8 Reasons Why Transphobia Makes No Sense

22 11 2013

Transgender Man Evon YoungTransgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) was 20 November, but I didn’t post this blog entry in time. Ironically, it has allowed me to cull from the Web information that was only available on the day itself. It has allowed me to calculate the shocking cost in human terms of hatred toward transgender people.

**Trigger warning for graphic description of violent crime**

It has allowed me to acknowledge the horrifying fact that Evon Young, a 22 year-old rapper from Milwaukee, was suffocated, beaten, and shot before being dismembered and set ablaze.

Transphobia is abhorrent in all its forms, but it takes on a new shape when it involves class and race. Many victims of transphobia are poor, black, and utterly lacking in social or financial resources. That’s enough Carmen Carrerato think about in itself.

Compassion is key to ending transphobia—there is nothing more needed than an understanding soul—but I also find it helpful to challenge transphobes with reason (of which compassion is the keystone). Thus, I offer eight reasons why transphobia makes no sense. If this doesn’t sway you, I don’t know what will.

1. Transgender people challenge gender stereotypes

This is a classic argument used against transgender people by the religious right-wing. Yes, they do challenge gender stereotypes. So, what? What is wrong with a person offending your sense of the way males or females should appear or behave? You don’t have the right to restrict another person’s rights just because of your ideas about gender.

2. Transgender people reinforce gender stereotypes

This is the reverse of the supposedly ‘conservative’ stance. It states that transgender people are sexist because they reify ideas about gender. For example, a transgender man might cut his hair short and wear pants. How is this any different from anything a cisgender man might do? If you can blame the transgender man for Chaz Bono Cherstereotyping, you also have to blame the cisgender man for stereotyping. There is no difference. This attitude suggests that cisgender men can get away with being masculine, while transgender men can’t. Vice-versa for transgender women and cisgender women. If a cisgender woman can get away with growing long hair without being seen as sexist, why can’t a transgender woman? As long as cisgender people maintain gender stereotypes, they are in no place to judge transgender people for doing the same. We all live in the same milieu of gender-crap.

3. It’s unnatural

Of course this is bullshit. As I stated in 8 Reasons Why Homophobia Makes No Sense, just because something is natural does not make it right, and just because something is unnatural does not make it wrong. Clearly cutting hair is unnatural, but how many people create an uproar over that? Likewise, not Amanda Simpsoncutting your hair is natural, and few people create an uproar over that. So even if being transgender were unnatural, the appeal to nature argument is a fallacy. A thing doesn’t have to be natural in order to be valid.

4. Transgender people reduce people to their genitals

As opposed to cisgender people?? The argument is that transgender people reduce people to their genitals because they fixate on gender reassignment surgery. First, not all transgender people seek gender reassignment surgery—some transgender men can give birth, and some transgender women don’t want penectomies; second, so what if they did? There’s nothing wrong with wanting different genitals. It isn’t a fucking gender statement; it’s them realising themselves. In addition, some cisgender women undergo hysterectomies and mastectomies, and there are post-menopausal women, but we don’t say they are no longer women. Why should we say the same about transgender women? Why should cisgender women care so much about their anatomy, but not transgender women?

5. Genital mutilation

Female genital mutilation is an horrific crime against humanity in which all manner of mutilations are Trans Mancommitted against women and girls for the sake of the virginity, marriageability, social acceptance, and suppression of desire among women and girls, often with dire physical consequences. It is an abhorrent act that no cultural relativist can justify. It has nothing whatsoever to do with gender reassignment surgery. People who seek gender reassignment surgery do so voluntarily—and often at great cost—to fulfil their needs. It is absolutely wrong to equate FGM to transgender people seeking gender reassignment surgery.

