December 29, 2009

The Falsifiability Talk

Posted in Gender issues, Uncategorized, Women's issues at 3:30 pm by M L Clark

We need to talk about falsifiability.

This isn’t an easy conversation, so let’s talk first about why we need to talk about it. There are many different communities that apply the “inner truth” model to their real world actions, especially when seeking respect, tolerance/acceptance, resources, and access. In no chronological order:

1) The traditional feminist movement used it to highlight that gender is externally enforced, though not deterministic.

2) The queer community emphasized that gender roles and their expectation sets do not reflect the real world, with all the varying orientations within it.

3) The trans activist community forwarded the argument that we are who we say we are: If a sex-male identifies as gender female, she should be recognized and addressed as such. She should also be given access to resources to help overcome the perceived division between her sex and gender.

4) The trans ableist community argued that if we are who we say we are, it follows that there should be equal legitimacy and respect for people who feel their actual identities involve a physical limitation — an amputation or deprived sense — whether or not they actually have the physical limitation (yet).

5) The intersex community, having no clear social gender roles externally enforced, takes issue with the notion that physical realities, such as being intersex, can be inner self-identities, too.

In short, we have a discursive plane that straddles two very difficult realms: Personal perception and the physical world. And both are exceedingly important, because the denial of both is responsible for serious oppressions in the real world. But as with anything in life, where there are limited resources, there is conflict for the lion’s share — and in the course of that conflict, grievous missteps allow for the misrepresentation of one realm in the course of promoting the other.

The trans ableist community offers the best encapsulation of this discord, because along with the insistence upon a disabled “inner truth” regularly goes an envy towards the “privileged” who are already disabled. The true farce of this misuse of the word “privilege” can be seen in the case of a hypothetical cancer patient: If someone were to say, “Oh, you’re so lucky — you have cancer, whereas my inner identity tells me I should have cancer, but I’m not privileged enough to have it yet!” we would recoil in horror. We would call the speaker mentally ill, and in great need of medical assistance.

But wait, trans ableists point out: their community isn’t talking about cancer, or other fatal diseases — it’s talking about amputation and blindness and -plegic states. True, but amputation and quadro- or paraplegic states are also fatal in the natural world: Only the advent of science, and whole industries of care-giving, make it possible for someone to lose a leg and not die from gangrene, or be quadraplegic and not starve or dehydrate to death. This is why self-identity is such a tricky basis for real world policy: The only difference between these identities being recognized as legitimate or treated as manifestations of mental illness is the existence of a society that can maintain the livelihood of persons in those states.

The problem is that, working backwards from this theoretical argument, transsexuality also falls into sharp question — quite frequently, in fact, from radical feminists and mainstream discourse — because transsexuality would literally not exist [ETA: as a realized condition] without the advent of science. Eunuchs would, and have, existed throughout history, but these have been socially-imposed male bodies with either feminine manifestations (when cut prior to pubescence) or extremely masculine manifestations (when cut after pubescence). How, then, could one person’s inner identity be transsexual (i.e. a gender female that requires transition for realization) if the very realization of that identity is dependent on the existence of sustainable systems of medical transition?

This is the issue that often arises in radical feminist discourse, which sees any inner identity moored to the medical industry as one inherently moored to a strict gender binary. To this end, TheBeardedLady wrote a stunningly good encapsulation of how women feel in their own bodies here, which highlights the marginalization many born-sex-female women feel of their lived experience in trans/feminist discourse, wherein the central site of gender oppression against women is regarded as something they should feel privileged to have had since birth.

“All right,” you say: “So you’re arguing that inner identity doesn’t count for squat?” No. Not at all. Because, as many people have noted, regardless of whether or not the transsexual identity is moored to medical institutions, there is one clear fact at work here: Medical transition helps some transgendered people. It has a higher success rate than therapy. It lessens depression and related mental illnesses in trans patients. The post-surgical regret percentages are almost non-existent. So, they’re happy as individuals, and their invididual life choices aren’t intrinsically hurting anyone. To refuse a treatment you know will increase someone’s quality of life, when it in no way harms another person’s life, is therefore unethical. Regardless of where transsexuality “lies” in a person, it is in and of itself an outcome that legitimately benefits individual lives.

The trouble only arises when recognizing another person’s right to shared resources solely on the basis of inner identity pushes someone else’s right to shared resources out of the way. And this, sadly, happens in the one place that is ostensibly fighting the good fight against gender oppression on the whole: the activist sphere.

    — It is in this sphere we find lesbians who are uncomfortable with the thought that any male-sex person may, simply by identifying as being gender female, demand access to their safe spaces; and who are furthermore not okay with being called transphobic simply because, being lesbian, they are most often attracted to the female sex, not the gender construction.

    — It is in this sphere we find radical feminists who worry about government mandates saying no space can be female-sex only — and therefore losing funding if they have to choose between finding ways to involve victimized religious immigrant women in safe spaces, and maintaining an open door policy for all people who self-identify as women — regardless of whether they’re post-op or non-op transgendered — in every single women’s centre activity.

