The Divine Feminine: an Iron Age Stepford Wife?

22 03 2012

Maybe you are one of them–women, and even some men, who have secreted away from the church pew to summon the goddess in the sacred grove. The trend is growing, it seems. More people are searching for spiritual fulfillment by exploring the “feminine” side of spirituality which is central to so many pagan and New Age traditions, including Wicca, and generally absent from the supposedly more patriarchal male-god religions. But is this “divine feminine“, which forms one half of a duotheistic theology, really such a fair-minded and forward-thinking alternative to male-dominated mainstream religion? As we will see, it might actually reinforce the very patriarchy it seeks to dismantle, and the implications are ominous for women and men alike.

To show how the “divine feminine” movement backfires in its attempt to overturn patriarchy, we must first establish what the concept means. Generally speaking, the “divine feminine” embodies a triad of female archetypes: the Maid, the Mother, and the Crone. Each archetype correlates with a different stage in a woman’s life. The Maid represents the pure and innocent virgin, the mother, the nurturing life-giver and care-taker, and the crone, the wise old teacher–or, potentially, the wicked witch. She is every important aspect of womanhood, or so it would seem, and people pursue the pagan priesthood specifically to pay her homage. She functions as the polar opposite to the male god in a binary which consists of an aggressive, rational, dominant “male energy” and a passive, emotional, submissive “female energy”.We worship her because she complements a strong, disciplinarian masculinity with a weak, nurturing femininity that males supposedly lack.

But, in the stereotypical binary of the weak goddess and strong god, we already see the failure of the divine feminine to dismantle patriarchy. An example of this binary in Chinese philosophy would be the yin and yang, in which a negative, dark, feminine principle complements a positive, bright, masculine one. The divine feminine movement attempts to reclaim female authority from obscurity by extolling the meek, nurturing, yielding nature of the goddess and ignoring her strong, confident, assertive nature—but this is oxymoronic, because it suggests that women’s power lies in their powerlessness. How can women gain power and influence equal to that of men if they are essentially less powerful and influential than men? It just doesn’t make sense. So, with its schizophrenically passive-aggressive, powerful yet powerless goddess, the divine feminine simply gives patriarchy room to flourish.

Now, critics of this view will argue that the binary isn’t really that black and white. “Each man has a feminine side, and each woman, a masculine side”, they will assure you, glowing with pride in their observation. They will point out, for example, that in the yin and yang model, each side has a little bit of the other within it. This is true, but it is also true that the yin is still overwhelmingly dominant and “masculine”, and the yang, overwhelmingly passive and “feminine”, so it doesn’t achieve much to say “there’s a little bit of the other in each”. Besides, it’s a circular argument. Arguing that there is no pure masculinity or femininity, and that each man is a little feminine, and each woman, a little masculine, is a homunculus fallacy, because it still relies on the use of the discrete terms “masculine” and “feminine” to explain gender. Once again, we see how the divine feminine fails to completely liberate male and female from oppressive sex roles.

In addition to the yin and yang model, the fact that the goddess exists almost entirely in relation to males and childbearing presents a problem for the “divine feminine”. The most important role of the goddess is that of the fecund, life-giving, heterosexual mother. She is constantly associated with the earth, fertility, menstruation, pregnancy, and child-bearing. After all, only women can give birth, right? Yes, male fertility is also celebrated in the form of gods like Priapus and phallic cults, but this fertility forms only one aspect of the male god, who is also warrior, judge, poet, and leader, among many other things. The goddess, though, is overwhelmingly associated with nurturing, life-giving fertility, and her sexual relation with the god, as in the sovereignty goddess, an earth divinity whose purpose is to bequeath the land’s power to a man through sexual relations. She is the pure Maid who is sexually desirable to males, as in the Teutonic fertility goddess Ēostre (related to “Easter” and “oestrus”), the Mother who bears her husband’s children, as in Gaia, and the Crone who is useful for nothing more than giving advice and recalling how many miles she had to walk in the snow, and who sometimes represents death, sinister magic, and even cannibalism, as in the child-eating Slavic witch Baba Yaga or the Greek serpent-daemon Lamia. When the woman explores life beyond the hearth and nursery, her unbridled energy necessarily becomes an evil, a transgression against her husband, children, and community. But this isn’t exactly fair. What about girls, sterile women, post-menopausal women, hysterectomized women, lesbians, and women who simply choose not to have children, or even to marry? Most of us would still call these people female, and the vast majority of them are not evil child-eaters, so obviously the “divine feminine”, with its inordinate emphasis on female fertility, fails to represent the many different aspects of female virtue beyond that of childbirth and nursing. It is hard, then, to see a feminist ideal in this Triple Goddess.

