Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On being intergender and anti-gender: a profeminist statement

image is from here

A while ago, sometime last year or the year before, I 'came out' as intergender. I understood this name to apply to a set of experiences I'd had since childhood in which I didn't socially or spiritually fit into one or the other of two dominant/enforced gender categories. What's important for me to remember is that gender categories themselves are part of a vicious set of interlocking systems of oppression by race, region, and sex.

In English and in the US, "woman" is a term that linguistically and structurally place women beneath men as both less advantaged and as socially inferior. "Man" is a term used to mean "humanity" which, if you follow the male supremacist logic, means women aren't human--at least not as fully human as men. Were this a linguistic matter alone, I might decide not to pay it much attention. But given that women worldwide, relative to men in their own communities, cultures, and civilisations are often enough economically and sexually subordinated to men, we must note how language and treatment fuse in the human experience.

A white Lesbian once challenged me on my use of the term "intergender" to describe myself. I have never forgotten her challenges. What I realise now is that it is in vogue--and has been for decades--to privilege the naming of ourselves in anti-radical, anti-feminist ways over being responsible to radical activists, including feminists seeking to abolish sex as an oppressive system and gender as a hierarchical and terroristic force.

Nowhere in contemporary white Academic queer-positive theory do I see any commitment to radical social change wherein systems of race and sex are understood as both inhumane and unjust. Instead I see lots of acquiescing around sex and race as naturalised and normalised phenomena. Perhaps now more than ever, we have terms proliferating through our communities that uphold rather than challenge race and sex as markers of who gets treated like shit and who gets treated as if they were fully human.

In our raced and sexed system, only white men are fully advantaged, which isn't to say white men have it all good. And on the class level, whites and all men fare better than women of color.

In white- and male-dominated queer theory, transgender identity has become one way for liberals to test each other's "tolerance" of  "difference", sometimes quoting Audre Lorde when challenging cis people to respect trans existence. But to take tolerance of difference as the end all and be all of political work is, imo, to misunderstand or ignore what Audre Lorde, a radical feminist and a lesbian, was speaking out about. As I see it, her call for oppressed people--namely and specifically, women across sexuality, age, and race--to find mutual regard and respect across such differences, was not to claim that accomplishing this was the sole goal. It was, rather, a means to a far more difficult end: the eradication of gendered and raced oppression entirely. To fight oppression based on sexuality, sex, age, and race is unlikely to be successful if in-fighting and horizontal hostility (to use Flo Kennedy's term) isn't also challenged as employing the master's tools.

I don't see hostility directed against trans people as appropriate, personally and politically. And everything I write, I write from the structural location of someone with lots of social advantage, as a male and as a white person. As a radical, I see the liberal acceptance of terms put forth by conservative and liberal people as inappropriate or pro-status quo.

I want to clarify that me naming myself "intergender" is a subjective experienced molded by social mistreatment in childhood (and beyond), including bullying and harassment by males naming me things that meant "girl" as if being a girl was something all males should avoid. Many males in my childhood seemed preoccupied with avoiding being seen as "like a girl". This preoccupation was never my own in part because I respected girls at least as much as boys, and often more so than boys. But also because I didn't feel like a boy and so wasn't so keen on trying to be something I wasn't.

My political work in adulthood has been to not behave like a man in the male supremacist sense while acknowledging that being a man isn't something I control in the structural or macro-social sense. And to the extent that women experience me politically and personally as a man, I am one, regardless of whether or not such a name feels accurate to me. To try and silence women by saying that they are trans- or inter-phobic for stating their truth is, to me, yet another act of male supremacist bullying on my part.

One of many things that troubles me in the current male- and white-dominated queer discourse on being transgender is the ways in which it is either naturalised--an oppressively conservative intellectual tactic--or made to seem as if it ought to trump all other social and structural realities, such as whether or not someone born and named as "male" acquires and benefits from the various advantages handed to males in male supremacist societies.

