All Things to All People: Some Brief Notes on Solidarity and Free Speech

Pictured: the idea so often lacking from non-debates about free speech.
The idea so often lacking from non-debates about free speech.

If transgender people have a “superpower” it is our remarkable ability to stand for anything:  living, breathing “floating signifiers.” Our meaning d’jour is, for some on Fleet Street, “a professionally offended, Left wing lobby group” that is now the latest “post-Leveson” threat to free speech and a free press. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of things—fleeting as these meanings are, such that we can even speak of stable oppositions—Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill had accused trans people of dividing and distracting the Left from its “important” goals and its “true” cause.

If this seems exasperating and contradictory, you ain’t seen nothing yet, as they say.

But for now, it is enough to deal with these two absurdities one at a time and bring a bit of light to a decidedly un-illuminating heat.

Free Speech: From Posturing to Substance

Toby Young and all the other vacuous, fly-by-night defenders of “free speech” filch lovely rhetoric that whistle stops past all manner of liberal democratic tropes while failing to specify the connection between, say, hate speech and liberty. They use language meant to bypass both the intellect and one’s reason, while subtly refusing any attempt at being substantive. To do so would be to pull back the curtain at Oz and reveal the great democratic wizard to be nothing more than a petty would-be tyrant in disguise. In his entire blog post, Young does not mention the content of Burchill’s article once, instead gesturing to the void indirectly by casting trans people as some monolithic left lobby opposed to free speech.

He has archived Burchill’s piece for the world to see, so readers can judge for themselves, but it is a curious choice—to say the very least—to use an article that was almost entirely vapid schoolyard bullying and name-calling as some kind of heroic exemplar of courageous speech. He takes this to a laughable pinnacle by comparing Burchill’s screed to The Observer’s opposition to Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his 1956 invasion of the Suez Canal, now widely regarded by historians as the last gasp of the British Empire. Clearly these were equal acts of great courage.

Yet, if one refuses Young’s attempts to cut their intellectual brake lines, it’s plain to see that Burchill’s article was no Watergate, no “Pentagon Papers.” To compare Burchill’s privileged tantrum to great acts of journalism is offensive to the profession (and if one wants to read incisive feminist journalism, I cannot recommend Ms. Magazine more strongly—their investigations into the plague of rape in the US Military, and the anti-abortion lobby’s links to terrorism are, alone, reminders of what truly courageous pens might write).

Instead of asking substantive questions about Burchill’s writing, Young thoughtlessly defends it without any regard for its content, nor any attempt to engage with it meaningfully. This is profoundly anti-democratic. We do not, in a truly free society, throw our hands up in childlike awe and say “Oooh, there are so many ideas out there, that’s nice!”—ideally, we engage with them, we debate, and we argue; we consider them on their merits, weigh them, and are fully allowed to find them woefully wanting.

Pictured: Something exactly like Julie Burchill's Observer article.
According to Toby Young, the Observer’s willingness to oppose this historical event is the moral equivalent to publishing Julie Burchill’s piece. As you can see, they’re exactly the same thing.

That is precisely what trans women, our loved ones, and allies did with Julie Burchill’s codswollop. And it is here that we come to what else is so utterly pernicious about Young’s unthinking editorialising: he has completely misrepresented and lied about the motivations of Burchill’s critics. Many of us, myself included, did not want the Observer article taken down. What we wanted was to be heard, and to counter the spreading of hate. Some of us wanted Burchill to apologise, and some wanted the piece taken down, yes, but I’d not say the latter was a widespread, agreed-upon, much promoted goal. It is certainly fair to say that few of us are mourning the piece’s loss. It is no Vindication of the Rights of Woman (quite the opposite, in fact), nor is it Candide. It was gutter trash of the lowest order, and even if you don’t give a toss about transphobia, one would have to concede it was tenth-rate writing. Its deletion from the Observer’s website is no loss to anyone.