The divine feminine is a well-meaning attempt to correct the historical repression of females in mainstream Western religion and spirituality, and in some ways it may have made inroads, but it still falls short of the goal: it presents an oxymoron in the powerlessly powerful goddess, it creates a contradiction by using the terms “masculine” and “feminine” to assure us that there is no pure masculine or feminine, and it describes a goddess whose identity exists almost wholly in relation to men and reproduction. This divinely powerful goddess begins to look like nothing more than an Iron Age Stepford wife. Of course there is nothing wrong with women being compassionate and nurturing, but there is something wrong with women being more compassionate and nurturing than men, especially if all of us are supposed to meet the same, ultimate standard of enlightenment. To reclaim female authority in religion and spirituality, then, we should be exploring the many other aspects of the divine feminine: the warrior, the judge, the poet, the leader, and the good witch. In fact, we should be expanding this to the scientist, the doctor, the politician, and the professor. After all, we no longer live in the Iron Age, and these roles meet the practical demands of the modern day. Simultaneously, we should be exploring the more yielding and nurturing side of the god. By performing this kind of self-scrutiny, we learn from each other and become truly whole human beings.

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The “Plug-in-Socket” Paradigm: How Homophobia Overlaps with Sexism

3 03 2012

Homophobia, it turns out, has its roots in good, old-fashioned sexism, and I’ll tell you why. On February 6th, Washington state residents Jennifer Morris and Allison Vance, a 13-year-old, testified against gay marriage before the Washington State House Judiciary Committee. Their argument was basically that gay marriage is wrong because men and women complement one another. The state Legislature didn’t buy their argument, however, as Washington state legalised gay marriage on 13 February, the day before Valentine’s Day. (The Seattle bars were rife with exuberant homosexuals that night.) Still, it is important to deconstruct Morris and Vance’s argument, expose its fallacies, and show how they are motivated by sex stereotypes.

The arguments of people like Morris and Vance are usually put in rather crude, simplistic terms. Lacking a grasp on nuance, they tend to compare marriage with things that involve inserting one object into another in order to make more “stuff”, or to produce something tangible. Consider the analogy Morris draws between copulation and buildings, which the Seattle alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger reported on in its official blog, Slog:

Today my main message is that specific tools are for specific purposes…. If you were going to build a skyscraper, you would not be putting bolts with bolts and nuts with nuts, because the structure wouldn’t go up. And if it did it would probably fall apart, probably destroying many lives…. I feel very demeaned by the fact that roles don’t seem to matter.

Nuts with nuts. Such prurient imagery. According to Morris, sex is about creating people, not pleasure—despite the fact that the world is verging on 7 billion. Morris seems to care more about the tribal Bronze Age ideal of propogation than the twenty-first-century ideal of sustainability. The notion is that sex is about breeding as much as possible, despite the stress this may place on the environment, and ultimately on people. Echoing Morris, Vance says that trying to make a same-sex-headed family work is “like trying to walk with two left shoes.” She also says that “[i]n order to walk properly, you must wear one left shoe and one right shoe”. In other words,the only proper sexual union is that between a man and a woman, because the only proper sexual union is between two people who can procreate, and only opposite-sex couples can procreate.

Of course, we already know that this is ridiculous, since sterile couples, hysterectomised women, postmenopausal women, and couples who choose not to have children can marry despite their inability or choice not to procreate—because they love each other. For the same reason, then, gay people should be allowed to marry one another. Any adult can marry another adult who consents to the marriage. Simple as that. But conservatives are immune to this kind of reasoning—it tends to go in one ear and out the other, or else they come up with increasingly desperate and tenuous counter-arguments to avoid facing the fact that this kind of reasoning makes perfect sense.

