Wrestling with words

I am running into a significant linguistic issue around sex and gender in the rewrite of my honours thesis (which is being turned into a book chapter). My supervisor/coauthor and I have different perspectives on where the focus of the paper should be, and we need to bridge them. This writing is my first attempt to grapple with the language, to figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it, and to try to understand how to bridge between our perspectives to make the paper as strong as possible.

***

In writing about feminist queer pornography, it is necessary to bridge what can be an ideological divide between feminist politics (centring on an understanding and analysis sexed and gendered oppression) and queer politics (centring on a rejection of biological essentialism and the gender binary). These two focuses are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to recognize the binaristic lens of hegemonic culture, and the way that deviation from a norm of “male, cisgender, masculine, heterosexual, white, able-bodied” is othered and marginalized, while still rejecting the gender binary and the hegemonic norm.

It seems necessary, in a feminist analysis, to talk about “women” and about power differentials related to the Euroamerican binary understanding of gender and the way that this understanding impacts even non-binary individuals. For example, although Jiz Lee is not a “woman,” their genital morphology means that viewers tend to read them as “female” and “woman.” It is necessary to address this fact, to expose the lens that binaristic hegemony views pornography through, without erasing the reality of non-binary sex and gender.

It seems, to me, that Courtney Trouble bridges this (potential) gap in Nostalgia by casting the film with individuals who are all designated-female-at-birth, but who are not all women. Or rather, perhaps, that she opens a door for scholars to bridge this gap in their analysis of her film. Through her casting, she is able to create a film that explicitly and materially displaces the biological cock as the centre or focus or active member[i] of the pornographic scene. It is only through this displacement of the phallus that Trouble is able to go into a nuanced examination of the potential to displace climax and orgasm itself within the pornographic scene.

Removing the biological cock entirely from the pornographic scene leaves some clear and relevant gaps, such as the question of where trans women fit within feminist queer pornographies and whether there is space for cisgender men in queer feminist pornographies. (It is relevant that Trouble has answered these questions and filled these gaps in other films, such as “trans grrrls” and her work with Ned Mayhem and other cisgender men.)

Removing the biological cock also presents the viewer with a film that can be inaccurately read as being about “women’s sexual pleasure.” The fact that only one form of genital morphology is presented leaves the film vulnerable to readings that fall into the trap of the sex-gender-orientation continuum that Shiri Eisner articulates (whereby sex is assumed to determine gender, and gender is assumed to determine orientation – from Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution). However, the film rejects this essentialist reading by using technology in the form of strap-ons to complicate gender performance, and by including multiple genderqueer performers, most notably Jiz Lee.

Finding language with which to discuss the film presents a challenge. Discussing the film in terms of “women’s sexual pleasure” erases the genderqueer identities of those performers who are designated-female-at-birth but who are not women. Discussing the film as being about “trans* sexual pleasure” similarly erases the identities of the cisgender women performers. The term “gynocentric” is transmisogynist and enforces gendered language around genitalia that Jiz Lee has explicitly rejected (referring to their genitals as their “hole” and not a “vagina”). Gynocentric also has a historical connotation that excludes trans women, non-binary individuals, and cisgender men.

We are left, therefore, in a challenging linguistic space.

So my question is, how do we talk about sex and gender in a way that recognizes the structure within which hegemony forces bodies into rigid roles, while also recognizing the inaccuracy of this structure and the harm it causes to people who do not fit within these roles.

Whether we recognize the identity of the person on screen, their identity remains a real part of the performance. When Jiz Lee is read as a “woman,” they do not become a woman.

Similarly, when they are read as white, they do not become white. In a parallel linguistic minefield, my co-author and I are attempting to address racial issues in Nostalgia, where the film is open to a reading that is “white” if viewers are not aware of the racial identities of some of the performers.

The fact that we read bodies through these hegemonic lenses, assuming that we know gender based on secondary sex characteristics or genital morphology, assuming that we know race based on skin tone – this is not a problem that the individual whose identity is being overwritten needs to correct. It is not incumbent on Jiz Lee to visibly perform genderqueerness in order to be genderqueer. To demand this of people who deviate from the norm would be to further marginalize them. Rather, part of the feminist queer project undertaken in Nostalgia is to highlight the assumptions being made and then to subvert them.

Nostalgia may be read as a film about “women’s pleasure” but it is not.

It may be read as a “white” film but it is not.

I need language that recognizes these facts, but also acknowledges and addresses the fact (and I do believe it to be a fact) that hegemonic lenses are the norm, that viewers will read this film as both a “women’s” film and a “white” film. I need this language to challenge this norm, so that the chapter cannot be easily read with these lenses on. It seems like a nearly impossible task, and I am not sure that I’m up to it.


[i] I’m so punny.

Speakers Corner Calgary: Abortion Debate

I participated in the Speakers Corner Calgary “Abortion: Whose Human Right?” debate yesterday. This is the text of the speech that I gave.

***

I am pro-choice. By this, I mean that I strongly believe in free, legal, safe and easily-accessible abortions. I believe they should be available on demand to anyone who makes the choice to have one.