And yet, while Mr. Young may think himself a dutiful democrat for preserving and republishing the piece, he might be surprised that he was beaten to the punch by many of the same trans activists he was attacking. Most of us had a problem with the article being used as “link bait” for the Observer, driving up their ad costs with every click. This shock and awe tactic is, tragically, a commonplace in online news websites. Many of us, who wanted to preserve the public record of Burchill’s hate, have reposted the piece elsewhere—both to ensure that it was not flushed down the memory hole, and to ensure that people could read and judge for themselves, while denying The Observer profit-from-hate. If Mr. Young had bothered to talk to any of those faceless and nameless activists he decries, he might have seen that our motivation was not to punish “political incorrectness” but to add to the discourse, with the urgency that hate speech always demands.

That is democracy.

Speech Acts

It is also worth remembering that if one wishes to defend free speech, one must know what they are defending and why. More of those nattering specifics that tend to deflate gassy rhetoric, yes.

Speech does something. That is why it’s so powerful, cherished, and defended as a fundamental right. But like any right, it can be abused, used to the detriment of others, and cause great harm. Citizenship, by contrast, is the craft of using rights and liberties to further the cause of freedom. Burchill’s piece, on the other hand, was both puerile and dangerous in the most vulgar way. Words like hers are hurled along with glass bottles at trans women fleeing for their lives from angry, hateful cisgender men. Ideas like hers fuel housing discrimination, see trans people excommunicated from their families, usher us with sibilant urgings to suicide, and are deployed by people who need to justify violence against trans people.

Burchill’s words and ideas, to the extent they have any substance at all, are simply the anima of hatred; hatred that revokes trans women’s rights. It sees our free speech muzzled, lest we be attacked for naming our experience and concerns. It sees our right to life snuffed out and declared conditional—less important than a privileged journalist’s right to lose her intellectual lunch in a national newspaper. It sees our right to free movement drastically curtailed, our right to healthcare passively but firmly denied.

None of this has a whit to do with “being offended.” It has everything to do with survival.

Our speaking up—as feminists, LGBTQ activists, and concerned citizens—was an attempt to ensure that Burchill’s article, which ended with an unambiguous threat and was essentially one long piece telling us to “shut up” (where was Mr. Young then?), did not have its intended silencing effect. If Mr. Young seeks enemies of free speech, instead of rudely stereotyping trans women he might well simply look in the mirror.

Solidarity and the “Real Issues”

Only a briefer note is necessary to deal with the odious counterpart to Young’s Left-baiting, and that is Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill’s snide suggestion that we are a single issue group devoted to a myopic cause at the expense of wider solidarity. Never mind that this exact argument has been used against feminists since the 19th Century and is a common silencing tactic.

I am proud to work for an organisation that is devoted to precisely the kind of solidarity that Burchill so disingenuously “defended.” The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is concerned with those wider economic issues that structurally oppress so many in our society—the austerity and cuts crusades now being trumpeted from Whitehall to Washington. We’ve been on the front lines trying to fight the manifestations of that malignancy as they particularly affect low income trans people of colour, and do so in solidarity with organisations and nonprofits serving different communities. Our goal is to not only provide our clients with basic legal needs and representation, but also to help them join activist communities of their fellows, educating them about often opaque and esoteric rights they may have (in the social services system, for instance), and enjoining them to take part in discourse, education, protests, and the fight for justice.

This is not done through an artificial focus on trans issues, as if they can they be neatly and discretely parcelled away from all others, but through recognising that whatever “trans issues” are, they are made up of class politics, immigration politics, racial inequality, social-structural sexism, a culture of policing and incarceration, and so on. These are inseparable from each other, and necessarily inform our response to the issues of our time.

