Looks Like Trouble

When I practice aikido, I always wear lipstick.

That probably seems odd. I mean, getting thrown around the floor has nothing to do with my cosmetics--despite advertising claims to the contrary, lipstick won't improve my performance or even distract my partner with my feminine wiles.

Still, I always make sure to wear some lipstick when I practice. Because I want to have something about me that looks feminine.

Normally I don't need to worry about such things. I am a bit of a femme by nature and wear skirts about as often as pants. I've developed sufficient curves over the course of my transition that I don't worry too much about the remaining somewhat-masculine features I possess.

But when I am practicing at the dojo, I find myself much more insecure about my appearance. Squashed into a sports bra and muffled under the heavy layers of my uniform top, my breasts are much less noticeable. Ditto my hips. With my hair pulled back for comfort and convenience, my face reveals a masculine cast. I suddenly become very conscious of how much taller, heavier, and broader I am than most ofthe other female students

So I wear lipstick--because any downtown bohemian might paint his nails, but only a woman would wear makeup while training, right?

I'm not proud about this; it's a symptom of my own profound insecurities and internalized whispers about what a woman should look like (and worse, how I will never make that grade, which ironically seems to indicate I've made it to womanhood after all.) Maybe over time, as my residual panic over using a women's locker room for the first time dissipates, when I feel comfortable and accepted by the other students and teachers--maybe then I'll go au naturel.

Or then again, maybe I won't, lest I end up like Caster Semenya.

As you've probably heard, last week the South African scored a crushing (though not record-setting) victory in the women's 800 meter race at the World Championships in Berlin--and immediately ran into a storm of controversy. Other runners accused her of not "really" being a woman, and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) began an extensive "gender test" (actually, a sex test--she seems to have always identified as a girl/woman) by a team of professionals including geneticists, endocrinologists, and God help me, a psychologist.

What's most interesting (read: laughably sad) is that simply because of what she looks like, people assumed that she cheated by lying about her gender, not by--well, cheating. Had she had long hair, or bigger breasts (or, dare I say it, been white), I have little doubt that people would attribute her meteoric improvement over the last year to doping. After all, a coach of the South African team, Dr. Ekkart Arbeit, was caught up in the steroid scandals that plagued East German athletics in the 1970s and 80s, and reports are surfacing that Ms. Semenya has elevated testosterone levels. (Which proves neither that she is intersex nor cheating: I've known women with polycystic ovary syndrome that had so much testosterone in their body that they took the same drugs to block it that I did when I was transitioning.)

This gender-induced panic is all to familiar to trans people, of course. Having your gender denied (often to your face) is something we live with, a rite of passage we reluctantly go through, sometimes for the rest of our lives. We get attacked with the same words that are being thrown at Ms. Semenya: fraud, liar, cheat, deceiver. It's never about being true to yourself, whether your are trans, intersex, or just don't care about societal gender standards.

It can wear you down, and you can find yourself making little concessions: growing up, I always avoided feminine things even as I craved them; today I wear makeup while working out. Just to avoid one more attack, one more comment, one more uncomprehending stare.

When your gender is different, you see, it belongs to everyone else. And as Caster Semenya knows, they're often not shy about asserting that privilege.

transfeminist (C.L. Minou) joins us from The Second Awakening.

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Glamour magazine featured this photo of 20-year-old model Lizzi Miller in their latest issue. Of course it's drawing flack, because she's "normal." Normal = her BMI is within the neighborhood of the average women's BMI (which I think is around 26).

Who is more obsessed with skinny women? Straight men? Other [straight] women? The media? The fashion world? I'm a married woman, so my knowledge of what men like is swayed by his opinion. My proportions are very similar to Lizzi's (I'm 5'6.5" and weight 155). My husband loves my body. He gets sad when I mention wanting to lose any weight. So I'm inclined to believe that any flack over this "real" woman isn't coming from men who are attracted to women. Of course, what my husband likes is unique to him. But when you think about what traditionally makes a woman's body womanly, it would make sense if you are attracted to women, that you would prefer curves.

But why are we so obsessed with women's bodies? In a way that is only recently beginning to be directed to men's bodies as well?

