“Beautiful and Lofty Things”: Queer Appeals to Power and Turn of the Century Sexology

A presentation given at the trans/forming feminisms conference in Dunedin, New Zealand, on the 25th of November 2015. An expanded version of an earlier essay.


 

“How could it be unhealthy, that which makes a man happy and inspires in him beautiful and lofty things! His only misfortune is that social barriers and penal codes stand in the way of ‘naturally’ expressing his drive. This would be a great hardship.”[1]

The turn of the twentieth century is widely regarded as an extremely important era for sexology and the formation of the queer identities we know today.[2] It’s acknowledged as the period from which we get the labels, categories, and identities ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’, and sexological literature and discourse from the era has a pervasive impact on queer discourse today. However, sexology’s relationship with homosexuality is more ambiguous and complex than a simple and clear-cut categorisation into the homo/hetero binary, and its agents of influence have been heavily criticised both within academia and in queer circles. Today’s talk is in two parts: the first is a focus on Richard von Krafft-Ebing and his work and influence; the second continues a more general look at developments within sexology and their continuing influence on discourse.

In public discourse as well as areas of academia today, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homo/hetero binary dominates. This model, a “presiding master term” as she calls it, is one in which heterosexuality relies on homosexuality for its own existence and definition.[3] It is often interpreted as a strict, mutually exclusive binary, and Sedgwick does not question exactly how binarised this model is.[4] The model is still useful, however, in noting a particular shift at the turn of the century: “every given person, just as he or she was necessarily assignable to a male or a female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo-or hetero-sexuality”.[5] This now significant shift was the result of many smaller changes in ideological thought at the time: from deviance, to inversion, to finally the shift in focus from sexual act to sexual object choice.

In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing published the first edition of Psychopathia sexualis, a psychiatric text intended for lawyers and use in the justice system in distinguishing between crime and disease – the primary way same-sex attraction and behaviour was discussed in the era. Psychopathia sexualis categorised many forms of non-normative non-procreative sexuality, including sadism, masochism, fetishism, and ‘contrary sexual feeling’ or inversion – that is, same-sex attraction and behaviour. The work has been heavily criticised by many people from many backgrounds. Presentist historians, antipsychiatrists, queer theorists and historians alike have criticised Psychopathia sexualis for a form of medical colonisation and for medicalising sexuality and queerness. Thomas Szaz criticised Krafft-Ebing for aiming to “supplant the waning power of the church with the waxing power of medicine” and claimed that Psychopathia sexualis was full of unscientific falsehoods.[6] Some of these are not necessarily unfair critiques, but early sexology and Psychopathia sexualis in particular remains especially worthy of study considering its extensive autobiographical content and its pervasive influence on queer community and discourse as well as on the shaping of our model of sexuality.

Psychopathia sexualis’ significance, for me, comes from the extensive amount of autobiographies within the text and the relative freedom under which they were given. Earlier in his career Krafft-Ebing worked in places such as the overcrowded Feldhof Asylum, with generally poor and uneducated patients who were institionalised more for custodial care than treatment and who had no choice but to conform to medical standard and rule and share their stories involuntarily and surely with less respect and agency. But later and later editions of Psychopathia sexualis contained more and more volunteered autobiographical content from queer men. Unfortunately, these men were from a very singular and homogenous social and cultural class and experience – white, educated, wealthy, aristocratic, bourgeoisie. Krafft-Ebing eventually established a clinical ward in the university hospital as well as a private sanatorium led to more and more wealthy, educated, upper-class patients whose case histories were a lot more autobiographical and who would have had a lot more agency in telling their stories. Oosterhuis notes that homosexual men particular seized this opportunity.[7] Krafft-Ebing as well as Albert Moll, writing soon after, worked with both upper class clients with agency as well as lower class patients and those with otherwise lessened agency. Oosterhuis points this out nicely: “Lower class men, prosecuted sexual offenders, the hospitalised and most female patients were generally not in a position to escape the coercion which undeniably was part of psychiatric practice.”[8]

The primary focus of critiques of Krafft-Ebing and Psychopathia sexualis is one of medicalization. As Foucault claims, the delegating of sexuality to the realm of medicine started with the sexologists of the late 19th century. Our model of sexuality is medicalised because of them, and hard work has been done and continues to be done to undo this influence. However, a brief look at the alternative contemporary models of sexuality and queerness in particular reveals that we perhaps could have had it a lot worse. Urlich’s contemporaries in Britain were also advocating for decriminalisation and acceptance, but the prevalent model and experience of queerness among the British upper class was one of age difference. The ‘accepted’ queer among this class was an older aristocratic man who slept with much younger boys, both aristocratic and from lower classes. Although there were other factors in play, if the influence of this British aristocratic queer had been more pervasive than the German sexological influence, it could have resulted in a very different model to the medicalised Born This Way archetype we have today.

I am not as ready to defend Krafft-Ebing and sexology as a whole as historians such as Oosterhuis, nor am I as ready as Oosterhuis to dismiss the idea that sexuality was comprehensively medicalised by sexology and psychiatry in the era. Oosterhuis, in multiple papers on the subject, seems to believe that medicalization requires the complete, overt, and explicit domination of its subjects, and that as a result the subjects must have zero agency in the process. It seems to be his belief that because of the autobiographical content and because of the way at least those upper-class men were able to tell their stories freely and with agency that the concept of medicalization does not apply. It is true that Psychopathia sexualis and its autobiographies enabled ‘perverts’ and queer men to speak and be heard, and that it enabled voices usually silenced to be seen, and it is necessarily true that such autobiographical content exemplifies a level of agency not typically seen in some interpretations of Foucault’s theories of medicalisation. However, I assert that theorists like Oosterhuis are critically misunderstanding these theories, and suggest that the existence of a modicum of agency does not negate nor preclude the domination or hegemony of medicine and medicalisation. While the subjects may be given a voice, the medical field then utilises that voice to its own advantage – the agency of the autobiographies given by queer men of the time is used to strengthen the hold of medicalisation in the same way that queer men used the medicalisation of their sexuality to challenge the rule of law over their identity.

Because it is very clear that these men knew what they were doing in sending Krafft-Ebing their autobiographies; their appeal to power and the legitimacy of medicine is often made explicit in the autobiographies themselves. A ‘highly placed man from London’ (Oosterhuis’ words) wrote to Krafft-Ebing and said: “I believe that your perspective [that of same-sex attraction being an illness or disease instead of moral corruption] is most advantageous for us” even as in the same paragraph he rejected the word ‘unhealthy’ and indulged in “giving you some more relevant explications”.[9] In appealing to medicine, they strove to shift same-sex attraction and behaviour from the realm of crime and law to the realm of health and medicine – the primary drive in activism of the time, even as the men themselves vehemently denied being sick. In these autobiographies we see a very early example of the phenomenon made explicit by Lady Gaga in 2011: the ‘born this way’ archetype of queerness, or, in more academic terms, the innate or biological model of sexuality. Later editions of Psychopathia sexualis contained many letters discussing the fact that their perceived illness stemmed not from their nature or their sexual identity, but from the social barriers to that identity.

One man wrote in 1890: “Unfortunately, we are considered sick for a completely valid reason, namely, that we really became sick and that one then confuses cause and effect…”[10] These appeals surely had at least a modicum of success: by the 1890s Krafft-Ebing himself was putting his name to petitions to repeal laws criminalising same-sex behaviour; the early protest movements of the end of the century referred to Krafft-Ebing as a scientific authority; and after signing Magnus Hirschfeld’s petition in 1897 Krafft-Ebing contributed his last article on homosexuality in which he stated that there was truth to the opinion of his queer correspondents, argued that it was a condition that had to be accepted, and even attributed an equal ethical value to same-sex and heterosexual love.[11]

The appeals to power we see in the autobiographical content in Psychopathia sexualis are not a thing of the past – today we would probably refer to them as respectability politics, playing to the desires and norms of those in power in order to obtain a modicum of that power – or more likely simply a modicum of humanity – ourselves. The case for gay marriage is a significant example of this kind of appeal to power; moulding ourselves and our relationships to a heterosexual standard to the detriment of those who do not wish to conform or play to respectability. Instead of extending the rights of the married – such as immigration policies, adoption, healthcare and insurance coverage, even simple things such as visitation rights to a hospitalised partner – to those who are unmarried or not in a civil partnership, the gay marriage campaign has simply extended the right to marry. It is worth noting that this particular appeal to power gained so much popularity and focus within the community and without that other issues, such as the wellbeing of queer and trans youth, the treatment of transgender prisoners, the life expectancy and death rates of trans women of colour – have fallen to the wayside.

