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.

stats nz.png
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.


Structures of Brick and Quiet Undertones: Considering Contemporary Christchurch

This essay was commissioned by Toi Moroki Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA) in response to their 2016 survey exhibition Contemporary Christchurch and originally published on their blog in November 2016.

Rob Hood, Erosion Problems II, (2016). Photo: Daniela Aebli 

Contemporary Christchurch is the inaugural iteration of a survey exhibition which aims to capture a moment or feeling of what art practice has been like in Ōtautahi in the past three years; CoCA plans to run this exhibition triennially during Director Paula Orrell’s Tenure.

Artists in this exhibition were suggested by a curatorial panel of artists and curators from the region, and then Paula Orrell approached the artists to discuss possible works. There is intentionally no unifying theme or aesthetic, and the artists included range in medium, generation, identity, and process. This, along with the fact that many works have been exhibited before, has drawn criticism. But there is a worth in exhibiting works that have been shown before, especially in post-quake Christchurch where exhibition spaces have been dispersed across the city and do not often draw large public crowds. There is also a worth in showing a diverse range of artists that don’t seem to sit together at first glance; in placing works next to each other or in the same space, you create a context; the works speak to, reflect off and relate to one another. Themes, commonalities, concepts and politics emerge. Even in this exhibition, with its wide range of artworks, artists with varying approaches to their practice, with different backgrounds and identities and artistic interests, the context becomes apparent.

The context of this city in 2016 is irremovable from earthquake recovery, but the tone of that context has moved from shock and mourning to exploring the potential of the rebuild as well as frustration with that process. In terms of art, there is plenty of opportunity for public work both temporary and permanent, but gallery and studio space is limited, especially for early-career artists. Leases on central spaces are at a premium, and the kind of cheap temporary lease due to an oncoming demolition – like we’ve seen at Snake Pit in Auckland, for example – do not exist. Spaces are either already demolished or too dangerous to use. This has necessarily changed how artists are working in Christchurch – there is a strong culture of collaboration, not only in creating art but in creating spaces to work and exhibit. Artists have had to make space work for them, and there has been a proliferation of art created in vacant spaces in the past few years. However, with both Christchurch Art Gallery and CoCA reopening, there is a sense of a return to the white cube, and the luxury of that context has become apparent. To me, a thriving art scene involves many spaces for students and recent graduates to exhibit, both by themselves and alongside established artists – and this remains difficult in Christchurch. By including younger emerging artists such as Nina Oberg Humphries, Ana Iti, and Daegan Wells in Contemporary Christchurch, Toi Moroki is continuing its historical mandate as the Canterbury Society of Arts of supporting local artists; encouraging and enabling an emerging artist scene to develop and flourish.  Placing these emerging artists as peers alongside more established artists such as Pauline Rhodes, Scott Flanagan, and Jacquelyn Greenbank not only gives them validity, but also allows for the works in the exhibition to speak cross-generationally.

The earthquake and rebuild process – ‘EQ art’, as I’ve been calling it – remains one of the most significant topics or concepts to work with. I personally was not living in Christchurch in the years immediately post-quake, but from what I have heard, there was understandably a deluge of work about the quakes and the recovery. This is still a running theme within the community, but focus has shifted to the rebuild, the recovery, and frustrations with the process.

The works in Contemporary Christchurch that engage with the quake also deal with other ideas, as well as interacting with the other, non-EQ artworks that surround them. I think this gives them depth and layers, and from what I have gathered speaking to artists and patrons that were in Christchurch for that flood of earthquake art, it seems to make them more interesting and relatable – they are not just about the quake.