It was one of many reasons that I found Moore and Burchill’s claims to be both divisive and fatuous. So many trans people learn the true meaning of solidarity the hard way, and many of us who are feminists and rights activists are part of organisations that—far from being ‘single issue distractions’—are deeply embedded in broader struggles against austerity, sexism, racism, and the ever widening wealth gap in the West; others fight with a tighter focus on neo-colonialism and foreign policy. But we are all immensely concerned with the battle for wider, meaningful liberty, and it is nothing more than a hateful lie to suggest that we are not, simply because we have the audacity to defend ourselves when attacked so viciously by name.

Immoral Women: Why We Need More of Them

This article is due to be published on Border House this coming Tuesday. In case its raging nerdular nerdence doesn’t give it away, it’s about video games specifically. Enjoy!

One of the most irksome things I hear when I make arguments for ‘good/positive portrayals’ of characters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds is that my interlocutors immediately assume I’m calling for portrayals of moral paragons. They seem to think I’m saying “if you write a gay male character, he must be the most righteous dude ever.”

In a word, no. That’s what today’s article is about, particularly with regards to women characters.

The reality of the situation is that the portrayal of women as pure, stainless alabaster icons of virtue is a huge problem that arises from cultural stereotypes of women. The notion that women are inherently more virtuous, kinder, and so on is part of the limiting and fetishising pedestalisation that serves to fence us off from being thought of as persons. Human beings are flawed characters with failings and weaknesses; angels are not.

When I call for ‘good portrayals’ I do not mean that all women should be virtuous. On the contrary, I actually want to see more women as villains, or as morally grey/dubious characters. The simple reason for this is that such figures can be fascinating, merit much discussion, and are  fully human. Think of your own interests in fiction: what characters do you love to hate? Who is your favourite villain? What character could keep you up for hours at night as you discuss their philosophy and the writing behind them? Which characters have you debating their morality: good, evil, anti-hero? We all have answers to these questions, and that alone tells us why ‘good portrayals’ include morally flawed/villainous characters by necessity.

My objection to femme fatale villains is not that they are villains, but that women’s agency is always reduced to sexuality in such portrayals. Consider the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons, for instance. The women are defined by rampant, unchained sexuality that is used to literally dominate men. There’s nothing interesting in this, save as a rather specific form of pornography perhaps. Moral weakness, failure, compromise, and villainy are about much more complicated motivations than luring men to their dooms with T&A.

Kreia Being Awesome. (Older woman in Jedi robes, pallid with long pigtails, and three purple lightsabres orbiting her).

My favourite character of all time is a woman who is widely considered a villain: Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. My love letter about this character can be found here, but for the purposes of this article the main points to raise about are these: her character is defined by a philosophy, she is not reduced to sex, she is an agent whose motivations are complicated, her morality shades into a good deal of grey.

It’s hard to peg Kreia as pure evil. She isn’t. Her overarching, long-term goal is ultimately a positive one: she wants to eliminate the new Sith threat as much as you do (if you’re a light-side character), but for her the ends justify the means. Throughout the story you’re treated to many examples of Kreia’s richly self-justified taint manifesting itself in odious actions that service the greater good she has in mind. She is utterly driven by hard-won truths in a life that has been struck by torture, betrayal, and the harshest kind of learning. It produces a figure who is conscious of how far she has fallen, but will use her last gasps of energy to train someone who “may yet be saved.”

If you are a moral idealist, as I try to be, her incredibly well-written dialogue will force you to account in detail for why you believe what you believe. You may disagree strongly with what Kreia does, but you cannot deny she has her reasons—reasons she’ll talk about at length which define her character.

This is far more interesting than what we usually get.

Another example of such a character comes to us in the form of Dragon Age 2’s Knight Commander Meredith. She is horribly undermined by an ending that, in my view, reflects lazy writing and was perhaps the game’s worst moment, but you are otherwise shown an equally morally compromised woman who struggles mightily to do what she feels is right. Machiavellian evil is fascinating because it most closely imitates the evil we see in the real world. Most people are not Snidely Whiplash-esque moustache twirling sociopaths who do evil because it’s funny to them. Evil manifests itself in our world mainly in the form of people who are utterly convinced they are doing the right thing. Morality is rather tricky like that.

