor, and more and more. Stephen Colbert, in his satirical character of a conservative cable pundit, often proclaims “I don’t see race!” which is a conscious and often very funny send up of the very mentality that Professor Bonilla-Silva is describing here- which is the fact that colour blindness is simply an excuse to use liberal means to rationalise one’s racist ideas. Put another way, as a scholar of race has said, to be “colour blind” in our society means to be blind to only one colour: white. Thus the obvious privilege exercised by whites is ignored, despite their ubiquitous over-representation in the media, in government, big business, higher education, good neighbourhoods, and so on, whites are more likely to believe everyone is racially equal because the law says they are. This type of racism is not as overt, conscious, or maliciously intended as, say, the racism of the Klan. But the intent and the consciousness are largely irrelevant. The outcome of this collective exercise in delusion is to perpetuate the marginalisation of several million people.

What was especially striking from the interviews of white Americans that Professor Bonilla-Silva conducted was how many respondents seemed both defensive and stuttering, as if grasping very hard for words, their minds in overdrive as they clearly tried to express a racist thought (“all blacks are lazy” et al.) without actually being blunt about it. This is the age of circuitous racism that dances merrily around its subject but does not engage with it directly. Misconceptions about affirmative action also abound. The idea that it’s the law of the land, for example, or the idea that there are quotas (a popular word among several of the professor’s interview subjects), or the idea that affirmative action meant hiring inferior candidates due to race (something I consider another projection of internalised racism/sexism: a privileged person can only imagine the inverse of what is already happening- in this case, that underqualified white men get good jobs or get into good schools all the time by dint of their racial and sexual privileges. Yet this causes precious little outcry among these so called liberal-minded people, even when such incompetence leads to disaster, as has happened in the Middle East and with our financial markets).

Professor Bonilla-Silva’s description of the ‘elastic wall’ created by this kinder, gentler racism is very apt. It allows for the new reification of racism to account for people like, say, Oprah who remains everyone’s favourite black success story (“She makes more money than I will in a lifetime, how can you say blacks are still oppressed!?”). It’s a definition that allows for exceptions, to prevent cognitive dissonance, while still enabling you to say “but most minorities are thus and so.” As mentioned earlier, many of these whites extrapolate from experience with a few black citizens to stereotype the entire group as lazy wastrels who are only holding themselves back. This is what is meant by a marginalised person always being made to represent and be responsible for the image of their group in a way that privileged people simply aren’t.

A final note, however, must be made. From Professor Bonilla-Silva’s description of one of his interview subjects: “Thus Henrietta, a transsexual schoolteacher in his fifties, answered…” It was beyond disappointing to see transphobia rearing up again. All of the other interview subjects were described as men or women, but Henrietta becomes “a transsexual” full stop, and is quite apparently misgendered. It is important to consider her words along the other racist statements made by the other white interviewees naturally, but no person’s immorality should excuse transphobia. Like the new racism, transphobia is very often a subtle exercise in the reinforcing power of hegemonic ideas and language. Like Judith Lorber, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is in a position to know better.

Lost in Trans-lation: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Part I

This evening I started an introductory Women and Gender Studies class which I’m taking over the Summer to both help me catch up and get me a headstart on one of my two major tracks. I am very excited, of course, and I had a good evening in the first class today. I was also very pleased to see that I had done several of the readings on the course syllabus, and was able to confidently explain a lot of things to my classmates during our group session, so I’m in a very good position to make this a breezy month.

One of our regular assignments is to write a weekly journal entry on our readings. What follows is the first entry, hot off the presses and emailed to my professor moments ago. The class is designed to emphasise the voices of women of colour and other groups that have been traditionally marginalised from feminist and activist discourse, and in that spirit I’m bringing the trans perspective in as well. The following entry will, I hope, set the tone of my participation for the next month (and provides convenient blog material!). Where it is relevant, I will always try to provide a ‘trans response’ to material that directly or indirectly bears on us, or excludes us. I also hope this will provide a bit of background for those interested in gender studies and the ideas, debates, and theories percolating within.