Not only cisgender women, whose gender expression is in alignment with the sex they were assigned at birth, but also anyone with a uterus, including trans men, non-binary individuals such as myself, and some intersex people are impacted by reproductive politics. We have an obligation to trust individuals to make the best decisions for their own bodies. And we have an obligation to treat individuals with uteruses with at least as much respect for bodily-autonomy as we would a corpse – meaning that we cannot demand that having a uterus obligates a person to donate their body to sustain another’s life. We do not make these demands even of our own dead – how cruel, hypocritical and unjust would we be to demand this of our living?

I am also a pleasure-positive feminist activist. Consent is at the foundation of my politics – I believe that consent must be given for anything that happens to our bodies, and I believe that consent can be withdrawn at any time. Consenting to kiss is not the same as consenting to sex, consenting to sex is not the same as consenting to be pregnant, and consenting to be pregnant is not the same as consenting to remain pregnant.

I believe our right to bodily autonomy includes the right to engage in whatever brings pleasure to the consenting adults involved. I believe that sex – the right to engage in it and the right to choose not to engage in it – is a fundamental right.

In order to create a consent-focused culture, we need to reduce the stigma attached to sex and sexuality.

We need to reduce the shame surrounding frank conversations about sexuality, and the violence and harm that results from that shame.

There are points on which I will never be able to find common ground with anti-choice rhetoric.

I believe that personhood begins at birth, and I recognize that the two sides of this debate will likely never see eye-to-eye on that question.

I also believe that individuals should not be shamed for seeking an abortion, no matter what their reasons for wanting an abortion are. Abortion as birth control is often held up as the inevitable result of free access to abortions, and some people would use it that way. I have no problem with that. People have elective surgeries all the time, and what they do with their bodies is up to them. Consent. Bodily-autonomy.

However, because I think that there are many more points on which common ground can be found, I want to focus on the potential bridges between seemingly insurmountable differences.

First, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to want fewer unwanted pregnancies. For me, this is because as much as I believe an individual has the right to choose not to carry a child to term, I also believe that for many people it would be preferable to just not have to deal with it in the first place.

There are ways for us to work together to make that happen.

Comprehensive sexual education that is both queer and trans*-inclusive, free and easy access to a variety of effective contraception options, a concerted effort to stop rape and intimate partner violence – these are issues that we can work on together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and the need for abortions in those instances.[i]

A study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology in October 2012 found that free, reliable birth control could prevent between 41 and 71 percent of abortions in the United States.[ii] The scientists found that access plus education was even more effective in reducing abortion rates than they had anticipated.

Current access to birth control, including more effective options such as IUDs and hormonal birth control, is often inaccessible to individuals who do not have medical coverage or financial privilege. Even less effective barrier methods are not always accessible, especially not for individuals who don’t know about organizations like the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, or some of the Alberta Health Services initiatives.

Further, our sexual education is woefully lacking. Not only do we not teach about consent and creating a culture of consent, many educational programs are cissexist and heteronormative, presenting a single definition of sex and gender that leaves many individuals unaware of their potential for pleasure AND for risk.

We need to recognize that trans* folks, binary and non-binary, have sex! We need to recognize that queer folks have sex, sometimes with people of multiple genders. We need to recognize that asexuality is real, and that our discussions of pleasure-positive politics must include asexual individuals, both those who do not have sex, and those on the asexual spectrum who engage in consensual sex with their partners. All of these things are real, all of them happen, all of them have the potential to result in unwanted pregnancies and a lack of awareness and education for these groups is incredibly harmful.

This is the most important way that our two sides can work together to reach a common goal of fewer unwanted pregnancies. By increasing education, increasing access to effective contraception, and reducing rape, we can put our efforts into work that will be effective for meeting both of our goals.

Second, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to care for children. Though we disagree about when a fetus becomes a person, people on both sides claim to care for children.

When abortions become inaccessible, children suffer. Evidence of this is painfully obvious. In Romania, both abortion and contraception were banned in 1967, by the 70s and 80s the number of children in state-run care facilities was over 100 thousand. In one such institution, the mortality rate of the children was over 50%.[iii]

People who seek abortions either do not want, or cannot keep or care for the child they are carrying (many people who seek abortions already have children, and do just fine with them). There are a thousand thousand reasons a person might want or need an abortion, and the only one who can judge that reason is the individual themselves. However, regardless of the reason for wanting an abortion, the result of being forced to give birth with adequate access to resources is not good for either the parent or the child.

We can work together by working to reduce poverty, to increase access to education, health-care and social services, and making sure that the children who are currently in the world are given a real life.

Third, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to care for the individuals who might seek abortions. My colleagues on the other side of this debate talk about the harm caused to an individual who has an abortion – primarily the emotional harm.

I want to talk about the harm the results from illegal abortions.

First, a simple fact – abortions will happen.

Abortions have been happening since pre-history, and they continue to happen even in countries where there are severe legal repurcussions.

So the question is not WILL abortions happen – the question is, HOW will abortions happen?

