why i stopped fucking with gender

this is the rough text of a rough talk i gave at pechakucha night christchurch volume 31. you can listen to the audio at pechakucha’s website. it was written mainly for myself and my own exploration and understanding but presented in the hopes it may help some cis people understand and some other trans and non binary people relate.

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typical understandings of trans people and transitioning are pretty limited. there are a bunch of reasons for this, but i’m not getting into that tonight.

when people think of ‘transition’ it’s usually in binary terms, and it’s usually thought of as ‘complete’ – changing your name and pronouns and birth certificate and going through whatever medical processes are available or necessary. most importantly it’s thought of as the only way, the one everyone does.

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but transition is different for everyone. for some it involves aligning every aspect of their social identity and physical body with the gender they are, and often for some of these people that gender is ‘opposite’ to the one they were assigned at birth.

but that’s not the complete trans experience. a lot of people do most of those things and a lot do some and some do none at all.

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so, i’m sharing my story. this story is also not the complete trans experience in any way, it’s just mine.

i think i was a pretty standard ‘boy’, if a little (very) socially awkward and anxious. i enjoyed biking around and playing outside and building things. i had a terrible fashion sense. i definitely didn’t “always just know”

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i did just recently remember my stepfather getting the scissor sisters’ first album. looking at the tracklist he probably got it for the comfortably numb cover. but i remember – i must have been about 7 or 8 – looking at the album art and my parents flipping the fuck out.

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around the same age i loved mom’s that’s life magazines. i remember reading about someone who was so desperate for surgery they lopped their junk off outside a hospital.

i remember growing up very young with a good friend of my mother’s who left new zealand to access confirmation surgery. i later realised that i had had zero contact with this person once they left.

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that’s about all i remember encountering as a kid when it comes to gender variance, until i – like a whole heap of others – hit tumblr in my early teens.

i then remember very clearly thinking “oh god, i hope i’m not trans, that would suck”. i remember the motivation behind that thought – it was “i know these people are treated so terribly and i think there may be a chance that i’m one of these people but i can’t be because i can’t imagine dealing with all that shit”.

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by 17 i was going through the process of getting hormone treatment. i knew that to make sure the endocrinologist believed me i had to dress super feminine and act like a very heterosexual woman.

this is the photo i eventually came out with at 19 – an extra two years of the wrong puberty while waiting.

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Photos by Kerryn Smith

but this isn’t a coming out story, it’s a story of shifting gender. because that’s what it does, and it’s normal. i think there’s often a tendency among the cis population to believe that if a trans person’s gender – be it identity or expression – isn’t immutable it’s less valid. that’s not the truth at all. even cis people experience shifts in gender expression in some way or another. not a lot of people imply butch cis women aren’t really women.

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baby’s first undercut! note the wonderful lace glove. wearing traditionally hyper feminine objects and looks began as a means to access the healthcare i needed but i also feel that trans women should absolutely be allowed to be super fucking femme even when society says their bodies are not.

just because society expects us to be feminine doesn’t mean being feminine is not radical

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that undercut is definitely also the start of the absolute fun i have in messing with expectations and clashing traditionally gendered looks.

things pretty much continue the same for a solid year or so. I’ll note that this whole time i’d had what some people call ‘auxiliary pronouns’ – that is, two options. most people were calling me ‘she’ and ‘her’ but i also listed ‘a/ath/athes’ in my online bios, after Athena.

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they’re what some call neo-pronouns – that is, invented pronouns for those who feel like she, he, or they don’t fit. They’re not new at all; ‘e/em/es’ have been in use since 1890. ‘ey/em/eir’ can be traced to 1975 and are in common usage in trans and nonbinary communities today.

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this is me in late 2015. in a rush to take a picture of a bird on the gold coast i opened the wrong camera. the look of joy is absolutely genuine.

jumping ahead – because this isn’t a story that needs to be told step by step – what’s changed now?

basically, i started passing.

passing, if you’re unsure, refers to being perceived as cis. it’s something some people strive for – some because it’s what they feel they should look like, but also because passing means safety.