Money also plays a big part in the gay marriage issue – in California, gay marriage campaigners spent $48 billion opposing prop 8 when California’s provisions for domestic partnership provide almost the exact same benefits – $48 million on essentially symbolic acceptance.[12] It’s also interesting to note that in countries that have legalised gay marriage, funding to queer organisations and activists has dropped significantly – there’s an obvious pattern in the states of once multimillion dollar statewide equality organisations either shutting down or being rendered useless due to a lack of funding.

Appeals to power and respectability politics can be utilised positively, however, even in radical queer activism. For example, No Pride in Prisons is a resolutely abolitionist organisation, but that aspect of our politics is necessarily played down in media releases and social media communications in order to gain the support of the more liberal majority and especially in order to successfully communicate and negotiate with the officials we desperately despise and wish did not exist at all. It has results; during our hunger strike for Jade Follett, a trans woman being held against her will in a men’s facility, No Pride in Prisons remained in the media well beyond the 24 hour cycle that typically decimates activism, making it to the front pages of Stuff, TVNZ, 3 News, and the Herald three times that week and obtaining a significant-length report on the 6 o’clock news. The strike was quickly successful, and this can be attributed to the amount of pressure on the Department of Corrections that stemmed from both extensive media coverage and significant online support. Such coverage and support would not have been possible if we instead sat on K Rd with signs saying “move Jade Follett and close down Rimutaka” – in this case, the appeal to power is not the end game, but rather a step towards full abolition. The goal is not immediately feasible, so we must make sure that those subjected to the violence of the prison system are kept as safe as possible until the prison system no longer exists.

Unfortunately, there is no sign of the ‘born this way’ appeal to power of queer men at the turn of the century being a step in a larger plan, and it is only in relatively recent years that the medicalisation of queerness and transness in particular has begun to be addressed in queer activism; for example in the challenges to the placement of homosexuality and the shift from ‘gender identity disorder’ to ‘gender dysphoria’ in the DSM. Current activism seeks to remove transness from the DSM completely, instead focussing on its placement in the more extensive International Classification of Diseases, where it could be placed in a category of health conditions instead of disease or illness.

Sexology’s initial discussion of same-sex attraction and behaviour in terms of deviance and disease in order to argue that conditions such as inversion, or contrary sexual feeling, were pathological and thus in the realm of medicine as opposed to law or religion lead to the early medico-sexological position that same-sex attraction had two forms: congenital and acquired, as Krafft-Ebing called it, forms of antipathic sexual instinct.[13] Krafft-Ebing also made a distinction between perversity and perversion: acquired antipathic sexual instinct was temporary and contextual; the determining factor was “the demonstration of perverse feeling for the same sex; not the proof of sexual acts with the same sex”.[14] He warned against confusing perversity and perversion, acquired and congential, and stated that there was “an immediate return to normal sexual intercourse as soon as the obstacles to it are removed”.[15] In contrast, congenital antipathic instinct stemmed from a pre-existing taint in particular individuals. In these cases, the ‘homosexual instinct’ overwhelmed the ‘heterosexual instinct’, a concept that prefigures later discourse on the subject.[16] Krafft-Ebing’s model of same-sex attraction included some notions of hereditary taint as well as influences such as masturbation and seduction.

His model was one of morality, “the eternal struggle between a bestial sexual nature and the demands of civilized culture”.[17] This particular area of Krafft-Ebing’s thought was verified by Albert Moll, writing eight years later, who agreed that same-sex desires could stem from either hereditary or contextual causes. Moll however did not agree with or make use of Krafft-Ebing’s distinction between congenital and acquired inversion. Significantly, Moll expanded the contextual causes of inversion to include individuals who may experience temporal same-sex desires: someone “‘seized from time to time with homosexual desires’, even when a ‘heterosexual urge’ predominates within him”.[18]

The next major development came three years later in 1896 with Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion. Ellis did not conceive of same-sex desire as pathological, and heavily questioned the notions of pure or exclusive masculinity and femininity, arguing that everyone possessed ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics, and that the proportions of these varied in individuals. Ellis also proposed a new distinction between inversion and homosexuality, in which inversion was innate and homosexuality was the result of sociocultural context (for example, rates of homosexuality would increase in homosocial contexts such as boarding schools or prisons).[19] This new distinction replaced the model of congential vs acquired in his work, as Ellis found it had “ceased to possess significance”.[20] Ellis already was questioning the usefulness of homo/hetero categorisations, calling them “scarcely a scientific classification”, instead breaking down his notion of homosexuality into two forms, one ‘strong’ and one ‘weak’, including men who may have relationships with women.[21][22]

Ellis’ work led naturally to the work of Freud, even though they worked in different fields. Freud built on Ellis’ work and took it further, arguing against the existence of congenital attraction, due to his tripartite model of sexual attraction including ‘occasional inversion’, a preference for same-sex partners under certain contextual conditions.[23] Significantly, Freud believed in a polymorphous model of attraction, under which individuals can potentially desire any sex: “it is something which is congenital in all persons”.[24] This universality challenged existing thought around inversion: if the potential for perversion was universal, then there could be no easy physical indication of inversion, and as such an individual’s sexual object choice was unlinked from their gender presentation. Freud also introduced a distinction between sexual aim and sexual object choice.[25] Prior to this, sexual aim was inextricably linked to social and gender role – if a man’s sexual aim was passive, he must be effeminate – and was of equal importance to object choice in classifying and categorising sexuality.

Chauncey lays it out succinctly: “’men,’ whether biologically or male or female, necessarily chose passive women as their sexual objects.”[26] By the turn of the century object choice became the focus of classification, and due to the universality in Freud’s model, the passive or active sexual aim was no longer indicative of social role. This is an important and large step toward the model of object choice homosexual identity we are familiar with today.

There is a link, as Chauncey points out, between distinction of object choice and sexual aim and the increasing use of the term ‘homosexuality’.[27] During this time the term’s definition also crystallised, referring only to homosexual object choice without automatically implying gender variance or inversion of the normative male sexual role. It is interesting and important to note that this shift occurred significantly slower for women – Freud explicitly stated that social role inversion was a normal feature of female sexual inversion in his Three Essays, the same work in which he unlinked social role from sexual role for men.[28]

Earlier sexology, when studying relationships between a ‘masculine’ woman and a normative woman, tended to focus on the ‘masculine’ woman as the invert, considering the normative woman to be performing her proper social role under the heterosexual paradigm of the Victorian era, as Chauncey called it.[29] Under this paradigm the normative woman, who was passive and “decidedly feminine” according to Hamilton in 1896, was fulfilling her expected social role by acting as wife to someone of masculine character – as if she were married to a man.[30] As such the ‘feminine’ agent did not challenge the heterosexual paradigm and was not a major subject of study until the late nineteenth century. It is interesting to note that this relationship paradigm described the ‘masculine’ partner as the ‘offender’, and referred to the ‘feminine’ partner as “the weak victim”, mirroring and potentially influencing more current discourse and ideas around lesbians and lesbian partnerships: that is, the trope in public discourse of the ‘predatory’ lesbian, and intra-community discussions around butch/femme relationships.

By the late nineteenth century these women began to concern the medical profession, and Ellis stated “we are accustomed to a much greater familiarity and intimacy between women than between men, and we are less apt to suspect the existence of any abnormal passion”.[31] This is another area in which sexology’s influence has perhaps remained in more current discourse, or at least in which it can continue to provide an insight. Such ideas are commonly seen in tabloid-like news articles about celebrities, in which any pair of women showing affection are labelled “gal pals” and assumed to be friends. Headlines in such articles can read as ludicrous, such as “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile”.[32]

Study of these ‘invert/normative’ relationships began to break down the heterosexual paradigm, as both partners were pathologised as lesbians due to object choice instead of sexual aim. The ‘wife’s role was no longer of victim but of active and complicit – however it was not until the late 1920s that it was ‘discovered’ that neither partner in these relationships was ‘playing the role of the man’ when a study performed by Lura Beam and Robert Latou Dickinson revealed that no lesbians in their study thought of themselves as performing the male part.[33] This challenge to the heterosexual paradigm served to highlight the shift toward object choice as the focus in classifying female sexual identity alongside male.