Legal abortions are among the safest medical procedures available. Complications from having a first trimester abortion are significantly less frequent and less serious than those associated with giving birth.[iv]

On the other hand, illegal abortions are extremely unsafe.

In countries where abortions are illegal, abortion is a leading cause of maternal death. And according to a 2005 World Health Organization report, over 68,000 women die each year, worldwide, from unsafe abortions.[v]

In El Salvador, for example, abortion is illegal and the laws are strictly enforced. A report by the Centre for Reproductive Rights found that “clothes hangers, iron bars, high doses of contraceptives, fertilizers, gastritis remedies, soapy water and caustic agents such as car battery acid” were used in clandestine abortions.[vi] There are individuals serving up to 30 years in jail for having an abortion, and these are the tools that they are using. So when I say that abortions will happen, I mean that abortions WILL happen.

And this is an issue that disproportionately impacts poor individuals. In El Salvador, wealthy individuals retain the “right to choose” because they can fly to locations where abortion is legal and accessible. But among the poor, this is not an option.

It’s easy to look at this and entertain the racist thought that we do better here in Canada. Yet it was not that long ago that Canadian women faced the same class and wealth-stratified access to abortions. And in Texas, where abortion clinics are being forced to close, there is increased risk for individuals who have to seek out illegal and unsafe street drugs sold as abortificants.[vii]

When we simply and uncritically vilify individuals who seek abortions, we do harm on multiple levels. We over-simplify an issue that is incredibly complex. The people who seek abortions are many and varied. They include parents who know they do not have the resources to care for another child, teenagers who know they are not ready for parenthood, victims of rape and intimate partner violence, individuals for whom a pregnancy would cause health risks, including mental, emotional, physical or financial well-being – some of the stories of abortion are heart-wrenching and emotional.

One of the people I admire most in the world had an abortion, and the story of how they came to their choice makes me so proud to know them – the amount of thought and care that went into the choice, the deliberation, the intention with which they chose to abort their pregnancy – these stories deserve to be told.

Other stories also deserve to be told. People who do not need to deliberate because it’s not a big deal for them – their abortions are just as valid and their stories just as real. People who use abortion as birth control, people who have five or fifteen abortions. Regardless of how a person chooses what happens inside their own body, that choice is theirs. It is their right to consent to whether they share their body with a fetus, or whether they choose not to.

This, then, seems like a point on which we cannot find common ground and yet I think that is unnecessarily gloomy. Because there are things we can do to increase the health and well-being of individuals who have uteruses. We can increase their access to social services and reduce poverty and class divisions so that more individuals who want to carry their pregnancy to term have the resources to do so. We can increase access to social services after birth, such as child support, so that pregnancies are less likely to drastically reduce an individual’s success in their job and their ability to support themselves. We can increase education and access to safe, effective contraception so that, again, there fewer unwanted pregnancies.

Even here, where it seems like an unbridgeable gap exists, there are ways that we can work together towards a common goal.

Finally, I want to talk about the language that we use when we talk about abortion.

Often we talk about abortion as a “woman’s” issue. It is not. As I mentioned earlier, trans men, some non-binary individuals and some intersex individuals also have uteruses and also require control over their reproductive lives. But also, and importantly – not all women have uteruses, or are reproductive. Trans women do not have uteruses and are women. Cisgender women who have had hysterectomies or gone through menopause or are infertile are still women.

The way that we talk about abortion is important. Often the discussion reduces women to their ability to bear children, and excludes from the conversation any women for whom that is not an issue.

How we define sex, and who we see as relevant has impact beyond the people who need abortions. Our discussions of abortion impact our perception of the full humanity and bodily autonomy and integrity of people who have uteruses. These discussions impact how we talk about sex, and whether we view it as a human right or something shameful. This debate impacts our thinking about rape and rape culture, and consent. Especially consent. If we begin to argue that consent is not relevant for people who have uteruses, that consent is not on-going, that we cannot change our minds and stop giving consent – think about the repercussions of that line of thought. Reproductive freedom, consent and bodily autonomy, comprehensive sexual education, the full humanity and bodily integrity of people on all points of the sex and gender spectrum – these things are not trivial and they are not, in my opinion, up for debate.

Transphobia in trans* language

I’ve been thinking a lot about language, and the ways in which our word choices reveal how deeply embedded in kyriarchy we are.

Parts of the DFAB (designated female at birth) genderqueer community uses “female-bodied” to describe themselves. I have used this language myself. Natalie Reed articulates why this is so problematic, and how transphobic this language actually is.

I storified her twitter essay here.

Liminality: Being Between

It's Bisexual Visibility Day today, which means that all around the world people are celebrating, acknowledging, affirming and visibily being bisexual. I think it's amazing! Mount Royal University hosted a Beyond Binaries webinar from GLBTKC and NASPA (you can read my tweets about it on the @bi_yyc timeline, and the #beyondbinaries tag). Myself and another Possibilities volunteer were at the event, handing out brochures on asexuality and bisexuality and answering questions.