6. Transgender women are dicks in disguise

There is this weird idea among some members of what is called the radical-feminist movement that transgender women are really men disguising as women to infiltrate the sacred sisterhood and violate them. Ugh. First of all, if you believe in gender ambiguity, how does somebody who’s fighting for their right to be recognised as a woman threaten you? Second, if a transgender woman has undergone sexual reassignment surgery, how can she do anything to you that any other woman hasn’t?

7. They’re pathologically confused.

No, they are not pathologically confused. You are. They know who they are, even if you don’t. In case anybody has any doubts, the American Psychological Association has not only validated transgenderTransgender Child identities as healthy, but has also provided a very helpful booklet of information for those who still don’t understand why transgender identity is good and healthy.

8. What about children and families?

I understand your apprehension. It seems like transgender people can’t or shouldn’t create families. The fact is, some of them do, and all of them have come from one. There are transgender men who bear and nurse children. Why should they be treated differently from other men? Because of their anatomy? Remember the woman who has had a hysterectomy. I understand that this seems silly and abstract, but think about it.

Those are among the many reasons why transphobia makes no sense. After reading about Evon Young’s horrific murder, I was paralysed with horror, but I figured that providing these points might help educate people about the real-life consequences of transphobia. It is not rational, good, or healthy to be cruel. Transgender people need our support, and wherever you meet a transgender person in need, give them the coat off your back.

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Mapping American Social Attitudes

28 03 2012

I’ve found maps fascinating ever since I was a wee lad. I remember getting a globe for my birthday in 1986 and an atlas for Christmas in 1991, and getting new maps and globes over the years to watch the changes in national boundaries. I was shitty at math but adored maps. Maps say so much in pictures  about people, politics, migratory patterns, industry, the environment, natural resources, social attitudes, and loads of other hot, steamy, bloggable stuff. Looking at different maps of the United States, we can see a stark divide in political and social attitudes about race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Here I want you to take a look at some maps of the U.S. to see where different attitudes are concentrated. It’s amazing to see the clear patterning of regional differences, which in turn shows us where we have our work cut out for us in terms of achieving social equity.

We can start this work by looking at the political attitudes, which frequently overlap with social ones. Consider the following maps of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The first map shows states with red, Republican majorities, and those with blue, Democratic majorities; the second one shows this same information, but with a focus on population density.

As we can see, Republican voters were clustered in the south, the Great Plains, and the interior west, while Democratic voters were clustered in the northeast, Great Lakes, and west coast. As it so happens, the red areas also generally reflect sparsely populated areas, and the blue areas, more densely populated areas, revealing a correlation between cities and Democratic values.

But does the Republican-Democrat divide reflect something more than just urban versus rural? If we look at the following Gallup maps from 2011 and 2010, respectively, we get a better idea how conservatives and liberals are distributed across the country.

Not only are the northeast and northwest regions predominantly Democratic and urban, but they are also decidedly more liberal than the south and the midland. (The midland tends to be a grey area, as we shall see.) The ideological divide along geographical lines begins to deepen. Urbanity, Democratic politics, and liberalism begin to characterize the northeast and west coast while rurality, Republican politics, and conservatism begin to characterize the hinterland.

The regional difference comes into even sharper focus when we look at education and religiosity in America. Below is a 2009 Gallup map showing the most religious and most secular states in the country as well as a 2000 Census Bureau map showing educational attainment.

As the first map suggests, the south is much more religious than average, while Cascadia and New England are much more secular than average. The second map shows the inverse for education: the more secular areas tend to have better-educated people, and the more religious areas tend to have less-educated people, especially when we compare Washington state and Massachusetts with Mississippi. What this seems to show is that religiosity and lower educational attainment pattern together in the south, while secularism and higher educational attainment pattern together in New England and Cascadia (anchored by the cultural and educational centers of Boston and Seattle, respectively).