Everyone loves to point out that Marilyn Monroe was a size 12 or 14 or 16 (depends on who you talk to). And if you're like me, and obsessed with the TV show Mad Men, then you might also love the curvaceous redhead Joan, who in one episode, when they were classifying the women in the office as a "Marilyn" or a "Jackie", they stated that Joan was a Marilyn ... "but really, Marilyn's more a Joan."

As women's role in western society has changed, has our view of her body changed with it? As Naomi Wolf claims in The Beauty Myth, this idealized concept of unattainable female beauty is society's way of maintaining control over women, even as their roles change and women gain control in other ways.

But my husband likes to argue that this unattainable image of "beauty" - thinness - isn't perpetuated by men, or society, but by women. Does he have a point? It reminds me of Mean Girls, or, tearing each other down because of our own insecurity. We see a pretty woman, a successful woman, a happy woman, etc ... but is calling her fat the ultimate insult, a way to tear her down? I've read statistics that most women would rather be thin than smart (or was is successful? or able to achieve world peace?) - basically the point being that even if a woman had it all, if she wasn't thin, she had nothing.

So, despite all the advances women have made, are we still threatened by successful women who are not stick thin? Because they have gone against the requirements we seemed to have set out for women - you must be thin to be successful, otherwise, get to the gym and stop eating until you are thin, and then you can be a recognized member of our society? Harsh, but sometimes, that's the feeling I get from the mass media.

But whatever, if I lose a pound I think my husband will cry. He likes the junk in my trunk. And if my own personal habits and discipline are any indication, I won't be a stick anytime soon. Which is fine. I have a nice rack.

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According to a very scientific study that I conducted ten minutes ago, the video games that most commonly feature positively represented LGBT characters are fighting games and RPGs. This is not surprising; both games emphasize diversity and character over testosterone-fueled gun fights with clumsily veiled jingoist overtones. Whereas RPGs put the player in control of a character whose actions and speech they control (within limits, whether you're a coward or a smart-assed tough guy you still have to fight the boss in the end), fighting games give the player a gallery of fully-fleshed out characters to choose from, with varying nationalities, fighting styles, and backstories.

Both are forms of escapism. One puts the player in role of protagonist and allows them the freedom to enforce their personality on the docile main character, while the other lets players gravitate naturally towards the character that best suits their personality/playing style. There is also a degree of self idealizing projection in both. Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII and Zangief from Street Fighter II are both strong, capable men with above average abilities and physiques. It's not above the realm of possibility to imagine that players might identify with, and possibly idolize the tenacious but charitable rogue King from Tekken or the time-traveling bad boy Chrono from Chrono Trigger. But does such a relationship between player/character facilitate attraction?

In Vampire Savior: Jedah's Damnation, an installment in the Darkstalkers series of fighting games, the character Demetri Maximoff has a move known as “Midnight Bliss” which briefly seduces his opponent before blowing them up. If the opponent is male, then the move turns them into a female version of themselves before blowing them up. When Demitri was featured in SNK vs Capcom: Chaos, this special ability came with him, meaning players could now see what Ryu and Terry Bogard would look like as women. What's interesting is that the “female versions” are not made to look comedic or gaudy, they retain all the seriousness and poise of their “true selves” but with the features that media would have us believe are attractive on a woman. The animation for the move features Demetri bowing in a courtly manner just before he strikes, suggesting that he maintains his respect for his opponent rather than using the ability to humiliate and objectify.

This has become quite a popular subject of fan art and fiction amongst fans, and now with Youtube, players can use M.U.G.E.N. (a computer program that allows you to create your own fighting game using pre-existing and created characters) to make videos of Demetri using his powers to turn Peter Griffin or even Mario into women before brutally pwning them.

If we accept the theory that video games are marketed to heterosexual men, then it's not too far of a stretch to imagine that at least some of the artists, writers, and Youtubers perpetuating this phenomena are also straight-identified men. Is it possible that this trend illustrates the latent homoerotic overtones that exist between the male video gamer and the muscle-bound killers they control with a joystick? These “femme-selves” retain their boy names and personas, their “sex change” being more of a palette swap than a genuine transition. Does providing a plot twist by which Akuma or Mr. Karate could become a woman make it more acceptable for a straight male to fantasize about them? Is fantasizing about a male character who is magically transformed into a female one really all that straight? Is this a case of a “man crush” going to the next level?

