Monday, January 24, 2011

"A Political Hierarchy in Gender Binary Drag", or When is a binary not a binary? When we're talking about a gendered, raced, sexed, classed HIERARCHY

this graphic is from here at
NOTE: revised and added to on 25 Jan. 2011 ECD. (See the third and fourth paragraph from the end of the post going up, not from the beginning of the post. I write there about gender dysphoria a bit.)

For me, this is THE critical question that is responsible for two distinct realities in the white het male dominated West:

--radical feminism as presented by some cisgender women--including the work of radical white women and radical women of color, and

--cis queer politics including the description of trans identities as presented by some transsexual people, but not by many trans- and inter-gender people.

I have yet to hear what's radical about the contemporary liberal queer/transsexual understanding of gender. Can someone please tell me who benefits from rendering "gender" apolitical? Since when is political oppression only "social options"?

For me, first of all, we have the same phenomenon, albeit from a white class-privileged location socially. I never felt "like a boy" as boys around me most often behaved; I rejected a lot of what 'being a man' had to offer me, while of course soaking up a lot of privileges--they come with the location, I realised, not the identity. Men like John Stoltenberg and Robert Jensen seem to make a case for rejecting manhood on the interpersonal/behavioral level, which I think denies the harshest truth--womanhood and manhood are not embedded primarily in our identities; they are embedded in systems, institutions, structures, locations, positions. None of which go anywhere if we shift our individual identities.

This is my view: racist patriarchy can do very well, thank you, with queer folks in it, with trans folks in it, because it's not the binary it most needs to hold onto; it's male supremacy. And male supremacy thrives in queer/trans community. As does misogyny.

The trick--and I do feel it's a nasty trick--of uber-WHM supremacist academy's post-modernist and post-structural perspectives (we can note the view that there's some sense of getting beyond structural reality in the very term), is that the "problem" is "the gender binary" always worded exactly that way. The irony of post-structuralism being used to maintain oppressive structures seems lost on many in the Academy. PoMo is Mo in PoMo clothing.

"The gender binary". The gender binary? Gender has been many things across cultures, but it being a "binary" isn't really the issue. In patriarchal societies, especially white ones and white-colonised ones, gender is a socially enforced hierarchy--regardless of how many there are. That is the issue. So if we don't deflect from the "hierarchy" by calling it a "binary", we end up having to directly face a very misogynistic system that can find places for male women and female men; for any permutation and combination of femininity and masculinity, as long as feminine always means "less than" masculine, and masculine always means "power over" the feminine.

"Cowboys and Indians" isn't a binary. Nor is Nazi/Jew. Nor is Black/white. Nor, in my view, is man/woman. Those are hierarchies--in the first case a game white children played around me as if it were a binary--that's the trick: to make it appear to be "us vs. them" as if there's some sort of level playing field. As if the Indians could win one day; the cowboys the next. Meanwhile, the actual genocide of American Indians and the existence of cowboy culture across the mid and southwest is what? Not relevant? Not real? Interferes with the fun of the game? This is my issue with queer drag: to turn a condition requiring great violence into a fun time without noting that it is, to the core, violence--directed against women and girls--is to be terribly disrespectful to those who pay the highest price for 'behaving like women'.

When I bring this concern, this critique to pro-feminist queer folks, they say, "we just wanna have fun". That's privilege--to be able to have fun with the reprehensible terroristic destruction of a class of people. Shall we have a game of Nazi-Jew also? How about White Master-Black slave? Oh, wait: we do that too. Those are called "genres" in pornography, which people consume as pleasure.  They are also the role-play games some people act out for fun. To better understand what's oppressive about that, I recommend reading Audre Lorde's contribution to Against Sadomasochism. To reduce a sadist or a slaver to being "just a role I play" is to be utterly insensitive to those who are experiencing denigration, humiliation, and possession by very unfun sadists and slavers.

To turn a hierarchy into a binary is a pretty fiendish thing to do, if one's people are being destroyed by the hierarchy in binary's clothing.