This ideological divide becomes particularly important when we look at the history of black civil rights in the United States. Consider these maps on slavery and anti-miscegenation laws:

It’s probably no surprise that the south consisted almost entirely of slave states, and the north and west almost entirely of free states and territories. Nor is it surprising that the map of anti-miscegenation laws so closely follows this pattern, with the south resisting the repeal of racist marriage laws until 1967, over one hundred years after slavery was abolished. The south wasn’t always overwhelmingly Republican, though: the region was full of “Dixiecrats” when the liberal Democrat and conservative Republican binary was not as stark as it is today.

But this general pattern of a blue, liberal region wrapping around a red, conservative hinterland doesn’t end with race; it also shows up in opinions about women, women’s rights, and sex differences, as illustrated in the following maps of women’s suffrage laws and attitudes about abortion.

In the suffrage laws map, the divide between a conservative south and a liberal north and west is slightly blurred. Large parts of the northeast joined with the south in resistance to suffrage, but vast parts of the west and northwest remained progressive on this issue, in stark contrast with the south. The north-south binary reappears, however, in the 2006 abortion map, which shows a northeast and west coast far friendlier toward reproductive rights than the south.

The south’s apparent concern for unborn babies seems incompatible with its poor record on child welfare. We see another stark regional difference looking at maps of state-by-state child poverty rates and overall child welfare across the United States.

On the 2008 child welfare map, children are better off in the lighter-shaded areas, which include Washington state, Utah, the Upper Midwest, and New England, but they are worse off in the south–the same part of the country where women’s rights, black civil rights, and post-secondary educational attainment tend to lag behind, and where religiosity tends to flourish. A very similar pattern holds for child poverty rates, with a dark band of impoverished children in the south and a lighter strip of well-off children in the west, north, and northeast.

No discussion of American social attitudes would be complete without mention of gay rights, which seems to be the social justice zeitgeist of our time. It’s everywhere in the news, at least in the United States, where everything is controversial. Once again, the general pattern we have been seeing holds true when we look at the maps below showing the advance of gay rights in the United States.

The first map shows the northeast, Midwest, and west coast taking the lead in knocking down old laws banning sodomy between consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes. Most of the south (as well as Mormon country) had to be forced by a 2003 Supreme Court ruling to catch up with the rest of the country. And, in typical fashion, the northeast, Midwest (Iowa), and northwest (Washington state) shine bright blue as the beacons in the gay marriage movement, while the south and Great Plains are steeped in a mostly dark blood red. We must take care not to lump the entire south into the category of “retrogressive”, however: one former slave state–Maryland–is now a gay marriage state. Now, that’s a remarkable transformation. How many states can say that they used to have slaves, but they will soon have legally married gay couples if all goes according to plan?

Certainly, looking at a few maps gives only a rough depiction of social attitudes in America, and much more investigation is required to yield a truly refined and nuanced portrait of the issue, but we can still get a general idea where American attitudes lie with respect to the rights of women, minorities, children, poor people, etc., by looking at maps. Cascadia and New England generally represent more liberal, educated, healthy people while the south generally represents the opposite. We can use this kind of knowledge to focus our efforts on helping those who have been targeted for oppression. It isn’t about judging ignorant rubes–it’s about demonstrating compassion for the underprivileged. With further research, and with the facts in mind, we can reach out to disenfranchised minorities, abused children, poor people who don’t have money for rent, young pregnant women with no access to reproductive health-care, bullied gay youth with nowhere to go, and the lonely, ostracised atheist or Muslim, with the goal of creating equity for all. This is the purpose of looking at social attitudes in America.