"Do not brand me a tyrant!" What I also find interesting about some of these characters is that they are portrayed as being older-- lines of middle age are visible on Meredith's face, for example, and Kreia is older still. It's a positive image for older women, to say the very least.

Knight-Commander Meredith is one such person. She is introduced to you quite forthrightly, her sword running through a powerful Mage on the verge of killing you. But she quickly evolves into an adversarial force. Meredith is a holy Templar commander driven by her desire to ensure that the Circle Mages under her command in Kirkwall are kept under control and do not become blood mages or abominations. With this in mind, she justifies increasingly onerous restrictions on their freedom. A literal red scare takes hold of her city as she sees the dreaded “blood mages” around every corner, purges becoming a regular feature of life in the city of Kirkwall. But through it all it’s impossible to walk away feeling Meredith has not thought this through. She commits moral wrongs in the name of moral rectitude; her convictions are deeply held and premised on fear of Mages with freedom causing widespread destruction. Meredith has considered all the arguments against her ideology. She is, you learn, painfully aware of the hurt she causes but believes strongly that she is resolutely holding back the tide of a greater evil.

To challenge her is to only compel her to stand her ground, and in a stentorian voice that feels like living scripture, she enjoins you to give her a better solution to this Gordian knot of a crisis between Templars and Mages. If you cannot—and indeed your character cannot—“then do not brand me a tyrant!” she thunders.

This is how you write a villain, and this is how you portray a woman as a human.

The most compelling characters make you think, and sometimes the most intriguing villains are those who are not outright evil, but who are morally compromised. Good people corrupted by the difficulties they confront, who convince themselves that the ends they envision are worth wicked means.

Other examples include Mother Petrice from Dragon Age 2, a quietly zealous manipulator who, again, is committed to doing what she sees as right. In a beautiful moral contest, Grand Cleric Elthina—her superior— can be shown chastising her for her radicalism, telling her “Eternity is long enough that we do not need to rush to meet it.” Elthina’s moderation contrasts with Petrice’s blossoming zeal. The struggle here is not one of cattiness, nor does it revolve around a man, but around a profound theological rift that each woman has her own struggles with.

Lord Zash, forcing someone to pay the price for their lack of vision. (Red robed, light skinned woman shooting lightning out of her hands.)

Moral complexity is wonderful, but you can also write complicated, interesting out-and-out evil. The Old Republic has a woman villain who, in an MMO with an enormous cast, manages to stand out: Lord Zash. While her physical beauty is occasionally remarked upon, what drives the story of the Sith Inquisitor class are Lord Zash’s manipulations and a carefully planned game of chess that testifies to a truly devious and thoughtful mind. A scholarly genius and an intelligent (rather than brash, impulsive, and childish) Sith Lord, she plays a long game leaving you to wonder if you’ll be ensnared next. Her evil is not the showy, infantile evil of your usual hyper-macho scarred Sith Lord (with the way some talk, it’s not hard to imagine some go out of their way to kick puppies and steal candy from babies). It is, instead, the evil of careful, strategic planning born of a true intellect. Each strike is the solution of an equation, a carefully calculated blow rather than an impulsive iota of violence-for-the-sake-of-violence.

Speaking of such, I’m making a note here to say that GLaDOS was a triumph (if ever there was one).

There are many ways to write such characters, of course, but careful attention given to motivation ensures that a character’s humanity—rather than a fetishised gender/race/sexuality—is what defines them as a narrative figure. Kreia is motivated by a drive to stop the Sith from using an ancient evil to consume all life in the galaxy, and by a long nursed hatred of the Force itself, as well as a desire for her as a teacher to have a successful student. Knight-Commander Meredith sees herself as the woman who must make painful choices to ensure peace and order in Kirkwall, and to stop Mages from becoming abominations that threaten the lives of all. In the name of all the above, they will commit to doing repulsive things.