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passing means people not perceiving you as trans so not assaulting or abusing you for being trans. in terms of daily experiences, passing is a MAJOR benefit.

it isn’t inherently good or bad. it can provide life-saving safety (and definitely has for me) but it also came with invisibility.

i found the more i passed, the more people assumed i was straight, for example. i’d get people asking about my husband – and my kids.

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But also, in many places ‘trans panic’ is a legal defence for murder.

It’s one thing to have an awkward conversation online, but it’s FAR safer to do that there than in a bar with someone you’ve been chatting to and you’ve JUST THEN realised they clearly don’t know you’re trans. there’s no way to know how they’ll react, but from experience, it’s far more likely to be a) creepy fetishisation b) anger and violence, c) weird over-acceptance, d) actual decent reaction.

So, i decided to fuck it.

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my wonderful flatmate gave me this INCREDIBLE and VERY QUEER jacket. i wore it out of the house a few days later, in a conscious effort to present more queer and pass less. i was crossing colombo st down by victoria park when a car actively accelerated towards me less than 50m away.

weirdly i think this is a good summation of why i stopped fucking with gender

Jennifer Shields 16.pngIn a text I wrote for pride last year I said:

“Forcing people to recognise [our abjectness], our queerness, challenges their stable, normative world. In a world where, for many of our most vulnerable, being visibly queer and trans is a death threat, the responsibility to embody this challenge may fall to the more privileged.”

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I stand by this. And I am in a position of privilege – I’m Pākehā, I’m () in a full time job, but also I’ve absolutely had it. I’ve been through all the shit and survived (if not unscathed) and I am 100% unwilling to let anyone else go through any of it if I can prevent it at all.

Sometimes that means standing up to aggressive drunk dudes on late night streets, but I think it also means not letting my identity slide into the background.

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so what does this mean for me? my gender is one big “who the fuck knows”. it’s open. it’s less “have to be traditionally feminine” and more “queer hard femme”. it’s singlets covered in sawdust but also crop tops and fancy white jackets but also hot pink leather jackets that might get me run down. it’s not worrying about strangers calling me ‘sir’ because the people who know better don’t – and that confusion is kind of the point.

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Photo: Janneth Gil

what does it mean for everyone else? not much at all, actually

i’m quite okay with people understanding me as a binary trans woman – i think it’s important. that’s the way 99% of the world sees me, so that’s how i get treated. i’m subject to misogyny and transphobia and queerphobia – that term still describes me even if it doesn’t necessarily describe my gender.

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so i think materially it’s important to express those aspects. i use ‘she’ just as much as i do ‘they’ because it’s rare to see a trans woman in this industry or, heck, even in this city. it’s important to me to express both those parts of myself to aim to be a possibility model for as many people as i can.

currently my gender expression is a lot more jeans and a lot fewer dresses – but that could change tomorrow, who knows? i think, most of all and most importantly: i dont want to look or be cis

 

Guest post; Implementing the Statistical Standard for Gender Identity: How should Stats NZ ask the question?

Gloria Fraser, Victoria University of Wellington

Statistics New Zealand’s decision to include categories beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’ in a new gender identity statistical standard has been hailed as a “world first”. And, unfortunately – it is. We live at a time when an exploding body of research documents the alarmingly high levels of violence and discrimination experienced by trans people, when trans women and girls appear on the cover of Time and National Geographic magazines, and when we are having more conversations around gender neutral bathrooms than ever before. In spite of this, the overwhelming majority of gender identity questions on surveys, healthcare intake forms, and censuses around the world continue to offer just two response options. With this standard (and restrictive) measure of gender identity, it is impossible for trans people to be counted. Nonbinary people are rendered entirely invisible; they cannot select either gender item, so are excluded from reporting their gender at all.


New Zealand Census questions on sex, taken from the 1916, 1986, and 2006 questionnaires. The 2018 Census will likely be the first ever to ask New Zealanders about their gender identity.