When considering sexology’s ambiguous relationship to homosexuality it is also important to examine possible cultural influences on the literature and vice versa – whether societal or medical shifts in thinking came first. Chauncey offers three developments in American society that he considers were an influence on sexological thinking: the visibility of urban gay male subcultures, the challenges posed to Victorian norms by women, both in the form of suffragettes and in women entering the wage-labor workforce, and the resexualisation of women in mainstream thought that stemmed from these challenges. Chauncey also cites medicine’s rise to ideological superiority over religion and law as influential.[34]

The entrance of women into the workforce led to a higher degree of social and economic independence, at the same time that marriage and birth rates in the middle-class were declining. In the 1880s onward this led to a crisis of masculinity of some sort as women were no longer reliant on men for economic support as well as other unrelated factors such as declining autonomy in men’s workplaces.[35] These challenges and the resulting crisis, Chauncey argues, led to a “sudden growth in the medical literature on sexual inversion” as a way to defend the existing sex/gender system and potentially stigmatise women who were performing a non-normative social role of independence as inverts and deviants. Ellis, in Sexual Inversion, quoted an unnamed “American correspondent” who stated that one of the reasons for the rise in inversion was “the growing independence of the women” and “their lessening need for marriage”.[36] Despite these challenges from medical literature, women in the early twentieth century were gaining more freedoms and experiencing a resexualisation in popular thought – likely due to the increased economic necessity of marriage. If women no longer needed to get married to support themselves, then there should be another draw to it: sexual desire. This shift occurred alongside homosexual object choice being increasingly condemned for women, likely again as a means to protect heterosexual marriage.

An increase in concern about gender non-conforming men is linked to case histories of queer men indicating existing subcultures which were increasing in visibility, especially in New York, and as early as the 1880s.[37] It is important to note that the men in these case histories were identifying themselves as part of these subcultures, a significant step toward identity formation, and that these subcultures pre-dated the medical literature about them – as Chauncey states, “[t]hey were investigating a subculture rather than creating one”.[38]

As such, it is clear that medical and sexological literature was not acting alone or in a vacuum, but was influenced by and even responded to shifting social norms. These areas of sexology in particular are worthy of note and study as they relate heavily to current discourse: heterosexual marriage is still viewed as ‘under warfare’ by the conservative right, for example, and queerness is still overwhelmingly thought of in the ‘born this way’ paradigm exemplified in the pathologisation and medicalization of same-sex desire as well as in the case notes and autobiographies in both Krafft-Ebing and Moll’s work.[39]  

Additionally, as current discourse around sexuality encounters more and more fluidity beyond the hetero/homo binary and indeed beyond the additions of bisexuality, pansexuality, and so on, such as the existence of “gay for play” men, which refers to men who self-identify as straight but submit Casual Encounter listings on Craigslist looking for men to have sexual interactions with, and the “g0y” movement, an identity claimed by men who love men but do not identify as gay, queer, or homosexual, and who abhor anal sex, thorough analysis on the construction of hetero and homosexual identities and the fluid possibilities that preceded their dominance is especially significant.[40]

 

 

 

 

Bibiolography

Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006

Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989

Dettmer, Lisa. Beyond Gay Marriage, Weaving the Threads, 17, 2, 2010 http://reimaginerpe.org/node/5822

Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895

Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896)

Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905)

Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896

Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902)

Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia sexualis, 5th ed., 1980

Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis, 14th ed., 1912

Krafft-Ebing, R., “Zur ‘conträren Sexualemfindung’ in klinishc-forensicher Hinsicht”, 1882

Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893)

Oosterhuis, H., ‘Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s “Step-Children of Nature”: Psychiatry and the Making of Homosexual Identity’, in K.M. Phillips and B.Reay, eds, Sexualities in History: A Reader, New York, 2002

Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994

Szaz, T., Sex by Prescription. New York: Garden City, 1980

[1] Krafft-Ebing, R., “Zur ‘conträren Sexualemfindung’ in klinishc-forensicher Hinsicht”, 1882, pg 213-14.

[2] I use ‘queer’ and ‘queerness’ throughout this essay as shorthand for same-sex attractions and behaviour; however it is important to note that this term is anachronistic and may often pre-date any queer, homosexual, or same-sex attracted identity.

[3] Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994, 11.

[4] Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006, 427.

[5] Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 2.

[6] Szaz, T., Sex by Prescription. New York: Garden City, 1980, pg 19-20

[7] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s “Step-Children of Nature”: Psychiatry and the Making of Homosexual Identity’, in K.M. Phillips and B.Reay, eds, Sexualities in History: A Reader, New York, 2002, pg 279

[8] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

[9] Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis, 14th ed., 1912, pg 430 (quoted in Oosterhuis, ‘Step-Children of Nature’, pg 281)

[10] Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia sexualis, 5th ed., 1980, pg 129-30. (Quoted in Oosterhuis, ‘Step-Children of Nature’, pg 281)

[11] Oosterhuis, ‘Step-Children of Nature’, pg 283.

[12] Dettmer, Lisa. Beyond Gay Marriage, Weaving the Threads, 17, 2, 2010 http://reimaginerpe.org/node/5822

[13] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989, pg 129.

[14] Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902), 188

[15] Ibid.

[16] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 429.

[17] Ibid, 431.

[18] Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893), 139. Quoted in Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 432.

[19] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 433.

[20] Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896), 83.

[21] Ibid, 87.

[22] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 434.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905), 6.

[25] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 123.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, 124.

[28] Freud, Three Contributions, 8.

[29] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 125.

[30] Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896, 505. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 126.

[31] Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895, 142. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 127.

[32] Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

[33] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 128.

[34] Ibid, 139.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ellis, Sexual Inversion, 261. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 140.

[37] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 142.

[38] Ibid, 143.

[39] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity’

[40] “Gay for play” refers to men who self-identify as straight but submit Casual Encounter listings on Craigslist looking for men to have sexual interactions with. “g0y” is an identity claimed by men who love men but do not identify as gay, queer, or homosexual, and who abhor anal sex. For more, see http://g0y.org. For more analysis on the significance of non-queer identifying men engaging in same-sex behaviour, see Shields, J., Para: A Working of Contemporary Parasexuality, Auckland: Artspace NZ, 2015, http://artspace.org.nz/doclibrary/public/JenniferKatherineShields_para.pdf.

Corrections Continues to Fail Transgender Prisoners – And Breaches the Official Information Act

“We are sensitive to the needs of transgender prisoners including the issues surrounding their placement and safety.”

That’s the line we got in every single press release from Corrections about transgender inmates this year. During the hunger strike for Jade Follett, who was being held in Rimutaka, a men’s facility, despite her request for a transfer, that’s what they said (along with denying the existence of her transfer request, considering they lost it). When news broke of a trans woman being assaulted and raped in Wiri, another men’s facility, that’s what they said. If someone confirms the rumours that the prisoner who committed suicide in Mt Eden was trans, that’ll be what they say (as an aside, if anyone has information about this, please get in touch with either myself or No Pride in Prisons). They’ve fallen back on this line over and over again in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

Corrections has never responded satisfactorily to activists and advocates and their demands for better, safer treatment of trans people in prisons. They have not responded satisfactorily to No Pride in Prisons’ attempts to hold them accountable. They did not take responsibility for the rape in Wiri, a direct result of their policy around trans placement and their double-bunking policy. They have not taken any steps to improve their placement policy beyond the Minister of Corrections, Sam Lotu-Iiga, stating that the policy was “fairly new” and that if it kept failing he’d look at changing it.