Louise Palmer’s 90 Canon (a series of empty rooms) (2016) (pictured above) is a good place to start. Her images of her own home, now demolished, with sculptural interventions throughout the architecture, reflects current media coverage of the recovery process – stories about the rebuild and EQC claims and bureaucratic frustrations. The interventions themselves reveal otherwise hidden layers that have become visible throughout the rebuild; pipes beneath the floor, for example. Her artist text that accompanies the works captures the feeling behind the work well:

For some time in Christchurch conversation would inevitably turn to our houses, structures of brick, concrete and timber, repositories of memory. Acronyms and codes signalled the extent of damage and whether to rebuild, repair, demo, restore. I carefully recorded every crack, every split, every broken piece of furniture, of crockery and glassware. I wrapped my grandfather’s shattered crystal glasses in newspaper and stored them in a box in the garage. Other boxes are now stacked in the garage of another house; the weight of things with which we surround ourselves, and which five years later are partly forgotten.

Daegan Wells’ work, Sutton’s Garden (2016) (detail pictured below) speaks of home and the rebuild process, but also of frustration. He has been collecting artifacts from the Red Zone through his sculptural and archival practice. Through this process he unwittingly came across W.A. Sutton’s former home and studio, one of the few buildings left standing in a large expanse of land that has been flattened and turned into an empty, grassed landscape. Like many other buildings in Christchurch, the home studio is trapped in conflict between the Earthquake Commission and Heritage New Zealand. The form of the work is almost in opposition to the frustrations it represents; calming footage and thoughtfully composed black and white silver gelatine prints of Sutton’s garden.


Downstairs, in the lower gallery, Rob Hood has a different approach to the frustrations with the rebuild process. His work Erosion Problems II (2016) uses humour and play to express the absurdism in what many see as a ridiculously slow, bureaucratic process. The Banks Peninsula volcanic rock left sandwiched between a sack barrow and a cooling fan, a blue jacket or lab coat draped over it all speaks to forgetfulness, a nonsensical job left undone.

The specific use of volcanic rock speaks to another thread that runs through a number of works in the exhibition – the notion of earth, of land, of space. Louise Palmer’s text once again makes this explicit:

A core was drilled from the ground in front of and then behind the house… Sections of the strata were carefully recorded, numbered and placed into crisp white archive boxes. Topsoil, soft silt, clay, peat, firm silt, dense sand, coarse gravel. Layers of time, of history revealed.

Land as it relates to time and history relates heavily to the work of Ana Iti, whose piece First, they chose a name (2016) (pictured below) includes a piece of Halswell quarry stone. Stone from this quarry was integral to the construction of many early colonial buildings in Christchurch, many of which either did not survive the quake or have been demolished since; colonial architecture being one of the focusses of Ana’s recent body of work. The stone is engraved with the word ‘Karaitiana’, an early name for Christchurch, being a transliteration of the word Christchurch.


Adjacent to this space and these works is one of Steve Carr’s two works in this exhibition, Bubble Cactus (2015). His works are unique here in that they are in totally separate spaces from one another; appropriate considering that while similar, they deal with slightly different concepts in different tones. Bubble Cactus is found footage from a Phantom HD camera, known for its capability for extremely high frame rates. The footage is of a cactus popping a bubble, stretched from 30 seconds out to 10 minutes and 42 seconds. Commentary on media and technology is a common motif in Carr’s work; this piece referencing film speed, linking to film and TV; for example nature documentaries speeding up growth of plants or decay of flesh, or sports events replaying and slowing down a moment to reveal the precise sequence of events. Carr ‘makes visible the invisible’, in this case literally, exploring how technology is used to reveal ‘intimate details of how the world works’.

Ana’s piece also works with the notion of making visible the invisible, questioning the politics and power of naming. The accompanying audio recording of the artist speaking goes into detail of how Christchurch was ‘named’ by colonists, beginning with the line “there is a power in naming things,” a concept that underpins the whole work. Ana aims to make visible the invisible by questioning the idea that a name is natural, apolitical. The power to name things rests within the dominant class – they name what is ‘other’; they came to this land and named what was already named.