    — It is in this sphere we find born-sex-female women in general recognizing people in the women’s washroom who look like men, and (fearing harassment or assault) telling them to get out or calling a cop on them.

    — It is in this sphere we find trans women, post-op and non-op alike, regarding as transphobic the fact that these women in the bathroom question refuse to recognize them as women, too. (The “everyone needs a place to pee” issue.)

    — It is in this sphere we find brutal deaths for non-gender-normativity appropriated by various gender/sex communities with no regard for the actual self-identities of the people being brutalized. It’s bad enough that how you self-identify doesn’t matter to your murderer, who will impose his horrific punishment on you for being what he thinks you are: When activist groups then scrabble to differentiate between an effeminate gay man beaten to death, or a straight man in drag beaten to death, or a trans woman beaten to death, inner identity is again thrown right out the window.

This is why we need to talk about falsifiability — or rather, the lack of it, when it comes to creating gender/sex theory and policy on the basis of inner truths alone. Because no one can know another person’s inner identity, what we then have to operate on is a social system that supports those inner identities wholeheartedly when they do not deny anyone else’s lived experiences or access to resources, and likewise demands further, external measures in setting policy for all instances where two or more groups’ access to resources are in conflict due to dissonant inner identities.

What will these external measures look like? That’s a damn good question. Taking into consideration the conflicts I mentioned above, and any related ones I may have overlooked, I open the floor to you. What do you think we need to ensure our activism helps all people oppressed by their gender or sex?

December 17, 2009

On Gender Normativity, Privilege, and Oppression

Posted in Gender issues, Uncategorized, Women's issues tagged , , , at 11:32 am by M L Clark

A very thorough, engaging discussion on another post has finally led to the point where a fuller response is warranted than can be provided solely in the comment threads at hand.

The precipitous comments in question are as follows:

“If you believe in transphobia, you have to believe in cis privilege. An oppression (transphobia) does not exist if there isn’t a corresponding privilege (cis privilege). So, really, if you deny there’s cis privilege, you’re denying there’s transphobia. Because the insistence that transphobia is just sexism or just homophobia or just gender non-conformity or that it’s even some combination of the three or something else again denies all the trans people who also experience those oppressions, have considered the matter, and still say that it’s not.

Which to me seems to bounce off another comment by the same poster here:

I guess the problem I have is when people reject being straight or heterosexual so they can reject benefiting from straight/heterosexual privilege. Because, we agree that it exists right? And it exists regardless of whether the people who benefit from it identify as such or not. If you’re a woman and you are only involved sexually and romantically with men and have no interest in another gender, then you’re straight/heterosexual as far as privilege goes. In fact, one of the usual arguments about and with bi/pan people is how much or even whether they benefit from straight privilege in straight-appearing relationships. Short version: If we only allow the labeling of people who benefit from privilege with whether they identify with it, then we lose the power to talk about the privilege. If there are no straight people, how can we maintain there is straight privilege?

I’m sorry. I don’t see how they don’t mesh. Could you explain how you see them as conflicting?

I was especially thrilled with the bi/pan engagement in this latter question, because it leads quite beautifully into my response. Specifically, in the first comment the poster lumps gender-normativity on par with sexism and homophobia, against which transphobia would then also be equivalent. I’d argue that the bi/pan question especially highlights how this is not the case: in actuality, gender-normativity is the huge umbrella term under which all other gender “isms” fall. This is because when we “pass” — either as a woman who fits all society’s expectations, or as a person who performs the sexuality that fits all society’s expectations, or as a person who fits all society’s expectations of their perceived gender/sex, period — we gain benefits within the gender binary. And anyone can pass: A heterosexual gender female/sex female, a bisexual gender female/sex female, a heterosexual/bisexual gender female/sex male. When any of us do, we achieve the highest state available to us in the gender binary: “woman.”

It then bears considering what this highest state entails. In a gender binary system where society is constructed around “male” being the default gender, the answer is quite obvious: “female” is itself non-normative. (I develop this notion more thoroughly in this earlier post.) It is, however, also the one state of non-normativity deemed “acceptable” — with the boundaries of this acceptable state decided by the dominant, normative gender: namely, male. This state of non-normativity is a behaviour and action set we call “woman.” If you are sex-female, and you fit this behaviour and action set, you are a woman. What does this guarantee you? Tragically, nothing: You may be everything a woman should be, and that may still result your endurance of gross abuses, violence, and discrimination. This is because woman is non-normative, and man is normative, and man sets these rules (here in a social contract sense, as well as in an absolute sense the world over).

This will get very important momentarily. Because what a system that pressures sex females to become the best “women” they can be does provide is an expectation set. If I’m prettier, boys will be nicer to me. If I’m nice, and don’t do anything to upset them, men won’t rape/harm me. The consequences of this are far reaching: Women with these expectation sets hurt other women in an effort to vie for a status that they think will grant them the most protection in the system. Women also often call out difference in others in order to prove themselves as “better” women for this same reason. All because of a desire for gender-normativity — even if, for women, that very normativity is non-normative, and offers no guarantees. This is the survival mechanism that comes into play in a gender binary.