The use of a ‘male’/’female’ tick box to measure gender identity is more than just poor methodology; this has serious consequences for the health, wellbeing, and social inclusion of trans people. Without accurate gender identity data it is impossible to establish the size of the trans population in New Zealand. International research estimating the proportion of the population who are trans produces wildly varying results; data from presentations to overseas gender clinics give estimates as low as 4.6 people in 100,000 (perhaps because they ignore that not all trans people present to specialist clinics for gender-affirming healthcare). Another study claims that the number of people falling under the trans ‘umbrella’ may be as many as 1% of the population.

Population size partially determines the amount of funding that is allocated to serving the needs of a particular group. Because most official records do not capture data on trans people, trans New Zealanders are, most likely, receiving far less than their fair share of medical and mental health care. On top of this, with every research survey, census, and demographic form that fails to acknowledge the fluid and non-binary nature of gender identity, the common cultural gender binary is legitimised and reinforced. We need gender identity measures that challenge this binary, ensure all New Zealanders are counted, and give people the opportunity to correctly identify their gender.

It is wonderful that Statistics New Zealand has decided to collect gender identity data, and to ensure that their measures are inclusive of trans and nonbinary people. For the reasons outlined above, the importance of this data cannot be understated. If Statistics New Zealand do this right, New Zealand would be in an absolutely unique position. We would have population-level data about the needs of trans people, which could be linked with health data (e.g., cancer registrations) to generate urgently needed transgender cohort studies.

Statistics New Zealand has not announced how the gender identity question in the 2018 census will be worded, and when I contacted them recently I was told that this decision has not yet been made. The classification of gender identity that has already been released, however, suggests that the direction in which Statistics New Zealand is heading may not be quite what we hoped.

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Statistics New Zealands classification and coding process, released July 2015.

Upon release of the statistical standard, trans community members pointed out that this method of classifiying gender identity is othering – it separates trans and nonbinary people from the cis population. Statistics NZ has also used terminology which is frustrating for many in the community, such as “transgender male to female” and “transgender female to male”. A recently published paper by leading scholars in the field reflects these concerns: Pega and colleagues note that the standard may “obscure some of the complexity within the broader transgender population”, is not intersex inclusive, and does not guarantee that all trans people will be counted. What is to stop a trans woman from identifying as female or wahine, either to avoid othering herself, or because this is a more accurate reflection of her identity than ‘trans’ or ‘gender diverse’?

I do not envy the job of Statistics NZ. Somehow, they must (1) collect data that identifies trans New Zealanders, while (2) not othering trans people. It seems that it is easy to meet one goal, but is it possible to do both? Let’s think through some options.

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Statistics New Zealand’s suggested examples for phrasing gender identity questions.

Personally, I’m a fan of the open-ended box. It allows people to freely self-identify so it isn’t othering, it doesn’t require people to choose between identity labels, and it doesn’t ask people to take on identity labels that might not feel right for them. This question alone, however, doesn’t get around the problem mentioned earlier: if someone writes in “woman”, how do we know if she is cis or trans? We need to face the fact that this matters – if we don’t know this, we can’t count trans people, and we need good data to fight for policy change and funding increases.

The other two options also face this problem – with just one item, we cannot guarantee that we have identified all trans people. On top of this, I seriously doubt there are many people out there who individually identify as “gender diverse” – while this may be a suitable umbrella term, individual identity labels tend to be slightly more specific.

One alternative option, that may meet both goals of (1) collecting data that identifies trans New Zealanders, while (2) not othering trans people, is to ask the question in two steps, by firstly asking about gender identity, and secondly asking about sex documented on a person’s original birth certificate. This way, trans women and men can identify as women and men, while being identifiable as trans because their assigned sex at birth differs from their gender identity. This option is recommended by the Centre of Excellence for Transgender Health.