I also had brochures for Writing in the Margins, because tonight I'm hosting a Smutty Story Circle Bisexual Visibility Day Special Event.

My whole day is about celebrating bisexual visibility!

This, though, is not the blog post I meant to write about Bisexual Visibility Day. (And it won't be posted where I had meant to post it.)

I wanted to write about “Liminality, Permeability, Fluidity: The Possibilities in Calgary's Bisexual Community.” (That's the title I've got written down in my to-do app.) I wanted to write about how our events are open to all genders and all orientations, and how much I appreciate (and the revolutionary potential I see within) the flexibility of our community. We welcome gay, lesbian and straight allies. We welcome all the genders, all the races, all the body types and abilities. That fluidity is a huge strength! That permeability – the way that our borders are open, our events are inclusive – seems, to me, to be a powerful challenge to divisive politics (like the bi/pan conflict that we have avoided) or oppressive “colourblind” practices.

Basically, it was going to be a love letter to my community.

And I was going to post it on the Possibilities WordPress site, a site that has been in development for, well, ages now. A year, almost?

But I opened up the dashboard for that site and realized that there is no way I can have it ready to launch today. There are too many blank pages still left, too much work to do to make it look smooth and professional, and taking down the incomplete pages would leave it looking patchy and incomplete.

Liminality. Being between.

So many of my identities are liminal. My genderqueer identity is “between” masculine and feminine (though, actually, this language of “between” is problematic and I would say that liminal identities create their own spaces beyond/around/overlayed on the binaries that are conceptually at either end of the spectrum). My bisexuality is “between” gay and straight (though, again, beyond/around/overlayed on).

In moments of calm and optimism, I am amazed at the potential of liminality. The betweenness. When I see the website – half-finished, liminal – I feel excited. When I look at Writing in the Margins – somewhere between an idea and a reality – I am so thrilled!

But sometimes this liminality is exhausting, because it feels incomplete. There is a sense of needing to do more. Or be more. Or something… something more. One way or the other. Give it up or complete it. Run or sleep, don't walk. Men or women. Make up your mind!

I think this exhaustion sometimes impacts the bisexual community (and other nonbinary communities) because we are constantly accused of fence-sitting, of indecision. We should be one thing or the other. Love one or the other (and forget that there is not “one” or “the other” – there is “one thing” and “many others!”)

Sometimes it is hard to see the potential within ourselves – the radical, revolutionary potential. It is hard to see how our very liminality, the thing that makes us and those around us so uncomfortable, is the thing that makes us so radical.

The 'bisexual' community is composed of a wide variety of identities. Pansexual, bisexual, queer, fluid, questioning, homoflexible, lesobflexible, heteroflexible, unlabelled… We all come together, and it is always perfectly incomplete. There is never a single definition. It is never done, nailed down, solidified. There are points of slippage, moments of indecision, permeability. That's our strength! It's exhausting – code-switching as we move through various communities, attempting to perform an identity that refuses to stay still, that defies cultural norms… it's exhausting, but it is our strength. And there are moments of calm. Moments of recognition – ah! There I am.

What does that have to do with this post?

I am between things right now. I feel between. Liminal. Caught on multiple thresholds. Everything feels uncertain, incomplete, refusing to be nailed down.

I wanted to launch the Possibilities site today, because it's so perfect! Bisexual Visibility Day coinciding with the Calgary bisexual community becoming more visible! Bam! What timing, right?

But that, like so much else, is caught in a betweenness and I cannot resolve it today – there just isn't time or energy.

So what the radical potential of bisexuality has to do with this post is just this – I am taking this other liminality and I am allowing it to not be pinned down. My degree is incomplete and I'm taking a semester off. My Writing in the Margins site will remain incomplete, the Possibilities site will wait a while longer. I will still run the workshop tonight and it will be awesome. I will keep working.

But I will allow the liminality to remain. I am finding the radical potential in this moment of betweenness, and I am choosing self-care – the choice that is not “between” completion and failure, but that is beyond/around/overlayed on. Self-care is my radical choice. Self-care is the option that my current liminality has cracked open for me.

I am writing this post because part of my self-care includes giving myself time to write, and using that time to write. But it is a different post, and it will go on a different blog. And that is okay.

There is radical, revolutionary potential in liminality.

It can shatter the binary.

It can break open new space.

And into that new space, we can pour love and acceptance and self-care. We can be flexible. We can be fluid. We can be liminal. Maybe, if we look at our lives from the right angle, we will realize that that's all we ever have been, and all we ever will be. It will always be incomplete and between/beyond/around/overlayed on the binary, on our expectations.

So, happy Bisexual Visibility Day!

I'm going home now to have a nap, and then I'm going to facilitate the Smutty Story Circle, and it is going to be lovely.

(This was originally posted on Fibro Files but I wanted it here, too, because the liminality also applies to my academic life, and because self-care within academia is proving so challenging to myself and many other academics.)