When the news broke that Jade Follett had been transferred, we kept pushing for more. I was explicit in my interviews with press that this transfer wasn’t the whole issue and that policy around initial placement needed to be addressed, including around remand facilities. It isn’t clear in the Corrections Prison Manual whether trans prisoners are placed in the correct remand facility or whether they’re eligible for transfer while awaiting sentencing, but we know both Jade Follett and Daytona Haenga more recently were in men’s remand facilities – Haenga ended up in protective segregation while in remand.

Corrections also need to address their transfer policy around serious sexual assault – currently a trans prisoner cannot be transferred to the correct and safer facility if they have been convicted of a serious sexual assault against their gender. Anecdotal evidence seems to point to the fact that trans people can be convicted of ‘serious sexual assault’ for not disclosing their trans status before a sexual interaction. Regardless of the details of the conviction, however, deliberately exposing trans women to a 13x higher rate of sexual abuse is torture, and at the very least surely counts as “disproportionately severe” in the eyes of the law. Either way, Corrections’ policy around this is abhorrent and needs to be repealed.

Back in June and July a group of us submitted a range of Official Information Act requests to Corrections asking for information about trans and intersex prisoners and their conditions. Specifically, we asked about how many transgender prisoners there were and where they were being held. Corrections refused to answer, stating “we cannot readily extract statistics about numbers of current and former transgender prisoners from our records,” that they would “be required to manually review a large number of files” to get that information, and that was not “an appropriate use of our publicly funded resources”. Today, Deputy National Commissioner Rachel Leota told Radio NZ that there were 20 transgender prisoners in Corrections facilities.

Where did this data come from? Did they suddenly decide, now that there’s more public focus on these issues, that extracting this data was an appropriate use of public funds? Are our lives and safety only worthwhile when there’s public outcry? Did Corrections take Sophie Buchanan’s advice and find someone to call up the manager of each facility to get an estimate (and respond to RNZ but not the long-overdue OIA request?)

This is just another example of Corrections showing a complete disregard for incarcerated trans people and the advocates trying to improve things.

It’s time for Minister Lotu-Iiga to take action and do something, instead of waiting for Corrections policy to continue to fail trans prisoners with horrific results. It’s time for placement policy to be changed. It’s time for some kind of process, before placement into remand, identifying the needs of trans prisoners and where they need to be for their safety. It’s time to get rid of the frankly torturous serious sexual assault part of the transfer policy.

It’s time for Corrections to take responsibility for the harm they have caused and continue to cause, and to admit that they are not, in fact, “sensitive to the needs of transgender prisoners including the issues surrounding their placement and safety.”

“Enigmatical, Obscure, Incomprehensible”: Fluid Sexuality in Turn of the Century Sexology and Its Impact on Current Queer Discourse

Written for a History of Sex paper at the University of Auckland in October 2015. I will also be presenting on this and related material at the trans/forming feminisms conference at the University of Otago in November.

The turn of the twentieth century is widely regarded as an extremely important era for sexology and the formation of the queer identities we know today.[1] It’s acknowledged as the period from which we get the labels, categories, and identities ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’, and sexological literature and discourse from the era has a pervasive impact on queer discourse today. However, sexology’s relationship with homosexuality is more ambiguous and complex than a simple and clear-cut categorisation into the homo/hetero binary.

In public discourse as well as areas of academia today, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homo/hetero binary dominates. This model, a “presiding master term” as she calls it, is one in which heterosexuality relies on homosexuality for its own existence and definition.[2] It is often interpreted as a strict, mutually exclusive binary, and Sedgwick does not question exactly how binarised this model is.[3] The model is still useful, however, in noting a particular shift at the turn of the century: “every given person, just as he or she was necessarily assignable to a male or a female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo-or hetero-sexuality”.[4] This now significant shift was the result of many smaller changes in ideological thought at the time: from deviance, to inversion, to finally the shift in focus from sexual act to sexual object choice.

Sexology initially discussed same-sex attraction and behaviour in terms of deviance and disease, in order to argue in the 1880s that conditions such as inversion, or contrary sexual feeling, were pathological and thus in the realm of medicine as opposed to law or religion.[5] This lead to the early medico-sexological position that same-sex attraction had two forms: congenital and acquired, as Krafft-Ebing called it, forms of antipathic sexual instinct. Krafft-Ebing also made a distinction between perversity and perversion: acquired antipathic sexual instinct was temporary and contextual; the determining factor was “the demonstration of perverse feeling for the same sex; not the proof of sexual acts with the same sex”.[6] He warned against confusing perversity and perversion, acquired and congential, and stated that there was “an immediate return to normal sexual intercourse as soon as the obstacles to it are removed”.[7] In contrast, congenital antipathic instinct stemmed from a pre-existing taint in particular individuals. In these cases, the ‘homosexual instinct’ overwhelmed the ‘heterosexual instinct’, a concept that prefigures later discourse on the subject.[8] Krafft-Ebing’s model of same-sex attraction included some notions of hereditary taint as well as influences such as masturbation and seduction. His model was one of morality, “the eternal struggle between a bestial sexual nature and the demands of civilized culture”.[9] This particular area of Krafft-Ebing’s thought was verified by Albert Moll, writing eight years later, who agreed that same-sex desires could stem from either hereditary or contextual causes. Moll however did not agree with or make use of Krafft-Ebing’s distinction between congenital and acquired inversion. Significantly, Moll expanded the contextual causes of inversion to include individuals who may experience temporal same-sex desires: someone “‘seized from time to time with homosexual desires’, even when a ‘heterosexual urge’ predominates within him”.[10]

The next major development came three years later in 1896 with Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion. Ellis did not conceive of same-sex desire as pathological, and heavily questioned the notions of pure or exclusive masculinity and femininity, arguing that everyone possessed ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics, and that the proportions of these varied in individuals. Ellis also proposed a new distinction between inversion and homosexuality, in which inversion was innate and homosexuality was the result of sociocultural context (for example, rates of homosexuality would increase in homosocial contexts such as boarding schools or prisons).[11] This new distinction replaced the model of congential vs acquired in his work, as Ellis found it had “ceased to possess significance”.[12] Ellis already was questioning the usefulness of homo/hetero categorisations, calling them “scarcely a scientific classification”, instead breaking down his notion of homosexuality into two forms, one ‘strong’ and one ‘weak’, including men who may have relationships with women.[13][14]

Ellis’ work led naturally to the work of Freud, even though they worked in different fields. Freud built on Ellis’ work and took it further, arguing against the existence of congenital attraction, due to his tripartite model of sexual attraction including ‘occasional inversion’, a preference for same-sex partners under certain contextual conditions.[15] Significantly, Freud believed in a polymorpheus model of attraction, under which individuals can potentially desire any sex: “it is something which is congenital in all persons”.[16] This universality challenged existing thought around inversion: if the potential for perversion was universal, then there could be no easy physical indication of inversion, and as such an individual’s sexual object choice was unlinked from their gender presentation. Freud also introduced a distinction between sexual aim and sexual object choice.[17] Prior to this, sexual aim was inextricably linked to social and gender role – if a man’s sexual aim was passive, he must be effeminate – and was of equal importance to object choice in classifying and categorising sexuality. Chauncey lays it out succinctly: “’men,’ whether biologically or male or female, necessarily chose passive women as their sexual objects.”[18] By the turn of the century object choice became the focus of classification, and due to the universality in Freud’s model, the passive or active sexual aim was no longer indicative of social role. This is an important and large step toward the model of object choice homosexual identity we are familiar with today.