This desire for gender-normativity then creates even huger problems when we realize, as individuals, that while we may pass for our gender-norm, we aren’t actually gender-normative at all. This creates intense fear of being “outed” among queer persons, and I would have to infer also trans persons. If you’re able to pass, and passing means hiding a part of you, that doesn’t feel much better at all. Whether you’re a trans woman who passes, but also wishes she felt safe airing her sex-based past; or a bisexual woman who wishes she felt safe airing her sexuality in full; or even a beauty-normative person who felt much more herself thirty pounds heavier, having to conform for fear of what happens if you don’t is not healthy: it’s oppressive. This too will become important momentarily.

Because then comes the third tier — the inability to pass as gender-normative. This has advantages just as it has disadvantages. The disadvantages are obvious: If you don’t pass, you’re far more vulnerable to the worst of our male oppressive gender binary. You’re vulnerable to violence and abuse and worst of all, the fear of both. This happens to sex females who openly eschew the behaviour and action set prescribed to our sex. This happens to sex males who openly eschew the behaviour and action sets prescribed to their sex. This happens to intersex persons who are proudly, openly so. But there is a slight advantage, too, for those who do not hate themselves for being different: You know who you are, you don’t feel like a fraud. While the bisexual woman feels shame when she keeps her sexuality a secret, or the trans woman bites her lip through a conversation about trans gendered persons being perverts, the people who do not pass and who embrace that they do not pass a) do not expect to benefit in the system, b) understand that only male normative persons truly benefit from the system, and c) draw strength from setting their own standards for success and failure instead.

This is the spectrum of gender normativity in the gender binary. So with this in mind, let’s look at “oppression” and “privilege.” “Privilege” refers to a set of benefits ascribed to a group of people. Often these benefits are described as expectation sets. Clearly, if you are a gender normative woman — either by birth, by happenstance, or by hard work and personal sacrifice — you get benefits for this condition, as outlined in an expectation set (regardless of whether or not they are fulfilled). And let’s be clear that I’ve omitted “without merit” from the privilege definition because, to a person struggling to achieve gender normativity, there is clearly a sense of “merit” in its attainment: but that’s not the kind of merit we refer to, so to lessen confusion I’m leaving it out.

And so here we run into a severe and important consideration: By this understanding of “privilege,” gender normative women have benefits, too. One list of them (not entirely accurate) is available here. These are occasionally legitimate benefits: What isn’t legitimate is how they are used to refute the claim that women aren’t oppressed. What these counter lists identify, in fact, is that benefits do not determine oppression. They can’t.

What does determine oppression is who controls the make-up of those lists. Because the benefits a gender normative woman experiences (in relation to a gender normative man) and the benefits a gender normative male experiences are both decided by one, central source: male dominant gender binary society. By virtue of having a greater overall threat of force, sex males have a dominance advantage over women, and get to set the terms of their societies. This is why we see societies the world over that have varying levels of shared gender power — everything from almost equal access to and representation in the bulk of law-making and day-to-day social structures (as seen in parts of the Western and Eastern worlds), to zero permitted female access to and representation in the bulk of law-making and day-to-day social structures (as seen in Saudi Arabia) — but never female dominance in any of these structures. Because men choose to share, or don’t. Full stop.

Oppression is decided by who or what creates the benefits lists for various groups. White people create the benefit lists for other cultures, and in the process themselves, in Western civilization. Meanwhile, the male dominant gender binary creates the benefits lists for gender normative men, non-gender-normative persons who are women, and anyone who fails to fit either of these two gender classes. Anything women can achieve, in terms of an expectation set that contains some superior outcomes to males, is set by men, and in so being, in no way disrupts the gendered power flow. Power always runs one way: To man.

This brings us back to the original comments, where the poster writes:

If you believe in transphobia, you have to believe in cis privilege. An oppression (transphobia) does not exist if there isn’t a corresponding privilege (cis privilege).

This last line is key, because the jump being made is that there must be a corresponding privilege, and that that privilege must be cis privilege. This poster and I were previously talking about how I don’t use “cis” because it presumes knowledge of my inner gender, and all persons should have the right to self-identify their inner truths. In the second comment, the notion of causal cis privilege is taken in conjunction with straight privilege — even as the use of bi/pan sexuality embodies a complete refutation of its solidity as a concept, because it’s completely contingent on “passing,” not “being.”

I agree there is a privilege associated with transphobia, just as there is a privilege associated with straight persons. Just as this privilege associated with straight persons is contingent on someone passing as straight, so too is the privilege associated with transphobia associated with someone passing as non-trans, or cis. This is gender normativity privilege. This is the ability, if you pass, or seek to pass, to gain benefits from suppressing or neglecting those who cannot, or do not.