At no point do we find ourselves harping on their looks, their sexuality, any femininity they may possess, or any other fetishised quality. Neither is turned into a man-hating caricature. And neither is a fundamentally morally righteous person; instead, they are human beings whose profound flaws are a part of their characters. What constitutes their “immorality” is also, crucially, not at all related to their sexualities.

Consider my title here: “Immoral Women.” Even now it conjures images of promiscuous, ‘loose’, or otherwise proudly sexual women, which is a testament to the suffocating and dehumanisingly limited framework with which women are saddled. I want that notion of immorality to be expanded to be something more fully human.

Speaking of fuller humanity there is another note that must be made, one of great importance when it comes to conceptualising “women”– it is a reminder that the category “woman” includes women of colour. I adore all of these characters, and am always grateful I have all these examples of great morally compromised women to choose from… and yet also dismayed that they all are, or appear white. Everything I’ve said hitherto applies just as much if not more to the lack of morally compromised, strong women of colour in games. Isabela from Dragon Age 2 is not a villain but as a rogue/pirate/renegade, definitely skirts the outer limits of ethics– and her struggles therewith define her character well. But it’s hard to think of many other women of colour with Kreia-level thought invested in their characters, regardless of whether they’re heroes, villains, or anything in between.

This brings us back to the beginning: the role of moral diversity in character portrayals and my sincere desire to see more women (all-inclusive) as villains and compromised figures. Perhaps part of the communication problem I have is that I use the word “good” when I say “good portrayals,” which leads people to think of it as a moral proposition. What I really mean is “well-written.” This includes the full spectrum of morality, it includes amorality, it includes immorality, and everything in between and beyond. Humans are flawed, and humans are capable of that full range of emotion, motivation, and morality.

No human is a true moral paragon of perfect righteousness. This is not a pessimistic statement about human nature, far from it. It is merely recognition that many people have intricate characters to some degree, and that because women are human, we can commit great wrongs as well as do good. What influences our sense of ethics is a complicated melange that no Madonna/Whore dichotomy can ever hope to capture.

The key to getting past stereotypes is recognising this.

Body of the Law: Trans Bodies in Cis Law (Adventures in Transgender Studies, Part II)

As I engaged in the ritual striptease meant to appease the airline gods at Denver International Airport, standing at the bin that I had claimed as my own with an advert I paid no attention to staring at me from its bottom, a TSA agent walked up to me. I was depositing my grey blazer in the bin, my belt soon to follow, and I grew nervous, my throat tightening as it often does on security lines.

But all that the blue uniformed man did was smile at me and say “Good morning to ya, ma’am.”

At that moment I knew, as if a disembodied computer voice had said in my head “Conditional Cissexual Privilege Activated” that I was safe. For now. I escorted my belongings, the worn leather boots that could theoretically contain a bomb, the belt that could theoretically contain a trigger mechanism. Or cocaine. My handbag full of feminist literature (now there’s something explosive). That was when motion caught my eye and I saw something ominously towering over the old fashioned metal detector. The rounded slate grey hulk of an x-ray machine scanning men and women in a surrendering position, arms held unthreateningly high above their heads. I swallowed thickly wondering if the jig was up, if I would at last have to face transphobia at the airport, if I would have to sit in a room listening to impertinent questions about what was in my knickers.

As I approached the metal detector and drew nearer to the x-ray machine I felt cold and uncomfortable, as if I were approaching some tainted evil artefact from one of my fantasy games. The dread relic of a tyrannical lord. All prose of a purple hue aside, however, I came to realise that the scanner was only for people who rang the metal detector inexplicably. Thank Goddess I decided against those nipple piercings.

As I glided beneath the metal detector’s auspices I escaped the intensified gaze of the guards when the machine didn’t go off. I was waved past and sent to collect my freshly x-rayed belongings.