There is an argument put forth by some conservative-to-liberal politically active M2F people and some allies of such politically active M2F people. (Such activists are a very tiny minority of trans people who ought not be seen to be representative of most trans people; most trans people do not medically or socially transition and don't identify as M2F.) The argument is this: as soon as someone comes into a M2F transgender (in this case, transsexual) identity or transitions medically or socially to be more like a woman--as some trans and non-trans people narrowly and often oppressively define the term and experience, that necessarily means they don't have any of the advantages that being male has given them.

As someone who accepts and regrets how powerfully oppressive racist and hetero/sexist socialisation acts on us, especially but not only in the first few years of life, I find it untenable that all the ways we males learn to disrespect all who are female, and position ourselves as superior to girls and women,  would vanish when we alter our social and personal understandings of ourselves. Similarly but not in perfect analogy, I find it untenable that if someone white came to realise that they were of mixed ethnic heritage in their mid-twenties, for example, with some of their heritage being European and some of it being African and Indigenous, this would result in all their racist views, values, and political practices simply and suddenly disappearing. I mean really: how could that happen?

Even if our structural location shifts somewhat with this new information and identity, old patterns and habituated practices are well-established aren't they? (I'm not saying gendered and raced ways of being are "fixed" in any absolute sense. I'm saying we learn to be racist and sexist, and as anyone can tell you, such socialisation is difficult to uproot. This is why males who identify as profeminist and whites who call ourselves anti-racist ought not be assumed to be non-sexist and non-racist. But beyond that, our structural, institutionally protected locations as males and whites are not as fluid as our intellectual and emotional locations.

If someone is raised white, does a childhood of believing one is superior to people of color evaporate with the news later in life that one's grandparents and great grandparents weren't all of European and white descent? What are the political means or social mechanisms through which this psychic and structural transformation occurs?

If our political lives worked this way, we need only work together to transition every white person to being, in appearance and identify, a person of color. And voila, white supremacy and its future genocidal ravages would disappear. We need only convince all men that they are really women to end male supremacy's death-grip on humanity. As someone who has been a peripheral part of white-dominated and white supremacist gay male society for decades, I've seen how white gay men accept the idea that we are girls-not-men, and also how we resist, in pro-patriarchal ways, heterosexist and homophobic males who insist we are girls-not-men. In no instance does this social viewpoint result in gay men not being misogynistic. In fact, many of the ways gay males embrace "femininity" and "effeminacy" are grimly and glaringly woman-hating. This hasn't gone unnoticed and unchallenged by many feminist lesbians and a few profeminist gay men.

A claim I hear from some white trans- and queer-identified people is that they/we are unfairly targeted for political interrogation and critique. I'd argue that gay males and lesbians, as well as heterosexual women, have been targeted for such critique for as long as we've existed in heteropatriarchal times and environments. And to confuse the radical critique of lesbian feminists with the critique of patriarchal het men is to turn structural political reality on its head.

I take the white Lesbian's challenges to heart and mind. And I conclude that my political position with regard to gender is to be anti-gender, not pro-gender, not pro-gender binary, not pro-gender hierarchy. Especially, my political position as a white Westerner isn't one of pretending the gender binary or dual sex system I grew up inside, isn't a hierarchy. Sex and gender are hierarchies that exists fundamentally and foremost to allow and encourage non-transitioning men and males to oppress women, girls, and females as patriarchal men define and enforce the terms.