And does it work in reverse? If by some strange occurrence Lara Croft or Samus Aran were transformed into androgynous boys, would men still retain their interest in the game? Would women become interested? Would we see a similar trend in straight female players fantasizing about turning Chun Li or Aya Brea into handsome gents? Furthermore, if some of the contributors to this niche are women, then what does that say about their attitudes towards male video game characters? Does making Guile into a girl make the games less of a "boy thing"? Does the fetish lie in the emasculation? Is the aim to justify male/male couplings in fan fic? Are we trying to step around the sexuality? Do straight women find it more acceptable to fantasize about a woman if it's actually "a man" underneath? Does this apply to other forms of media? Do straight women want to see Harry Potter or Edward Cullen magically turned into awkward females? Is this an example of same-sex attraction or just an attraction to transformation fetish? Can you be attracted to the idea of a man becoming a woman and not be attracted to women? Or men? What does it all mean?

Back on the topic of RPGs, a similar fad has emerged in which artists depict Cloud, who cross-dressed in Final Fantasy VII, as a transgendered woman. Is there a significant demographic of tranny chasers in the video game community? And why was that quest featured in the game? Does making the pensive protagonist dress up as a lady serve an actual purpose, or is it just comic relief? Is it meant to explain why Cloud constantly rebukes Tifa's advances and ends up alone in the game and subsequent crappy CG movie? Is Square Enix trying to hint that he was bi/gay without alienating their "hetero male audience"? And what was with Squall in FFVIII and Tidus in FFX? Are they providing an "in" (or is it an "out") for people regarldess of gender or orientation to find their brooding, pensive protagonists attractive?

Is the sexuality of the average gamer more fluid than the media and the onslaught of space marine blood orgies would suggest? Are video games (RPG and fighting games in particular) providing the arena through which the “straight” audience can express their homoerotic desires? Are games encouraging the fetishization, othering, and ignorance about transsexualism? Or is sexuality not a factor here? Is this all a harmless joke? Is the fan-inspired art that comes from video games a different animal entirely and not reflective of the original media?

Is any of this making sense to anyone else?

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An Important Correction

Before I begin this third part of “Gender Whipped,” I want to acknowledge a mistake that I made in the previous two posts. While I addressed Serano’s individualist view of gender and her opinions about femininity, I failed to emphasize, “where she was coming from,” the context in which her ideas developed. Serano was not adopting an individualist view of gender or a highly positive view of femininity, simply for the sake of doing so. She was actively responding to gender theorists and feminists, who had expressed transphobic and misogynistic attitudes. Her move to reclaim femininity as positive and empowering is a response to those feminists who have policed trans women’s genders and cruelly lambasted them for being too feminine and reinforcing patriarchal structures. Germaine Greer, for example, has claimed that "sex-change surgery is profoundly conservative in that it reinforces sharply contrasting gender roles by shaping individuals to fit them" (The Whole Woman, 71). Her work contains even more rabidly transphobic statements, such as: "No one ever asked women if they recognized sex-change males as belonging to their sex or considered whether being obliged to accept MTF transsexuals as women was at all damaging to their identity or self-esteem" (The Whole Woman, 74).

Serano’s concern with individualizing gender also arises from her experience as a trans woman in academic circles: social constructivists have posited gender as “performance” and “artifice,” and this has served to demean and discredit the trans experience of feeling a deep, intrinsic belonging to a particular sex or gender. Serano describes how trans women face an uphill battle in the sense that their femininity and their femaleness are viewed as “artificial” and “fake” in society, while as individuals, they very much feel like real women. Gender theorists who assert that all gender is artificial do not help their cause.

Kate Bornstein said in a recent interview that, “people use books on gender to invisibilize transsexuals.” I do not want to serve this purpose with my writing and I realize that my last two posts may very well have contributed to the “trans-invisibility” that Bornstein and Serano rightly criticize. Thank you to users cannonball and samwhise for pointing this problem out.

Estrogen High: Hormonal Effects and Gender Differences

In Whipping Girl, Serano develops a new theory of gender (the “Intrinsic Inclination Model”), which she portrays as a substantial critique of both social constructivism and gender essentialism. As the following passages demonstrate, she positions herself as an informed and rational voice, sitting squarely in the middle of a heated, overly ideologized, and ultimately pointless debate:

“As someone who both is a geneticist and has experienced first-hand the very different ways in which women and men are treated and valued in society, I believe that both social constructionists and gender essentialists are wrong (or at least they are both only partially right)” (97). And while the idea that gender is a combination of many things – some biological and others sociological – does not make for a catchy sound bite or a sexy ‘hook’ for one’s book or thesis, it appears to me to be indispensable” (156). “Having experienced both female and male hormones firsthand, I feel it is my duty to spoil [the] nature-versus-nurture debate” (66).