Ana also emphasises the relationship between name and identity, particularly in the audio recording, speaking about her own family name: “Our name Iti doesn’t belong to us, but none the less we were given it and lived with it… / Our sister was an Iti and she died an Iti”. Her recent work at North Projects (1) as well as First, they chose a name explores the difficulty of navigating a Māori identity within Western colonial knowledge systems, made explicit once again in the audio: “How should you navigate identity when even your name is troubling?”

Underneath the concept of rebuild frustration in Wells’ install is another approach to his work, one of identity. Included in the install is one of Sutton’s portraits, Portrait of Peter Young (pictured below, installed at CoCA). Painted in 1955, it is one of his less significant works, resting on the wall of his home for 45 years before being bequeathed to Christchurch Art Gallery on his death. These are two reasons for its selection in this install – that it was easy to acquire on loan, and that it clearly had some personal significance to Sutton.


Often referred to as a ‘constant bachelor’, there is the beginnings of a rumour of Sutton’s queerness, ‘bachelor’ being common code for queer men throughout history. Daegan is almost the sole perpetrator of this rumor, having his practice recently described in the Listener as a ‘queering of Sutton’s work’. During an exhibition at Blue Oyster about Sutton’s home, a friend of the artist suggested very subtly to his queerness; the Christchurch Art Gallery archive of Sutton’s work and belongings contains many photos of half naked men.

The queer aspect of the install is intentionally only a quiet undertone, reflecting Sutton’s possible closeted identity; considering the historical context and homosexuality being a crime for much of his life, there is a tricky question of ethics to the work. Like Ana says, there is a power in naming, a power in acknowledging and recognising our queer forebears. But also there is a question of whether it is appropriate to place a label on someone who did not outwardly identify with that label. So, the portrait is included but no mention is made to the possible queer history, and to many – initially myself included – it flies under the radar (2).

The wall text for Wells’ work refers to the red zone land as ‘unoccupied’, an interesting choice of wording considering the install is right next to Ana’s work, so heavily steeped in post-colonial politics. This creates an interesting sense of tension between the two pieces. Ana herself draws a strong connection between this tension and both artists’ practices:

“the idea that my practice and work exists in this post-colonial landscape seems fundamental but I’m not sure that that idea is pervasive with other practitioners or even CoCA as an institution. Both our works delve into personal territories where queer histories are often swept under the rug, which is the same ‘out of site/sight, out of mind’ rhetoric that people have about our colonial history.” (3)

Nina Oberg Humphries, recently studying at Ilam, also explores identity in her contribution, a series of photographic portraits of her family with high gloss, sculptural frames (pictured below). The choice to show photographs is interesting, considering she majored in sculpture. Being of Cook Island and Pākehā descent, her work combines traditional Polynesian art forms with elements of pop culture. The frames are a good example of this, being a pine base with traditional adornments that could be read as kitsch: plastic flowers and palm trees covered in resin and automotive paint, giving that poppy, high gloss finish. Alongside this look though, they have all been hand cast by the artist herself – they are unique artworks themselves. This combination of tradition with pop could be read as a commentary on the commercialisation and exploitation of Pacific cultures; the selling of kitschy commercialised versions of traditional materials being a good example.


In the same space as these works is a sculptural piece by Pauline Rhodes, Towards the Light (2016) (detail pictured below). Known for two forms of environmental sculptural work; outdoor minimal interventions in the landscape and indoor installations in gallery spaces, her work in this exhibition is the latter. The two forms are linked, however, the indoor works being conceptually related and often referencing the outdoor works. Her works are simple and elegant, the minimal elements responding and referring to places or things, only ever lightly and delicately touching one another. This simple, elegant form ties in nicely with Ana’s adjacent work, also characterised by being simple but striking. The series of rods in Towards the Light point towards the north end of the gallery, filled with natural light, in which a large bundle of indigenous vegetation is piled; yet more rods, some wrapped with text and musical notation, are stacked on this pile and point upwards towards the gallery’s ceiling window. The use of indigenous vegetation is significant, especially in this space, especially being adjacent to the work of Ana and Nina – it feels referential to this specific land and space, referential to indigenous politics and notions of (de)colonisation.


