Sunday, September 14, 2008

Funny/"Ha Ha" vs. Funny/Oppressive

My buddy C likes to distinguish between funny/"ha ha" and funny/"oppressive." People so often confuse the two. If I say, "There were two dozen clowns in a VW bug. It was so funny!" that's funny/"ha ha." If I say, "Isn't it funny how the TSA stopped bothering me after they realized that I'm white?" that's funny/oppressive. I might still laugh at it, but it's not laughing with joy. It's laughing so as not to be overwhelmed by the wrongness of it.

I thought of this today when I found myself drafting an email to a friend with the subject line "Want to hear a funny story about gender?" It was sort of funny/"ha ha," but the more I let myself vent about it, the more I realized it was also about an oppressive underlying situation.

The story is this: I recently wrote a book review for an academic journal. Today I got an email from the publisher asking me to do final proofs on it. That means, to go over it for any typos or other very minor edits that are needed before publication. The copy editor provided a list of "queries" for me to look at. Queries mark places where the editor saw a problem and wanted me to provide or approve a correction. This time I got very few queries - four to be exact.

The funny part is that two of the four queries concerned my pronoun! As usual, I used third-gender pronouns in my author bio. There are two pronouns in this three-sentence version of the bio, and the editor had marked both of them. The first query read "Change ze to he." The second read, "Change? ze to he?"

Oops! I explained briefly and referred the editor to my article in the same journal from a few years ago, which includes a lengthy footnote about third gender pronouns, for a similar reason.

So what kind of funny is it? Is it funny/"ha ha"? I have to admit, it is a little. I did laugh with a little bit of joy when I imagined the editor's confusion upon finding the second "ze" and having to doubt whether it was really a typo.

It's also funny/"really, people?" because it does not cease to be bizarre to me that I have to have outside citations to prove that third gender pronouns are legitimate. I actually use these words in conversation on a daily basis, and I am understood in my community when I do that. This has been true in my life for about 8 years. Still, they're not real to a mainstream publisher unless I can provide citations. I generally shy away from reading ethnographies of people like me - talk about funny/oppressive! - and literary references don't count for much unless you're writing about literature. So to my publisher, these words do not exist.

If that's bizarre, then I'm not even sure what the adjective would be for the fact that in this case I can legitimize my use of third gender pronouns for myself by citing ... me! The reference I provided the editor was an article on queer theory, which I wrote and this same journal published only two years ago.

And if any of you were wondering, this is a perfect example of why I'm not in a doctoral program right now. Academia, and perhaps academic writing in particular, seems to encourage those who are deeply engaged in it to give up the skill of noticing reality when it punches them in the nose without a citation - a skill which I prefer to retain.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Dilemmas of Invisibility and In-Between-ness

A paper I wrote several years ago, for a grad school class on historical foundations of social justice education. It's always creepy for me to re-read old writing, since how I wrote it then is never how I would write it now. Nevertheless this paper seems particularly relevant for me right now, as I'm in a new city, getting to know the trans community here - and over and over again, I am astounded and dismayed at how strongly people cling to normative identity logic even as they advocate for the rights of trans and queer people whose very existence challenges and disrupts that logic. This paper reminds me of some of the very good reasons people cling to normative identity, and also of why I dislike it so much.

(With recent additions in orange.)


“One of the first things we notice about people (along with their sex) is their race. We utilize race to provide clues about who a person is. This fact is made painfully obvious when we encounter someone whom we cannot conveniently racially categorize – someone who is, for example, racially ‘mixed’ or of an ethnic/racial group with which we are not familiar. Such an encounter becomes a source of discomfort and momentarily a crisis of racial meaning. Without a racial identity, one is in danger of having no identity.” (Omi & Winant, 1986, italics in original, my underlining)

Without a racial identity, one is in danger of having no identity. Of all our class readings so far this semester, this provocative assertion from Omi and Winant’s “Racial Formation” is sticking with me. At first I struggled with it. What can it mean to say that a person could have no identity? From an individual perspective, a person without an identity seems almost a contradiction in terms. But Omi and Winant are writing from a social perspective and, as I contemplated this passage, I began to see that it speaks volumes not only about the experiences of individuals caught outside of categories, but also about the formation and maintenance of these categories.

Race and gender are so fundamental to the structure and function of U.S. society that, without a racial identity and a gender identity, one becomes invisible, silenced, unrecognized, and unacknowledged. Omi and Winant speak of the momentary crisis of meaning that may occur when we encounter someone who we cannot easily classify. The encounter shakes the borders of our racial and gendered landscape and we often work hard to resolve the mystery in a way that maintains those borders. We may perform mental gymnastics trying to justify force-fitting the person into a category that’s not quite right, or we may write hir [1] off as an exception or a freak.

