Tuesday, August 3, 2010

An Objective and Subjective Experience of The Gender Hierarchy, Gender Identity, and Radical Social Transformation, Part 2

image of women's liberation march is from here

This is a series of posts about the effects of promoting ideas and analyses of gender that are not explicitly connected to the reality of male supremacy. Part 1 discusses children, gender stereotypes, social stigma and status, the problem of turning complex social realities into binaries, and of pretending those binaries aren't enforced. Also, this post poses questions about how race, gender, and sexual orientation are conjoined. Part 2 discusses intergender, transgender, queer, and dominant cultural politic choices in the face of male supremacy. The style is analytic and informal, sociological and autobiographical.

The conclusion of the series of posts will, I hope, make the case that social justice movements dealing with gender (and race and class and sexual orientation) are strengthened by offering up an intersectional perspective and by not playing down the reality of male supremacy.

*          *          *

 For part 1, please click here: An Objective and Subjective Experience of The Gender Hierarchy, Gender Identity, and Radical Social Transformation, Part 1

*          *          *

As an intergender male, I have grown up with a different vantagepoint for observing gendered dynamics--as someone who identified more with girls than with boys as a child, and also as someone who knew I wasn't a girl, or a boy. I liked playing jump-rope with the girls who also liked it--some didn't and some preferred to play the sports boys were encouraged to play.

Because I was labeled a boy both in my family and socially, politically loaded dynamics that reinforce what that means were immediately activated. If one is regarded as a boy it can and too often does mean one is generally regarded as better than or superior to girls, more intelligent, better at athletics, more into playing with trucks and video games, more adventurous by nature, less interested in shopping, the color pink, and dolls, and, sometime later, more sexually aggressive and more interested in "sex" as patriarchy defines and enforces it.

While we may resist it in various ways, our socialisation does, to some degrees, "become us". If I am labeled and treated as white throughout my childhood, socially, that's a different childhood than one where I'm labeled "not-white". Same with gender. Same with sexual orientation. I was labeled white, male, gay (and all the pejorative terms that boys hurl verbally at boys who they think are "gay"), and was out to varying degrees as being Jewish. This located me in the center of some "status circles" and at the margins of others. I felt marginalised and also could tell that I was regarded as "better" than girls, socially--especially and particularly by adult men.

I had a brother and didn't feel it was terribly important that there be two boys in one family, if there were only to be two children, especially. (It seemed a bit redundant, and my brother was het and did ALL the traditional boy things, including having Playboy magazines in his bedroom, to affirm in himself a sense that women existed for him to use, whenever he wanted to use them. That Miss September was "his" as much as she was anyone else's. People rarely consider pornography use to be a training in being a procurer of female prostitutes, but that's one dimension of what pornography teaches het boys: that women are shared, visually violated, jerked off to and on, and are put away when one has had an orgasm. Put away for next time. Sometimes boys share their pornography--their "women" with each other, and they all know damn well what the other boy is going to do with those magazines. So this is also homosocial behavior, where boys bond over the shared use of women in magazines.

Boy-sports and academics was what my brother excelled in, which reinforced a kind of masculinity that wasn't inconsistent with what white middle class suburban society expected of him and valued in him. He had sports trophies in his room. He had grade school awards declaring him outstanding in this and that subject.

I wasn't much interested in being like him. I did fine academically, but never achieved what he achieved. I detested boy-sports, seeing it as a way for boys to bond over physical skills that didn't seem important to me to have in the first place. So I couldn't sink a basket? So what? So I couldn't throw a football the right way? So what?

What I got was that all these things were socially "coded" and that the codes shaped what boys did, how they acted--especially with one another when younger boys, and later with girls when a bit older. Just "being a boy" meant, for example, that girls were [fill in the blank with something usually negative]. This means boys develop identity around "not being girls" sort of like how my identity formed around the idea of "not being like my brother". Except my brother and I had our own dynamics, and the larger ones between boys and girls socially were enforced by media, religion, law and every other major institution in the country.

Feminism challenged those assumptions about what it is to be a girl and a boy. Feminists wanted to raise children without the constraints, and the pro-boy-bias that often made girls feel like they weren't as valuable, and that to have value, they'd have to attach themselves romantically or sexually to a boy, at some point.

Feminism spoke to me because that was already my project--the challenge those stigmas and stereotypes, and that unearned status boys had over girls, generally.