Nevertheless, the brunt of Serano’s critique is focused on social constructivism and her book gives the impression that sex, gender, and sexuality are mostly biological, innate and fixed. She begins her theory with a personal account of her transition from male to female, which involved “taking estrogen, along with an anti-androgen [which suppresses endogenous testosterone levels] to shift the hormonal balance into the range that most adult women experience” (67). This hormone has caused significant changes in her psychology and physiology that are indicative of some of the biological differences that may exist between males and females. For example, Serano talks about how she “feels [her] emotions more” after taking estrogen: “when testosterone was the predominant sex hormone in [her] body, it was as though a thick curtain [was] draped over [her] emotions. It deadened their intensity” (67). Further, she found that her sense of touch was greatly sensitized: she was “able to feel things that [she] couldn’t [feel] before” (68). Her sense of smell has also “increased in sensitivity” (69). In terms of sexuality, Serano reported a major decrease in her sex drive. When she was hormonally male, she “could barely go a day, let alone two days, without some form of release,” but as her body adjusted to significantly higher levels of estrogen, she started to crave sex “about three to four times a week” (70). She also found that her sexuality became less visual: smells and touches became much more sexy than sights and images.

Overall, Serano’s personal experience suggests that estrogen makes people feel their emotions more intensely, increases the sensitivity of their sense of smell and touch, lowers their sex drive, and makes arousal less dependent on visual stimuli. She argues that these effects are generalizable to all or most women because “similar experiences are regularly described by other trans women” who have taken hormones (71). Also, “trans men typically give reciprocal accounts: they almost universally describe an increase in their sex drives (which become more responsive to visual inputs), a decrease in their sense of smell, and more difficulty crying and discerning their emotions” (71-2).

The “Intrinsic Inclination Model”

All of this must mean that hormonal effects do create certain biological gender differences between males and females. There are, of course, many exceptions. But if we take the averages of both groups, we will find that there clearly are gender characteristics and differences that precede socialization. Thus, sociologists and queer theorists are wrong in positing that gender emerges as a result of social construction. Serano considers the most damning evidence against their theories to be that atypical gender and sexual characteristics emerge despite negative reinforcement from society. How can social constructivists even explain the existence of gender and sexual non-conformists, if they argue that gender is only the result of socialization? Given the heterosexist and transphobic nature of our society, socialization could not have produced gays, lesbians and trans people.

These insights then lead Serano to develop the “Intrinsic Inclination Model,” which explains why most people have typical genders and sexualities, but at the same time, accounts for the vast diversity of gender and sexual expressions. The basic tenets of the model include the following: (1) There are three major gender inclinations: subconscious sex, gender expression, and sexual orientation. They are determined independently of one another – gender and sexual orientation do not automatically follow from a particular sex; (2) All of these gender inclinations are intrinsic – “they occur on a deep, subconscious level and generally remain intact despite social influences”; (3) There could be a variety of “genetic, anatomical, hormonal, environmental, or psychological factors” causing the inclinations; (4) Each inclination is roughly correlated with sex (e.g. – although males will on average be more masculine than females, any one male could be more feminine than any individual female) (99-100).

So, if much of the variation in gender and sexuality is the result of intrinsic, natural, biological, and subconscious processes, what kind of a role does socialization play? While most gender theorists have posited that, “socialization produces gender differences,” Serano claims that “socialization acts to exaggerate biological gender differences that already exist” (74). For example, society “actively discourage[s] boys from crying, even though testosterone itself should reduce the chance of this happening... [And it] encourage[s] men to act on their sex drives (by praising them as “studs”), while discouraging women from doing the same (by dismissing them as “sluts”), despite the fact that most women will end up having a lower sex drive than most men anyway” (74). Socialization works to exaggerate naturally occurring gender differences by forcing those with atypical tendencies to stifle themselves – it does not create the gender differences, as social constructivists allege. Gender is, thus, socially exaggerated, not socially constructed.