Judith Lorber’s ‘Night to His Day’ is a foundational text in the women and gender studies canon, and has been included in countless anthologies usually as an introductory overview of a feminist theory of gender and its socially constructed nature, as well as its ramifications. It is not a wholly inaccurate view, either. For instance her analysis of stratification has, for me, the ring of truth; the nature of privileged groups of people and how they are often understood implicitly to be the neutral or default group. As she says “white is not ordinarily thought of as a race, middle class as a class, or men as a gender. The characteristics of these categories define the Other as that which lacks the valuable qualities the dominants exhibit.” As will be explored later in the readings, such is inscribed in the marrow of our very language- the pseudogeneric ‘man,’ mankind, and so on.

Where Man and Human are synonymous, in other words, it is indicative of how- in the case of gender- men are understood as the default neutral category of humanity. Where people are distinguished by their signified group, be it people of colour, women, transgender people, the poor, and so on, what it is they are ‘marked’ with is often a stereotype. Usually it is a negative one, but other stereotypes (with multiple intersecting meanings) can be seen in other ways. The placement of white women on the storied pedestal, for instance, or the stereotype that all black men are adept at sports, or all Asian people are skilled at maths and engineering. These represent signified characteristics that are assumed to be inherent to these groups, where as the generic cisgendered white man has no such stereotypes attached to him. This connects to Orientalism and other forms of exoticisation very easily.

Lorber also speaks of “doing gender” which is a very critical concept. We often think of gender as something one has or that one is. We use the terms sex and gender interchangeably, helped along by infinite government and corporate forms that use each term to basically mean the same thing: do you have a penis or a vagina? The number of assumptions such a binary question is lardered with are myriad beyond words and well beyond the scope of this brief essay. Suffice it to say, that complexity is bespoke when one says that gender is something you do rather than something you are. Lorber’s exploration of the mental process she went through as she tried to ‘gender’ a baby she espied on the New York City Subway is part of an excellent introduction to her work, as it speaks to something all of us do on a daily basis, myself included, often without thinking. The never ending drive to put people into category A or category B. That is what makes her failure further along in the text so incredibly frustrating for me, personally.

In this day and age when one speaks of the complexity of gender, its performance and its socially constructed nature, those of any degree of sophistication will invariably bring transgender people into the discussion and often, in my view, cackhandedly. While the theoretical model sketches out broad truths, some of which I have hitherto elucidated, I feel it too often tries to force trans people into its framework in a way heedless of their actual experiences. For example, when she says “Billy Tipton, a woman, lived most of her life as a man. She died recently at seventy four…” she is erasing, and dare I say gleefully trampling on Mr. Tipton’s knowledge of himself as a man. Putting him in the category of “female transvestites” erases his experience in a flagrantly transphobic way. His whole life and career, his clearly expressed sexual and gender identity, none of that was enough to dissuade Ms. Lorber from misgendering and erasing him so that he could fitted into her theoretical paradigm. Furthermore, her entire discussion of “female transvestites” is very historically suspect and constitutes wilful appropriation of transgender history. We simply do not know how many of these people were actually trans men, how many were butch lesbians, how many didn’t truly identify with either prescribed gender, and so on.

For me, it makes it extremely difficult to take seriously her academic sincerity when she then says “genders, therefore, are not attached to a biological substratum.” This is absolutely true, and it is an idea that is well understood throughout modern gender studies. Yet despite her saying this, she still feels the need to access that mythic substratum when discussing Mr. Tipton and his life. Her entire phraseology in that section implies a falsity to his identity, leads readers to think “he’s really a woman” and treats elements of his life- being a father, a husband, ‘one of the boys’ with his musical partners- as mere artifice exercised by his sartorial choices (which is, after all, what transvestite refers to).

This fundamental failure on her part spoils an otherwise good piece and illustrates how trans people remain a blind spot in cis dominated gender studies.

The second reading, Marilyn Frye’s Oppression, is another pathbreaking reading in gender studies courses because it illustrates at some length what is meant by the term “oppression” which appears so often in left wing politics, emancipatory academia, and social justice movements. Frye’s accomplishments with this piece are twofold. One, she illustrates how when a marginalised person points out some oppressive act (like, say, a single act of employment discrimination or a single act of sexual harassment) they are not saying they are oppressed because this one isolated event befell them. Their claim to oppression relies on this recent material event as an example of one thing among many that disadvantages them. An example of the systemic nature of oppression that allows things like this to happen. Ms. Frye compares them to bars in a bird cage. One by itself, if focused on and analysed in the absence of all the other bars, does not seem to an outsider to be ‘oppressive’- which is why rather than focusing on one instance of oppression and navel-gazing at it, attempting to rationalise or excuse it, one has to pull back and see that it is not the only bar preventing the marginalised from spreading their wings.