I say this with full equanimity: I do not accuse people of straight privilege anymore [ETA: automatically, I mean: obviously when they exert it in their actions I’ll point it out the same way I would a woman exploiting male privilege to oppress other women], because I know full well it’s not contingent on who you are but whether you pass, and that far too many people whose inner truths are not straight adopt this language of oppression in order to do just that. I know, personally, that I pass far too much for my own comfort: This has to do with deep-seated issues with my father that I am trying very hard to overcome. In the meantime, it means that I gain more benefits than many from a system that favours the performance of gender normativity. So I do not say any of the aforementioned to avoid mentioning those benefits I receive for this privilege.

But these benefits, and this privilege, do not amount to oppression. As I mentioned above, there are benefits for most every group, and these amount to privileges for most every group; thus, due to the ubiquity of these privilege lists, privilege cannot alone determine oppression. If both men and women have privileges, does it then follow that no one is oppressed? No. Absolutely not. Because women do not set these privilege lists. We can benefit from them, absolutely. We do, so long as we live up to the standards set externally for us; and so long as those in power do not change their minds. But even the best case scenario for female gender normativity has no guarantees — only expectations. Why? Because gender power lies with the male dominant gender binary. Men set the terms of gender normativity: therefore men also set the terms of acceptable non-gender-normativity (“woman,” with the specific behaviour and action set imbued therein), and unacceptable non-gender-normativity.

Does this give non-gender-normative men, or acceptably gender-normative women, or unacceptably non-gender-normative women, a free pass on discriminating against others, in an effort to survive in the existing male dominant gender binary? Absolutely not. Women and non-gender-normative men alike need to hold themselves severely accountable for the systemic abuses they perpetuate in an effort to survive a system set to favour gender normative males, and reward with unreliable expectation sets those women who perform gender normativity best. This means gay men don’t have a free pass on sexism. This means women don’t have a free pass on homophobia. This means sex-females don’t have a free pass on transphobia against sex-male/gender females. And this means trans women don’t have a free pass on sexism in turn.

There are horrible things done by all non-gender-normative persons in the current male dominant gender binary, out of a desire to survive, and a foolhardy expectation that if we do our best to pass we’ll minimize the threat of harm and marginalization that comes our way. These abuses need to be confronted for what they are, and from whence they stem. This means eschewing privilege wherever it’s confused with oppression, because the real oppressions are all about performing gender normativity — as the male normative, and therefore male dominant, gender binary determines this performance to be.

November 19, 2009

My Gender Is Not My Own

Posted in Uncategorized, Women's issues tagged , , , , at 2:02 pm by M L Clark

Hi, my name is Maggie. My sex is female, and I was born that way. My gender? Well, it turns out my gender matters a great deal.

It matters because I am a feminist, and feminism is very much concerned with the gendered oppression of women as a sexual class. There’s a lot of unpacking to do in that sentence, and I’ll try to keep it brief: Essentially, we live in a society that was built on a social contract arising from the perception of two classes of gender, male-normative and non-male-normative. (Another way of putting this is “sex-male” and “sex-female”.) The primary benefit of this framework is simplicity: If there are only two classes of gender-and-sex, and one class is given de facto authority as the “superior” gender-and-sex, then society can be structured in a way that maximizes efficiency. This efficiency arises from the distribution of clear gender roles and responsibilities, which are thereafter indisputable because only one sex has the power to decide just what those roles and responsibilities will be. What decides which sex will be regarded as superior? Why, just take a look at the biological differences between male and not-male: Are women on the whole physically stronger? Can they, as a class, make a legitimate threat of violence against men? Well, if not, then clearly they do not have power over men. But are men on the whole physically stronger? Can they, as a class, make a legitimate threat of violence against women? Well, if so, then clearly they do have power over women. And so begins the gender oppression of women as a sexual class.

But not quite, because to leave the last paragraph as it stands is to imply that all male-normative persons desire simplicity, and all non-male-normative persons do not. This is not the case. In actuality, many women also prefer simplicity, and so would not perceive themselves as being oppressed in even the most stringently gendered social structure. Now, some would argue this is not a “free choice”, but a consequence of indoctrination from early childhood; however, such a multitude of different upbringings yield later-life conversions that one would have to argue “No choice is really a free choice” in order to win that argument — at the cost, obviously, of rendering the argument itself irrelevant. And really, does it hinder this discourse to suggest that some women might freely wish to live their lives in such a manner? No, it does not.

Because the distinction is really this: Do the women who crave simplicity want others to crave it too? And this in turn is a trick question, because simplicity becomes decidedly less simple as you accept that more and more people should have the option to prefer complexity. So truly, one needs to crave the complex to perceive social gendering as oppressive. And these people are called feminists.

Now, why do we prefer the complex? Do we just like making a mess of things, or pursuing that which seems more exciting? No. We prefer complexity because we perceive it to be the more accurate representation of the real world. We prefer complexity because we do not hold efficiency as the central standard for human civilization. And we prefer complexity because it’s a natural consequence of choice.

