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Friday, November 11, 2005

who's alienating whom? continued

Because of the length of this mammoth comment, a response to the thoughts Travis posted on Wednesday, I'm just going ahead and putting it up on the front page. If you haven't already, you can read my original post and people's responses to it here. Let's continue the conversation in this comments section!

* * *

Sorry for the long hiatus (long in blogosphere time, at least); I was hoping more people would participate after I said my piece. But much thanks to the three of you--especially you, Travis--who have weighed in.

Before diving into the issues Travis raised in his thoughtful comment, I'd just like to thank everyone who has participated for keeping in mind that the topics we're addressing relate directly to the experiences, feelings, bodies, pain, and human dignity of members of our own community (and ourselves), and for maintaining a level of respectful discourse reflective of this fact.

Also, I am certainly no expert on queer issues: as an ally, I am continually learning more ways I can support my BGLT friends and family, and how I can best avoid hurting BGLT people in general, showing them the respect they deserve.

Additionally, as is the case with most if not all groups aiming to foster social change, the queer community itself is not totally unified: ideologies about sex, gender, essentialism, constructivism, and even same-sex marriage and "the gay rights movement" vary considerably among BGLT folks and us allies; and race, class, and--yes--even gender and sexuality create fractures within the community, too. I say all this simply as a reminder that the topics we're dealing with are complicated and dynamic--much more complicated and dynamic than mainstream political discourse (like coverage of the same-sex marriage movement) may suggest. (more in expanded post)

Okay, now on to the discussion at hand. Travis, I'm really glad you explained your confusion with how the word "identity" seems to contradict the idea of an innate, involuntary sexuality. Like anonymous 3, I had a little trouble with that concept when I first learned it, but now that it's second-nature to me, it's easy for me to forget that the term can seem counter-intuitive to people unfamiliar with it. I think anonymous 3's explanation is sound: people can use "identify"--as in "I identify as a gay man" or "I identify as a transgender woman" or "my partner identifies as transqueer" both in order signify a decision to "come out" as queer in the first place (a decision that, for various reasons, not everyone may be able to make), and to emphasize that the terms they use to identify themselves are in some sense their choice (this can help avoid the frustration of having people try to classify you all the time when most often they don't have a clue of what they're talking about).

You write, "I find ironic that the gay rights movement has made so much of "the social construction of gender," with its implication that the two sexes and their attached roles are somehow imagined and anything less than central, even while the movement's most radical exponents seem to be the most prolific gender-constructors of them all." I sense here, and I get the feeling throughout your writings on the "gay rights" subject, that you are not making a distinction between sex and gender. This distinction is in fact critical and, happily, increasingly well-known (it's what Simone de Beauvoire was referring to when she wrote, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman"). To clarify, sex refers to the biological constitution of a body--"male" and "female" genitals and chromosomes--while gender refers to the cultural meanings associated with given biological constitutions--"masculinity" and "femininity." A "gender role" as most people think of it is not the same thing as "gender" itself; it's not what gender you have, but what social norms dictate you ought to do, given your (perceived) gender (i.e. whether women should or should not work outside the home, or whether men should only marry women and women should only marry men).

This differentiation may help to quell some of your consternation with the idea that there could be multiple genders (and I have to agree with anonymous 3 that one stanza from one poet's work is not the most compelling evidence on which to base an argument). While you (and most people) may not believe that more than two genders are possible (you may argue that a person's biological makeup influences their behaviors which society then interprets as falling into one of two gender categories), I think it may be easier to see how, since they are at least partly dependent on cultural specificities, gender categories could be more or less plentiful and/or flexible according to social norms. It is important to note that just as gender does not have to rely on dichotomous classifications (although you may believe that it should), sex also does not occur in binary. Some people are born with "ambiguous genetalia" (of varying degrees of ambiguity) or genital-chromosomal combinations, both of which make classifying them as "male" or "female" difficult or impossible. Although you may call them "atypical" exceptions to a still-valid norm, I think it's worth considering that intersexed people present the possibility that sex is not a matter of two distinct categories, but perhaps more of a spectrum (toward the ends of which most people tend to fall).