Her second accomplishment is making a powerful statement against the ‘definition creep’ of the word oppression. Some people who do not belong to historically disadvantaged groups cite instances of hardship, tragedy, or suffering in their lives as if to claim that because they don’t have it easy either, they are also oppressed and therefore some cosmic balance of oppressions occurs and through such alchemy, white men are no longer privileged. Frye distinguishes oppression by saying that the occurrence of an unfortunate event is not in and of itself oppression. It has to be part of a system that is attacking you because of who you are. White men are very rarely explicitly discriminated against for being white men. Virtually no one is discriminated against simply for being cis. Able bodied people are not singled out for bigoted jokes, scrutiny, pity, or discrimination. But women are, people of colour are, transgender people certainly are, and disabled people are. Therein lies the difference.

Her illustration of double binds also provides a useful distinguishing characteristic of oppression. In her words, such moulds, immobilises, and reduces; it creates the ‘press’ in oppression. The “networks of forces and barriers” that surround various oppressed groups are of great significance. The difference between a cis white man and a transgender woman of colour is that many people feel entitled to decide whether the latter has a right to live, for no reason other than the fact of her gender identity. It is still a disturbing reality that many cis people, commenting on a news story about the murder of a trans woman by a boyfriend or other male antagonist, try to rationalise it by saying that it is completely understandable that a man would want to kill a woman who’s “really a man.”

In this lies the reason Ms. Lorber’s critical failure is so disturbing. Her casual misgendering and appropriation, even if she never holds a knife in her hand, helps perpetuate the very system of oppression that enacts that double bind on transgender people and puts their lives at risk. In a curious way, it helps illustrate Frye’s concept of oppression as pervasive, binding, and institutional, and how that sort of thing is broadly distinguished from non-oppressive tragedy and situational suffering. The entitlement to the bodies of women, be they pregnant women, disabled women,  fat women, or trans women, is something cis white men qua cis white men do not have to confront regularly or en masse as a group.

Through The Looking Glass

<<EDIT: As of this afternoon Blizzard has officially backed down and will no longer move forward with their scheme to force players to use their real life names on the forums. This is, of course, a tremendous victory. One suspects that major media outlets talking about the “row” or “huge outcry” opposed to this idea finally moved their executives to give way. However, significant as this is, Real ID remains and some of the architectural issues I allude to below remain.>>

Yesterday I wrote at some length about my strident opposition to Blizzard’s absurd RealID scheme, something I’ve called the single worst idea I have ever seen implemented in the history of online gaming. I am rarely one to speak without qualifiers, but this surely merits it. The threat posed to women is very real. I myself was stalked in WoW, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could’ve been because it didn’t bleed into real life; he didn’t know my name, nor where to begin with finding out personal info about me. Others I’ve known have not been so lucky. Curiously I’ve actually heard people use that as an argument for RealID. It is often phrased as “well, if it happens already, then what’s the big deal?”

I am personally quite flabbergasted at this line of reasoning. It’s happening already so let’s just make it easier?

I have a few more ideas for Blizzard to consider.

  • Has a female player had an abortion? If so, why not note it in their RealID friends’ list? Never know who might be interested! Who wouldn’t want a tank that could endure that kind of real life drama and ponderous decisionmaking? Just send the clinic records to Blizzard’s billing department and remember, it has to include your full name and Social Security number if possible.
  • Had to declare bankruptcy in the last ten years? Probably, considering the economy! Well, don’t you think it’d be fair to let everyone know? After all, if you’re bad with money, people selling to you in the Trade District of Stormwind really ought to know this before setting you up on an instalment plan for that uber enchantment or Blacksmithing item. Just mail the court documents to Blizzard billing so no one can accuse you of being a dirty dirty liar.
  • Photographic avatars containing pictures of genitalia. You know, just to make sure you aren’t misrepresenting yourself! Send two colour photos of your naughty bits and your birth certificate.
  • Posting peoples’ addresses is a surefire way to really get them to network with others. Their guildies will absolutely love knowing where to send flowers and cards to their favourite DPSer or healer. It saves you the trouble of opening up a private chat window to someone you trust and having to type it out every single time! Just send Blizz Billing a copy of your bank statement and a utility bill.