 

“Don’t Be A Dick”: Applying Wheaton’s Law to Academics and Race

I am working on a major revision of a paper, with an eye to submitting it to the Porn Studies Journal and crossing my fingers that it passes peer review. This is exciting. One of my professors is supervising the revision and helping me figure out how to write a paper for a journal (a different creature than a paper written for a class).

The paper is about the performance of cisgender masculinity in heterosexual scenes in feminist pornography. My hypothesis is that this is a gender/sex performance that is (at least in my existing case study – Ned Mayhem’s performance of masculinity in Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous) non-normative and one that challenges assumptions of what it means to perform cisgender masculinity. One case study, however, is not enough, and this is where I run into a thorny academic/activist issue.

Ned Mayhem is white. I am also white. Porn studies, along with many academic disciplines, have historically been pretty pale and I am concerned about contributing to an academic exploration of pornography that does not address the many people of colour working within and around pornography. I am also aware that what it means to “perform cisgender masculinity” is different depending on class, race and ability (among other factors). It seems shortsighted and lacking intersectionality to confine my paper to a discussion of only white cisgender masculinity in pornography.

However, what authority do I, as a white academic, have to speak about the performance of masculinity by a racialized porn performer? Not only to speak about, but also to examine through the lenses provided by academics and scholars of colour, and by activist and feminist pornographers of colour.

White academics have committed significant violence against our racialized colleagues, appropriating the intellectual contributions of people of colour without making space for people of colour in the academy. This is evident in the frequency with which Black feminists such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde are cited by white feminists who do not engage with race politics beyond appropriating a brilliant turn of phrase for a facebook status or to hang an academic argument on. (And credit must go to the Black women on Twitter, particularly in the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag, for bringing this issue up – I had never realized how problematic it could be to take Black women’s words and not engage any further.)

I struggled with this idea in my honours thesis, where bell hooks’ concept of the confrontational gaze formed a critical piece of my analysis. In my thesis, the idea of the confrontational gaze was necessary for understanding how Courtney Trouble re-appropriated the money shot from the patriarchal, misogynist pornography that it originated within. hooks’ insight was invaluable for me. And yet, I was not writing about race and race did not feature with any significance in my thesis. Choosing not to use hooks’ insight would have made my thesis weaker, and avoiding the work of academics of colour is clearly not the answer. This is a tangle I have yet to work myself out of, and one that becomes more and more relevant as I work on this revision.

It is clearly not okay to avoid the intellectual contributions of people of colour in my work as a white academic – doing so would perpetuate an oppressive academic system that consistently devalues the work of anyone outside the select, privileged group. However, I am becoming more and more convinced that it is also problematic to simply take up the lens provided by an intellectual from a marginalized community and use it with impunity.

And this is where I run into a wall.

Jane Doe, MD tweeted earlier in the summer:

 
I think this is sometimes the case with white academics as well. What is meant to be inclusive and intersectional may actually be (mis)appropriative. Where I (from my position of privilege) see the potential for solidarity, and want to say “yes, me too!” to the writing of academics of colour, there is the potential for me to be (mis)appropriative, to claim their words for my own when I actually have no right to them, to pull them out of their own context and into mine, leaving their work behind.

Reading Ariane Cruz’s essay “Pornography: A Black Feminist Woman Scholar’s Reconciliation” as research on this topic, I became aware of a visceral response in myself, a “yes, me too!” when Cruz articulates the complexities of the relationship between pornography and feminism. And yet, Cruz is not articulating the complexities of “the relationship between pornography and feminism.”

She is speaking specifically and directly about pornography and Black feminism. My “yes, me too!” echoes the problematic and on-going process of queer activism and queer theory using Black activism and Black theory as a stepping stone, using the backs of our Black colleagues as a bridge for our activism.[1] I am cognizant of the risk in my “me too!” – the potential for this response to step on and muffle the voice and meaning of Cruz’ work.

I want to find solidarity in the essay, because so much of what she writes speaks to me and to my experience as a feminist and as a scholar studying pornography. Cruz articulates the conflict and complexity of studying pornographies in a way that speaks directly to my own experience of pornography. As I become more and more immersed in both the viewing and analysis of pornography and the scholarship surrounding it, I relate more strongly to her statement that “[s]truggles with how to place pornography in the personal space of my home and in the professional space of my office speak to the broader, yet equally nebulous question of pornography’s place in modern society” (217).

She writes, “I have become less assured of the intrinsic virtues of mainstream pornography – its expression of alternative sexualities, its possibilities of and for sexual pleasure outside of a white heteropatriarchal imagination or fantasy, and its capability for an admittedly utopian construction that I might call “sustainable arousal,” arousal that is not an ephemeral feeling but rather one that endures” (222).

Similarly, as I realize that even queer pornography can reinscribe and reinforce dominant ideals of beauty, dominant ideals of gender performance, dominant ideals of acceptable sexual behaviour, I become less and less dogmatic in my belief that pornography (even feminist pornography) is a universal good. We have some views in common, we have some experiences in common. But there are significant differences between my experience of pornography, and Cruz’s. She writes about the specific experience of Black women’s hypersexualization, something that I, socialized as a white woman (though not a woman), have never and will never experience. Is it okay for me to take the parts that fit with my experience out of Cruz’s essay, and leave the rest behind? Is it okay to use her insight, but to only use the bits of it that work for my argument, for my own ends?