Hormones have effects… but how important are they?

Serano’s model does present a strong challenge to social constructivism. But it still leaves numerous questions unanswered. The issue of hormones “causing” gender differences between men and women is complex. As Serano herself points out:

“Hormones do not simply act like unilateral on/off switches controlling female/feminine or male/masculine development. All people have both androgens (which include testosterone) and estrogens in their systems, although the balance is tipped more toward the former in men and the latter in women. Not only are there different types of androgens and estrogens…but there’s an extensive amount of natural variation built into the way individual people experience and process specific hormones...” (66).

Furthermore, in addition to the fact that each individual processes hormones differently, it can be hard to tell real “hormone effects from perceived or presumed effects” (66). Human behavior is directed by a variety of factors and isolating hormones as specific causal forces is very difficult. In fact, the impact of hormones on men and women is so diverse that Serano suggests that there might be more variation among men and women than between the “averages” of the two groups. She gives the example of height: “While it may be true that, on average, men are taller than women, such a statement becomes virtually meaningless when one examines individual people, as any given woman may be taller than any given man” (100).

Taking all of this into account, one must ask: is there any relevance in emphasizing “natural” differences between men and women? Hormones undoubtedly have effects, but if each individual processes them in a variety of ways, and if men and women can differ more amongst themselves than between each other, is it not “virtually meaningless” to posit general differences between men and women? And while it might be easy to provide “averages” of traits such as height, how can we possibly quantify complex psychological and physiological factors (emotions, senses etc…)?

If we take these questions seriously, positing grand gender differentiations begins to seem like a futile exercise. The real danger, however, is that gender differences, which are perceived and portrayed as natural, innate or biological can be used to deny people jobs, positions of social authority and to structure belief systems about essential identity. If we reopen the “pandora’s box” of biological determinism, then we risk justifying discrimination on the basis of gender. This is how sexist and patriarchal systems operate: (1) claims are made about general “natural” differences between women and men; (2) each gender is actively discouraged from social activities that are not fitted to its “nature” and encouraged to adopt those that are.

Serano (perhaps unwittingly) makes the dangers of her own framework evident in a short passage at the end of Chapter 4. She complains about how the warning label on her progesterone prescription said: “avoid operating heavy machinery” (75). She views this as an example of society placing “negative connotations and inferior meanings” on femininity and female hormones. But she herself acknowledged, just a few sentences earlier, that female hormones made her “softer” and “weaker” (75)! The biological reasoning that she uses effectively undermines other people’s perception of her ability to operate heavy machinery. If estrogen and progesterone do indeed make most women softer and weaker, then why on earth would anyone let them near a giant machine? Serano would surely respond by saying that “most” does not mean “all” women and that there are surely exceptional women who would be better than many men at operating a heavy machine. While this may be correct, in society, “most” can function as a synonym for “all” and social positions can still be denied to gendered individuals on that basis. For example, in his famous speech at the Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce, Larry Summers used research, which argued that “most” women were naturally less apt at physical science and math, to suggest that the lack of women in the physical sciences is not something that should be too worrisome.

Can social constructivism explain gender and sexual diversity?

One of Serano’s main arguments against social constructivism is that it cannot account for sexual and gender diversity. If sex, gender and sexuality were truly the products of socialization, then everyone would turn out to be straight, gender conforming, and cissexual. This view can be challenged using the work of Michel Foucault on sexuality. Although people may have a plurality of sexual drives (towards a particular gender, a liking for leather, S & M, armpits etc…), the way that society organizes and structures these drives establishes a normative context that influences how they are experienced and conceived by individuals. For example, in Ancient Greece, the choice of sexual partners for a male citizen was influenced less by gender than by social class. He could “penetrate” all those who were in lower social positions than him: younger men, women, and slaves. Thus, while there was no question of “penetration” between social equals, such as two older male citizens, sex between a male social elder and a subordinate “boy” (pederasty) was perfectly acceptable. And while we cannot know whether Ancient Greek men had more or less “homosexual” sex than modern men do, it is likely that they were tempted to try it more. On the other hand, the modern conception of sexuality tends to limit individuals by placing them either in “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” or “bisexual” categories. Nowadays, the gender of one’s partners, rather than his or her social class, defines sexuality. Sexuality is, therefore, a social construction. While sexual desires are very real, the normative context in which they emerge can profoundly impact their character: Ancient Greek men were likely to have been more susceptible to engaging in homosexual acts than modern Western men.