To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if something vaguely along these lines wasn’t already in the offing. I could go on with the snark, really. Many more links could serve as elucidating examples of why this is unequivocally bad. Even the demographic of young white cis men have something to fear. Men can get stalked too. And more than one has already been killed over in-game disputes that have spilled over into real life. Men and women in professional positions want to very much keep work and play separate. Trans men and women, non-binary identified people, all manner of LGBTQ people, might not want their online personae associated with a real name. Countless people have exes they’d rather not hear from again.

The list of grievances goes on. But the ultimate question is why is this happening at all?

The answer appears to be: Facebook.

But it isn’t just the deal outlined there that’s troubling, it’s the fundamental philosophy behind it. Yesterday I expressed my extreme scepticism at Blizzard’s troll-beating rationale for this forum change and I have not been dissuaded from this view. They know as well as anyone that the WoW forum’s are 4chan’s rectum but they’ve had six years to do something about it, over which time not even the most incremental of changes have occurred, other than cosmetic ones. Threats made against the lives of their own employees did not move them to engage in stricter moderation. This latest, sweeping change of the forums has much more to do with the upper echelons of Blizzard-Activision wanting to cash in on the new social networking boom.

Some have said that because it’s optional and not fully integrated, it’s the quintessential “not a big deal.” I disagree and here’s why:

“6. Real ID is optional.

Only the illusion is optional. Your real name is linked to your toons and already exposed via addons even if you never opt-in or use the Real ID feature. You can test this by running the following:

/run for i=1,100 do if BNIsSelf(i)then BNSendWhisper(i,”RealID whisper from yourself..”);break end end

While this only displays your own real name, it does demonstrate the the connection has already been made, without your approval. And that it could be accessible to a third-party addon developer. When Blizzard merges accounts with Facebook (their next move), will the connections to Facebook friends already be pre-established, even if you don’t opt in? If so, how will Blizzard/Facebook use that information?”

Thus it’s quite clear that Blizzard “has plans,” as they say. The architecture is already there for an expansion of this service and it is indeed ‘fully integrated’ at this point.  To be quite honest I do indeed wonder if Bobby Kotick dreams of players running around with their real names over their characters’ heads rather than an in-game handle. It no longer seems so far-fetched to think so.

This is not why I and many other gamers play online games. If we want Facebook we will go to Facebook. If we want Twitter, or Beebo, or MySpace, we will use those sites. It’s ironic, really. It’s the same criticism I’ve often levelled at newer MMOs that aped World of Warcraft rather than forged their own original direction. Of them I often said “if I wanted to play WoW, I’d go to WoW.” Well, it seems WoW is no longer content with just being WoW.

The gaming experience is about separation from real life, letting your dreams and fantasies take flight, however simple or elaborate they might be. It’s about relaxing in an engaged way and losing yourself in the mystery of another world. I still remember the first time I ran my characters through Shadowglen, how vivid and inviting the misty forests of this world were and how far away the cares of the real one was. That separation is a prerequisite of whatever sort of fun you wish to have in these games, be it roleplaying- as I often did, raiding, PVP combat, or simple grinding and trading. You leave the real world behind for a few hours and immerse yourself in a bath of fantasy.

Now the executives at Blizzard-Activision want to destroy one of the crucial pillars of what makes an online game what it is. There is, of course, a philosophy behind this and it is expressed very neatly here:

“[Zuckerberg] disagrees with the notion that people have different identities. To him, the idea that someone is different at work than at home, than at a rock concert, is dishonest. Says Kirkpatrick, “He believes that he will live a better life personally, and all of us will be more honest, and ultimately it will be better for the world if we dispense with that belief.” ”

Mr. Zuckerberg can kindly stick a goose up his arse and I’ll explain why using my usual flawless logic.

My own personal history. I had to be a different person in World of Warcraft than who I was expected to be in the physical world. For the sake of my own sanity and to prevent me from self harm; the ability to free myself of the pervasive and all consuming lie that my life once was can not be overvalued in how precious it was. Were these two sides of my being fundamentally part of who I was? Two spheres of the same whole? Yes, absolutely. But the difference in their prevalence at that point in my life was stark. Each side of me had a context that I could not shake. I could not let the woman I was burst forth back in 2006, I wasn’t ready and the consequences would’ve been disastrous. But in a controlled way, I could begin building a prototypical new me through my roleplaying and writing online, including in places like WoW.