Land and nature is also apparent in Rob Hood’s other works, Coupland’s Waterfall (2016) and Donald’s Pew (2016), moving back to the lower gallery again. The two works deal with parallel binaries – that of nature vs society and object vs art object. Coupland’s Waterfall is film and audio of the artificially constructed waterfall on the outside of Coupland’s Bakery in Hornby, almost an iconic site in Christchurch. The work questions how we delineate between nature and society – is this completely artificial waterfall and fish pond ‘natural’? What does it mean to have such an ‘object’ created by a business? The audio exemplifies this questioned binary well, including both the sound of water falling and the adjacent road and pedestrian crossing. The second work here, Donald’s Pew, questions the second binary: the opposition of ‘art object’ and ‘object’. Referential to Donald Judd’s work around furniture and objects, Hood realised while making both art and objects that he treated them both the same, beginning to question what delineated an art object from an object. The way gallery visitors treat Donald’s Pew highlights this; despite it being created as an ‘art object’ and being listed in the wall text as a work, people sit on it in order to watch the video work.

Questions of object run through the exhibition, returning again to Louise Palmer’s text:

The house is small and has no passages, no corridors, there’s a fluid movement from room to room. With doors open Ruby runs a circle around the house and I follow her, through each room, and around the furniture. The objects in these rooms define the space. They are markers around which we navigate our daily lives. The spaces of things. The weight of things.

This is an interesting point of reference from which to read Louise’s photos: the rooms in the photos are voided of objects, of markers of domesticity and personal identity.

Also in the lower gallery is another work that deals with object referencing identity – Jacquelyn Greenbank’s Squatch Poles (2015). With a history of working with typically ‘feminine’ craft such as knitting, these totems are comprised of found objects, recycled materials, and craft processes. The found objects are covered with leather from jackets found in op shops, speaking to a specific era, a specific kind of person, even a specific scent. Throughout her practice Greenbank has used craft to create objects, such as her series of crocheted constructions of 1950s household objects, or her 2004 piece State Carriage. The work approaches identity and craft processes with humour and a kitsch aesthetic, poking fun not only at the traditionally domestic medium but also at the identities both the medium and object signify. Squatch Poles in particular seems to reference the late 20th century Kiwi bogan aesthetic – faded leather jackets and home constructions. This theme of kitsch humour dominates the lower gallery; it is characterised by works that play, works that are humorous and absurd.


Steve Carr’s second work, Watermelon (2015) (above) plays into this notion really well. It is primarily a work of suspense and tension, organised around an absurd act – placing rubber bands around a watermelon until it pops and snaps in half. It has its origins in a commonplace Japanese children’s game which Carr restaged in a residency in Sapporo, Japan. The same act was streamed live on BuzzFeed recently to a live audience of 807,000 viewers; the video has since been watched over ten million times. This formalised, gallery version removes the ability to self-satisfy by skipping to the end, increasing the tension and suspense. Carr’s motif of media commentary runs through this work too, speaking to the tension we find in film and TV – we must put the effort into this piece by patiently waiting the full 33 minutes for a split second of satisfaction. Critic Francis McWhannell, in a discussion on the New Perspectives exhibition at Artspace this year, said of video works: “video art has to work very hard to be interesting, because there’s this huge amount of often very good material available outside the art world.” Audience response to Watermelon signals its success in this aspect: on opening night there was a constant large crowd around the piece that would disperse once the watermelon popped and almost immediately re-form in the minutes after. It is an absurd act surrounded by so much tension that gives so much satisfaction, no matter how short, that people are drawn to it and compelled to stay, lest they miss that split second of satisfaction.