When people, from activists to academics, assert that the personal is political it is an injunction to reflect on the wider meaning of quotidian events such as this one. It is a call to recognise the event not as an isolated monad among multitudes, but linked to others by a web of societal relations that can ensnare us all (or liberate us). I knew that day as I submitted myself for screening that I was coming up against the great legal fiction of gender that exists in this country, the fact that the timid bulge an x-ray scanner might have revealed were I subject to it would have marked me as a deviant, a potential terrorist with plastic explosives in her knickers, or just someone to be publicly humiliated otherwise. The fiction that sustains the meaning which licenses such behaviour is the patchwork quilt of laws in the US that defines gender.

It is always with such things as this in mind that I read transgender legal scholarship. As dispassionate and ‘objective’ as I try to peruse the readings on law and trans people, I find again and again that I am simply unable to divorce my lived, and embodied reality from that reading. A while ago I simply decided I should stop trying to distance myself; this was my life, after all. What cis privilege refers to is precisely the fact that the above scene I described is something a cis person almost never has to deal with concerning airport security. Or anything else in their day to day life. The definition of cis privilege is precisely that one can live a life where their gender is legally recognised as being beyond reproach.

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A Social Symphony: The Four Movements of Transphobia in Theory

In analysing the place of transgender and transsexual people in the theorising of various disciplines one finds several common threads that link together the entire enterprise. Society can often be quite messy and yet paradoxically can also be found to have identifiable mechanisms of operation that grind certain social forces inexorably forward. So what am I getting at with this? What are the common threads? Well, with the invaluable assistance of an expert social theorist who happens to be a trans woman, I believe I have found four.

Trans people are not the only group of people hard done by social and political theory; there is a lot to be learned from analysing how theoretical paradigms have utterly excluded other marginalised peoples. In her 2007 book Southern Theory, sociologist Raewyn Connell articulates an excellent exegesis of Western social theory that lays bare its deeply Eurocentric assumptions as well as the colonial enterprise that underlay it. The colonised world, she says, was merely a data mine whose raw numbers would be exported back to ‘the metropole’ (Europe and America) for theoretical production that would then come together as a definitive vision of the colonised. In this way the relationship between coloniser and colonised is no different when regarding the academic realm as opposed to, say, the political or industrial ones.

The links to how academics conceptualise and (more importantly) use trans people are quite clear here. Metaphors of colonisation are quite useful for discussing vastly unequal social dynamics within Western countries as well; histories of appropriation and exploitation are certainly not limited to the majority world and ‘data mines’ can be found just down the street from where I’m sitting as surely as they can in Ghana or Pakistan or Aboriginal Australia. What’s more the trouble with such theory is not just that they appropriate, misuse, and distort the experiences of the colonised, but that in other instances (particularly in the weaving of generic theories of society) they are ignored altogether. Connell has identified four movements of colonialist academia that she says characterise most attempts to theorise about society: the claim of universality, reading from the centre, gestures of exclusion, and grand erasure. I will go through each in turn and discuss their relevance to gender theory and trans folk specifically.

In her pathbreaking paper The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto [1991], trans woman cyborg-feminist theorist Sandy Stone articulates in brief summary an idea that structures both this article and a lot of my thinking in general about trans people’s relationship to medico-juridical establishments and the academy:

I wish to point out the broad similarities which this peculiar juxtaposition suggests to aspects of colonial discourse with which we may be familiar: The initial fascination with the exotic, extending to professional investigators; denial of subjectivity and lack of access to the dominant discourse; followed by a species of rehabilitation. …

Bodies are screens on which we see projected the momentary settlements that emerge from ongoing struggles over beliefs and practises within the academic and medical communities. These struggles play themselves out in arenas far removed from the body. Each is an attempt to gain a high ground which is profoundly moral in character, to make an authoritative and final explanation for the way things are and consequently for the way they must continue to be. In other words, each of these accounts is culture speaking with the voice of an individual. The people who have no voice in this theorising are the transsexuals themselves. As with males theorising about women from the beginning of time, theorists of gender have seen transsexuals as possessing something less than agency.