There was no “dishonesty” there. There was a lot I hadn’t figured out at that time. Did you know everything about yourself when you were 19? I didn’t think so. Part of the long and winding road to self-understanding went through World of Warcraft for me.

Secondly, it is very much true a person can present different sides or shards of themselves in different social environments. It’s not necessarily dishonesty that compels this. It could be a person’s taste, or desire, to let different parts of themselves show at different times. When I speak in class or to gatherings of professors, I am magisterial, professional and my voice is leaden with argent verbiage. When I’m speaking to my friends I… sometimes do exactly the same thing. But other times I curse and laugh mellifluously and make dirty jokes and talk about geese and peoples’ butts as well as poop jokes!

Mr. Zuckerberg, no one has the right to make those worlds overlap except yours truly.

You do not get to arrogantly decide in your creepily paternalistic manner that we’d all be simply better off if we just accepted that our “real names” and photos define who we are and that we only have one dimension to our beings. I’m sure that’s an attractive bit of ideological pabulum for a lazy business philosopher but from where I’m sitting and from the perspective of the many people I’ve known and loved, it is more than a little bit of self-entitled bullshit.

No one decides what to do with the multiple sides of our personalities or phases of our lives but us. If we want to create a completely different persona for ourselves in an online game, we should be able to as long as we’re somehow helping pay the bills for the maintenance of said game.

Trans women I’ve spoken to and heard from already have been frantically calling Blizzard and being compelled to, of all things, mail in court orders and birth certificates. An online game goes from being fun fantasy to feeling like the Department of Motor Vehicles. We move from a game where your identity is entirely self determined, and the numbers and names of your ‘real’ self are kept under lock and key beneath an impenetrable veil of secrecy… to a game where your juridical, state-sanctioned identity is shackled to you like a ball and chain, even when you’re trying to escape.

Mr. Zuckerberg does not seem to have reckoned with the fact that the name and photo associated with one’s legal ‘identity’ is not the identity a person may most identify with.

We have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Already we live in a world where your state-sanctioned identity stalks you at every turn, where a social insurance number is the only thing standing between you and a powerful individual knowing who you are, where you live, what you buy, what you eat, how many haemorrhoids  you have, when you went to school, the names of your loved ones, friends, and children, the value of your house, how much money is in your bank account… we are part of one big happy digital family now in an information civilisation. And now, at long last, a state identity is being forced on us in the one place we could escape from all that and possibly enjoy the unique pleasure of being known as someone else entirely, for reasons entirely innocent rather than “dishonest,” related to joy and peace rather than a desire to deceive. A desire to relax and forget the stresses of the ID number world.

This is what I meant yesterday when I said the implications went far beyond WoW.

I use Facebook primarily to stay in touch with a particular set of people and because my campus organisation needs me there. But I am not for one moment enamoured of its ideology, nor the fact that it is infecting what should rightly have been the polar opposite of that ideology. Perhaps most important of all, however, for Mr. Zuckerberg to understand: Facebook represents one aspect of peoples’ social lives, not their totality. Facebook is not the ultimate truth of who we are, it is not the Ur chat text of our lives, it’s one dimension that serves a variety of purposes for different people.

When I first played Neverwinter Nights multiplayer, the closest I came to an online game before I played WoW, what stunned me was the fact that I could choose my name. In a time when I was so loathing my given name, and the life I lead, the freedom to determine all of this information on a whim and not have to show this ID or that stamped form or this application signed and stamped in triplicate was amazing beyond words. “I can do that?” was my first thought. It planted the seed in my heart that would enable to me to change myself in the real world. But each time I made a new character and started afresh in a world where no one knew me by that horrid old name I was once cursed with, I flew.

I don’t want others to be denied the opportunity to experience that. If this all sounds dire it’s simply because events move forward. Things look bad now and they could very well get worse over time. More online game spaces may think this is just the bee’s knees and get on the social network bandwagon.

The good news is that these broad implications appear to have been intuited by the wider media. (BBC, MSNBC, CBC, ABC News, and more). We might be through the looking glass but we don’t have to stay there.