Because I doubt that Statistics New Zealand has the resources to code open-ended responses from the entire population, the gender identity question would probably be best answered by selecting options from a categorical list. Respondents should be able to select multiple options, so they do not have to choose between, for example, identifying as a woman and identifying as trans. Empirical evidence suggests that these questions are easily understood by the general population, even if some don’t understand what it means to be trans, genderfluid, nonbinary, or agender. An example follows:

  1. How do you identify your gender? Please tick as many as apply.
  • Male
  • Female
  • Transgender
  • Genderfluid
  • Nonbinary
  • Agender
  • Different identity (please state) _________
  1. What sex were you assigned at birth, on your original birth certificate?
  • Male
  • Female
  • Indeterminate
  • No sex listed

 

As with any measure of gender identity, this measure is not perfect. Perhaps most worryingly, it asks people to disclose their sex assigned at birth, which has potential to be uncomfortable or distressing. Because of this, it will be important for Statistics New Zealand to explain why this information is so crucial to collect. On top of this, it is impossible to construct a complete list of gender identities, meaning that some identities will always be excluded from listed options. Hopefully, the inclusion of an open-ended box will ensure that people of all genders can accurately describe how they identify, and could be an important space for culturally specific identities such as takatāpui, whakawahine, tangata ira tane, fa’afafine, and akava’ine.

Statistics New Zealand may object to these suggestions on the basis that this kind of information is too complex to collect, code, and analyse. In response to this, I argue that it is unacceptable to lump such a diverse group into one umbrella category, as this leaves unexamined the needs within this group. The time has come for the collection of high quality gender identity data, where people of all genders can identify as they wish and be counted. Statistics New Zealand needs to ensure that no New Zealander remains invisible.

Gloria Fraser is a doctoral candidate at the School of Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington. She is particularly interested in the intersection of sex-sexuality-gender diversity and clinical psychology. Her doctoral research focusses on queer experiences of mental health support in Aotearoa. Gloria is also a research coordinator for the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS). Gloria has used NZAVS data to develop a gender identity statistical standard for coding open-ended responses. This can be accessed as a technical document via the NZAVS website for use by other researchers.

weaponised abjection & queer identity / visibility / existence

written for a pride exhibition at RM gallery entitled ‘a bone, a flesh, a daddy’s nest’ featuring sorawit songsataya and bronte perry. this text was written to accompany bronte’s work and was re-exhibited at the christchurch pride art show 2017.

In her 2015 Sociology of Popular Culture course, lecturer Dr. Ciara Cremin began to express a non-normative gender presentation and attended lectures in lipstick and heels. While the class attendees themselves had very little obvious reaction to this, Cremin talked about the response of some colleagues and, more importantly, passers-by. While she restricted this presentation to the university campus – due to safety concerns – she nevertheless experienced people doing double-takes at her as they passed by. She mentioned this explicitly in a lecture and related it to normative assumptions being challenged. As Cremin was wearing clothes typically deemed those of a woman but did not otherwise fit the societal standard of “a woman”, this perceived dissonance meant people had to challenge their initial assumptions of her and her gender.

This is a phenomenon most, if not all, trans people experience, and on the scale of public reactions, a double take is significantly mild. Most experience harassment, slurs, and in the case of trans women of colour more than any, physical violence. It is a result of the normative confronting the othered, experiencing the abject as a physical reality.

While being visibly queer can be a threat to ourselves, it is also a threat to the normative. To those for whom the abject, the other – queerness – is part of another world, one that does not involve them; to those who believe queer and trans people are not a part of their lives, not people they would ever encounter, being visibly queer is a challenge. Forcing people to recognise our abjectness, our queerness, challenges their stable, normative world. For those for whom events such as the attack in Pulse nightclub is an attack on “all of us” or “every American,” for those who “just don’t know” if it was motivated by queerphobia, active, vocal, and visible queerness is a political and personal challenge.