This could be read as a form of conditioning and a commentary on that conditioning we experience from media and technology – a concept that is explicitly present in James Oram’s video installation Pavlov’s Pockets. Simple in concept, it is a pair of denim pockets – a material consistent through the variety of works he has presented, including the bean bag that Pavlov’s Pockets rests on – that vibrate, as if phones are in them, often causing gallery goers to check their own phones, a Pavlovian conditioned reaction to the sound of a mobile notification.


Commentary on technology is a thread common to multiple works in Contemporary Christchurch. Scott Flanagan’s Wild South – Young Mountains (2016) (above) is another example, a significant work both in scale and in concept, drawing together many inspirations, themes, and theories. It is a large-scale wall of woven VHS tape paired with a sculptural installation, also consisting mostly of woven VHS. It has its origins in a feminist history of technology, focussing on women’s involvement in the development of technology, starting with Ada Lovelace (4).

It was this history that led Flanagan to weaving – first, small scale paper weavings, then small VHS weavings, and then over the decades variation in scale. They are installed now in a collaborative process – linking back to the history of collaboration in weaving and craft, typically associated with women and femininity.

Weaving also links to technology in the history of the Luddites – a term that now refers to people who are outdated and anachronistic, hating technology for no real good reason, but originally referred to a group who could be described as union activists. They were concerned about the introduction of mechanical looms and the threat they posed to the jobs of workers – a theme that is recurring today with rising automation in factories and other industries.

Wild South – Young Mountains also has a political drive behind it, though not immediately obvious. The paper weaving that is part of the sculptural installation is made up of copies of New Zealand’s anti-terrorism legislation; laws that Flanagan finds absurd and unnecessary, linking through to Ana’s work and the (de)colonial politic behind it. The paper weaving also has an almost hidden connection to quake-related art, having been stuck in a basement gallery after the earthquake stuck. When retrieved a few months later, rats had eaten holes into it. The weaving has intentionally not been repaired.


In the same room and on a similar scale, Emma Fitts’ installation Fit-out for Olivia Spencer Bower (2015) (detail pictured above) also works with craft and the notion of information as material. It is a work that seems driven by feminist thought around craft and feminine labour, domesticity, and family, linking it to other works in the exhibition – in particular, Greenbank around craft, Palmer around domesticity, and Humphries around family. It is a huge series of pieces, hanging from the ceiling of the main upstairs gallery, the first thing you see as you walk up the stairs or exit the elevator. The fabrics are hung in a way that aligns them with the architectural plan of Bower’s own home, referencing not only the specific building but the neo-brutalist architectural style it and many other buildings in Christchurch were constructed in. The house was commissioned to accommodate a female artist living alone, a nice parallel to Daegan’s work and Sutton’s bachelor home studio. Grass mats have been hung on the front of these fabric constructions, almost obscuring the front, as Melanie Oliver points out in her essay on this work in its first exhibited iteration at Ilam School of Fine Arts. By doing so, along with the way they are hung, Fitts, like Flanagan, Wells, and Iti, makes a comment on history; specifically how ‘a version of history sits behind every image’ (5). Fitts disrupts the notion of a simple viewpoint, both materially in that this work must be walked around to be viewed completely and metaphorically in that there are always alternative histories.


Right next to this installation is another series that works with size, texture, and layering – Tjalling de Vries’ series of cartoonish, gesturely, and experimental paintings Copy Card (pictured above). Coming from a multidisciplinary background, these works are almost defined by studio experimentation. Having painted on canvas and bits of billboard in his recent body of work, these pieces are on stretched translucent linen, intentionally chosen to be able to work with layering. The figures present in these works are cartoonish, drawing a link to Oram’s other pieces in the room downstairs, paintings and sculptural pieces that draw from definite cartoonish origins. De Vries also works with some of his own father’s cartoon designs, drawing a thread between this series and other works in the exhibition that deal with family, such as Humphries and, opposite this series, Tim J. Veling.