In my effort to draw on Black scholarship, to learn from Black scholars and engage with Black thought, there is the potential for me to do harm, to contribute to the ongoing colonization and appropriation of Black culture and thought.

That there is multidirectional flow of knowledge (that Linda Williams is a key reference in Cruz’s essay, for example) does not justify the constant appropriation of Black thought by white academics. Black writers have been actively plagiarized by white writers (most recently Gawker lifted tweets by Black author @wayoftheid word-for-word without attribution). There is a difference between learning from each other and stepping on each other, and because white academics have greater privilege, it is much easier for us to step on rather than learn from.

My “yes, me too!” response is because there is significant value in Cruz’s work. Her essay evoked a wide range of feelings and thoughts – multiple times I had to stop and sit, digest what she had just said. And there are similarities in our struggles. (Not universality, not homogeneity, but similarity.) There are important insights in her work that can illuminate and further both my academic projects and my queer activism.

And yet, this must be done in a respectful and appropriate (rather than appropriative) way.

So here are the two rocks I find myself between, the two rocks I have been wedged between all summer as I struggle with this concept of lateral appropriation, racism, and appropriative intersectionality:

On the one hand, ignoring the presence of race, and the contributions of colored scholars, contributes to the whitewashing of academia that I am so vehemently against. It is not an option.

Yet, on the other hand, appropriating the scholarship and work of scholars of colour has the potential to also be harmful, to speak for or to claim understanding of their experiences and their work, or to simply erase their experiences and claim their voice as my own.

So I can’t write only from and about my own experience because my experience is as a white scholar and that would contribute to the whitewashing of academics.[2] But I also must be careful in how I use the work of scholars of colour in my own academics. This leaves me feeling anxious and uncertain as I move forward with my academic projects, but I think that feeling of anxiety is necessary. It should not be easy to navigate issues of privilege and oppression as the person with privilege. If it is easy, I think perhaps that means you’re missing some critical bits of information. Being in this particular “rock/hard place” is infinitely easier than being in the position of facing systemic racism on a daily basis. I can walk away from this, write whatever I want and continue to appropriate, or just ignore that race is an issue, and at worst I will be a lesser scholar. Academics of colour (people of colour) don’t have the option to walk away from it.

In Jacob Anderson-Minshall’s essay “The Enemy Within: On Becoming a Straight White Guy,” he writes that “The Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement” could have been written about transgender people rather than black women” (29), and goes on to use the language of the text to discuss the oppression of transgender people. It is this type of sentiment and statement that I am wary of expressing, because it decenters Black women as the subject of their own writing. Although I do think that parallels can be drawn, and that these parallels and efforts at coalition are important, claiming Black women’s writing for a different or broader audience risks further marginalizing and erasing the experiences that are unique to Black women, particularly when there is not an acknowledgement of the ongoing, unique issues faced by Black women and other racialized individuals.

Later, Anderson-Minshall writes that “[t]here are a lot of awful problems in the world today, and to solve them we need to make allies and build bridges to other movements seeking change. We need to accept the problems of others as our own” (32). I think there is a danger in claiming the problems of others as our own. Although I agree that we do need to “make allies and build bridges,” I disagree that the way to do this is to claim a universality of experience, a homogeneity of problems. Yes, the kyriarchy impacts all of us, and each point of oppression has ripple effects throughout the rest of society. Misogyny negatively impacts men by cutting masculinity off from any traits that could be considered feminine. Racism negatively impacts white individuals by creating adversarial interactions where collaboration would be not only possible but beneficial. But misogyny does not threaten men – it benefits men. Racism does not threaten white individuals – it benefits white individuals (like myself). These are problems that are unique to the identity category being oppressed, being threatened, and although they do negatively impact all of society, they are not equally available to claim.

Ned Mayhem, later in the same anthology, writes that “[i]t’s easy to talk about how the hierarchy of privilege is bullshit when you’re perched at the top of it, and it’s easy to talk about destigmatizing marginalized groups while belonging to none of them” (81). This insight seems critical, especially when paired with Shiri Eisner’s statement that “[c]onnecting between different struggles is one of the cornerstones to radical political thinking. To acknowledge that all forms of oppression are interrelated is so acknowledge that we all have a stake in each other’s liberation, that none of us is free until everyone is free” (36).

There is a difference, I think, between acknowledging the interrelatedness of problems, and claiming them as our own. It is a small difference, but seems, to me, to be critical.

Ned Mayhem writes about the challenges that he faces in the porn industry, particularly around expectations of masculinity. However, these challenges are not the same challenges that someone with a different body would face. He writes, “[b]eing Caucasian in porn means that I don’t have to look for work exclusively on sites that fetishize my ethnic background. Being cisgendered and having a normative body type means that I am offered more work, and I am not publicly mocked or insulted by the same companies that hire me” (81). It is this acknowledgement of privilege, coupled with an awareness of other groups’ problems and their interrelatedness to his own struggles, that makes his essay feel more inclusive to me.