What has only recently occurred to me is that growing up from, say, age seven to age twenty, usually involves a fairly dramatic transgender experience. It isn't usually called that, because most males grow up as boys and grow into becoming men, in part by making choices that keep their identity as such shored up. But from Part 1, and deeper reflection on the males I find attractive, I realised that the more a man looks like he's been injecting T into his body, the less appealing his is to me. But, I'm gay, and so if a man injects estrogen into his body, the physical effects don't necessarily make him more attractive to me. Without injections or surgical interventions, I'm drawn to men who are slight of frame, not very muscular, or  not muscular at all, and have slim hips, a flat stomach--no washboard abs necessary or even desired, and who don't treat women like they are from another planet. I can find a guy VERY attractive physically, but then hear him tell male friends some ridiculously sexist joke and lose all sense of finding him attractive.

I have thought Derek Hough is kind of cute. He's on U.S. TV show Dancing With The Stars, which I usually regret watching, but often do. (Unlike So You Think You Can Dance, which I generally enjoy watching.) But in a segment on TV recently about Hugh Hefner--founder of the Playboy Aesthetic and Empire, I saw a clip of Derek at a Playboy mansion party, and I suddenly felt like "he kind of looks gross". The idea that he'd WANT to be at the Playboy mansion, reinforcing his heterosexuality in many objectifying ways--sharing the gawking at buxom, long-legged women who have had breast implants and who die their hair and paint their faces seemed, well, unappealing.

Sexism in men is not a winning quality, imo. But sexism in men is basically required if a man is to be seen, socially, as "a real man" or "a man's man". That latter phrase SO cracks me up because what better term is there for a gay man than "a man's man"?! Why should such a term apply to the likes of John Wayne and Sean Connery, or, for that matter, Mel Gibson?

Heterosexuality is compulsory in every society I know of, and is delivered by the media as conceptually and universally fused to some absurd notion of it as "natural". What's natural about being attracted to macho men or to women who shave their legs and pull out most of the hair off their faces? Neither of those things are natural at all--both are entirely social and political).

Feminism also challenged the premises on which social-political heterosexuality rests, quite unstably. Feminism has been, for me, the only sustained social justice movement that seeks to identify, analyse, and radically transform systems of power that seek to destroy or exploit women for men's use, profit, and benefit.

What I've seen go on in what is now termed "queer" community are various relationships to the status quo. There are queer people who don't seek assimilation into heterosexual society, and some who seek nothing more than to be considered "just like them"--the ones with the normal, natural, god-approved of sexuality and ways of being gendered.

Which brings me to a more contemporary understanding of being transgender. As noted, I think being a gender involves transitioning from pre-pubescent to post-pubescent, and often on for a few years for males, as their frames change, chests expand, muscle mass increases. I've know many skinny eighteen year old "boys" who, when thirty, hardly resemble their former physical selves. And for those of us who are intersex, intergender, or transgender, adolescence can be a particularly difficult time, in part because an adult form of being sexed is developing in and on our bodies in ways that may make our inner sense of self and physical appearance--the aspects that are difficult to disguise--increasingly at odds.

I understand some transgender people, but not all, to be wanting more internal consonance, or harmony, or peace, within their being. To achieve this, various methods are employed, and most of them are exactly the same ones employed by non-transgender people: figuring out how to walk, stand, use ones arms when talking, how to speak, what to say that sounds appropriately gendered, what to wear, whether or not to wear make-up, how much hair to remove from one's body--and what parts to depilitate, and the list goes on.

The only difference between being transgender and non-transgender, is that the transgender people are stigmatised negatively, while non-trans people are not, at least with regard to choices to "be more like the gender they experience themselves to be".

A problem here is that for people seen as female or as women, there is never any preparation that is sufficient--there is no escaping the stigma of being seen as female or as a woman. So this is not exactly a privilege--to be a female or a woman. It always carries negative associations, and exists socially in space that denigrates all that is seen as female, feminine, and womanly. And similarly, to move towards being a man, if successfully accomplished, is to come into a kind of power and privilege. And that may have been internalised already, depending on one's own internal sense of genderedness.

And that is complicated further by race and class and sexuality. So, for example, I was and am intergender, male, white, raised with middle class U.S. values. And I was never heterosexual and was always attracted to other males: to boys and later to men. And so this cast me as "feminine" and more devalued than, say, my het brother.

What I saw many gay men do in the 1980s was abandon the political project of "remedying the denigration of all things feminine, female, and womanly" and instead embrace masculinity--and all its political misogyny. That's what I saw: the betrayal of women by men in lesbian and gay community. And as I see it, gay men, collectively and systematically, have never made any attempt to give up male privilege and power, and to stand with lesbian women solidly on ground that denounces and rejects male supremacy as unbecoming, as an abomination, as inhumanity.

End of part 2.