Sigmund Freud has also developed a constructivist explanatory model, which meets Serano’s two criteria: accounting for the diversity of gender and sexuality, but also explaining why most people conform to gender and sexual norms. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, he argued that children have a “polymorphously perverse” sexuality: they may develop a diffuse sexual attraction to a variety of body parts and they are likely express a range of different gender inclinations. Through a series of positive and negative reinforcements, parents, family members, schools and society indicate to the child the kinds of sexual and gender inclinations that are acceptable. Thus, they “mold” appropriately sexed and gendered children. Gender non-conformists, and those with non-heterosexual and fetishistic sexualities, are the result of the occasional “failure” of socialization to mold the straight and gender-normative person. This Freudian conception of sexual and gender diversity could function as a powerful challenge to Serano’s “Intrinsic Inclination Model.”

Social Exaggeration or Social Construction?

Finally, the social exaggeration model that Serano proposes can be highly problematic. Asserting that gender is socially exaggerated, rather than socially constructed, can contribute to the naturalization and justification of oppressive gender structures. For example, is the gender system in Saudi Arabia a social construction or a social exaggeration? In that country, women need to obtain permission from their guardian (father or husband) in order to work, they are not allowed to drive, they can only walk around in public if they are fully covered, and they are allowed to enter a bank only if their husbands accompany them. The advantage of viewing this system as a “social construction” is that it emphasizes its arbitrary nature and provides hope for the eventual overthrow of the system. Under the “social exaggeration” framework, it might be possible to argue that the gender system in Saudi Arabia simply represents an amplification of “natural” differences between men and women. Women are more emotional, softer, and weaker than men, and so it is only “natural” for men to establish a social system that subordinates and dominates them. Such reasoning is echoed in the Saudi legal code. It justifies banning women from serving as witnesses in most court cases as follows: “women are much more emotional than men and will, as a result of their emotions, distort their testimony.”

Overall, Serano’s critiques of social constructivism and her biological, “Intrinsic Inclination Model” of gender, bring up the following questions: (1) To what extent do sex hormones (androgens and estrogens) control gendered characteristics and behaviors? Have the vast majority of other trans people experienced the changes in their psychology and physiology that Serano describes, as a result of taking testosterone or estrogen? (2) Can social constructivist models account for gender and sexual diversity? And can they explain why most people have rather typical genders and sexualities? Or does accounting for gender and sexuality require bringing in “intrinsic inclinations” and biology? (3) Will (re)opening the question of biological differences between men and women potentially provide a new set of justifications for discrimination on the basis of gender? We can discuss these questions in the comment box below. The next and final post in this series, coming in two weeks’ time, will address Serano’s criticisms of the umbrella term, “transgendered,” and her analysis of the specific ways in which trans women are oppressed by cissexist society and by queer communities. It will also examine some of her creative revisions of feminist theory.

***For more information***
You can find out more about Julia Serano on www.juliaserano.com and here is a whole page about Whipping Girl that has a collection of reviews, a preview of the first chapter, and a useful glossary of some of the new terminology that Serano introduces in the book. For a different take on the issue of hormones by another biologist, see Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. Strong social constructivist theories of gender and sexuality can also be found in Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Serano’s work has also been addressed in the following Below the Belt posts by bookmonkey and askfannie: Sexist Feminists and Observations on TransSexuality.

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America's Best Dance Crew, which is broadcast Sunday nights at 9pm on MTV, is in its fourth season. Many of these dance shows that are popping up all over the tube (Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, etc.) espouse very clear gender schemas in their dancers. Niles Lithgow of So You Think You Can Dance has been criticized by many in the queer camps for kicking off dancers because he likes "men to dance like men and women to dance like women." Other shows like America's Best Dance Crew has been dominated by male b-boy groups. These dance shows tend to be skewed in the favor of male dancers because the physicality, acrobatic tricks, and male physique translates well on television and scales well with the female target audience (exceptions perhaps being Dancing with the Stars, as the Follow is often the focus of ballroom dance). Just look at the numbers: 4/6 of SYTYCD winners have been male and all of ABDC winners have been male groups.