On the other hand, for the person who doesn’t fit into racial or gendered categories, the crisis is not momentary but constant. Every momentary crisis that someone else has about hir is a reminder of hir in-between-ness. It is not so easy to write oneself off as an exception. When someone doesn’t have a racial or a gender identity, others have trouble seeing/recognizing hir, and ze may even have trouble seeing/recognizing hirself. In order not to be caught with no identity, ze must belong to a racial and a gender category that makes sense to hirself and others. Many people who are caught in this dilemma try to resolve it by force-fitting themselves into a new or established category that others can recognize, even if the category is not quite true to experience, or is so broad as to be practically meaningless (e.g. Asian, Latina/o, Bi/Multiracial, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender). This is not to say that these categories are meaningless to everyone who uses them, only that some people may claim an identity that is not quite what they mean, but that at least means something.[2]

For example, Ekins & King observe the importance for transsexuals and transvestites of “adopting an identity which makes sense of things” (p. 101). They detail four characteristics that transsexuals and transvestites reference to explain, and perhaps to defend, their identity: reality/centrality, pervasiveness, permanence, and inherence. They also mention, almost in passing, that transsexual and transvestite identities can only be defined in reference to normative binary gender. What Ekins and King fail to point out is that a transsexual or transvestite identity must “make sense of things” not only to the person who claims that identity, but also to others – in this case, to the gender-normative or non-trans gaze. The characteristics that they list as common to these trans identities are also true of normative, binary gender identities. Being a man or a woman, like being transsexual or transvestite, is considered central and pervasive to one’s identity, permanent, and inherent.

This similarity is not a coincidence. For one thing, transsexual and transvestite are both terms that come out of the medical community, not out of a trans community. They were developed by gender-normative male doctors as part of a mechanism of social control to make trans folk more comprehensible and manageable within a binary gender system. Transsexual and transvestite provide new possibilities of location within a binary gender system, but they do not challenge the structure or the terms of that system.

For another thing, the identities of trans people are scrutinized and contested by non-trans observers. If the non-trans observers find a trans person's identity inadequate, they may punish the individual both directly an indirectly, most notably in the form of anti-trans violence which is all too common. Often the perpetrators of such hate crimes get off with light sentences using the "transpanic" defense - by arguing that, when they realized the person wasn't "really a woman" (or man), they became so distressed that they had to respond with violence. What's worse is that these defenses often work. In a real sense, both in law and in practice, people who are seen to transgress gender without adequately convincing others of their normalcy as members of one of the two socially sanctioned genders are no longer afforded the basic rights of citizenship (see e.g. Cabral & Viturro, 2006) or indeed what are usually considered to be "human rights" (Thomas, 2006). To be without a recognizable gender identity is to be without a human identity.

When people who find themselves positioned outside of social categories have the opportunity to construct our own new categories without such direct manipulation from institutions of social control, do the categories still reproduce the rules of the system in question? In other words, is it possible to create new categories of gender or racial identity that do not reflect the fundamental characteristics of the extant categories? To go back to Omi and Winant, a person in danger of having no identity needs an identity that is comprehensible not only to hirself, but also to others. A gender identity that does not follow the basic rules of normative gender identities – such as the four characteristics outlined by Ekins and King – is not a gender identity at all, it’s something different. To take another example, a racial identity category in the U.S. that does not reference physiognomy and heredity in some way is not a racial identity at all. To construct such an identity would require, at the outset, intense intrapersonal work and integrity. Then it would require convincing many others of the legitimacy of the construction.

The larger question this is coming to is how can we change oppressive structures of social categorization? Social categories, including but not limited to racial and gender identities, are defined, contested and redefined according to the cultural and political requirements of the moment. Often they are defined hierarchically. Sometimes the categories themselves are oppressive, even regardless of hierarchy. Yet we need racial categories in order to function socially, or else we are in danger of having no identity, of disappearing.

For clarity’s sake, let me make an admittedly simplistic example. Imagine a world in which there is no racial hierarchy. In this world, people of every racial group have equal resources, access, and opportunity, and everybody really is “color blind”. But there are still racial categories, and they still mean something (although something without value judgment). Because there are categories, there are still some people whose categorization is uncertain. In this imaginary world, race as a system of categorization is still oppressive, even though the hierarchy has been removed.