In a world where, for many of our most vulnerable, being visibly queer and trans is a death threat, the responsibility to embody this challenge may fall to the more privileged. There is a responsibility in the queer community not to succumb to respectability politics, to conform ourselves to heteronormative society. The gay marriage movement fell to this conformity, simply expanding marriage instead of providing the rights and privilege that accompany marriage to those who are unmarried, unable, or unwilling to marry. Hate crime legislation also fell to this conformity, expanding the carceral state and filling prisons with more black and brown bodies instead of taking steps to dismantle it. So, too, was the push for inclusion in the military flawed, similarly expanding imperial forces that put millions of innocent lives at risk. Respectability politics are inherently humanist; an ideology that centres the ‘human’ and the normative. Abjection is post/trans/inhuman, and destroys that privileged centralisation. If humanism threatens us while forgetting us, erasing our histories, experiences, and bodies, then abjection forcibly and violently centres us, staring with a billion unblinking eyes and screaming with a chorus of voices:

W E  A R E  H E R E

If being abject is distant, is other, is not something normative society wishes to face, then weaponising that abjection, emphasising it and making it impossible to ignore, is a radical act. We wear the abject like an armour, refusing respectability politics and the normalising process. In this work, the abject becomes personal and weaponised. We are brought from the ‘other’ world where normative society relegates us, and into the world they occupy, in a physical and confronting manner. The abject is here, it is in your face, all around you, and it has a body. The space it occupies is one which disturbs identity, system, and order. It does not respect borders, positions, or rules. Parts of the artist’s body normally ruled as disgusting line the walls, creating discomfort, unease, and repulsion. But this piece is as much about your body as it is about the artist’s. It is impossible to distance yourself from the reality of the body; this is a body labelled as other, different, abject, though it may share many characteristics with yours. Let it challenge you and question you, and avoid the urge to distance yourself.

This is an abject realm the artist, myself, and many others occupy; it is not yours, but ours. It is a space where, as Tame Iti said: “No one can tell you that you are not important and your experience does not matter and if they do, I challenge them to say it to your face where they can see your eyes and feel your breath.” Not everyone is meant to understand or relate to it, and it is not intended to make trans narratives and experiences easier for a cisgender and heterosexual audience to consume. It is intended to repel, and if it does, you must question why you feel repulsed.

Antonyms suggested by dictionaries for ‘abject’ may highlight this repulsion: the non-abject is apparently commendable, noble, excellent, exalted, magnificent, and most of all worthy and proud. These are things normative society does not want us to be, at least not without conforming to their standards. This is especially notable in times of turmoil and conflict; during the AIDs crisis, the ‘good’ queers were those who were healthy, ‘clean’, and in long-term, monogamous relationships. Recently a man was arrested on route to LA Pride with a backpack full of weaponry and explosives. People regularly ask “why is there no straight pride parade?” while police forces attend our own parades, arresting queer sex workers and protesters and other abject undesirables. Trans women get told “wow! I wouldn’t even have known you weren’t a girl if you hadn’t said anything!” as if congratulating them. Trans people get refused healthcare unless they conform to heteropatriarchy and its standards – trans women must be feminine and fucking cis dudes if they wish to begin HRT. Trans men must be hypermasculine in every meaning of the word – including the toxic elements that cause violence to so many of us. Humanist respectability politics cause violence to and within our community.

Abjection is a weapon of resistance. I am queer, trans, and crazy. I am abject, but I, too, am divine; I, too, am exalted and magnificent and worthy and proud.

The “Normal Body”, its Construction, and its Abolition.

written for a brief test for a 100-level Women’s Studies paper at the University of Auckland in August 2014.

The “normal” body is obviously a highly contentious issue. A “normal” body in the West is white, cisgender (one could argue even male), able both physically and mentally, is skinny, toned, or muscly, and is a lot rarer than the concept of “normal” would suggest. As Audre Lorde says, this norm is mythical, and “each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me’’.[1]

The concept of a “norm” is complex, and one that the theorist Foucault did a lot of work on, especially in how power relates with and resides within this norm. By examining places of deviance both physical – hospitals, asylums, and prisons – and otherwise (most notably sexuality) Foucault theorised the concept of the “Eye of Authority” – we are being watched by ‘Authority’, or those residing within the norm, and being judged for deviating.[2] It is this judgement and the threat of social ostracism that attempts to push people to confine to the norm.