Veling has exhibited a number of photographs taken from the seriesD,P,O (2014-15) (installation shot below). They are intensely personal works, capturing moments spent with his father after a terminal diagnosis. They are a document of the time spent from the diagnosis to his passing, twice a day family visits. Originally presented in a short-run artist book, Veling developed over 100 rolls of film. The processing of the images was also intensely personal, using a magnifying loop to find fine focus on his father’s eyes.

Veling also presented a text, a conversation from him to his deceased father:

I kissed you on the forehead then traced the shape of a crucifix with my thumb, just like you’d always do to me when saying goodbye. I held your hand and said it was okay to pass if you wanted. With that, you drew your last breath.


Veling’s work has strong parallels to Palmer’s adjacent series: both are about a personal tragedy, out of control. Palmer’s work investigates the intersection of sculptural conventions with the personal underpinnings of an artwork, and as such the medium becomes important. Conventions of both sculpture and photography mean the latter can easier be more personal in its motivations and presentation; photography is often a more personal and intimate medium than sculpture, and these works together signify that very well.

So, despite not having a curatorial intent to create a unifying theme, the works in Contemporary Christchurch reveal similarities in practice, approach, concept, and artistic interest. Perhaps more so than if the panel and curator went out looking for works that would fit together in some unifying manner, the exhibition reveals significant commonalities that shed light on what contemporary art practice is like in Christchurch in 2016. A strong first installment of this triennial exhibition, it will be interesting to see which commonalities remain in three years time and what new ones emerge.

(1) North Projects is an artist-led gallery space that ran from August 2014 until closing at the end of September this year. Ana’s recent show there, Is the past a foreign country?, came from the same body of research as First, they chose a name and contains the same materials (Halswell quarry and spoken and written text).

(2)  The ethics of this came into play in writing this essay, as well – considering it is such an undertone, is it acceptable or even necessary to bring it up in discussion? After talking to Daegan and CoCA curators about it, and thinking not only on Daegan’s work but on Ana’s assertion that naming has power I decided there was more worth in acknowledging it despite the discomfort some in Aotearoa’s art institutions may feel.

(3) from correspondence with the artist, 2016

(4) As the tale goes, Ada spent time around mechanical looms, driven by punchcards to generate incredible patterns – supposedly this influence led her to the realisation that Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine could be used for purposes other than crunching numbers, that the zeroes and ones of the binary system could be translated to or representational of other, more abstracted concepts.

(5) Melanie Oliver, Silk, linen, leather, denim, grass, cotton, felt. (2015)

This commissioned text is by Jennifer Katherine Shields, an artist, academic, and writer living in Ōtautahi Christchurch. Both her academic and artistic practices examine queer theory, history, sociology, and bodily issues.

Photo Credits: Daniela Aebli

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.

“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]






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

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,

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

[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,

[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 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,

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.’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.


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. (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).

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).

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.


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.

Biopower, death, and normative biopolitical genocide

Written for a sociology paper at University of Auckland, April 2015

“In a normalising society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable.” (Foucault, 1976, pg.256)

Judith Butler believes that certain acts of violence are justified while others are ignored. In ‘Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear,’ she discusses the response to the attacks on September 11th, 2001, and the resulting “war on terror” in the Middle East. When she talks about how violence perpetrated by the United States is justified or ignored, Butler (2004) is talking about Foucault’s concepts of biopower and state racism – concepts relevant across different nations, states, and populations.

Biopower, defined by Foucault in The Will to Knowledge and Society Must Be Defended, both in 1976, is a mode of power over life that focusses on the body as a living entity, as part of a species – as opposed to discipline, the mode of power that views the body as a machine, something to be integrated into economic systems in the most efficient means. Biopower exists alongside and in opposition to the sovereign right to kill – instead, biopower focusses on life; extending it, keeping it and the population healthy. These two concepts exist in tandem only via the means of what Foucault (1976) calls state racism, that is, the defining by the state of a privileged population, and consequently also an Other, a foreign population, whether inside the state’s borders or out, that poses a threat to the integrity of the state’s privileged population. Stemming from the combination of biopower and state racism is a normative biopolitical genocide; that is, the killing – or more often, the letting die – of the Other in order to protect the integrity, health, and life of the privileged population. As Foucault says in The Will to Knowledge, “one might say that the ancient [sovereign] right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (Foucault, 1976, pg.138).