But Morris and Vance’s anti-gay sentiment is not just about procreation—it is about the sex roles associated with these (as Morris herself suggested above). Think about it. Traditional sex roles involve a dominant, independent male penetrating a submissive, dependent female. The male is the logical, aggressive, disciplinarian “yin”, and the female, the intuitive, submissive, nurturing “yang”. The male is the dominant force, and the female, the recessive one. The male is the unemotional breadwinner, and the female, the emotional care-taker. Or else, as in the T.V. show Whitney, the woman is the passive-aggressive psychopath, and the male, some dumb, confused testosterone machine who stares like some fucking dumb piece of numb-brained shit at women’s asses. Here we see Vance’s left and right foot. Her argument against gay marriage is founded on old-fashioned, sentimental ideas about a relationship in which a dominant male complements a submissive female (an inherently hegemonic system), and on teaching children these roles early on.

What does this have to do with lesbians and gays, you may ask? Well, in the view of people like Morris and Vance, lesbians and gays are traitors because their relationships do not involve a man dominating a woman (left versus right shoe). Lesbianism does not involve a man dominating a woman, and male homosexuality does not involve a man dominating a woman. Not only does the rigidly mechanistic “plug-in-socket” scenario of “male and female mate, thereby producing offspring” break down in these relationships, but so do the hegemonic, sex-based social roles which derive from it. In a word, gays and lesbians have sex for pleasure, not to dominate a member of the opposite sex and keep the plug-in-socket hierarchy functional. For this reason, in the eyes of gay-marriage opponents, gay marriage is wrong.

But are traditional sex roles really a desirable thing? I don’t think so. They basically imply that women should be nicer people than men (because they have different limbic systems or whatever). But this is kind of like saying that normal people should be a little bit nicer than psychopaths. We don’t say that psychopaths should be crueller than normal people; we say that they should be as nice as normal people, and so we medicate them accordingly. Similarly, we shouldn’t be saying that men should be meaner than women; we should be be saying that they should be as nice as women, and teach them accordingly. And even if there is some biological explanation for men’s greater aggressiveness, it isn’t an ethical imperative; it is merely an observation of a natural phenomenon, like a genetic predisposition for cancer. We don’t say that those genetically predisposed to cancer should be more susceptible to cancer; we treat them for their condition. So, everybody should be held to the same standard of sensitivity and compassion, and it is simply giving licence to cruelty to say that “boys will be boys”. What gay rights activists should be doing, then, is pointing out that homophobia cannot be justified using sexism, because sexism itself is not justifiable.

Besides, true Christians (who make up a sizeable portion of homophobes) shouldn’t be buying into the temptation of saying that male aggressiveness and female submissiveness are biologically predetermined. They believe in Jesus Christ. Well, the Bible says that Jesus was compassionate (Matt. 9:36), that others should be compassionate (Matt. 18:33), and that Jesus himself commanded people to be like him (John 14:12, 1 Corinthians 4:16). If Jesus was compassionate, if others should be compassionate too, and if he told people to be like him, it follows that Jesus and the Bible required people to be compassionate and peace-loving. Now, because Jesus was male, and because he commanded everybody to be as compassionate as he, he necessarily required males and females to be equally compassionate. After all, he is the common denominator for compassion among Christians. So, while sexism motivates homophobia, if Jesus himself breaks down traditional sex roles, Christians can’t use them to justify homophobia.

I didn’t write this post using the traditional English essay formula; I wrote it in a sort of stream of consciousness format. I guess I was channelling Virginia Woolf or something. Anyway, I wanted to show how homophobia stems from sexism, how sexism is stupid, and how sexists have no basis for using Jesus to justify homophobia, since Jesus-quotes don’t justify sexism. Hopefully I’ve achieved this much. It’s important to emphasise that homophobia and sexism have a lot in common. Both gay people and feminists defy patriarchy by defying traditional sex roles. In order to attack homophobia, what gay rights advocates need to be doing is attacking sexism, since this seems to be used to justify a lot of homophobia. A discussion on gay rights is not complete without mentioning women’s rights at some point. Both concern sex roles and sexual identity, and as such they inform one another. In the meantime, let’s celebrate the recent gay marriage victories in Washington state and Maryland.