The existence of a norm naturally creates an Other, and this is another function that is used to further coerce people into confining as much as possible and challenging as little as possible. The process of Othering, as Foucault describes it, is the disciplining of us into a (normative) social pattern – it is the “process whereby the subject is defined by identifying it against what it is not”.[3] As Beauvoir writes in “The Second Sex”: “She [woman] is defined & differentiated with reference to man, not he with reference to her. She is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is the Absolute. She is the Other.”[4] This is notably in opposition to biological research in which the female is the biological norm, and the male is a variation on this norm – that is, female is default.  It is also not a universal idea – in Ancient Greece, masculinity was earned though masculine acts, and every man had the threat and terror of reverting to the default of femininity through losing his masculinity. This shows the power of the constructed norm and of the systems within society that support it.

Systems and institutions within society are created around this concept of the norm and serve the function of supporting it while punishing the Other. This becomes especially obvious where the Other comes into contact with a system that should be relatively neutral – the medical system is a good example. When an Other makes it to the system – which is not always a guarantee, considering many Othered people have lower chances of seeing a doctor in New Zealand, perhaps due to the way the system treats them – that system treats them inadequately, often taking assumptions on race or gender as to how the patient wishes to be treated or how the patient could be treated.[5] This is exemplified in the NZ medical system by the fact that only 2% of Maori diagnosed with clinical depression were offered medication as opposed to 45% of non-Maori patients with the same diagnosis.[6] It is also exemplified by the non-consensual surgeries on intersex infants, with the sole purpose of “normalising” in the malformed belief that a child cannot grow up healthy if their body and thus developing gender identity does not fit within a certain binary system.

These systems and societal ideas form a feedback loop that serves only to strengthen this “mythical norm”. The norm benefits a small portion of Western society and is detrimental to the rest. It sees both women and men striving to achieve largely detrimental physical forms, it sees children operated on at birth, an operation which is often never talked about, and growing up with severe trauma, and it is not an exaggeration to say that this norm is the cause of many deaths per year.[7] I would extend Audre Lorde’s quote to: “that is not me, it has never been me, it will never be me, and I will have nothing to do with it outside the cause of dismantling it.”

 

[1] Phyllis Herda, “The Construction of Gendered Identities”. (Lecture, WOMENS 100, University of Auckland, July 24, 2014)

[2] Phyllis Herda, “Constructing Normality”. (Lecture, WOMENS 100, University of Auckland, August 26, 2014)

[3] Herda, “The Construction of Gendered Identities”.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “A fair go in Health,” Human Rights Commission NZ, accessed August 28, 2014, http://www.hrc.co.nz/key-projects/a-fair-go-for-all/a-fair-go-in-health/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tamara Alexander, “The Medical Management of Intersexed Children: An Analogue for Childhood Sexual Abuse”, Intersex Society of North America, accessed August 28, 2014, http://www.isna.org/articles/analog

The Significance of Gender as it Relates to the “Human Experience”

Written for a brief test for a 100-level Women’s Studies paper at the University of Auckland in August 2014.

The significance and relevance of gender today, along with ‘biological’ sex, is hotly contested in progressive gender theorist circles. The impact of transgender and intersex people and their own lived experiences on the discourse around gender has meant that the various constructions of gender is now significantly more obvious, and the discourse in some spheres is becoming more critical.

Specifically, the significance in using gender to relate some overall “human experience” is doubted. Do women have all that many shared experiences with men? How about people who exist outside the gender binary, do they really use their gender to relate to others within the binary? Instead, gender’s significance relies on shared experiences within shared gender – women both cis and trans can relate to each other via the shared experiences that come with being a woman.  For some this becomes somewhat of a loop – the affirmation shared experiences bring to one’s gender identity further shapes and socialises that identity, which may then lead to further shared experiences.