The only way to eliminate racism is to eliminate both the hierarchical organization of racial categories and ultimately the categories themselves. The only way to eliminate sexism is to eliminate not only the hierarchy of men over women, but also the entire system of gender categorization – that is, the concept of gender itself. The only way to eliminate heterosexism is to eliminate the normalization of heterosexuality and the othering of other sexualities, but also to break with the concept of sexual orientation entirely. But as I learned the hard way, identifying as “I don’t believe sexual orientation is a valid concept” is not a productive way to start a conversation. We need to break with these categories, but in the meanwhile, we need to hold onto them, lest we disappear.

Perhaps the struggle of genderqueer identity, for example, is to gauge when it is safe to give up gender identity without disappearing. In the meanwhile, we hold onto just enough of it to get by on, while slowly discarding some characteristics, like permanence and inherence. Indeed, the genderqueer community seems to be moving in this direction. However, I have seen many genderqueer individuals “relapse” into more binary gender logic as they leave sheltered communities such as some colleges and have to deal with more and more “momentary crises”. We are still far from the point where we can or should abandon gender.

"Transgender" and "genderqueer" as identity labels do little to challenge the structure of the traditional gender system. It's not that they aren't radically outside of & in opposition to it - in many ways I believe they are. But they are not generally recognized as gender categories, and in fact their failure to conform to the basic structure of gender (permanence, inherence, biology, etc.) makes it unlikely that they ever will be. However the transgender rights movement has in many cases recognized the futility of inscribing one more gender category as a strategy for social change. Legislation to protect the rights of transgender individuals rarely names transgender people as a protected class, but rather refers to "gender identity" and "gender expression" as protected categories (Currah, 2006; Thomas, 2006). This much broader approach is promising legally in that it inscribes protection for all people to explain and display their gender in a variety of ways. However legislative advances do not automatically lead to cultural change. It seems to me that passing trans-inclusive nondiscrimination statutes has only a limited effect on the interpersonal level, where many trans individuals are still unrecognizable and seen as inhuman. We know that anti-trans violence is no less deadly for being illegal in a few jurisdictions, and so most of us enact identities on a daily basis that are less radical even than the nondiscrimination statutes - and for some of us, less radical than how we actually understand ourselves to be.

The example of sexual orientation may be more promising at this point. Since it is not a necessarily visible identity, I think many people have succeeded in giving up sexual orientation in favor a political identity of queer. Queer does not follow any of the same rules as sexual orientation identities: it’s not inherent or permanent, is sometimes central, and has nothing to do with the gender of the person or hir partner(s).

I have no illusions that I have answered any questions in this paper. Instead, I hope that I have raised some in a way that others can understand: Why do people sometimes claim identities that are not true to experience? Why do new categories seem to reproduce many characteristics of established categories? When are systems of categorization oppressive, even without the element of hierarchy? (For that matter, is there such a thing as a system of social categorization without hierarchy?) What would it entail to move beyond the need for race, gender, or sexual orientation as a classification? Finally, how do these questions apply to some contemporary situations?


Ideas for this paper were drawn from:

Cabral, M. & Viturro, P. (2006). (Trans)sexual citizenship in contemporary Argentina. In Currah, P., Juang, R. M., and Minter, S.P., Transgender Rights (pp. 262-273). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Currah, P. (2006). Gender pluralisms under the transgender umbrella. In Currah, P., Juang, R. M., and Minter, S.P., Transgender Rights (pp. 3-31). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ekins & King (1998), “Blending genders: Contributions to the emerging field of transgender studies”

Link, A. (2002). “Vision.” In Nestle, Howell, & Wilchins (Eds.), Genderqueer: Voices from beyond the gender binary (pp. 86-89). LA: Alyson Books.

Omi (1999), “Racial identity and the state: Contesting the federal standards for classification”

Omi & Winant (1986), “Racial formation”

Thomas, K. (2006). Afterword: Are transgender rights Inhuman rights? In Currah, P., Juang, R. M., and Minter, S.P., Transgender Rights (pp. 310-326). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.



[1] In this paper I use gender neutral or “third gender” pronouns to refer to hypothetical third persons. This avoids gendering my example, or distorting grammar with the plural “they”. Gender neutral pronouns are ze for the subject pronoun and hir for the object and possessive pronouns, as in “I heard from hir yesterday, and ze’s really happy in hir new home.”

[2] As I re-read this paragraph, I realize that I am falling into the same trap many of our readings do. When I spoke of the theorist or the observer, I used “we”. When I speak of an individual in between identities, I use the third person. This is not quite honest to my experiences, since I am often in the position of causing crises of meaning for others. Yet I imagine a reader who is not used to thinking of hirself as in between or as a cause of dissonance, and so I try to relate to this imagined reader by relegating myself to the position of academic observer, rather than that of an “other”.