Again, you don't have to agree with me here, and there are many ways of interpreting sex differences, but we must remember that no matter what our views about sex and gender, we can not and should not simply dismiss the life experiences of intersexed and/or gender-queer people just because they happen to fall outside or challenge conventional classification systems. When you exalt the vision of a society that is "*at least* tolerant of homosexuality," I take you to mean that as people dedicated to preserving human freedom and promoting dignity for all, we should not rest content with "tolerance," since no one can live a life with dignity in a world that merely "tolerates" them, like a pest to be put up with--and in this I wholeheartedly agree with you. Eliminating hate-motivated violence against our queer citizens is a topmost priority, but beyond that we ought to strive to create a social environment that embraces and celebrates everyone's right to self-identify as they choose.

After all, how does someone else's gender identification threaten you or me personally? While you may consider multiple gender categories "silly," they're not silly to the people who use them to self-identify.

And enforcement of strict gender categories is certainly not silly for
transgendered members of our community who are harassed and/or physically assaulted in gender-specific bathrooms when people become alarmed or infuriated at what they perceive to be "a man in the women's bathroom," or vice versa.

Another crucial distinction that seems fuzzy for you is the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. The reason I say the "queer rights movement" and not the "gay rights movement" is that sexual orientation--which relates to the people one is attracted to and/or the people one falls in love with--has no necessary correlation with gender identity--how one categorizes or presents oneself. In understand that most people are more familiar with the phrase "gay rights" than "BGLT" or "queer," so perhaps you've been grouping all the queer-friendly vocabularies under the "gay rights" umbrella so your audience understands immediately. But gender and sexuality are different aspects of a person’s identity. For instance, as I understand it, a female-to-male transgendered or transsexual person could feasibly identify as heterosexual (if he were interested in women), homosexual (if he were interested in men), bisexual, asexual, or an alternative sexuality. Again, while these distinctions can be complex and confusing to those of us who aren't used to them, as anonymous 3 insightfully observes, "these words are created to engender (no pun intended) a greater understanding and greater knowledge, as they allow us to understand others wishes regarding how they themselves want to classified."

Okay, now that we've got the definitional clarifications overwith (no sidestepping the gender question this time, although all of the issues I’ve touched on are much more complex than my feeble descriptions make them out to be), I can address the remaining major points of your argument. Again, anonymous 3 has already done a splendid job of pointing out the naturalistic fallacy in your argument (the idea that what biologically or evolutionarily 'is' is exactly what 'ought to be'). I don't believe that the 'purpose' of my sexuality is to make babies; absent coercion by an outside party, the decision to have children is just that--a decision. My decision. Does this mean I'm categorically against marriage and motherhood? No. Do I, as a feminist, condemn them as inherently sexist? No. But in reality, they're not the only options worthy of respect and validation. And explicitly recognizing this reality means working to slowly and consciously rid ourselves of our own heterosexism and heteronormativity.

Finally, the parallels I draw among queer people, Black people, Jewish people, and women as U.S. political identity groups do not depend on the innateness or non-innateness of these identities, but on similarities in among these groups in resisting marginalization
(BGLTs, Blacks, and Jews) and in shifting mainstream language over time (Blacks and women). There are many important differences in their respective legacies and struggles (although 'respective' is not quite the right word since queer Blacks, Jewish women, and various other combinations cross categorical lines...but this gets into identity intersectionality, which is more than I have time to address right now), but we can also learn from their commonalities.

Phew. Again, sorry for being so longwinded, but I feel the need to use precision in order to do these topics justice. As I said, it's an ongoing learning process, and one that I think ultimately benefits everyone who wishes to expand freedoms and maximize potential for understanding people. Including Hindu people (thanks for educating us, jjj06).

For people for whom a lot of this stuff is new, how does it sit with you?

For those for whom it's not new but who disagree with the general concepts, how and why?

For those for whom it's not new and who agree with the general concepts but find flaws with how I've explained/characterized them, please correct and enlighten me!

And if none of those descriptions fit you, please share your thoughts with us anyway! Just hit the comments button and go to town...

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