How I Outsmarted a Sexist Psychology Professor

14 12 2011

If there’s one thing I’ve learned getting to know university professors, it’s that pride is alive and well in academia, despite many claims to the contrary. I always expected such persons to be paragons of fairness and objectivity, but it turns out that they, too, harbour secret prejudices of their own—and sexism is no exception to this rule. I did, however, have the opportunity to turn the tables on one such individual, who thought he knew what he was talking about, but didn’t. Knowing at the outset that his facts were wrong, I graciously burdened myself with the task of correcting him on his assumptions on a topic which often goes unexamined—sexism in language.

(By the way, I must apologise to Nobel Prize-winning economist Leonid Hurwicz for using a photograph of him at the beginning of this article. I’m sure he isn’t a sexist old fogey; it’s just that he really looks like one! But he’s dead now anyway.)

Now, my friend is no dolt—he’s a professor of psychology at an eminent Canadian university—but he’s also an eccentric. He hails from Romania, loves opera and English literature, and pines for the days of the old British Empire, which, in relative terms, imposed a much gentler form of imperialism on its colonial subjects, or so he would say. “The British had an ideal behind their imperial mission–-to teach and to elevate benighted peoples”, is something he would say, “and they carried out this mission much more humanely than the Dutch, French, Spanish, or other European colonial powers.” Anyway, he sounds rather like Dracula and smokes like a chimney. And he’s gay. So he’s like a gay, chain-smoking Dracula. He comes across as sophisticated and quaintly nostalgic, but he has some rather ugly opinions—for they are certainly not facts—about feminists.

One of these opinions is that feminists don’t know what they’re talking about. You see, my friend once encountered a group of women in his milieu who complained that the word manhole was sexist because it contained the word man, but not woman. But, he argued, feminists shouldn’t be complaining that the word manhole is sexist, because man derives from the Latin word manus, which means hand”, not “adult male human being”. So the feminists are just being angry, stupid women, he suggested.

Well, that’s just plain bullshit, as I soon showed him. It is what in diachronic linguistics (historical linguistics) we call “folk etymology”: derivation of a word from a false, popular, made-up origin. Anyway, what follows is the general sequence of exchanges we made, in which I disprove his argument and prove its irrational, sexist underpinnings. It is not to be taken verbatim; the quotations are actually paraphrases, not direct discourse, but they accurately reflect the logic behind the points made. And to make a distinction between speakers, I will refer to my friend as simply “Dracula”. Now be patient and closely follow the line of argument to see how I arrive at my conclusion.

“These feminists shouldn’t be complaining that the word manhole is sexist”, said Dracula. “It is not, because the man in manhole comes from the Latin word manus, which means ‘hand’, not ‘adult male human being’. It refers to people who labour with the hands.”

“But the feminists aren’t incorrect to call manhole sexist”, said I, “because the man in manhole doesn’t come from manus; it comes from the Old English word man, which does mean ‘adult male human being’ in our present-day usage. So, yes, the feminists do have reason to complain that words like manhole are sexist.”

“Brandon”, cooed Dracula in a thick yet articulate Romanian accent, “if you want to show that the word man doesn’t mean manus, you have to show that the English didn’t borrow man from Latin.”

“They didn’t.”

“But the Romans conquered the Anglo-Saxons, and conquered peoples borrow words from their conquerors. Hence, the Anglo-Saxons must have borrowed the word man from manus, the Latin word for ‘hand’.”

“That is incorrect. The Romans didn’t conquer the Anglo-Saxons; the Anglo-Saxons settled Britain after Rome left. The Roman conquest of Britain began in 43 under Claudius. The people they conquered were Celtic, not Germanic. After a series of Anglo-Saxon and Irish raids, the Romans abandoned Britain in 410 to concentrate their legions on Rome in response to a massive siege there by the Visigoths, who attacked the city under the leadership of Alaric. It was only then that the Germanics had free rein to settle Britain en masse, and even then they only did so several decades later, beginning in 449, under Hengest and Horsa of the Jutes. This means that the Anglo-Saxons [the Germanic tribes in Britain] couldn’t have borrowed man from a ruling Roman elite. The Romans had left before the Anglo-Saxons could borrow anything from them. So, no, the feminists aren’t wrong about the etymology of man.”