There is a link, as Chauncey points out, between distinction of object choice and sexual aim and the increasing use of the term ‘homosexuality’.[19] During this time the term’s definition also crystallised, referring only to homosexual object choice without automatically implying gender variance or inversion of the normative male sexual role. It is interesting and important to note that this shift occurred significantly slower for women – Freud explicitly stated that social role inversion was a normal feature of female sexual inversion in his Three Essays, the same work in which he unlinked social role from sexual role for men.[20]

Earlier sexology, when studying relationships between a ‘masculine’ woman and a normative woman, tended to focus on the ‘masculine’ woman as the invert, considering the normative woman to be performing her proper social role under the heterosexual paradigm of the Victorian era, as Chauncey called it.[21] Under this paradigm the normative woman, who was passive and “decidedly feminine” according to Hamilton in 1896, was fulfilling her expected social role by acting as wife to someone of masculine character – as if she were married to a man.[22] As such the ‘feminine’ agent did not challenge the heterosexual paradigm and was not a major subject of study until the late nineteenth century. It is interesting to note that this relationship paradigm described the ‘masculine’ partner as the ‘offender’, and referred to the ‘feminine’ partner as “the weak victim”, mirroring and potentially influencing more current discourse and ideas around lesbians and lesbian partnerships: that is, the trope in public discourse of the ‘predatory’ lesbian, and intra-community discussions around butch/femme relationships. By the late nineteenth century these women began to concern the medical profession, and Ellis stated “we are accustomed to a much greater familiarity and intimacy between women than between men, and we are less apt to suspect the existence of any abnormal passion”.[23] This is another area in which sexology’s influence has perhaps remained in more current discourse, or at least in which it can continue to provide an insight. Such ideas are commonly seen in tabloid-like news articles about celebrities, in which any pair of women showing affection are labelled “gal pals” and assumed to be friends. Headlines in such articles can read as ludicrous, such as “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile”.[24]

Study of these ‘invert/normative’ relationships began to break down the heterosexual paradigm, as both partners were pathologised as lesbians due to object choice instead of sexual aim. The ‘wife’s role was no longer of victim but of active and complicit – however it was not until the late 1920s that it was ‘discovered’ that neither partner in these relationships was ‘playing the role of the man’ when a study performed by Lura Beam and Robert Latou Dickinson revealed that no lesbians in their study thought of themselves as performing the male part.[25] This challenge to the heterosexual paradigm served to highlight the shift toward object choice as the focus in classifying female sexual identity alongside male.

When considering sexology’s ambiguous relationship to homosexuality it is also important to examine possible cultural influences on the literature and vice versa – whether societal or medical shifts in thinking came first. Chauncey offers three developments in American society that he considers were an influence on sexological thinking: the visibility of urban gay male subcultures, the challenges posed to Victorian norms by women, both in the form of suffragettes and in women entering the wage-labor workforce, and the resexualisation of women in mainstream thought that stemmed from these challenges. Chauncey also cites medicine’s rise to ideological superiority over religion and law as influential.[26]

The entrance of women into the workforce led to a higher degree of social and economic independence, at the same time that marriage and birth rates in the middle-class were declining. In the 1880s onward this led to a crisis of masculinity of some sort as women were no longer reliant on men for economic support as well as other unrelated factors such as declining autonomy in men’s workplaces.[27] These challenges and the resulting crisis, Chauncey argues, led to a “sudden growth in the medical literature on sexual inversion” as a way to defend the existing sex/gender system and potentially stigmatise women who were performing a non-normative social role of independence as inverts and deviants. Ellis, in Sexual Inversion, quoted an unnamed “American correspondent” who stated that one of the reasons for the rise in inversion was “the growing independence of the women” and “their lessening need for marriage”.[28] Despite these challenges from medical literature, women in the early twentieth century were gaining more freedoms and experiencing a resexualisation in popular thought – likely due to the increased economic necessity of marriage. If women no longer needed to get married to support themselves, then there should be another draw to it: sexual desire. This shift occurred alongside homosexual object choice being increasingly condemned for women, likely again as a means to protect heterosexual marriage.

An increase in concern about gender non-conforming men is linked to case histories of queer men indicating existing subcultures which were increasing in visibility, especially in New York, and as early as the 1880s.[29] It is important to note that the men in these case histories were identifying themselves as part of these subcultures, a significant step toward identity formation, and that these subcultures pre-dated the medical literature about them – as Chauncey states, “[t]hey were investigating a subculture rather than creating one”.[30]

As such, it is clear that medical and sexological literature was not acting alone or in a vacuum, but was influenced by and even responded to shifting social norms. These areas of sexology in particular are worthy of note and study as they relate heavily to current discourse: heterosexual marriage is still viewed as ‘under warfare’ by the conservative right, for example, and queerness is still overwhelmingly thought of in the ‘born this way’ paradigm exemplified in the pathologisation and medicalization of same-sex desire as well as in the case notes and autobiographies in both Krafft-Ebing and Moll’s work.[31] Additionally, as current discourse around sexuality encounters more and more fluidity beyond the hetero/homo binary and indeed beyond the additions of bisexuality, pansexuality, and so on, such as the existence of “gay for play” men on Craigslist and the “g0y” movement, thorough analysis on the construction of hetero and homosexual identities and the fluid possibilities that preceded their dominance is especially significant.[32]


[1] I use ‘queer’ and ‘queerness’ throughout this essay as shorthand for same-sex attractions and behaviour; however it is important to note that this term is anachronistic and may often pre-date any queer, homosexual, or same-sex attracted identity.

[2] Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994, 11.

[3] Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006, 427.

[4] Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 2.

[5] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989, pg 129.

[6] Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902), 188

[7] Ibid.

[8] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 429.

[9] Ibid, 431.

[10] Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893), 139. Quoted in Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 432.

[11] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 433.

[12] Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896), 83.

[13] Ibid, 87.

[14] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 434.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905), 6.

[17] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 123.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, 124.

[20] Freud, Three Contributions, 8.

[21] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 125.

[22] Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896, 505. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 126.

[23] Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895, 142. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 127.

[24] Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

[25] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 128.

[26] Ibid, 139.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ellis, Sexual Inversion, 261. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 140.

[29] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 142.

[30] Ibid, 143.

[31] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

[32] “Gay for play” refers to men who self-identify as straight but submit Casual Encounter listings on Craigslist looking for men to have sexual interactions with. “g0y” is an identity claimed by men who love men but do not identify as gay, queer, or homosexual, and who abhor anal sex. For more, see http://g0y.org. For more analysis on the significance of non-queer identifying men engaging in same-sex behaviour, see Shields, J., Para: A Working of Contemporary Parasexuality, Auckland: Artspace NZ, 2015, http://artspace.org.nz/doclibrary/public/JenniferKatherineShields_para.pdf.


Bibiolography

Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006

Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989

Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895

Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896)

Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905)

Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896

Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902)

Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893)

Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994

A Cult of Representation: Ignoring Harmful Ideologies in Favor of Queer Rep

Written in Oct 2015 for a Sociology of Gender paper at the University of Auckland

In her article on lesbian pulp novels and US lesbian identity, Yvonne Keller argues that academia and queer history have mistakenly ignored lesbian pulp novels published in the 1950s and 1960s due to what is viewed as a problematic nature. She argues that these novels, though typically written for and marketed to heterosexual men, provided accessible representation for lesbian women who otherwise would never see themselves in media, and that the novels provided a means for lesbian identity formation (Keller 2005). Today, I would argue, we have the opposite problem: a cult in which representation reigns supreme, obliterating all other critical analysis. Shows like Glee, The L Word, and even American Horror Story are lauded for their representation of queer and transgender characters, while critiques of the shows and the way they reify harmful norms and ideals fall to the wayside.

In Sarah Warn’s introduction to Reading the L Word we see a struggle with representation analogous to Keller’s argument about pulps: when you’re not represented, when you don’t see yourself in the media you consume, you will grab and hoard any representation that exists. Lesbians in the 1950s and 60s consumed lesbian pulps even though they were largely marketed at straight men and filled with generally negative content: women struggling with their identities and not getting a happy ending. In the early 2000s, queer representation on television was sparse: Warn discusses the sparse queer moments in television in her introduction. So when The L Word (then called Earthlings) was announced, it was big: “Someone was actually creating a show about lesbians?” (Warn 2006). It wasn’t just that The L Word had a singular lesbian character or issue or storyline, but it was about lesbians. Multiple lesbian characters who the show revolved around, who would interact with each other and have relationships and problems that weren’t just “I’m a lesbian”. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote very early into the show: “The sense of the lesbian individual, isolated or coupled, scandalous, scrutinised, staggering under her representational burden, gives way to the vastly livelier potential of a lesbian ecology” (Sedgewick 2004). Notably, just like the pulps of the mid-20th century, part of The L Word’s draw to network Showtime was its presumed appeal to straight men.