P.S. After publishing this post, I was sent *this* found at Feminist Reprise, by a friend and colleague. It is written by someone who is not anti-trans but will likely be termed "transphobic" for critiquing some of the behavior of a few white M2F trans activists. Here is an excerpt from the whole piece, titled "Radical Feminism and the Transgendered, or, how to write a post that will infuriate everyone", by Jane Doe, 05/15/2006:
Many MTFs I know minimize the effect male privilege has on their behavior. I suppose it is like the proverbial fish who asks "what is water?" - being the beneficiary of male privilege during one's formative years, even if one begins to question one's identity as a man, confers benefits upon one that are invisible to the recipient (although obvious to women, who do not receive these benefits). Since MTFs do not want to be male, they would like to imagine they can just toss male privilege away along with their unwanted boys' clothing. The human mind does not work in this way, however. It is ironic that those resorting to violent, invasive tactics in order to enter the Michigan Women's Music Festival, for example, with the excuse that they are NOT men and should be accepted as women, are resorting to an ingrained male privilege which tells them they have a right to go anywhere they want to go.
I see it is a critical matter of radical sexual politics, not liberal or conservative gender theory, when female's and women's spaces are contested as appropriately exclusive or sovereign by people with male privilege and male supremacist power. It is also a matter of radical sexual politics when a vocal group of people--a tiny minority of class-privileged whites pretending to represent the whole of the population--declares its members immune and exempt from radical and feminist critique of the ways white and male supremacy is enacted socially. Surely white and male supremacy is being enforced when such a declaration of immunity takes place.



2 comments:

Dark Daughta said...

"Many MTFs I know minimize the effect male privilege has on their behavior. I suppose it is like the proverbial fish who asks "what is water?" - being the beneficiary of male privilege during one's formative years, even if one begins to question one's identity as a man, confers benefits upon one that are invisible to the recipient (although obvious to women, who do not receive these benefits). Since MTFs do not want to be male, they would like to imagine they can just toss male privilege away along with their unwanted boys' clothing. The human mind does not work in this way, however. It is ironic that those resorting to violent, invasive tactics in order to enter the Michigan Women's Music Festival, for example, with the excuse that they are NOT men and should be accepted as women, are resorting to an ingrained male privilege which tells them they have a right to go anywhere they want to go."

This is really a hot button, supposedly do not touch bit of analysis that most step away from. I'm of two minds concerning this. Both bits of reflection exist in the exact same moment for me. I think that male privilege does not evaporat with a change of clothing and that it takes a lot more to unmake and unpack that kind of privilege than simply rethinking the self as woman. I think that being bullied, having one's masculinity challenged or not even thinking of oneself as masculine is not enough to disturb the privilege offered in this world. If it was, white people who never really felt white enough, who were not able to fully access white privilege would be able to simply unthink their existence as white based on not feeling at all aligned with white people.

At the exact same moment, I do believe that challenges to gender binaries are important and that people who do not feel a profound alignment with the gender they were assigned at birth should not be undermined as they attempt to find ways to become more of who they are in the world.

I think that what has happened at michigan is a misguided shame. I think that the war continues and that trans wimmin deciding to attack a stronghold like michigan rather than attempting to attack true strongholds of cisgendered womanhood in the dominant world was/is a misstep of epic proportions.

Why not attempt to remake and undermine DAR or Girl Guides or Vogue Magazine or the whole notion of bathrooms being coded to enforce the gender binary?

I think that the defining moment for trans wimmin's politics being the undermining of feminist women's spaces is problematic to say the least.

I think that trans wimmin creating their own spaces and inviting other people who want to join them in the creation of new relationships to gender or in the undermining of gender binaries would have been a more radical project.

I stand with them in the undermining of gender but can't condone the whole notion of opening feminist spaces without there being any critique of male privilege. I think there's a piece of denial there that most politically radical people tend to step away from.

I think that people who are working and living in revolutionary spaces in this historical moment are scared of what it will mean to step to this new manifestation of the queer nation. I think that challenging anything this incarnation of queer community does is being constructed as oppressive and transphobic.

I think that there is an understanding that says: if you want to challenge gender binaries then this means you should be absorbing and consuming whatever theories are being created without challenging and analyzing for meaning and significance.

I am not capable of doing this. I have to ask questions in whatever ways I can. I do that wherever I go of whatever peoples I'm in close proximity to.

I thank you for posting this critique, Julian. Be well.

Julian Real said...

Thank you so much for this comment and analysis, Dark Daughta!! It is exactly how I feel too. I'm glad we're working together. <3