“But, Brandon”, purred Dracula affectionately, “The Celts and the Germanics are the same people with the same language group, so when you say that the Romans conquered the Celts, you say that the Romans conquered the Germanics, too. Thus there was still a Germanic people borrowing the word man from the conquering Romans.”

“That’s just plain wrong”, said I, patiently. “The Celts and Germanics are two totally different peoples with two totally different language groups. Look at any Proto-Indo-European Language Family tree. Italic (from which Latin is derived), Germanic (from which Old English is derived), and Celtic (from which Welsh and Irish are derived) are linguistic sisters. Germanic is no more closely related to Celtic than it is to Latin itself, the language you incorrectly purported as the donor language to the Germanics. They’re all equally distinct. The Celts spoke Celtic languages when the Romans arrived, and the Anglo-Saxons spoke Germanic languages after the Romans left. So, no, there was not a Germanic people borrowing the word man from the conquering Romans, and, yes, the feminists are correct in analyzing man as meaning a type of ‘person’, and not ‘hand’.”

To be honest, I was thinking to myself, “Girl, you’ve got your chronology backwards.”

“Besides”, I continued, “words aren’t borrowed just because they come from a conquering culture; they’re borrowed because they represent something special, hence prestigious, about the conquering culture. The English didn’t borrow the word ‘chicken’ or ‘goose’ from the invading French, because chickens and geese were common to the English; poor English people ate fowl, too. But they did borrow the words for pork, beef, and venison from the French [cf. French porc, boeuf, venaison], because these words respresented something special, hence prestigious, about the invading culture. Only the invading French could afford to eat these choice meats. However, ‘man’ was a concept common to both the invading French and the English, just like ‘finger’ or ‘hair’, so the English didn’t bother borrowing this word from the French. So, again, no, man wasn’t borrowed from an invading culture, and the feminists are right about its etymology.”

Here Dracula sat for a moment, truly puzzled, then drew a copy of Roget’s Dictionary [Please, really? At least obtain a fresh copy of the Oxford English Dictionary] from his mammoth, heaving bookshelf, breaking it open on his dining table next to a glass of rosé and a thick stack of fresh cigarettes. Scanning the pages intently between puffs of smoke, he told me he would find out once and for all the etymological root of man, and how it proved that the feminists didn’t know what they were talking about. Ultimately, though, all he found was a derivation which stated that the origin of man was OE, or Old English. Not Latin.

“Drat!” he seemed to be thinking behind his cigarette, his brow furrowed in deep cogitation. Even then he was wrong, and the feminists were right. And so he slowly slouched back in his chair and puffed on his cigarette, still staring at the page in the dictionary, whilst I politely summarized my argument against him. We eventually drifted off into other topics of conversation, but I think we both left with an understanding that his analysis of the feminists he encountered, and perhaps women in general, was wrong. If this one person can be so deliberately remiss about sexism in language, just tally up all the other culprits. I think that what we’re seeing here is a form of academic hubris which seeks comfort inside its own stubborn, old-fashioned shell, but which hurts girls and boys in the real world of today by promulgating snobbish, stupid myths about women.





Hillary Clinton, Gay Rights, and Cultural Relativism

12 12 2011

I’m not a cultural relativist. Sometimes customs are culturally relative, and sometimes, quite frankly, they are not. I don’t believe that sexism, racism, child abuse, animal abuse, rape, torture, murder, or homophobia are excusable depending on cultural context, because in each context these atrocities share the traits of hatred, violence, and exploitation committed against a sentient being. Let me get this caveat out of the way first: on some issues we are in no place to judge the practises of other cultures, and on other issues we most certainly are. In return, these other cultures are allowed to judge us on our faults. With that out of the way, LGBT rights are not an imperialist vision; they are a humanist one.

Given my wariness of cultural relativism, I was elated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s amazing speech at the United Nations in Geneva. In her speech, Clinton declares that the Obama administration will defend LGBT rights as a part of its human rights and foreign policy, and that the President will command all government agencies operating overseas to defend LGBT rights through various diplomatic strategies. She makes several points about how and why the world community should end persecution of LGBT people: first, LGBT rights are human rights; second, homosexuality exists in all cultures; third, religious and cultural beliefs do not justify persecution of LGBT people; fourth, the world must confront persecution of LGBT people, not dismiss it; and fifth, we must employ practical means to obtain equality for LGBT people. All of these points are interesting and relevant, but the most provocative to me are the second and third points, which challenge the cultural relativism cited to defend persecution of LGBT people.