As The L Word aired and progressed, it grew immensely popular in the lesbian community. AfterEllen.com’s success is largely due to it and its fanbase; Autostraddle has countless “Top [X] Moments in The L Word” lists; and it’s difficult to find a social circle of lesbians who haven’t seen every episode. And not without reason: it was a long-running show with a lot of representation for lesbians – unfortunately, only a very specific subset of lesbian; the main characters are cis, wealthy, ‘lipstick’ lesbians. There is little diversity in The L Word and little sensitivity to other minority groups: trans women either don’t exist or are made fun of, and the trans masculine representation is supremely flawed.

However, it’s been 11 years since The L Word began airing and 6 since it finished: surely the state of queer representation has improved, right? It’s certainly spread – it’s a lot more common to see queer characters on shows (though usually one at a time), and shows like Glee have become the younger generation’s The L Word, with more than one queer character/issue/plotline at a time. The uncritical attitude toward representation hasn’t shifted in the same way: representation trumps other issues.

On the surface, Glee sounds ideal: a queer character in a cast of diverse ethnicities right off the bat, with more and more introduced throughout the seasons, including a Black trans woman by the third season. Glee has been lauded by media and thoroughly embraced by youth, queer or otherwise, as an example of a progressive show with good queer representation. Unfortunately, critical analysis of the series reveals its normative agenda and ideology.

Katherine Wolfenden’s article on Glee’s stereotypes and neoliberal flexibility provides a succinct and powerful summary and analysis of the problems with Glee as a show overall: specifically the way the show fails to challenge dominant thinking, social norms, and harmful ideologies. Glee is guilty of not only failing to deconstruct harmful systems like masculinity, but also of strengthening them by utilising lessons of acceptance and diversity to build these ideals into the hegemonic system (Wolfenden 2013). She does this using Robert McRuer’s notion of neoliberal flexibility, a model under which media, corporations, and normative majority populations can benefit from diversity, and under which minorities are tolerated and worked with instead of demonised. This model of flexibility does not guarantee positive and unproblematic representation, however: McRuer points out that in many representations

“disabled, queer figures no longer embody absolute deviance but are still visually and narratively subordinated, and sometimes they are elimated outright… heterosexual able-bodied characters in such texts work with queer and disabled minorities, flexibly contracting and expanding, while queer, disabled minorities flexibly comply” (McRuer 2006, 18)

Wolfenden sums it up nicely: “queer and disabled people appear in the media… so long as they are still subordinate to able-bodied, heterosexual characters” (Wolfenden 2013). In the case of Glee, it’d be easy to assume the minority characters on the show exist purely to provide a foil to the normative majority characters.

The first major example, used by Wolfenden in her article, is the treatment of Kurt, the effeminate gay boy in the show from the start, by the other characters – especially by the jocks, who perform hegemonic masculinity. Throughout the show Kurt is treated as one of the girls due to his sexuality and the effeminate masculinity he performs (both of which are implicitly equated by the show, another harmful societal norm reified but ignored in the desperate praise of both Kurt and his actor, Chris Colfer). Kurt’s brother, Finn, is a normative, heterosexual teenage boy: he’s the quarterback and is dating the HBIC-trope cheerleader. Finn is regularly called upon to protect Kurt, who is written to assume the role of the fragile, vulnerable, and effeminate gay boy, and when Finn inevitably gets past whichever societal barrier is preventing him from standing up for Kurt, he learns how to be a better man: not by example, but by protecting Kurt in the same way he would protect his girlfriend. This is made absolutely clear by his post-“manning up” speech performance of Bruno Mars’ Just The Way You Are, in which he sings both to Kurt and to Quinn, his girlfriend.

Two things are happening here. Firstly, the relationship between Kurt’s sexuality and his gender performance is emphasised and naturalised. Wolfenden points out that “Kurt may not be a manly man, but he can be understood and accepted as a functioning female” (Wolfenden 2013). Kurt cannot be accepted as a masculine gay man, but when he becomes one of the girls, he receives the acceptance and protection of his normative masculine brother. Secondly, and as a result of this, the show’s model of masculinity is shifted to include a form of tolerance – but a limiting and unchallenging one. Finn’s masculinity includes protecting Kurt – but Kurt as a gay man with an effeminate performed gender, as one of the girls. This leaves harmful notions of the sex/gender binary, of heteronormativity, of toxic masculinity, and of the exclusion of minorities untouched, unchallenged. It reifies the assumption that gay men are inferior, unable to perform masculinity appropriately, and that they are weaker and deserving of protection in the same way that women (who are also portrayed as inferior under this model) are.

The second major example of problematic representation involves the character of Unique Adams, a Black transgender woman introduced in season three. Right off the bat this character upholds harmful societal ideas about trans women: she is played by a cisgender male actor, an industry standard that leads to inaccurate and harmful portrayals, makes it extremely hard for trans women actresses to get work, and relies on the popular notion of the trans woman as “just a man in a dress”. Interestingly, Glee showrunner Ryan Murphy is also guilty of this in one of his other shows, American Horror Story: Freak Show, which features a transgender woman playing a ‘giant woman’ in the freakshow, the part of which was originally cast for a cisgender man (Leah 2014). The introduction of Unique was a step forward after no trans representation and the use of a transmisogynist slur in a season two episode about Rocky Horror. However, Unique’s character has very little to her, and simply becomes a foil for the other characters via the neoliberal flexibility discussed above, and a shell through which the show can explore gendered and race based discrimination (Sandercock 2015).

In her debut episode, Unique meets with Kurt and Mercedes, another Black woman. In this interaction and throughout her appearances, Unique is portrayed as aligned with and between these two characters – she is queer (by means of her gender, as she is straight – though Kurt immediately misassumes her to be a gay cisgender man) and Black. This is highlighted further as characters point out their similarities: one character can see no difference between Mercedes and Unique; another calls the two very similar nicknames; and Unique herself refers to herself as a love child of Mercedes and Kurt.

Keegan points out that transgender representations on screen (I would argue elsewhere, too) is reduced to emotive affect: “feeling bad” (Keegan 2013). This is necessary, under neoliberal flexibility, to represent queer characters while taking away their ability to embody deviance and thus challenge norms. McRuer discusses this necessity in the context of compulsory able-bodiedness:

“The culture asking [such questions as ‘wouldn’t you rather be hearing?’] assumes in advance that we all agree: able-bodied identities, ablebodied perspectives are preferable and what we all, collectively, are aiming for. A system of compulsory able-bodiedness repeatedly demands that people with disabilities embody for others an affirmative answer to the unspoken question, ‘Yes, but in the end, wouldn’t you rather be more like me?’” (McRuer 2006, 9)

This, I would argue, is the source of the ‘tragiqueer’ trope that pervades queer representation and harkens back to the lesbian pulps and earlier: queers in media don’t get happy endings, they don’t end up together, happily; they generally end in the death of at least one character. By representing queers as doomed to unhappiness, dominant forces prevent queer minorities from being able to challenge norms or provide an alternative to the hegemonic system.

Glee’s representation of Unique falls into this trope. Her storylines revolve around her trans identity and how it harms her or sets her back – the gendered school bathroom access storyline in season five gained positive media attention, but involved Unique being subject to transmisogynist violence which, in the real world, typically ends in a physical violence, often murder. The storyline is resolved when Unique is given access to a private faculty bathroom, but such a resolution only others and marginalises her further, instead of addressing the clear culture of transphobia and violence at the school.

One of Unique’s other major storylines involves romance – a topic that is typically a dangerous site for positive representation. Traci Abbott points out how “romantic contact stifled because the filmmaker fears the audience will read the trans character’s gender identity as inauthentic and the romance as transgressive” and that depictions of romance involving a trans character can “undermine the otherwise positive portrayal of the trans experience and reaffirm the dominant viewpoint that authentic gender is dependent upon birth sex rather than gender identity” (Abbott 2013, 34). It is worth noting that attraction of any kind to a trans person is fraught in our society, and the ‘deception’ that we seem to inherently embody is still grounds for the justification of murder in forty-nine out of fifty US states.