These shared experiences manage to highlight the construction of gendered identity when we look at toddlers. Before a certain age, and before the part of Western gender that segregates boys and girls is socialised into our young, infant children are happy to play with each other regardless of gender. But the more salient interaction our children have with the outside world, with their parents (who more often than not will reinforce rather than challenge constructed norms), and with other children, the more this constructed identity forms according to the way our binary world works, and they will no longer be as willing to play with other genders – as exemplified in Michael Messner’s “Barbie Girls and Sea Monsters”.[1]

Gender is also useful in relating to those who have perhaps similar but not shared experiences, and understanding different cultures, ways of life, and of doing gender. For example, Susanna Trinka’s lecture on women in Morocco and the Czech Republic exemplified ways in which women in other parts of the world have different attitudes towards womanhood and what “liberation” is – the women of Morocco follow what we would view in Western feminist theory as liberation, that is: women moving from private space into public space, and occupying typically masculine spaces. However, the women in the Czech spoke highly of domestic space and found being in that space liberating after being workers under communism – an ideal that is contentious within Western feminist theory.[2] However at no point is our understanding of these women as women challenged, and both examples are relatively easily understood – we use our experiences as women in the West (ie typically regarded as domestic, idealised as either the mother, the virgin, or the whore, et cetera) to understand similar but different experiences in Morocco (previously regarded as domestic, but being encouraged by the government to become more public, more educated, become workers) and the Czech Republic (valued as nominally equal to men, value placed on work over domestic life).

These similar but not shared experiences are also the basis of many communities of transgender people – trans women, trans men, and other nonbinary identities, while not sharing gendered experiences, do share experiences related to how the norm of Western gender erases them. It is around the understanding of these experiences – things like the feeling of dysphoria, dealing with the medical system, operating within a system of gender that often does not want to accept them in the same way it accepts cisgender people – that community is formed.

It is in these ways that gender is significant – not in forming some common identity or understanding relevant to an overarching “human experience,” but in connecting with those who are in some way alike, regardless of how they may be different in other ways.

 

[1] Michael A. Messner, “Barbie Girls and Sea Monsters”, Gender and Society 14, no. 6 (2000): 767-769

[2] Susanna Trinka, “Gender and the Politics of Space”, (lecture, WOMEN 101, University of Auckland, August 5, 2014)

Hale, Bergstedt, and Gender Performativity within SM Subcultures

An Analysis of C. Jacob Hale’s ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies’

Written for a coursework essay for a sexual history paper (History 102) at Auckland University in June 2014.

In ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies’, originally published in a 1997 issue of Social Text, C. Jacob Hale outlines specific gender performativities in specific SM contexts, and ways performances in these contexts can be used by assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB) transgender people, specifically trans men, to explore masculinity in a way that contributes to their transition.

Hale is writing primarily from and about his own personal experiences as a trans man who transitioned from leatherdyke to leatherfag – he is able to bring a kind of subjectivity which is important and common in queer theory, as Stephen Whittle once pointed out.[1] However, Hale also references an interview with another trans man who went through a similar process, Spencer Bergstedt, along with academic references to Rubin and Garfinkel throughout the text.

Inherent to this function of gender performances and play in SM contexts as a way to explore masculinity is the distinctive blurring of gender across social and cultural contexts and situations. Gender and its construction often rely on performance (though this is perhaps a contested point). Hale points out that “since leatherdyke boys’ masculine performativities often occur in contexts separate from interactions with” others in all other realms of their life – work, legal family, et cetera, they are less constricted by social and cultural expectations and constrictions of masculinity.[2] They are not as impacted by intersections of class, power, race, et cetera. In fact, the queer SM leather context is distinct enough from the dominant culture to be considered a culture of its own, with its own constructions and expectations. It is this factor that allows genderplay within this context to be not only possible, but effective enough to potentially construct a self-identity which can be accepted, developed, and extended beyond this sphere by the transgender individual.