In her second point, Clinton challenges the assumption that homosexuality and LGBT rights are purely Western, imperialist conceptions being foisted on non-Western cultures. This is simply not true, Clinton shows, because homosexuality exists in every culture, and homophobia is a problem in every culture. It is, in other words, a human condition, and creating artificial cultural barriers to LGBT liberation would do a disservice to LGBT people:

Some seem to believe [homosexuality] is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbours.

And just in case anybody insists there are no examples of efforts to advance LGBT rights in non-Western cultures, Clinton deftly turns the tables:

Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do. South Africa’s constitution, written in the aftermath of Apartheid, protects the equality of all citizens, including gay people. In Colombia and Argentina, the rights of gays are also legally protected. In Nepal, the supreme court has ruled that equal rights apply to LGBT citizens. The government of Mongolia has committed to pursue new legislation that will tackle anti-gay discrimination.

Clinton has obviously done her fact-checking (which is to be granted, given that she is America’s chief diplomat): heteronormative sexualities, if not exactly ubiquitous, are well-distributed among the world’s cultures, hence LGBT rights are a relevant concern to all of the world’s cultures. It is now common knowledge among well-informed people that homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, and intersexuality are not the product of a particular culture; they are a product of living organisms in general, from shellfish to human beings. It seems absurd, then, to say that these sexualities are the luxurious fad of one particular society (the West) of one particular species of animal (homo sapiens), hence it seems absurd to suggest that LGBT rights are relevant only to that society or species.

In her third point, Clinton criticises the notion that cultural or religious beliefs somehow justify persecution of LGBT people, and roundly dashes it to pieces. (I exaggerate, but still, she could have, and she probably would have if representatives of countries like Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan weren’t present.) She does this by comparing LGBT rights to the rights of other persecuted peoples. Specifically, she draws an analogy between crimes against LGBT people and crimes against women, both of which derive from patriarchal hegemony:

[The justification for persecuting LGBT people] is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.

Cutting off a woman’s clitoris is universally wrong because it causes unspeakable pain, stress, and health problems for the victim, whether she is from Sweden, Somalia, or Seattle. This is because every person of every culture possesses a common human physiology; the nervous systems of all human beings are basically the same. I suspect every woman feels immense pain when she is mutilated, burnt to death, or stoned to death, despite the cultural situation. And when proponents of cultural relativism cite reasons for their stance, those reasons fall nothing short of pathetic: women shouldn’t be allowed to have sex with men other than their husbands, women shouldn’t be allowed to experience sexual pleasure, or women shouldn’t be allowed to live if their husbands die. Forgive me if I find these justifications more solipsistic than utilitarian, and hence hardly socially beneficial. They’re just the laws of self-serving tyrants who view women as mere incubators. Similarly, every gay person experiences unconscionable pain and horror at being hanged or crushed to death for being gay. Opinions, insecurities, and concerns specific to a culture do not justify violence against women or gay people, because we all share the same basic human physiology despite cultural context. I think this is what Clinton was pointing at.

I won’t mince words. Hillary Clinton is right, and the cultural relativists are wrong. Heteronormative sexuality is found everywhere in the world, and LGBT rights are no more culturally relative than women’s or racial minorities’ rights, because all are products of a common human mental and physical experience. For some reason, though, this is a sensitive topic for many anti-imperialists, who often happen to be from the West. It seems to me that a lot of this cultural relativist dogma stems from white, middle-class people who feel guilty about their colonial heritage, and they spout this disingenuous nonsense about relativism to soothe their own conscience. But think about it. Arguing that women’s or LGBT rights are culturally relative is basically discriminating against women and LGBT people who live in countries, like Iran, which don’t recognise their status, and that isn’t very feminist or pro-gay, is it? It isn’t even very pro-human, as Clinton showed, and I can’t help but respect her for sending such a bold, unapologetic message to countries which still use cultural relativism as a loophole to commit human atrocities. It was truly a satisfying vindication of LGBT rights.





What Makes A Feminist?