In the case of my paper, I still think that it’s important to include a case study that looks at a racialized cisgender male performer in a heterosexual scene, in addition to the case study of Ned Mayhem in Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous. I haven’t picked the scene yet, but I have started reading everything I can get my hands on about racialized masculinities. I’m also reading about race in pornography, and trying to get a handle on not only how race is represented in pornography, but also on how academics and activists of colour are responding to those representations.

This process has been daunting, but incredibly valuable. In reading about Black scholar’s responses to Black bodies in pornography, my own thoughts about genderqueer bodies in pornography have been deepened and become more nuanced. There are interconnected elements in the various relationships between pornography and marginalized and oppressed identities. I think that learning from each other is important – beyond important! I think it is critical.

But our learning cannot come at each other’s expense. And too often, it is too easy for white academics like myself to wiggle off that hook and thoughtlessly trample on the work and writing of our colleagues. We must apply Wheaton’s Law to our academic life as much as to the rest of our lives.

 


[2] Longest footnote ever: It occurs to me that it is not actually true that writing about white experience necessarily contributes to whitewashing. Writing about white experience as though it were universal is whitewashing. If I wrote about white experience as white experience, that could be valuable and legitimate.

Hmm.

And yet, I don’t want to write about whiteness. Whiteness is not the identity category that I struggle with (a factor of my privilege as a white person). I want to study and write about my genderqueer identity, my bisexual identity, my polyamory, my kink, my neurodivergence, my invisible disability.

I read somewhere that ‘straight white men are the only group that actively seeks marginalization.’ I think perhaps I am experiencing/performing a little bit of this problematic “seeking marginalization” – I don’t want to write about my whiteness because I don’t want to write about my experience as a person with privilege. It is more interesting and more rewarding to write about my experiences of marginalization and oppression. Because my whiteness is invisible to me, because I feel my oppression but I do not feel my privilege, those points of oppression are infinitely more “real” and more “writeable.”

This is a difficult realization.

I wonder if it is possible to critically engage with my whiteness, to write about my privilege from within my privilege, while still maintaining my focus on the areas that interest me more – my orienatation, my neurodivergence, my kink, my poly, my gender identity. To incorporate an engagement with (or at least an active and aware acknowledgement of) my whiteness and how it impacts my scholarship and life into my practice of academic writing. To not let it be invisible.

Works Cited:

Anderson-Minshall, Jacob. “The Enemy Within: On Becoming a Straight White Guy.” Men Speak Out. Ed. Shira Tarrant. New York: Routledge, 2013. 28-33.

Cruz, Ariane. “Pornography: A Black Feminist Woman Scholar’s Reconciliation.” The Feminist Porn Book. Ed. Tristan Taormino et al. New York: The Feminist Press, 2013. 215-227.

Doe, Jane. Tweet from @DrJaneChi. Twitter.com. 28 July 2013.

Eisner, Shiri. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2013.

Mayhem, Ned. “Male and Queer in the Porn Industry.” Men Speak Out. Ed. Shira Tarrant. New York: Routledge, 2013. 80-86.

Welcoming Non-Binary Gender in the Learning Environment

What does it mean to include non-binary gender in the learning environment? It’s a question without easy answers, because of the constant presence of the gender binary in social spaces. Gender segregated bathrooms (with no non-binary option!) are one of the most obvious binary-enforcers, but statements like the ubiquitous “men and women” also contribute. There is a constant undercurrent of binarization, made more visible in moments like this, when we see the public clamouring to know the gender of the new royal baby (we know the baby’s assigned sex, and we know how the baby will be socialized and conditioned as a result of that assigned sex, but I would argue that we don’t actually know the baby’s gender yet and we won’t for a while!).

I recently presented a talk on non-binary gender in digital humanities at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference. Part of my presentation, co-created with Milena Radzikowska and Stan Ruecker, focused on welcoming non-binary gender into the digital humanities learning environment.

The gender binary, and the call for the inclusion of non-binary gender, is a significant concern in the digital humanities, where scholars are working to digitize and encode data sets and collections of humanities information, including literary collections in projects such as Orlando. This question of tagging, encoding, sorting and designing databases is a complex and challenging one. The question of welcoming non-binary gender into the learning environment – in front of the screen rather than in the code behind it – is a little bit easier.

Here are six steps towards gender inclusivity in the learning environment, a space that encompasses the physical classroom, the extra-curricular physical space of office hours and chance meetings, the digital spaces where students and professors interact – Blackboard, Zotero, Twitter, etc. – as well as transactional spaces such as assignments and tests.

This list is not comprehensive, and I would love to engage all parts of the academic body in this ongoing discussion. Join the twitter conversation with hashtag #NonBinaryDH or comment here. This post will be cross-posted over at SexTexts, my own academic blog.

1 – Challenge assumptions of gender in your learning environment by disclosing your preferred gender pronouns in classroom introductions and online bios.