Unique’s romance plot is already housed in a tense context, then, and it sadly does nothing to challenge any of the ideological problems with the context. She plays the inaccurate trope of deceptive trans woman, pretending to be a thin, white, cisgender woman online in order to talk and flirt with a classmate, Ryder (another footballer), online. Via the persona of Katie, Unique helps Ryder to change his views towards her as well as his reliance on essentialism, an ideology inherently harmful to transgender people. However, as Sandercock points out, both Unique and ‘Katie’ express these views to him, but it is only Katie he considers seriously. This is as far as Unique and Ryder’s relationship progresses, with no on-screen intimacy involving Unique, only reifying Abbott’s trans/romance dilemma. Unique’s attempt at romance reinforces the trope of trans woman as deceptive, does not challenge heteronormative assumptions about sexuality and gender, and while it highlights Ryder’s racism in listening to Katie but not Unique, it does little further.

It’s easy to understand the urge to reach out and grab on to whatever representation you can find. Growing up with no reflections of yourself makes queer and trans identity formation hard. However, the uncritical cult of representation that we see in public discourse today is harmful. It’s all well and good for cis white queers – representations of them are less and less rare. But those representations are all too often paired with harmful representations of those marginalised within the queer community. Those representations are all too often utilised by the normative majority to justify their own positions. Perhaps what we need is a new L Word; one filled so thoroughly with minority representations that we no longer are the minority; one that does not utilise our representations to justify harmful normative ideals.

Bibliography

Abbott, Traci B. “The trans/romance dilemma in Transamerica and other films.” The Journal of American Culture, no. 36 (2013): 32-41.

Keegan, C.M. “Moving bodies: sympathetic migrations in transgender narrativity.” Genders, no. 57 (2013).

Keller, Yvonne. “”Was It Right To Love Her Brother’s Wife So Passionately?”: Lesbian Pulp Novels and US Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965.” American Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2005): 385-410.

Leah, Thomas. ‘AHS: Freak Show’ Transgender Actress Erika Ervin Is Changing Things on Television in a Big Way. 2014. http://www.bustle.com/articles/43406-ahs-freak-show-transgender-actress-erika-ervin-is-changing-things-on-television-in-a-big-way (accessed September 2015).

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Sandercock, T. “Transing the small screen: loving and hating transgender youth in Glee and Degrassi.” Journal of Gender Studies 24, no. 4 (2015): 436-452.

Sedgewick, Eve Kosofsky. “‘The L Word’: Novelty in Normalcy.” Chronicle of Higher Education 50, no. 19 (2004): B10-B11.

Warn, Sarah. “Introduction.” In Reading the L Word: Outing Contemporary Television, edited by K Akass and J McCabe, 1-8. London: IB Tauris, 2006.

Wolfenden, Katherin. “Challenging Stereotypes in Glee, or Not? Exploring Masculinity and Neoliberal Flexibility.” Student Pulse 5, no. 2 (2013).

Ministry of Health Release Information About GRS Funding

The Ministry of Health this morning responded to an Official Information Act request made in August by A.D Tait requesting “any correspondence, briefings, summaries or presentations related to changing the current level of funding for Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS)” as well as “any assessments, briefings or correspondence between the Ministry of Health, DHBs and overseas providers of Male-to-Female SRS, in regards to sending patients overseas for treatment,” as discussed in the Ministry’s response to another OIA request in April.

The outlook is bleak. First off, the Ministry is withholding three emails (falling under the second half of the request, about overseas treatment) between them and ‘the DHB’ on the grounds of “maintain[ing] the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions” (OIA Section 9(2)(g)(i)). What does ‘free and frank expression of opinions’ mean in this context and why do they need to be withheld? Considering Andrew Little and co’s comments earlier this year and the fact that in the Ministry’s own communications released in this OIA they refer to trans surgeries as ‘elective’ I don’t have high expectations. Hopefully a complaint to the Ombudsman gets them to release those emails, or at least give some detail as to the content of them.

The first email in the release is to the Chairperson of the Health Select Committee, Simon O’Connor, from Dr Don Mackie, Chief Medical Officer, about the petition recently delivered by Tom Hamilton and 435 others. The first section is basically a summation of how crap we have it – services aren’t standardised, they’re sparse, and we’re often forced into the expensive private sector for what should be basic healthcare. The second talks about surgeries, overseas options, and the waitlist, and is basically what we already know – 73 people are on the combined AMAB/AFAB waitlist; 5 on the AMAB waitlist who have been already approved will be sent overseas “as soon as the Ministry can confirm an overseas provider”. The final section admits that “there has been little consideration of the provision of a comprehensive gender dysphoria service nationally” and “acknowledges that it is time to review the numbers publicly funded for GRS, and how these may be managed in a timely manner” (though it’s worth noting that in a later email in this release they state they have no timeline for this review).

The second email is, quite frankly, pretty horrific. It’s from a surgeon in Australia (Brisbane from the looks of it) who the MoH are considering as their overseas provider for AMAB GRS. He spends 99% of the email talking about his AFAB GRS experience and practice, stating only that he is “interested to expand this service for MtF [sic] patients at a later stage”. He makes zero mention of any experience performing AMAB GRS. If this is the Ministry’s choice, how can they justify it? A surgeon with no experience who currently doesn’t even perform the procedure they’re looking for? Are they willing to accept an even longer wait for trans fem people? An even longer wait for those 5 people already approved waiting for a provider?

The last email from MoH is in response to a doctor requesting information and clarification for a client about the waitlist and its criteria. The client made a complaint about the “lack of action on making a referral” for GRS. The doctor asks:

“I am aware that the only surgeon in NZ performing this surgery has now retired. In this context, can you please tell me exactly what level of gender reassignment surgery is currently funded via the SHCTP [Special High Cost Treatment pool]? Can you also tell me how you manage the referrals for such surgery and the large waitlist that I suspect must inevitably result. Assuming we are funding some small number of surgeries (in Australia perhaps?), are we able to share what number of people are already on a wait list for surgery so that a newly referred person knows that the wait will be a very, very long time and is [sic] public health funding is probably not a realistic solution for them.

“I am keen and it would be very helpful to be able to give this client accurate information and a realistic account of what she can expect from the public health system, assuming she meets all eligibility criteria (which I’m not confident she does anyway).”

Before even getting into the Ministry’s response the attitude towards GRS and trans healthcare in this email really unsettles me. The eligibility criteria referenced is pretty fucked – requiring 2 psychiatric reports, one psychologist report, and “demonstration of progress in transition” including “dealing with work, family, and interpersonal issues as well as significant improvement/stability in mental health”. Aside from the gatekeeping and hoop-jumping required by that many psych reports (as Megan says on twitter, does any other population need 3 psych reports to get on a funding waitlist?) the “demonstration of progress” shows a real lack of understanding as to trans experiences. My mental health hasn’t improved after coming out and starting transition, and it’s not because transition isn’t right for me. My MH was bad before, it’s bad now. While for the most part dysphoria is lesser and HRT has helped with gender issues, being an out trans woman means I have to face transmisogyny and violence on a daily basis. Show me any other population that faces daily aggression, micro and macro, without that having an impact on mental health. Same goes for “dealing with work, family, and interpersonal issues” – what about those with unsupportive families? Unsupportive workplaces? A social circle that refuses to accept them? What happens to those who end up isolated and alone after coming out? Does this render them ineligible for what is a lifesaving surgery?

Then there’s the super cavalier attitude to how long the waitlist is – realism is good, most of us already know what the wait will be like, but this email shows little to no concern as to this wait and the impact it has.

The response from the Ministry to this is the one where they talk about the timeframe for the waitlist review – “due to the increasing W/L we are looking to review these numbers, but no time frame yet”. Interestingly, they also state that they “should be able to send the first of the W/L off to the preferred provider this year”. This doesn’t align with the single provider they claim to have contacted (seeing as the scope of the request included any correspondence with overseas providers) who doesn’t even perform the procedure yet and likely has zero experience. Unless contact with another provider is in the three emails they withheld (not likely, considering they state these emails are between MoH and DHB) this timeframe seems unlikely, if not irresponsible.

At the very least the Ministry recommend to “always inform the patient fully [about waitlist times] and place them on the W/L anyway”.