But while all feminists hold the notion of choice as a central tenet of our beliefs and activism (creating choice, protecting choice) two schools of feminism emerge as soon as you look any closer at the movement. These schools are liberal feminism and radical feminism, and they are often at great odds with one another in feminist discourse. What creates this division? The divergent means by which both groups seek out the same ends.

Consider, if you will, a state. The name of this state is “Humankind”. Since Humankind’s governance structure favours simplicity, the state is perceived as being peopled by male-normative persons and non-male-normative persons, with the former holding power and privilege over the latter. The latter, on the whole, don’t like this, so they consider strategies to improve their position within this state. Now, marginalized groups throughout history have responded to their degradation by adopting the language of oppression as their own, and in this reclamation process we find such terms as “Yankee” and “Hutu” and “Nigger”. Similarly, by stripping sexist words of their power to hurt, and otherwise reclaiming those actions and elements of personhood used by oppressors to assert female inferiority, feminists hope to gain legitimacy within the state of Humankind. Historically, this occurs as a consequence of “taking back the language”, because words like “Cunt” or “Bitch” very easily become banners to rally under, and to use for the purpose of creating a shared narrative. In short, they become symbols of nationhood.

So one group in feminism takes this approach in the state of Humankind, and fashions for itself a nation called Woman. And with this nationhood emerges the usual propagandist methodologies for fighting oppression in the existing gender class system: Arguing that sex and sexuality are actually powerhouses for female liberation, making physical “weakness” its own measure of strength, and otherwise forwarding the thesis that women embrace their femininity not for other people’s sake, but for their own. This nation, predicated as it is on individual empowerment, demands equal representation in the state of Humankind for all its members, with all the individual civic and economic rights, responsibilities, and privileges that representation entails. The aim of this activism is to equalize the status of all persons in the state of Humankind, but to do so within the existing gender class framework. This nation is liberal feminism.

But others in this marginalized gender class aren’t so keen on the nation of Woman. If there were another state in this hypothetical scenario, they would have fled the state of Humankind to this Other Realm by now. As it stands, these people feel like refugees in their own homes, and they don’t see how a nation of Woman that even in part reaffirms existing gender roles can offer a way out. This is because no matter how much the nation of Woman celebrates an individual’s choice to, say, work in the sex industry of her own volition, this other group will invariably recall that this choice does not exist in a vacuum: Rather, it exists in a world where the great majority of women in the sex industry are not there of their own volition, or at least certainly are not empowered within that system. In short, this other group champions a universalist approach to combating gender oppression: just as a chain of mountain climbers is limited by the height of its lowest member, so too do these universalists measure their success by the gender-based status of the least of them. These people are radical feminists, and they desire to confront the causes of gender oppression at its source, as opposed to its end-points.

Of course, all ideologies have a way of coming full circle if taken to their extremes, which is why cultural feminism also exists — bridging liberal feminism’s championing of the individual woman and radical feminism’s desire to usurp existing gender norms. The difference between cultural feminism and the other two feminist ideologies is that cultural feminism does not seek equality. Rather, it seeks to supplant the male-dominant gender norm with a female-dominant gender norm, on the basis of a perception that a) simplicity is good, b) women actually have a power store all their own, and c) a system predicated on female-norm/non-female-norm would be of better use to the progress of civilization as a whole. This is the ideology most consistently taken to be the basis of feminism as a whole — which is tragic, because cultural feminism is absolutely an extreme fringe, and nowhere near the discursive norm.

What is the discursive norm is intense argumentation between the schools of liberal and radical feminism, over a wide variety of issues relating to women’s lived experience. This intensity of polemics is neither surprising nor unique: one finds similar spectra in any political discourse, and the lack of surprise arises from how easily individual feminists themselves waver between camps. And why not? Liberal feminism essentially tackles that which might be attained in our lifetimes — goals like sexual empowerment on an individual basis — while radical feminism consigns us to work that will perhaps be on-going for many, many lifetimes to come. Similarly, radical feminism has a measure of lofty idealism to it — meanwhile, liberal feminism can at times put personal choices in conflict with acknowledging the lived oppression of other women, and that doesn’t feel so grand at all. So of course we waver. But more importantly, our collective discourse should waver, because talking about feminist issues — even to disagree about them — does not intrinsically fragment the cause. To the contrary, discussion is the basis of dissemination. So argument is an important part of feminism as a whole.

But can anyone participate in these arguments? This question comes to the fore when we consider male feminist allies. If you recall, I noted near the outset that not all women crave complexity: similarly, not all men crave simplicity. Some recognize that the world is much too diverse for a gender oppressive paradigm to be just. Some recognize that they are also not well-served by a system that regards the non-male-normative gender class as inferior. And some have experienced first-hand what happens when people don’t fit perfectly into either of the two gender classes at all (more on that below). Whatever their reasons, these men want to work to create equality for women — to support women in their self-empowerment, as it were — with varying levels of investment in these outcomes serving male interests, too.