A Young Feminist Decries the “Pink Stuff”

28 12 2011

A very serendipitous gift was bestowed on me on Christmas Day: a video of a little girl railing against gender stereotypes inside a toy store. I unwrapped a present, a book called Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs (given me by my wonderfully open and progressive mother), and showed everybody the book, announcing the title for all to hear and accepting family photographs of myself, of course, with the cherished tome in hand. Noting my interest in the topic of gender theory, my elder brother showed me the video, which featured a girl named Riley critiquing the use of colour-coded gender stereotypes in marketing. This girl must have an IQ of 140, or if she doesn’t, she will when she grows up. She is precocious:

I love her! She’s like Lisa Simpson, and Lisa Simpson is like me. Watch this clip of Lisa Simpson, when she was me in, like, 1985 when I was seven years old:

Riley is a real-life version of Lisa—and me! Just like me at her age, she doesn’t buy into the marketing bullshit, and she makes no effort to hide her disgust with the crass commercialization of sex roles. It’s like she’s saying, “this stupid pink shit is fucked up, and it makes me want to vomit!” But, of course, she is a five year-old girl, so she doesn’t say that. What struck me as amazing was her reasoning abilities. She was able to create this abstract symmetry between what girls like and what boys like: “Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses; some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses”. This is pretty sophisticated thinking for a five-or-six year-old.

Most amazing of all, I think, was this little girl’s ability to cut like a laser through the smoke and mirrors of the marketing industry and exclaim that “the companies who make these try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead of stuff that boys want”. So now little Riley has not only identified the unfairness of pressuring girls into buying princesses and pressuring boys into buying superheroes, but she has pinpointed the commercial mechanism which exploits these gender stereotypes to achieve a profit. I’m sorry, but that is a brilliant observation for a child so small.

It’s interesting to note the way in which the father relates to his daughter in this video. The father seems to insist that boys can have pink if they want, but the daughter seems to insist that, while this is technically so, girls are still pressured into wanting the pink princess crap while the boys are pressured into wanting the blue superhero crap. And, if we think about it, that’s true. Even if our children technically can buy cross-gender toys, they are very strongly admonished against doing so. There are social consequences to it, and little Riley is struggling in the midst of this gender fracas. At the same time, I commend Riley’s father for being a true father and taking the time to nurture his child by listening to her words, acknowledging her wisdom, and taking her to the toy store himself in the first place. Not many fathers would do even that much.

This reminds me of my childhood, which was raped away by the horrid spectre of a stepfather who hated women, black people, and gay people. Until 1986, when I turned 8, I was allowed to play with “girl stuff” as much as I wanted—both my parents were mild, good-natured, common-sensical people, if a bit religious and conservative—but once my mother divorced my father and married this odious troll from the American south, everything changed. She had to try to accommodate his stupid scruples, which included the immediate eviction of any gynaecoid play-thing. Suddenly, as boys, we weren’t allowed to play with anything that resembled women (or what women were thought to be). We were allowed to watch She-Ra: Princess of Power, but we were no longer allowed to play with the action figures themselves:

I thought that She-Ra was hot! And by hot I don’t mean sexually exploitable; I mean sexually confident. This woman was a sexual agent. She was in control, and for that reason she was admirable. But for some stupid reason, my stepfather hated the idea of his stepsons watching cartoons of women dodging lasers and throwing men over their shoulders. He hated the idea of boys liking “girl things”, and, on top of that, the idea that those “girl things” involved girls who wielded power. But every faggot loves that shit. It was all just too much of a mindfuck for his dessicated brain to handle. This is the type of gender-stupidity that I think little Riley is railing against in her father’s video.

Little Riley is an inspiration. She gives us a lesson. She is a tiny girl who helps us remember how both girls and boys can be hurt by rigid gender roles. Parents should not tell their daughters that they should like only princesses and pink stuff, and they should not tell their sons that they should like only superheroes and blue stuff. Because, even at an age as young as Riley’s, the stupidity and oppressiveness of these roles are apparent. And if you want to play the biological determinist card, I entreat you to read Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine (who exposes the very recent, very cultural origin of the pink/blue phenomenon in her book). Reading that might make you think twice about how you treat your children. It’s all about what actually works for us as people who have to adapt to the demands of a modern world. It’s always been about that. Nothing else.





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.





Fast Company on Female Infanticide: “Don’t Kill Girls! They’ll Cook and Clean For You!”