Not only does this challenge the assumption of binary gender, it sets an example and opens the door for discussions of both gender identity and the validity of preferred gender pronouns. This applies to cisgender individuals as much (or more!) than to trans* or non-binary individuals because it makes it clear that even if a person is cisgender, they have a preferred gender pronoun – it’s just invisible that this is a preference because it is assumed to be the “natural” order of things. Cisgender identity is often invisible because it is the default. This invisibility means that every other gender performance is othered, and making cisgender identity visible contributes to an inclusive environment where every individual has a legitimate gender identity and preferred pronouns, and nobody is othered. By stating your preferred gender pronouns up front, you set the stage in the learning environment for gender to be questioned and critiqued.

2 – Ask your colleagues their preferred gender pronouns.

Not only will this create a safe space for trans* and non-binary individuals to be visible and acknowledged, it also gives cisgender individuals an opportunity to reflect on their gender identity and also to be visible and acknowledged.

3 – Use gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in the learning environment.

Gender-neutral language, such as speaking about “people” rather than “men and women” allows non-binary listeners to see ourselves reflected. Gender-inclusive language, such as “men, women and everyone else” allows everyone to see us. Gender-inclusive language is bulkier and can be jarring, but that slight discomfort has the potential to open up space for conversation and reflection on the fact that gender is a spectrum, and does not fit into the binary model.

4 – Discuss gendered material in terms of being “masculine” or “feminine” rather than being “men’s” or “women’s.”

It is sometimes easier to grasp the concept of masculinity and femininity existing on a spectrum, a stepping stone towards understanding that gender itself exists on a spectrum (men, women, and others). Images of butch women and femme men are a common staple in our media culture. These images often conflate sexual orientation with gender, problematically representing all butch women as lesbians, and all femme men as gay. (While we’re busy breaking binaries, let’s remember that bisexuality is a real thing!) However, this spectrum of gender performance does provide an opening for us to begin speaking about gender identity as also being on a spectrum. Simple linguistic changes that challenge the binary in bite-size pieces can provide space for non-binary individuals in learning environments that otherwise would rarely discuss the topic of gender. (This point came up in a discussion about design classes, for example.)

5 – Recognize, and talk about, the differences between sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The conflation of sex and gender is pervasive and reinforces the gender binary. In many areas it is impossible to change your ID as a trans* person unless you can prove that you’ve had SRS (sex reassignment surgery). In this situation, non-binary gender is erased and although trans* identities are validated, it is only binary trans* identities that are acceptable or even visible. Gender identity is distinct from biological sex, which is also not a clear-cut binary. The male/female binary is complicated by chromosomal variances and the reality of intersex, which is much more common than we often believe. According to Mira Hird in Gender’s nature: Intersexuality, transsexualism and the ‘sex’/’gender’ binary, “one in every 100 births shows some morphological ‘anomaly’, which is observable enough in one in every 1000 births to initiate questions about a child’s sex” (Hird 350).

Further, gender identity is separate from sexual orientation, which again exists on a spectrum rather than sitting comfortably as a gay/straight binary. Recognizing these differences and challenging our own habitual mashing up of unrelated identity categories goes a long way to normalizing non-binary gender and allowing non-binary individuals (as well as binary cis and trans* individuals!) to see the wide range of possibilities open to them.

When sex is conflated with gender, non-binary individuals have few options, because there is no culturally acknowledged template for non-binary sex despite the frequency of intersex – our bodies become policed into sex categories that are then assumed to dictate our gender and our gender becomes difficult to perform because our bodies don’t conform. When sexual orientation is conflated with gender, non-binary individuals again see few options for themselves (especially when bisexuality or other non-monosexual orientations remain invisible). Sex, sexual orientation and gender – three separate, distinct, interrelated but not interdependent categories!

6 – Include non-binary authors in curriculums and reading lists.

This is a challenging prospect because non-binary gender is so often invisible. However, anthologies such as Mattilda (a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore)’s Nobody Passes (2006, Seal Press), and Nestle, Howell and Wilchin’s GenderQueer (2002, Alyson Books), as well as Kate Bornstein’s books, Jiz Lee’s blog (NSFW) and their contributions to various anthologies (including The Feminist Porn Book), and dozens of chapters scattered throughout anthologies dealing with gender, sexuality, and various other feminist issues. It takes a bit of digging, but there is a wealth of material being produced by the non-binary community. Canadian singer-songwriter Rae Spoon is non-binary, and has put out multiple albums and a book. There are also a wide range of blogs and twitter accounts run by non-binary individuals, offering insight into the community and our identities and struggles. Including non-binary authors provides an opportunity to normalize gender-neutral pronouns such as Jiz Lee’s use of “they,” and also demonstrates that being non-binary does not mean being excluded from cultural production. The work that we do has value.

Hird, Mira J. “Gender’s nature: Intersexuality, transsexualism and the ‘sex’/’gender’ binary.”Feminist Theory 1.3 (2000): 347-364. Tandfonline.com. Web.

(This was originally posted at Uni(di)versity on July 23, 2013)