But creating a space where women aren’t told by others what their experiences have been; where they need not fear being silenced for sharing their stories; where, instead, they can etch out a shared narrative and pursue constructive activism from that outlook, is not easy. It never has been. So when male allies enter the feminist sphere there is a need to ensure they actually are there to support, to listen, and to share their own experiences where appropriate instead of a) demanding that women take the time to answer all their questions about feminism, b) demanding that women tell them their full histories, c) denying women’s experiences, or d) dictating what women’s experiences of discrimination “actually are” in relation to men’s experiences of the same.

I’m sure that, to all of the men in this audience, doing such things would seem absurd and ridiculous — as extreme and unfair a cross-section of male involvement in feminist discourse as cultural “feminism” is of female involvement in feminist discourse. But the aforementioned discursive bullying, and worse, does happen. How often? Often enough that feminists get very jittery about male ally engagement in certain subjects or facets of feminism — liberal feminism especially. Why liberal feminism? Because liberal feminism advocates individual choice, and especially houses a great many choices that enhance a woman’s sense of self by “reclaiming” marginalized aspects of her existing gender role. This kind of individual action can be great fodder for male allies, because without being invested firsthand in the “history” of a sex-female body, and all the social ramifications therein, they can champion female choices that favour traditional male expectations of women, and do so in the name of feminism. And will they have questioned their privilege in the course of championing this view? It’s hard for anyone else to tell. And will any comments they add to these discussions feel at all different from the pressure women as a sexual class already receive from men about what we should do with our sexuality? It’s quite unlikely. Women should have the choice to pursue these ideologies themselves, absolutely: but men shouldn’t be trying to influence the outcome. This is where many feminists get concerned.

So in some aspects of feminism, yes, it’s important for male allies to sit and listen. But not always — and certainly not always when we’re talking about “male-normative” and “non-male-normative” gender values, because these issues have extreme cross-disciplinary implications, and many men also have “non-male-normative” gender values themselves. Here, indeed, exist great reasons for various forms of class-based activism (queer activism and trans activism especially) to work together to deconstruct the existing gender classed society. But in what ways? With what limitations? And what on earth do I even mean by the term “non-male-normative”?

Because by now I’m sure you’re wondering if I’ll ever explain why I likened “male-normative and non-male-normative” so readily with “sex-male and sex-female” at the beginning of this post. What about non-male-normative men? What about male-normative women? Well that’s just it, isn’t it? There are many, many ways to be non-male-normative, and thus lack power in the current gender oppressive state: You can be a sex-female who identifies as straight, and gender-male. You can be a sex-male who identifies as queer, and gender-male. You can be a sex-female who identifies as pan-sexual and two-spirited. But it still won’t matter. In a gender classed society predicated on the need for simplicity, in a species with offspring that manifest as one of roughly two sexes, having more than two gender frameworks for those two rough sex types is inherently complicated and inefficient. Two will, and must, suffice.

As such, the two gender classes that exist in this system have very specific traits: “male-normative” has at its root a clear set of values for sex-male persons that “fit”, while “non-male-normative” has at its root a clear set of values for sex-female persons that “fit”. We can call the former set of values “gender male”, and the latter, “gender female”. What, then, of all the rest?

Imagine a small sex-male, maybe five or six. He should have grown out of his baby toys, but he hasn’t. He plays with his sister’s dolls, brushing their hair and accessorizing them while gushing about how pretty they are. If given half the chance, he plays dress-up in his mother’s closet, and smears lipstick over his face. His father, a rather severe man raised on fairly stringent religious values, who regards himself as the obvious head of the household and is not inclined to spare the rod, comes across his son in the midst of such play. His response is to beat the child. What does he see that makes him act this way?

You might say he sees the possibility that his son might turn out gay. You might say he sees the possibility that his son will turn out transgendered. But the latter seems unlikely for someone not regularly exposed to diversity, and even the former seems almost too complete an analysis for such an impulsive, violent response. So what can we confidently, irrefutably say this man sees just before he beats his child? We can say he sees his child acting in a non-male-normative way. And again, we know there are many ways to be non-male-normative, but the only one this man will understand is “gender female” — and that, he’ll further understand, can only manifest in a sex-female person. So what the father sees before him is quite simply incomprehensible from his world view. And the very fact that it’s incomprehensible, that it doesn’t conform to any measure of a simple universe, makes it wrong. And things that are wrong are often met with violence.

Meanwhile, the reality is that this child’s play in no way suggests what his adult identity will be. He might be gay. He might be transgendered. He might be both. He might be neither. The only thing his actions confirmed that day was how his gender was perceived by others — namely, as wrong. Thereafter, in hindsight the incident will similarly be used to explain or even justify his self-identity as an adult. But should it matter even then? What causes a gay or transgendered person to say “I knew I was X because I did Y when I was younger”, except the pressure from a gendered society to legitimize the place of other gender histories? Would that gay or transgendered person be deemed “less legitimate” if they didn’t have a story about Y from their childhoods? And if so, what does that say, in turn, about the external life of gender identity?

This is a crucial point for feminism, because on the basis of such broader gender oppressions the concepts of both “hetero-normative privilege” and “cis privilege” enter feminist discourse — but there is a huge difference between the impact of these two terms on our discipline. (And the omission of “gender conformity privilege” in favour of “cis privilege” is hugely telling.)