Social hierarchies are political systems of grossly cruel power exercised in every way through every method, to keep women and girls down relative to men and boys; to keep Black and Brown people down; to keep American Indians on the "endangered species list". It'd be like saying "hunter and lion" is a binary. Huh??

The white/het/cis/male supremacist hierarchy will keep trans folks out if they're seen as "a bunch of queers" (whether or not they are) because "queers" are seen as doing one of two things, neither of which is "difference" except in the most liberal sense. Society isn't threatened by difference, exactly, in this view. It is threatened by specific challenges to white supremacy and to het male supremacy--to the institutionalised ideologies and practices of each form of dominance and subordination. South Africa, for example, doesn't have a race binary, exactly. They have more than two categories of raced being. But guess which one is on top? Whiteness.

So it will be with any additional categories in a male supremacist system. It won't matter whether or not there are transmen, as long as cismen--cis HET men--are dominant. This is why, to me, "queer politics" is constructed to be liberal not radical, and largely anti-woman and anti-lesbian. From a dominant cultural standpoint, "lesbianism" rejects male supremacy by rejecting one of its key mandates: that all girls and women be sexually or otherwise physically and intimately involved with boys and men. To not do this is always seen by men-in-power as a big ol' fuck you to men. As if woman-loving couldn't possibly be anything else. It's all about the boyz. All the time. But, nonetheless, "d*kes" are beaten up for not being willing and welcoming of men's sexuality, which is to say men's invasions and violations of women and girls.

Gay males are rejected, ostracised, beaten, and occasionally killed by het men predominantly because, in the words of John Stoltenberg, they are seen to participate in the degraded status of the female. Bottom line: gay males are seen as men who suck dick and are fucked by dick. So whether lesbian or gay, these "orientations" are seen to threaten het male supremacy's codes of conduct: all dicks must be weapons used against women not men; and all women must be available for men's dick-tutorial target practice.

How, then, did we collectively arrive at a theory of "difference" (or of a conception and articulation of gender as a binary) when there's such glaring "dominance" and a well-protected (and generally invisibilised or naturalised) hierarchy? C. A. MacKinnon writes about this in detail--the very serious dangers to women of turning "dominance" into "difference" but specifically in terms of how the law recognises--or doesn't--that women aren't the same as men and also aren't just "different" from men. There are very real, dire consequences for women globally, and for anyone and everything else white het men dominate (including animals and the Earth) if male supremacy isn't even named when we discuss and challenge "gender".

My question, really for all of us who are trans- and inter-gender, is this: "what does it mean, materially, spiritually, socially, to say "we don't feel like [a specific sex]": who told us what "being female" or "being male" is supposed to feel like, be experienced as, or be socially made into? And, to the extent we don't identify with or feel at home in our bodies, can we at least respectfully discuss the many reasons why that occurs without politically privileging those that appear to re-biologise "sex"? How does "I don't feel like a female" compare to "I don't feel like a woman and didn't feel like a girl"? And how does a social program of genderqueer people demanding to be considered "men" and "women" by society and the State interrupt or challenge a "gender binary", anyway? How does sexual trauma in childhood effect our own "at-homeness" in our bodies. I'm not making the case that "everyone who wants to surgically change their bodies from one sex to another" is a survivor of sexual assault.

I'm suggesting that there are many reasons why we don't feel comfortable in our own skin, why we are repulsed by our bodies, why we feel alien inside them, etc. And these many reasons should be discussed online so that someone else who comes along and feels alien inside their skin can have many ways to understand this, and not just have a few people referring them to a doctor who has their own interests to sell a way of understanding "gender dysphoria". Gender dysphoria needs to be unpacked, as well as regarded as real.

Why are so many white class-privileged queer-defined people unwilling to engage on these rather critical subjects while being willing to write about "the gender binary"? More queer lives are impacted by male dominance than by "a binary called sex". Most queer people's and most women's lives are greatly impacted by many forms of male supremacist values and practices than by "the binary problem". Most of our lives, worldwide are shaped horrifically by poverty, rape, trafficking, famine, HIV, corporate/class warfare and globalisation, racism and genocide, nuclear and other toxic/lethal waste, and the social degradation of female human beings globally. These are not "ideas" that must be engaged: they are hard-core realities that must be challenged and ended.