In ‘Explanation and Exoneration’ Butler talks about acts of violence and war committed by the United States justified by both foreign policy decisions and through the reasoning of self-defence (Butler, 2004, pg.4). These foreign policy decisions are made, naturally, by the state, and are part of the process of defining the Other that threatens the integrity of their population. So, too, is the self-defence rationalisation a state-defined one, as it stems from the Bush administration declaring the attacks of September 11 as declarations of war. Even the usage of the term “terrorist” becomes a way to define an Other – it is never used by the state to refer to violence committed by its own power. As Butler exemplifies it: “The term ‘terrorist’ is used… by the Israeli state to describe any and all Palestinian acts of resistance, but none of its own practices of state violence” (pg.4). Another means of justification of state violence is indeed the intentional overlooking or dismissal of those events – in particular if they are not committed against the state’s privileged population. Again, from Butler herself: “Our own acts of violence do not receive graphic coverage in the press, and so they remain acts that are justified in the name of self-defence” (pg.6).

Biopower is used to create and justify this normative biopolitical genocide in essentially every Western state. In neoliberal and colonial societies like Aotearoa, the indigenous population is, more often than not, part of the Other that threatens the privileged population, and the violence against them that both kills and lets them die comes in the form of incarceration rates, low access to healthcare, and institutionalised racism. The privileged population can essentially be characterised as Audre Lorde’s “mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me.’ In America, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is within this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside” (Lorde, 1984). The privileged population extends further than this norm and is not an even field of power distribution; it is useful to think of what this population is centred around: white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied people – that is, those with privilege and power in society.

Transmisogyny as normative biopolitical genocide

Perverted sexuality has effects at the level of the population, as anyone who has been sexually debauched is assumed to have a heredity. Their descendants also will be affected for generations, unto the seventh generation and unto the seventh of the seventh and so on. This is the theory of degeneracy: given that it is the source of individual diseases and that it is the nucleus of degeneracy, sexuality represents the precise point where the disciplinary and the regulatory, the body and the population, are articulated. (Foucault, 1976, p.232)

Applying an intersectional framework to the concept of a privileged population, as a disabled, queer, neuroatypical trans woman, I am not wholly part of this population. As Pākehā, I need less protection as I am less exposed to more systems of violence as the trans women of colour I know; and as the privileged population is an uneven field rather than a definitive category, I gain certain memberships and protections for being white, but I am nonetheless a target of the normative biopolitical genocide in our society. I am a target for being disabled, and for being queer, and for being mentally ill, but the most powerful experience of it, for me, is for being all three of those as well as being trans. I mention this because I feel it is important to situate myself and my lived experience before the following discussion of how biopower is utilised in this normative genocide that leads to an overall life expectancy of around 32 – lower for trans women of colour.

Biopower is necessarily interested in demography and its control, as it is focussed around the control of life – as such, statistics around death and birth rates, life expectancies, etc, are relevant to its domain. We have a little data on trans death rates and life expectancies – done mostly within the community, for as the state-defined Other, we are a threat to the protected population rather than contributing to it. Additionally, according to normative views, transgender people do not reproduce, and so would not contribute to the life of the nation even if the state wanted us to – which it categorically does not. In the early stages of Western trans medicalisation – that is, the pathologisation of being transgender that led to it being something to be treated with medicine – sterilisation was an implicit required outcome of treatment. In fact, Sweden, for example, only recently removed enforced sterilisation from the requirements to legally change one’s sex (Nelson, 2013). In The Will to Knowledge, Foucault (1976) talks about biopower as “the right to kill those who represented a kind of biological danger to others” (p.138); the forced sterilisation of trans people is one of these rights. It enforces our sterility, our inability to contribute ‘inferior’ or dangerous genetic material to the privileged population of the state, and is an integral tool to the normative biopolitical genocide that is attempting to eradicate us.