What are “hetero-normative privilege” and “cis privilege”? The former notes that one of the values included in both gender norms is the expectation of heterosexuality, the lone sexual orientation permitted in this gender class structure. Essentially, by virtue of having the correct sexual orientation, you “fit”, and thus have certain privileges over those who do not. The latter, however, is quite different, because it asserts that people born into the gender that matches their sex are privileged over those who are not. Essentially, by virtue of having the socially correct gender/sex overlap at birth, you “fit”, and thus have certain privileges over those who do not.

Consider that definition, if you will, while I note that it’s generally liberal feminists who embrace the notion of “cis privilege” — and why shouldn’t they? That nation of Woman is all about taking back the gender identity they were born into: if liberal feminists find pride in being gender-women, however they’ve re-forged that gender set upon them to mean, then of course they’re going to recognize that they get benefits from being the gender they love, and which they were born into through no merit of their own. Except… by that logic, don’t liberal feminists also get such benefits over radical feminists? No, wait, of course not: Because transgendered persons feel their gender is at odds with their sex identity from birth, and (at least) radical feminists… do not?

You’ve caught on to the gist of the problem by now, haven’t you? Because for many radical feminists, the notion of “cis privilege” is an absolute mindfuck. As has already been established, there are a great many distinct gender profiles — but only two of them are recognized as acceptable in the system of gender oppression: “male-normative” (sex-male) and “non-male-normative” (sex-female). All others are wrong. And there’s an important corollary to this: It doesn’t actually matter what you identify as, because society will treat you on the basis of what it sees as your identity. The logical conclusion of this is that people who “pass” as gender-normative gain the same social benefits of gender-normativity: it matters not one whit what you feel is really who you are.

So when radical feminists are told we have gender privilege — that is, when we’re told we are privileged over other gender profiles because our sex matches up with our gender — there is great cause for disagreement. This disagreement is exacerbated when some trans activists say they have been their actual gender from birth, because after all, radical feminists perceive gender as externally imposed, meaning we have two truths at play here: what others see us as, and how we see ourselves. Transwomen should be familiar with this concept, but many nonetheless refuse it in this case, instead interpreting such feminist disagreement as another aspect of rad-fem “privilege” or even transphobia. “Exploding the gender binary is a nice ideal, but not really practical,” the argument goes, “So you have to pick one gender or the other. What will it be? Do you see yourself as male or female?”

But this is precisely the point — and perhaps one that needs to be handled with transwomen just as it would be with male allies (two groups that have both been raised in the sex-male class, with all the gendered social expectations and benefits therein, at some point in their lives): I refuse that false dichotomy. I see myself as neither. My sex is female, but I am human. And above and beyond all sex-based biochemical differences between male, female, and intersex persons, this means the whole notion of gender is a socially-imposed facade — one for which I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to transition into a body where that fact (and with it, the primacy of my citizenship in the state of Humankind) is seen first.

But silly me, maybe that’s just part and parcel of being gender-female in the first place. How would I know, after all? I don’t set the values by which that gender norm is measured. I don’t get to change those values, either, though they fluctuate throughout my life. All I know for sure is that my gender is not my own; and for this reason, that my gender has nothing to do with who I am. So please, to all feminists and feminist allies claiming I have “cis privilege”, keep it coming. Keep telling me I’m privileged because society most often sees me as passing for the gender identity it considers the only acceptable value set for my sex. Forget that in any checklist giving me the option not to answer the gender question, I would provide no fucking answer at all. Forget that my name is Maggie, and that I’m sex-female but still human, and absolutely not comfortable with the external life of my gender identity.

Trust me, you wouldn’t be the first.

April 25, 2009

New York City: A Fully Realized Social Discourse

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:30 am by M L Clark

Barthes’ Mythologies came quickly to mind as I rode into New York City for the first time this past week, recessed in the back of a cab. The seats were low, with loops of sturdy material bolted to the sides for people who needed help getting up from them. A thick plate of protective plastic separated the front from the back, with a credit and debit machine mounted on our side, along with a slot for hard cash. Before me a touch screen jumped to the local news, coupled with messages from the mayor about cab service developments.

That’s when it hit me: I was looking at a fully realized social discourse — the kind I would see played out again and again over the course of my short visit to the Big Apple. Very clearly, in everything from the make-up of the car to the make-up of the whole cab fleet, you could see where different needs and wants were engaged and applied to real-world solutions: The plastic both for the protection of the cabbie and the privacy of the passenger; the low seats to further complicate robbery attempts and allow maximum room for the passengers; the touch-screen to help with long traffic times and, at least incidentally, to give passengers a sense of direct connection with the city they’re driving through. And you could see, too, the compromises in this arrangement: the loss of possible friendly interaction between driver and passenger, the loss of spatial control on the part of the passenger in lieu of driver empowerment. It was, in short, a semiotic wet dream. And it wasn’t alone.