27 11 2011

Many cultures around the world are suffering from an undersupply of women, since many people prefer baby boys to baby girls. In response, the business magazine Fast Company has launched an advertising campaign aimed at swaying consumers to combat the world’s skewed gender ratio. This is a noble cause, but the problem is that the magazine goes about correcting this problem in the worst way possible—by promoting damaging stereotypes about women. Basically, the campaign argues, we need to make more girls because girls are intrinsically nicer than boys and they’ll cook and clean for you!

I read about Fast Company’s campaign on Aubrey Cohen’s blog at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Initially I thought, “Oh, this is great. A business magazine is helping raise awareness about female infanticide, gender-selective abortion, and all of the other practices which are reducing the world’s female populace.” Because we shouldn’t be killing or preventing life based on sex, of course. By the time I had finished reading the article, though, I was thinking to myself, “Christ on a cock. You’ve got to be kidding me. They’re basically saying that we should be increasing the global female population because girls are intrinsically nicer than boys, and boys are fuck-tards.” Below is the blog article I read:

Ads Make the Case for Girls

Parents around the world, including most U.S. dads, still prefer sons. So the folks at Fast Company magazine decided to attack the issue with advertising.

In the age of ultrasound, it’s an issue with serious repercussions. Chinese parents give birth to 120 boys for every 100 girls, while their Indian counterparts have 109 boys for every 100 girls, compared with a natural balance of 105 to 100, Fast Company noted.

That consumer preference turns into disaster when repeated across a society. Unnatural [s]election does a frightening, thorough job of documenting the consequences for countries full of men: sex trafficking in Albania, mail-order brides in Vietnam, crime in “bachelor towns” in rural China. The future portends aging populations short of nurses and teachers

Ad campaigns have been enormously successful in promoting seatbelt use and stigmatizing drunk driving, the magazine noted. “That’s why, as a thought experiment, Fast Company asked some top advertising, marketing, branding, and digital agencies to make the case for baby girls in the language of the global consumer — a challenge they took very seriously.”

The ads use the requisite flashy graphics and clever imagery to note, among other things, that women tend to make better leaders, be more compassionate and live longer, while “boys are 76 percent more likely to set something you love on fire.”

I have exactly what I wanted: one of each. And, while my son has never set anything on fire, he does start bouncing uncontrollably by the end of the day if he doesn’t get a chance to run around.

Wow. Really??

We need more girls because they’re nicer than boys? Really?

When I read the last bit, I thought to myself, “Aw, how sweet. Cohen ends with a sentimental anecdote about how his daughter can stay still longer than his son.” Unfortunately for him, this doesn’t prove that girls in general can stay still longer than boys. In actuality, increased exercise is actually positively correlated with better learning outcomes for both boys and girls. Contrary to the single-sex education fad taking the world by storm like some early 1980s hairstyle, girls need to move around too in order to learn well. They’re not submissive little princesses for you to talk at.

But the whole article is chock-full of simplistic, sentimental assumptions about sex differences, including the Fast Company quotation implying women’s teaching and nursing capabilities, which Cohen affirms with his own anecdote about his well-behaved daughter and his unruly son, a little boy plagued with the curse of a male neuroendocrinological system. (Oh, and isn’t it just so cute! He can’t help himself!)  Like the writers at Fast Company, he takes it for granted that women are better equipped to be nurses and teachers, because they are more nurturing. But what’s the proof? He provides none. It’s just a sweet, sentimental blog entry purporting to espouse a common-sensical truth. Yet Cordelia Fine adroitly overturns the hypothesis that women are intrinsically more nurturing than men in the first section of her rigorously researched tome Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. The science cited to prove this claim, she shows, is basically junk, and we need to stop cowtowing to our sloppy, self-serving sentiments.