18 05 2011

A heterosexual male friend of mine once told me about a chat he had online with somebody who was offended at the fact that his AOL profile (this was back in the ’90s) included the Gloria Steinem quotation, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”. According to him, the other person argued that he should not include such a quotation in his profile since women did not need the support of men. Some men have tried to avoid such pitfalls by calling themselves “pro-feminist” instead of “feminist”. But what is the difference? Both view men and women as equals. One might find this “men can’t be feminists” attitude to be illogical and sexist, because it presupposes that women, but not men, should support women’s rights.

To determine how such a view can be construed as sexist, let us take a look at the definition of feminism. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word feminism denotes “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”. If feminism is based on the equality of the sexes, but a person states that female support is superior to male support, that person is technically being sexist. If a person seeks support, he or she should view both male and female support as equal, otherwise he or she is not a feminist, but a sexist. In other words, feminists would ideally seek the support of females and males equally, and not one over the other, because they view females and males as equals. Given this assumption, the Steinem quotation should tacitly read, “Women need men or other women as much as a fish needs a bicycle”, for if females and males are equal, female advocacy is as useful as male advocacy.

Besides, how do you explain intersexuality? If you do not believe that males can be feminists, but that females can, what position should intersexual people take? Some of them are considered sexually ambiguous by the most clinical biological definition–chromosomal ambiguity (XXY, XYY, or even something else). What should their feelings be on this issue? They at least should have a say in the matter.

There are important, very practical, exceptions to this principle. For example, it is understandable that a women’s rape relief centre should deny entry to men. Women who seek the services of these centres are often physically and psychologically traumatised, and the presence of men can exacerbate their stress. We might argue that these women should view men as being as supportive as any woman, and many of them probably are, but such a demand requires an unfair and unrealistic amount of reflection on the part of women who are in an emergency situation. The important thing for these women is to feel safe and secure, and to recover stress-free from their trauma, and if this means the exclusion of a visible threat, I think this is only reasonable.

The most important thing is that everybody seek equality for everybody. If we are all in this together, we should not be splitting hairs over the very differences we are trying to surmount in the first place. That is counter-productive, almost like shooting yourself in the foot. Black people need the support of everybody; gay people need the support of everybody; women need the support of everybody; men need the support of everybody; the disabled need the support of everybody; everybody needs the support of everybody. In that way, we are all equal. We are all inherently equal, and we should all be standing in solidarity as members of the same species and supporting one another. For the most part, we are all in the same boat rocking back and forth on the same stormy ocean, and, consequently, we are all dodging the same capricious waves.





The “Straight-Acting” Sham

18 02 2011

In my last post, I discussed gender dimorphism and challenged the biological determinist notion that we are and should be slaves to our biology. I explained how this position is highly questionable, biased, and potentially destructive—for both women and men. As it turns out, attachment to gender roles is not limited to heterosexual people, but includes homosexuals as well. This is rather ironic, because one would think that if anybody were cynical about gender roles, it would be gay people.

In contemporary gay society, there is a subset of lesbians who concern themselves with being feminine, and gay men who concern themselves with being masculine. For these lesbians, femininity equates with heterosexuality; for these gay men, masculinity equates with heterosexuality. Because I have been more immersed in the milieu of gay male society, I will focus on gay men who try to be masculine. Some gay men seek to emulate straight men because they believe that conventional heterosexual manhood embodies masculinity. There are three problems I have with this attitude: 1) it is sexist, 2) it is heterosexist, and 3) it is hypocritical and just plain illogical.

With regard to the first of these, straight-acting is sexist because it presupposes that men, but not women, are supposed to embody traditionally masculine traits. For instance, straight-actors assume that real men are supposed to be strong, aggressive, emotionally distant, and physically active. They are supposed to like action films, working on cars, baggy jeans and t-shirts, and playing rough contact sports, because these are “manly” things, in contrast with “womanly” things; they are not supposed to like romantic comedies, talking problems out, or wearing make-up and dresses, and they are not supposed to have effeminate mannerisms.  (And don’t talk to me about neurobiological differences and all of that crap–I dealt with that in my last blog entry.) But these stereotypes simply re-inforce the stupid sex roles that create so much pain, misery, heart-ache, and suffering for people. Being gay defies gender norms, so, if anybody should be critical of gender norms, it is gay people. It is disappointing, then, that some gay men challenge gender norms when they want to have anal sex, but preserve them when a man wants to wear make-up or a dress. All of a sudden, it’s perfectly manly to have butt-sex in a hotel room, but not to walk down the street carrying a Chanel handbag. How two-faced and arbitrary.