“It was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body” (Foucault, 1976, p.143)

While discourse within the trans community has shifted, popular external and ‘professional’ opinion is still a heavily medicalised one that has shifted little since the 1960s – that is, to be trans one must experience dysphoria and one must desire full medical transition (both hormone treatment and all the appropriate surgeries). This discourse is one that requires trans people to submit themselves to the medical system and thus to state surveillance and violence. We are judged on our identities and our ‘transness’ – whether we meet the very strict, very Western colonial-imperialist criteria for being trans (that is, binary, presenting extremely feminine, with no room for androgyny or genders beyond male or female). Many of us are unable to gain access to this system, and many more are immediately diagnosed with borderline personality disorder as a ‘reason’ for our discomfort with our assigned genders. In short, the healthcare system neglects us, was designed to exclude us and pathologise us. This links to Foucault’s idea of ‘indirect murder’ (1976, p.256) – Mark Kelly (2004) defines it as exposing some to “greater risks to which the body of the population would not normally be exposed” (pg.60) and applies it to contemporary societies in Racism, Nationalism and Biopolitics: “Every state does still need to make a distinction between those it keeps alive (and every state does have a welfare system and health service which work towards these ends) and those it kills (foreign enemies in war, executed criminals), together with those it merely allows to be exposed to greater risk of death (the victims of Third World famines, its own poor and elderly citizens)” (pg. 61)(emphasis mine). By simultaneously forcing us to engage with a violently exclusionary medical system as well as excluding us from that system, the state is preventing us from receiving the care it provides to its privileged population, and is engaging in indirect murder.

In the same way that acts of violence perpetrated in the Middle East by the United States do not receive coverage and thus remain glossed over and justified, so too are acts of violence perpetrated by the privileged population justified and/or ignored. In fourty-nine out of fifty American states, it is legal to argue that you were justified in killing a woman because you were about to sleep with her, then discovered she was trans. It was only in September 2014 that California banned the ‘trans panic’ defence in murder cases (Molloy, 2014). The panic defence was used successfully as recently as 2010 in Aotearoa, to downgrade a murder charge to one of manslaughter (The Dominion Post, 2010). Butler (2004) says that the acts of violence in the Middle East are “justified in the name of self-defence, but by a noble cause, namely, the rooting out of terrorism” (pg.6). Just as those acts are noble in the defence against terrorism, violence against trans women is justified by the state and its legislation, and considered noble by many in society – Galloway, one of the men who murdered Diksy Jones, told police she “did not deserve to be in the world” (The Dominion Post, 2010).

We are at risk of higher rates of substance abuse and suicide (Clark, me ētahi atu, 2013). Trans women of colour in particular are at higher risk of violent attacks and deaths – in the first seven weeks of 2015, seven trans women were murdered, six of them trans women of colour (Kellaway, 2015). We’re at higher risk of domestic violence and abuse. We have significantly lower access to state services, such as healthcare, police, and welfare. In Aotearoa trans women are imprisoned in men’s prisons where they are subject to rape and abuse (Department of Corrections) (Shields, 2015). Both the state and their privileged population have little to no interest in improving these conditions – as a member of a group who protested these very conditions at Auckland Pride Parade this year, we received very little support and a lot of abuse.

Foucault (1976) states that state racism “does make the relationship of war – ‘if you want to live, the other must die’ – function in a way that is completely new and that is quite compatible with the exercive of biopower” (pg.255). The ‘completely new’ way he references is normative biopolitical genocide. To put it simply: normative biopolitical genocide turns existing in a society in which you are not a part of the state’s privileged population into existing in a warzone.


Butler, J. (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London/New York: Verso.

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