When we look at the above, what we see is a form of paternalism: the author(s) seek to nurture an environment which “cherishes” women while placing them in traditional roles of servitude: the cook, the diaper-washer, the little angel in the house. For people like Cohen (and I don’t presume that his intentions stretch this far, although he reminds me of many whose intentions do), the global undersupply of females is bad not because women are being killed off, but because “nicer” people are being killed off, and nicer people are women. But we shouldn’t be combatting “female undersupply” because girls are “nicer” than boys; we should be combatting it because girls are being killed off simply for being girls, whatever they may be. If we’re short of females, it isn’t that we’re killing off “nice people”; it’s that we’re killing off people we view as inferior because they have vaginas.

The whole assumption that we’re killing off the “nice, female” population, and not just the “female” population is, as noted above, rooted in the idea that females are the “nice” ones. But maybe what we should be doing is two things: fighting against female infanticide, etc., on one hand, and training men to be more nurturing on the other. At some point, men will have to pick up the slack and assume responsibility for some of the traditionally feminine jobs, like nursing and teaching. We should be fighting against female-related deaths because it is murderous and gender-discriminatory, and we should be training males to be nurturing anyway. We should, in short, be fighting against the disproportionately low female population because it threatens females for being female, not because it threatens intrinsically “better” human beings.

That said, I implore you to read this blog article, which deals intimately with female infanticide in a way I cannot: http://viswanathanar.wordpress.com/ It is written in a local dialect, but most English-speakers should get the gist. It’s actually quite poignant once you’ve put the pieces together. In these places, women are merely striving for survival, let alone the rights we enjoy in Western cultures. We should keep things in perspective and place them in priority.

What do you think?





What Does It Mean To Be A Drag Queen?

28 10 2011

What social purpose does drag serve? Do drag queens reinforce gender stereotypes, or challenge them? I would wager the latter.

I once took a women’s studies course in university called “Introduction to Gender Theory”, or something like that. Oh my god, I was in heaven. For me, it was like going to church and singing, “Hallelujah! I have reached the Promised Land, and it is full of all sorts of delicious fucking freaks.” The course was basically an introduction to, well, gender theory, but from a poststructuralist perspective. That basically means when you look at identities and what makes people who they are in a critical, sceptical light. Anyway, at one point in the course handbook the professor discussed drag and explained how some people see drag as reinforcing gender stereotypes by embodying what they think women should be, which is traditionally feminine. The flip-side of this argument, however, is that drag queens are actually challenging gender stereotypes by mocking traditional feminine expectations placed on women.

The latter argument makes more sense to me, and here’s why. Drag is an incredibly complex form of art. It sends out so many messages at once that it is easy for the untrained eye to miss the ultimate point. It is so sophisticated, so full of so many layers of meaning, and so wrought with irony that it is almost too difficult to distil its essence in words. You can’t simply say, “Oh, it’s a man with fake boobs and high-heels, so he must be saying, ‘This is what women are like'”. That kind of answer is just too pat, and it’s an intellectual cop-out. Drag deserves a more nuanced explanation. When men do drag, they do so with a subversive goal in mind: to satirise the crass feminisation of women.

OK, so there are many different types of drag, and each has a unique purpose, but I believe the one I described above is probably the commonest or most salient of them all. And while most drag queens might not be able to articulate what I have just stated, I think they’d probably agree. For them, it is a highly instinctive and subconscious act. It usually is with artists.

To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at drag queen Tammie Brown (who I believe was a contestant in the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race). Do you really think she is saying, “This is what women should be like”? She looks like a cross between Tammy Faye Messner and Faye Dunaway’s version of Joan Crawford, for goodness’ sake. Tammie Brown’s art is so absurd that you cannot seriously think she is saying that women should have 1940s hairstyles, Joan Crawford lips, skin the consistency of puddy, and eyebrows in the middle of their foreheads. It’s satire. Drag queens are not stupid; they are socially savvy, culturally perceptive, and very streetsmart. I haven’t met an autistic drag queen yet (although that would be fucking awesome). What drag queens like Tammie Brown are doing is creating an over-the-top caricature of feminine standards of beauty placed on women. By embodying a cartoonish femininity, they are saying at least two things: “The feminine expectations placed on women are so aburd as to merit the sharpest satire” and “As a man, I will relieve women of this ridiculous ‘duty’ by placing it on my own shoulders”. Drag queens—at least the highly abstract and conceptual ones like Tammie Brown and Raja—are all about confusing people with regard to what men and women should be and do, and they achieve this by transferring traditional responsibilities from one sex to the other.