In fact, everything in Manhattan (and what parts of Brooklyn I encountered) bore with it the social history of its development. Far beyond the striking presence of Greek and Gothic Revivalism, to say nothing of other Neoclassical structures in the basic architecture of the towering down- and uptown cores, there were still other, humbler entrenchments of social discourse plainly visible for anyone on the street. These included the newsstands — permanent entrenchments on every other corner which highlight the centrality of print media and convenience items to pedestrian life — and the billboards, the digital displays, the street vendors — all of which made every space on the street a possible zone of interaction between individuals, other individuals, and commercial products. The digital displays especially had a striking engagement with their surroundings: in the subways and Grand Central Station they made use of existing dimensions or constraints on building — whether it be an ad fitted to the space allowed by a wide beam, or a digital image projected on a towering marble column — and in so doing minimally affected their surroundings. But much could also be said about the subways themselves, which, though complex, have developed in such a way as to attend to both the needs of local commuters and those who need to move quickly over a sprawling city landscape.

And then there are the people. So much is made of the stereotype of angry or arrogant New Yorkers that I was truly humbled to discover how staggeringly polite and open to engagement so many others are. I know I was only in the city for four days, so my impression is anecdotal at best, but when an old lady railing on about the crowd’s need to find Jesus stops long enough to help direct me to the entrance of a bank, I can’t help but take pause. People responded with patience and a friendly demeanour when I needed help finding my way; I got the occasional apology from people who had to cut into my path; and I started conversation with immaculately dressed strangers who responded with openness in turn. And everywhere there was talking, talking, talking — the city never loses that animation, that constant interplay.

Yes, I also encountered the occasional arrogant, impatience, or just plain rude personality; I am in no way denying that they exist. But what I also discovered, in the way of courtesy, paints a much more intricate picture of New York life — and also, I suspect, highlights an underlying factor that allows both politeness and abrasive natures to such an extreme in the same community: in a city that is itself so replete in fully realized social dialogues, individual self-realization is itself given tremendous life.

I’d like to say that my home town, Toronto, has similarly realized dialogues — and I’m sure there are a few. But the great pleasure that comes from travelling to a place that is so alike in many ways is that the ways in which the two differ become patently clear. And in the U.S. for the first time in my life — in New York, of all places, for my first visit to the U.S. — what I came away with most of all was a sense of a standard being set. Is New York perfect? Not at all. Are these social dialogues, so concretely established in city life, finished? Not even close. (As I especially discovered when matching up the mayor’s transit and cab ads for a New York public school survey to this article in the New York Times, about the mayor’s conflicting responses to the opinions of others.) But the arena for these dialogues is so concretely defined that I can’t help but think Toronto’s own engagement with its own issues — everything from homelessness to education to worker safety to commercialism to identity to multicultural interaction — a shadow of this southern self-realization.

What am I asking for here — is it news stands on our downtown street corners? touch screens in our cabs? mayoral addresses in the form of ads across the city? Maybe. I honestly feel one can do little better than New York has in terms of the entrenchment of news media (and with it, more direct and constant civic engagement).

But beyond that, in a broader sense, I suppose I’m calling on a sense of self-confidence, made manifest in all our decision-making as a community. It is this self-confidence that I think creates the New York stereotypes — the loud-mouths, the arrogantly opinionated — but these are necessary extremes of a system that allows, as well, much in the way of a quieter, more nuanced self-assurance. And, however anecdotal my experience may be, it is indeed my experience: These more nuanced displays of self-assurance exist.

It is, in essence, a matter of effective argumentation: Arguments do not need to be made loudly, or arrogantly, to achieve their full effect, but they do require confidence; though many are made in the former way (especially among pundits!), there was just as much self-assurance in Socrates’ form of address — for though his route was a constant line of questioning, it was still his route, and by holding fast to that collection of beliefs and approaches that were his own, he enacted precisely the same self-realization.

What would our writing look like, our cities look like, our social dialogues look like, if as individuals and as communities we were brave enough to make decisions and hold fast to them — and equally brave enough, too, to make other decisions, and hold fast to them, if the first decisions proved ineffective?

I ask this especially because we as Canadians often pride ourselves on our humility, our politeness, and with it, our tact and discretion. That these values are only true to life at the best of times for us, and most other populations, is a moot point: The stereotype of the “nice” Canadian is what it is. And yet, it’s also not — for on matters of U.S. interest Canadians have absolutely no qualms about speaking our minds, and investing with a sense of higher-than-thou authority our “outsider’s” perspective on events therein. I was guilty of this. I am guilty of this. But after visiting New York, I hope not to be as guilty of this in the future.

For after visiting New York, and seeing firsthand what a fully realized social discourse can look like, I feel more motivated than ever to realize the same strength of community conversation here at home — and not just about the U.S., heaven’s no: About us. About Canada. About all the ways in which the whole wide world intersects with us and our own.

I have no idea what such a fully realized discourse will look like. I only know — I only feel — that we’re not there yet.

And I want to be a part of it.