Discussing "the gender binary" is a politically mistaken and socially irresponsible way to refer to "what's wrong with gender", which is that men are killing, maiming, and otherwise harming women and girls. All over the planet. To invisibilise a political hierarchy called "gender" is part of the work of pro-patriarchs, who pretend cisgender women are the most powerful people on Earth. Why are queer folks doing that work for heteropatriarchal cis men? They really do know how to do it by themselves (well, with women raising them, feeding them, tending to them, and otherwise nurturing them throughout their lifetimes). If we're to end male dominance and male violence, wouldn't it make sense for all of us who are not cis het men, and a few who are, to join together in the struggle to challenge and dismantle patriarchal oppression?


Cerien said...

The function of a binary is just to provide an enforceable set of castes for the hierarchy to work on.

... And I still fail at understanding what is so perfect and glorious at getting rid of the binary. No one ever means it for real: it's just shorthand for "admire me, I'm so progressive." It seems to me that if men are taught to fetishize female-bodied people being violently fucked while being called names, it doesn't much matter whether or not I appear inside or outside of the binary... because then I just have one more fucked choice in addition to my fucker option.

But I guess that's the point: hierarchy is a binary, in the most literal way possible. Superior/inferior, master/slave, sadist/masochist. If you prat enough about how people should be able to choose to be the torturer, the slavemaster, and the rapist... then you'll be able to keep people from looking too closely at the real issue.

Society of the Spectacle, Exhibition #2,003 (to the nth). Titillation is an excellent distraction from real issues; you don't want to think that you might be consuming a person... that would undermine your ability to consume them.

Yeah, you know, I wanna opt out of the entire thing - I don't like this game. That's The Catch of capitalism, too: you get to choose any door except the one marked "EXIT".

Julian Real said...

This is a dimension of transgender experience, to me, that too many het, queer, transgender, and transsexual activists don't speak of, when discussing gender in terms of it being a binary.

With the very well-published promotion of the idea that gender is an enforced transphobic/heterosexist binary, not an enforced racist-sexist hierarchy that intricately involves age, race, region, gender, sexuality, among other realities, we are left with popular ideas that people can cross gender in age, in time. And that notion doesn't appreciate or account for how gender transforms a person in their own lifetime, from girlhood to womanhood, or through boyhood to manhood.

The issue of what happens when girls become men or boys become women typically invisibilises or minimises the roles of misogyny/gynocide, racism/white supremacy, anti-Indigenism/genocide, and capitalism/ecocide as forces oppressing girls who become women in very specific and destructive ways.

In popular queer/trans discourse, we are left with an idea that "the problem" is limiting boys and men's access to femininity or girls and women's access to masculinity--as if femininity and masculinity don't exist to destroy girls and women, and also boys or men who refuse to hide features of their being that are deemed "feminine" by het men.

We can note that both femininity and masculinity, when they show up in girls and women, are sources of females-in-patriarchy being punished. Girls and women have no relief, including in the process of being forcibly feminised.

However, masculine boys and men can (as people atop a hierarchy) find status, power, privilege, entitlement, advantage, and positions of ownership, exploitation, and rule over everyone else.

When do Queer/Trans/Gay (and Het male) Theorists' and Academics' discussions of "the gender binary" discuss any of these realities?

The only group of theorists I know who address these issues are race-oppressed and race-responsible radical feminists, including, especially and notably, radical lesbian feminists.

Let's consider several of the het male/gay (male)/queer (male-dominated)/trans (M2F-dominated) criticisms of radical lesbian feminism. First, there is an absurd assumption that there is only one RLF viewpoint. Beyond that and the ceaseless charges of RLF being man-hating, homophobic, and transphobic, is that it ignores too much about the complexity of gender.

I'm leveling that charge directly at the spokespeople for het, gay, queer, and trans academics and activists, all of whom, to me, systematically and willfully betray girls' and women's battle to endure and end gynocidal atrocities.