Sometimes, the drag community’s mockery of sexism is accompanied by a mockery of racism, too. This is a delicate subject, and it deserves the utmost sensitivity, but I do think some forms of racial drag actually satirise racism. Consider Shirley Q. Liquor, a.k.a. Charles Knipp, a white man from the American south who dons blackface in drag. Now, she’s controversial. She’s been on CNN, and leaders in the black community have vilified her as racist, but other black people have defended her in praise of her mockery of racism. One of these is RuPaul, who included Shirley on her album RuPaul RED HOT. In RuPaul’s own words, “[c]ritics who think that Shirley Q. Liquor is offensive are idiots.  Listen, I’ve been discriminated against by everybody in the world: gay people, black people, whatever.  I know discrimination, I know racism, I know it very intimately. She’s not racist, and if she were, she wouldn’t be on my new CD”. Now, just as one woman cannot speak for all women, one black person cannot speak for all black people, but it helps to know that some black people see a certain satire in Shirley Q. Liquor’s art. And I think RuPaul sees the sweet irony in Shirley Q. Liquor’s absurdist blackface. From my perspective (and please correct me if I am misguided), Knipps mocks racism by donning blackface and showing how absurd racial stereotypes are. And when it isn’t clear that he is mocking racial stereotypes, I sort of think he is expressing a deeply human affection for the quirks he recognises in the black women he knew growing up. That said, I highly recommend against doing blackface unless you are absolutely certain of the purpose and context of your art and you have support by a sizeable contingent of the black community, and if you fail to heed this warning and proceed to do blackface in a messy, thoughtless way, you are probably an ignorant fool.

Just in case some of you still think Charles Knipps is racist, let me share with you a horribly beautiful video of him impersonating Barb, the stereotypical “narthern” Great Lakes housewife with an obnoxiously twangy, vowel-fronted North-Central American English accent:

I know. Now he’s doing drag in whiteface. So that’s just in case you think his racial drag is mere racism, and not an ironic mockery of racism. Now, we might be able to say, “Oh, look. He’s racist toward white people, too.” But I don’t think we have to say that he’s racist toward anyone. In every face he does, he is mocking some stereotype or another by exposing its absurdity as plainly as possible. It’s hard to take patent bullshit seriously.

Drag queens are inscrutable creatures; they create a disturbingly comical image of beauty, challenging our assumptions about what is pretty, who should be pretty, and why. The simple-minded philistines among us, with their intolerance for irony, will view drag queens as horribly sexist, racist monsters, but those of us with a capacity to think critically and apprehend the intent behind the art will think the exact opposite—they will view drag queens as highly perceptive cultural critics of sexual and racial stereotypes, as people who have been to hell and back and have something to say in defense of the underdog. The purpose of drag is to mock feminine expectations placed on women, it is to toy with our cherished notions about who can be feminine—women, or men?—and it is to defuse racist stereotypes through crass caricature. At the same time, though, drag queens seem to exult in a certain bizarre, twisted, exaggerated beauty in the very femininity they satirise, perhaps because they value it for its own sake regardless of which gender is performing it. You can have crazy eyebrows or an overdrawn lipline whether you’re male or female. It’s all supposed to be messy, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. At any rate, drag challenges our deepest assumptions about who we are, who we should be, and who we can be, and this is an invaluable tool for deepening and enriching our understanding of what it means to be human.





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.