(This reminds me of the furore that has arisen over the fact that the San Francisco Department of Health has begun distributing female condoms to gay and bisexual men. Horror of horrors! How dare they imply that we are FEMALE! Um, hello? Female condoms go in HOLES. An anus is a HOLE. Therefore, it is perfectly logical for a gay man who receives the penis in his HOLE to use a female condom. If you don’t think a man receiving a penis in his anus during butt-sex is effeminate, you have no reason to think that such a man wearing a female condom is effeminate. And, besides, if it is effeminate, so what? He’s an effeminate man. Get over it.)

But I digress. Let us move on. Straight-acting is also heterosexist. The evidence is in the word straight-acting itself. Straight-acting implies that to be a real man, one must be a straight man, or a man who has sex with women. But monks don’t have sex with women, and we don’t say that they are not real men. Nor have male virgins ever had sex with a woman, but we don’t say that they are not real men. And some men are impotent, but we don’t say that they are not real men, either. “Ah, but they aren’t real men”, you might say, “because they don’t have sex with women”. But this would mean that a man is never a real man when his penis is not inside a woman’s vagina. That’s just ridiculous. All men are born with XY chromosomes, penises and testicles, and sperm. This includes gay men. Therefore gay men are men too. You don’t have to stick your penis into a woman’s vagina to be a man. Besides, the notion that a real man has sex with women is kind of degrading to women, because, for me, it strongly connotes sexual conquest of women, and that is just dehumanizing. Women are not holes for you to grind your penis in like a pencil sharpener. The actual hole itself is attached to a human being with her own thoughts and feelings.

Then there is the fact that straight-acting is hypocritical. Don’t worry. I’m not engaging in a tu quoque fallacy–I’m not attacking the person’s failure to practise what they preach rather than what they preach (I’ve already disproved what they preach in the last two paragraphs)–I’m merely trying to show that they are incoherent and inconsistent. And that should count for something. Consider Matt Hinsley, the 22 year-old college student who recently attended America’s annual CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) with the conservative gay group GOproud. According to Metro Weekly‘s Ebone Bell, Hinsley—a gay man—said,

“I don’t really like gay people that much. Gay people frustrate me, the stereotypical gay people, it frustrates me…someone who puts on a total act. I understand that some guys are feminine, which is fine. But some guys, at some point, are normal, straight-acting, whatever and the next minute they’re jumping up and down. It just frustrates me. The whole conservative thing is just be yourself, be an individual and just don’t be someone you’re not. If someone does or does not accept you, that’s fine but don’t change who you are to look different to others.”

Holy shit! It’s almost like when black people call each other nigger. Here is my main contention with regard to hypocrisy (I address Hinsley and his sort directly): you say that people should not act like somebody they are not, then you criticise  gay people who act effeminate, but not gay people who act straight. Yet both act like somebody they are not. Well, that isn’t fair. You can’t criticise drag queens without criticising straight-acting jocks, too, because both are acting like somebody they are not. Besides, many drag queens are in their true form when they are in drag, but a straight-actor is still painfully awkward and affected when in his jock-drag. Ugh. Furthermore, being effeminate is not incompatible with being gay, but being straight logically is (straight ≠ gay), so, if anything, straight-acting is more treacherous to one’s own homosexual identity than effeminacy. I think I’ve proved my point. It doesn’t make sense to slander gays for being gay.

Let’s sum up. Straight-acting doesn’t make sense, because it suggests that real men are traditionally masculine, that real men fuck women and not men (which is funny since straight-actors fuck men, and not women), and that drag queens put on an act, but not men who act straight. In essence, straight-acting is artificial, narcissistic, sexist, incoherent, sycophantic, opportunistic, exploitative, unfair, sophistic, and illogical. It cannot be defended. It is, quite honestly, the signature of a chap whose intellect is able enough to commute him from the high-school football quarterback position to the timid chair in the corner of the local community college philosophy course. Where he will fail.