Overall, the information included in this release is disappointing at best, worrying at worst. They seem to have made little progress as to an overseas provider, have no timeframe for reviewing the forty year long wait list, and discuss an overzealous, gatekeeping, and misinformed set of criteria for funding. The Ministry of Health need to do better, but while attitudes in this country – both public and political – consider GRS ‘nutty’ and ‘elective’ I don’t hold much hope. I don’t think I’ll ever get the surgery I need, publicly or privately.

Update 30/09: Thanks to some rumours from Oz and some quick detective work (squinting real hard at redacted names in their OIA release and cross-checking where he studied) we’ve found the name of the surgeon MoH are in touch with in Brisbane – Hans Goosser, a urologist with special interests in men’s health, erectile dysfunction, male infertility, and prosthetic surgery. He currently only sees ‘FtM’ patients but plans to expand – we’re still waiting to hear back from MoH about how this fits with their “later this year” timeline for sending ‘MtF’ patients off for surgery, or why this is the only surgeon they claim to have contacted about this.

Enormous, Threatening, Yet Dimly Perceivable: On Creating Radical and Threatening Postmodern Art Under Late Capitalism

Written for an essay/blog assessment in a sociology of pop culture course at the University of Auckland in September 2015.

As I occupy the dual and potentially conflicting position of sociologist/radical activist and current practicing artist necessarily working under and influenced by postmodernism, the question “what’s wrong with postmodernism?” has challenged me. My path to becoming an artist is one defined by postmodernism and an interest in it, from studying Visual Culture in high school to entering Elam School of Fine Arts on a portfolio created in two months after never having practiced art in my life, to my current research and writing-focussed practice and the related show at Artspace last October. I am not an artist of traditional modernist technical skill – I cannot paint or draw representatively, for one. My work is conceptual and stems from my academic interests in history, sociology, and social justice. Postmodernism has appeal to me in its interest in the voices of the Other, as within the artworld as it stands I am part of the Other.

The critical attitude toward postmodernism in this course and related readings has thus challenged me: as Ciara expounded on the commerciality of Damien Hirst’s work and questioned its status as art, I was thinking “yes, but it’s still art, and the commerciality is part of its message, part of what makes it art, not less worthy,” even as the critical sociologist in me agreed with her statements.

It was not until reading Jameson’s The Postmodern Condition, Or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that I began to connect with the critiques on a more personal level, on the level of artist. While listening to lectures and reading Adorno I couldn’t help but feel the critiques were somewhat elitist, happy to critique popular culture or a younger generation without critiquing Modernism or high art. Jameson clarified this point for me, pointing out that the Modernist classics have been assimilated into Western cultural canon and the academic institution, so that I and my peers, growing up long after the growth of postmodernism, view the Modernist classics as distant, dead figures, worshipped by our elders – they are, to us, signs of the elite and bourgeoisie artworld (Jameson 1993, 4). Cremin’s statement that modernist movements were unified in opposition to market forces became clearer when I wasn’t constantly prepared to defend postmodernism – my practicing artist peers in particular – from what I interpreted as one-sided elitist critique (Cremin Kāhore he rā, 1).

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From Jameson’s The Postmodern Condition

This clarification was revelatory to me, enabling me to critique postmodernism without being put on the defensive; postmodernism being all I know, being submerged in it, as Jameson puts it (Jameson 1993, 48). Suddenly the critiques of postmodernism became more clear. I saw its inherent connection to capitalism and market forces. I saw how the technologies I was so interested in as an artist were more, a ghostly and ungraspable global network of capital, of power, of control (Jameson 1993, 38). I saw how the once sublime Nature was literally physically eradicated by capitalism and its structures (physical and otherwise) and how this very network took its place as the postmodern sublime.

I then had to ask, if there is no critical distance under postmodernism, as we are all necessarily submerged in it, how can one create radical art? When popularity or recognition is inherently necessary to reach people with a radical message, and popularity immediately translates into familiarity (Adorno’s work was important here) and exchange values and is thus immediately commodified, how do you produce radical art without simply falling into capital (Adorno 2001, 30)? Is it possible to work from within when exchange value obliterates use value, or the message? Jameson refers to cognitive mapping to talk about a possible radical postmodern art, saying that such an art would have to make clear that ghostly and ungraspable network of power and control, enabling the individual to locate themselves within it (Jameson 1993, 54).

In Marxian analysis, only the collective is capable of this when the individual is situated within such a totality (Jameson 2002, 274). In Foucauldian analysis, the only way to challenge global capitalism without simply recreating its oppressive and repressive elements is a grassroots, localised, pluralistic attack – note that pluralism is a core tenet of postmodernism itself (Harvey 1997, 46). Foucault himself exemplifies this in his work with prisoners and homosexuals – categories of individuals more visible to power than most. Unlike current populist action, his work in these areas was not toward state or institutional reform, which necessarily only strengthens the institution to critique, but instead in empowering resistance within these groups to institutions of organised oppression.

So according to these two analyses, the radical and threatening postmodern art must be collective, localised, pluralistic. I look around me at the artistic institutions and networks I am involved with and I see mere glimpses of possibilities of this within the artist-run scene primarily dominated by students. I see people who are engaging with mass media and the culture industry, engaging with film and music and dance, but are resisting commodification in a way by never putting a price tag on their work, never selling their work, never producing work that can be sold. In the postmodernist style they are producing performances, happenings, art that is simply people being in a space together, dancing for hours or even days on end, for example (MacDonald 2015) (club 2014). I look at my own work, recently zines produced cheaply and sold for the cost of materials and shipping, previously work at a large institution with money at hand producing writing attempting to challenge it from within. I know that I could be doing better in my attempts to challenge, in my attempts to reveal the unknowable network of late capitalism; I recall having to tone down my writing to not bite the hand that feeds me. I am not there yet – art is not there yet, but it exists on a pluralistic, a collective, a localised scale, and it has potential.

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor. On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening. London: Routledge, 2001.

club, D.A.N.C.E art. “Guinness World Record Attempt.” Artspace NZ. W e l c o m e. Auckland, 2014.

Cremin, C. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. n.d.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1997.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. London: Routledge, 2002.

Jameson, Fredric. The Postmodern Condition, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1993.

MacDonald, Theo. GO OUT > STAY IN > GET THINGS DONE. Inky Palms, Auckland, 2015.

NO PRIDE IN PRISONS: HUNGER STRIKE FOR JADE FOLLETT

Copied and pasted press release from No Pride in Prisons.

Transgender and queer activists are planning a hunger strike, demanding the transfer of an incarcerated trans woman to a women’s facility. Jade Follett is currently being held in the Rimutaka men’s prison, despite requesting more than two months ago to be transferred to a women’s prison.

According to the group, No Pride in Prisons, Jade is in a precarious situation. ‘We’ve received correspondence from Jade saying she requested transfer to a women’s facility in June, and has yet to see any action taken on behalf of the Department of Corrections,’ says spokesperson Jennifer Katherine Shields.

‘We are very worried about Jade. Although she’s a very strong woman, we know that a men’s prison is not a safe place for a trans woman.’

The group has pointed to a 2007 study which shows that trans women were 13 times more likely than the general population to be sexually assaulted in men’s prisons.

‘However,’ Shields says, ‘the reality of the problem for trans people in the New Zealand prisons cannot be fully known. Corrections refuses to collect and release adequate information about trans women in prison, despite numerous Official Information Act requests.’

‘We are also calling on Corrections to release information regarding the number of trans prisoners across the country, including what facilities they are being held in.’

The group has informed the Department of Corrections that if she is not moved before the 27th of August 2015, they will stage a hunger strike.

‘Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. The fact that Corrections hasn’t done anything about this for two months shows their complete lack of respect for trans people.’

‘We are calling on corrections to immediately transfer Jade to a women’s facility for her to serve out the rest of her sentence.’

According to Movement 03.05.04 of the Department of Corrections’ Prison Operations Manual, all this requires is approval from the Corrections CEO, Ray Smith.

‘Ray Smith must give immediate approval for Jade’s transfer.’

Strikers include prominent community figures and advocates, such as Jennifer Katherine Shields, Emilie Rākete, Aaliyah Zionov, Chase Fox and others.

‘We will hold daily vigils on Auckland’s K’Road until Jade has been transferred.’

‘We will not allow corrections to continue its transphobic disregard of Jade’s safety.’