Hale relates three ways he sees in leather SM play to explore masculinity: “the conception of submission, especially to pain, as the most masculine SM position,”[3] exploring masculine dominance more fully and thoroughly than is otherwise possible in alternative aspects to one’s life, and through the exploration of boyhoods not present in the lives of those who lived through female pubescent development. Bergstedt exemplifies the second method, as he had trouble expressing masculine dominance in other aspects of his life – while serving on the Seattle City Commission on Lesbians and Gays, and still identifying as a dyke, Bergstedt encountered resistance from women on the way he expressed leadership – “the way I was expressing my dominance and my personality was inappropriate for the gender role that those people perceived me to be in.”[4] Hale himself exemplifies the third example, and describes his transition from curiosity to play as a leatherboy to internalising a masculine self-constructed identity – for him, “SM as gender technology allowed me to experiment with masculinities as part of a process of self-construction in which I became more masculine, in embodiment, in self-presentation, and in identification.”[5] This is in opposition to Bergstedt’s experience, in which his SM play allowed him to explore a pre-existing identity.

However there are critiques of such play and exploration. Seeing as gender performativity “must occur within social constraints to be intelligible,”[6] it often relies on constraints and ideals that are viewed by others as negative. For example, though Hale makes explicit note of the fact that in his interview with him, Bergstedt is “aware that dominance can be feminine and did not simply equate masculinity with dominance,”[7] in a later article for the journal FORGE, Bergstedt himself equated femininity with weakness and expressing emotion (and avoided doing to so prevent damage to his own masculinity).[8] In relating the way his attitudes to sex also changed, Bergstedt implies a sort of inherent masculine demand and dominance, almost a greed.[9]This is, however, a heavily contested issue, seeing as societal – and often medical and psychological – expectations of transgender people is that their outward expression match their internal gender identity, while at the same time much of queer theory, gender critics, and feminist theory heavily criticises us for relying on constructed stereotypes and signifiers to do so.

While genderplay within leather SM contexts often relies on masculine-coded clothing such as Boy Scout or school uniforms, it also utilises less reliant, more subversive techniques such as the remapping and resignifying of sexed bodily zones found in trans contexts. Such remapping often involves decoupling “genital sexuality from bodily pleasures”[10] and phenomenology. A leatherdaddy’s dildo or strapon becomes his penis, a leatherboy’s vagina can be remapped and called neutral terms like “fuckhole”. A similar phenomenon is found in Bergstedt’s FORGE article – prior to transition he was a stone butch – that is, a top butch who has an aversion to her genitalia being touched. He relates this to us: “I could not stand the caresses of another on my breasts or worse yet, my genitals.”[11] However, after transition (it is important to note that nowhere in the piece does he make reference to bottom surgery, and he relates a concern that sex with femme women would look like lesbian play – both of these indicate to me that he, at least at this point, has not had bottom surgery and retains the genitalia he had while identifying as a stone butch) he discovers “that I really did like being touched, so long as my partners saw me and treated me as a man.”[12] This is an extremely important point, and links to something Hale relates to us: “I needed to know that my gender identification could be enacted legibly to at least one other person for it to be convincing enough to me that it could transform from a self-identification fully contained within my fantasy structure to a self-identification with a broader social sphere of enactment.”[13]

By having their gender identities validated within a sexual context, both Hale and Bergstedt were able to take that identity from that small isolated sphere and transfer and project it across to other aspects of their lives. To both, their experiences as leatherdykes and the freedom to experiment and explore within a safe and accepting context and community was integral to their transition.

 

 

[1] Whittle, S., ‘Gender Fucking or Fucking Gender?’, in R. Elkins and D. King, eds, Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross-Dressing and Sex-Changing, London, 1996, pp.198-202

[2] Hale, C.J, ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies: How to have Sex without Women or Men’, in K.M. Philips and B. Reay, eds, Sexualities in History: A Reader, New York, 2002, p.423

[3] Ibid, p.424

[4] Ibid, p.425

[5] Ibid, p.426

[6] Ibid, p.423

[7] Ibid, p.45

[8] Bergstedt, S., ‘Diary of a Leatherman’, FORGE, 5, 4, 2000, p.16

[9] Ibid

[10] Hale, p.427

[11] Bergstedt, p.16

[12] Ibid

[13] Hale, p.427