This all makes itself manifest in the fascination some theorists have with us, fetishising the exotic trans people they see in their mind’s eye as either innately radical or conservative, denying that trans people’s individual self-understandings are meaningful (unless they comport with a dominant cis narrative), and a belief that the ideas expressed either in patriarchally-controlled medicine, psychiatry, or the academy can somehow save us. Thrumming beneath it all as a foundational gloss is the idea that we can neither speak nor act for ourselves, that we could never be adequate producers of knowledge about our own lives.

This is accomplished in the following ways:

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Theory is Yours: A Brief Archaeology of Trans Feminist Awesome

This post will appear as a crosspost on QT very shortly and was addressed chiefly to its audience, and thus the ‘this space’ term refers to Questioning Transphobia. Otherwise, enjoy!

In looking out at the vast, expansive canon of gender studies literature, and in light of even the most superficial analysis of its myriad failings it is easy to feel dispirited by what it has to offer trans people. It is all too easy to understand the instinct to abandon both queer and gender studies as a privileged exercise in neo-pathology, the postmodern turn of the same ideologies that guided the hegemonic psychiatrists of decades past. One could find yet more examples, of course.

Judith Lorber, someone readers of my blog may remember my past disagreements with, had this to say in 1994 about trans people: “[trans folk do not challenge the gender order because] their goal is to be feminine women and masculine men” (Lorber 1994, 20). Yet again we find the tireless obsession with attributing a politics to identity in the simplest possible terms, yet again we find the clutching of pearls with regard to the innate, literal body politic of trans people. It might perhaps be too obvious to tell Professor Lorber that for all of her elegant theorising about the socially constructed nature of gender she cannot bring herself to describe trans people by their proper pronouns (for example calling Renee Richards “he” and Billy Tipton “she”) nor to belabour the questionable hypocrisy of being unable to break out of the role of arbiter even as she derides the imposition of gender schema upon people.

However, to simply shine more light on the white cis women of gender academia and call them to the carpet for their tacit transphobia does a disservice to the armies of trans folk that have devoted their not inconsiderable intellectual, emotional, and spiritual energy to challenging these things since before I even drew breath.

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I Am Whoever You Say I Am

In the long march into academia one naturally becomes intimately acquainted with the geeky and esoteric minutiae of whatever discipline one has chosen for their career. Over the last two years I’ve found myself up to my eyeballs in gender studies text and find it utterly fascinating. I’m often seen scurrying to and fro with a book or two tucked under my arm and my desk is covered in all manner of books appertaining to my passions. But importantly, when you are trans-anything and delving into the wild and woolly world of gender studies you have to be ready for the fact that there will be lots and lots of highly credentialed, intellectual academics theorising about you who do not know what the hell they’re talking about.

This occupational hazard is, to put it bluntly, both annoying and the reason I’m doing the sociology of gender in the first place. The only way this is going to be truly fixed is when we start writing the theory and we start conducting the research, casting our eyes not just on this wild and strange tribe of “transgender” but also on cis people whose views are far more powerful in shaping how our fractioned community is gendered and understood. What I’m looking at today is a particular strain of thought that is increasingly common in Third Wave feminist theorising; it is ostensibly trans positive but ends up being highly fetishising, stereotypical, and ultimately transphobic. It stands in contrast to that Janice Raymond school of theorising that constructs us purely in terms of an outsider, an enemy who constitutes a patriarchal invasion-cum-Body Snatchers. This vision instead sees us (or some of us) as ‘useful’- we have utility in the quest of certain cis feminists to smash the gender binary. Yet what unites both of these seemingly oppositional philosophies is that they are theories formed by cis people about us, relative to their gender ideology, and that construct us as ‘other.’

There are a few major currents in this new feminist theory that merit deconstruction and they will likely be familiar to most readers in one way or another:

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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.


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.