However, this season of ABDC is very visibly about diversity in dance. The producers of the show have only brought on a handful of break-dancing groups, throwing in an eclectic mix of Latin/Hip hop, "Hick-Hop," and most intriguingly... Voguing.

Vogue Evolution, the 6 member dance troupe consisting of some of the New York Ball scene's fiercest voguers, are bringing the queer to primetime. What's even more exciting is that they are being celebrated. The ABDC Judge Panel has been very supportive of the group, stating that they are elated that this underground dance style finally is being showcased on a national platform.

What surprises me is that, contrary to many other reality competition shows like America's Got Talent or American Idol, where transgendered folk, especially transwomen are ridiculed for "attempting" to perform as their chosen gender, Vogue Evolution leading lady Leiyomi, a transwoman, is consistently praised for her femininity. Watch Vogue Evolution tear it up in the videos below:

Week 1:

Week 2:

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Reuters reports that US Circuit Judge Denny Chin has ruled that Howard Stern can sue Anna Nicole Smith biographer Rita Crosby for defamation, but not over claims that Stern was gay or engaged in gay sex acts because homosexuality is no longer viewed as "contemptible."
Stern is suing Crosby, who wrote Blonde Ambition: The Untold Story Behind Anna Nicole Smith's Death, and publisher the Hatchette Book Group for 19 libelous statements in the book, including claims that Howard Stern, Smith's boyfriend at the time, had engaged in oral sex with Larry Birkhead, Anna Nicole Smith's baby daddy.

However, Judge Denny Chin told Stern's lawyers that 11 of the alleged 19 libelous statements were legally actionable, and that while he acknowledged widespread prejudice against gays and lesbians, he did not view them as defamatory statements:

"I respectfully disagree that the existence of this continued prejudice leads to the conclusion that there is a widespread view of gays and lesbians as contemptible and disgraceful."

Way to go Judge Chin! While I think Rita Crosby's book is likely far from the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me god... I also think that you don't get very far in the entertainment world without smoking a few cigars, if you know what I mean.

Also, a footnote: Judge Chin was also the judge who presided over United States vs. Madoff. Look at Chin, dolling out the justice!

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Thinking about the past few days of this conference while enjoying internet access mid-flight (crazy, right?). It's been an intense long weekend, mostly spent walking around glowey-eyed while bigwigs of the sociology world conferenced about. And it's not just me that was doing this -- I swear! -- a number of other grad students I met would stop mid-conversation, lean over and whisper: "Don't look now, but that's the guy who developed Important Theory #32."

I'm more than sure that my experience at these conferences will change over time, but I'm not quite ready to exchange this excitement for more a more disciplined maturity. This experience was, for me, quite inspirational. First, Patricia Collins (president of the ASA) put together an amazing conference and delivered some fantastic speeches. She spoke critically and constructively about the meaning of community, and while I knew many of her jokes and articulations were catered to the more prominent members of the audience, I really did feel like I was part of her address. I am part of this great international team that really does try, all in our own ways, to address some of the problems facing our world. And for me, the real mix of conference spoke to that - I have never been in such a diverse assembly of over 5,000 people.

Second, I never quite understood certain demeanors of individuals in settings like these, varying from the arrogant uberprominent faculty member that gets a sick joy when they find flaws in young students' research...to the underconfident grad student unsure about the relevance of their work. I sense that sociology as a discipline isn't so bad as far as the overabundance of mean grumps, but politics are everywhere, and it's important to be able to see these forces as they build and to not be wrongly overcome by them. And through it all, as you survive the trials of success and rise in esteem, you have to try to keep somewhere inside of you a humble sense of self and an appreciation for others. You have to hope that, for everything you create and put out there in your life, some people will really hear you and be touched by what you have done in the ways select others have for you. And they will seek you out, and the momentum of this movement will continue.


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In between rounds of the pub trivia contest, my friend Vanessa told me that sometimes people tell her she thinks like a man.

"I hate it," she said. "It's so sexist."

I knew what she meant; Vanessa has been on several game shows and has an astonishing recall of facts, as well as a killer competitive edge--two things generally considered either "male" or at least "unfeminine."

I wondered if people thought the same thing about me.

In my pretransition days, I'm sure many people saw me as "thinking like a man." I used to be told that I was very logical; I was good at analysis; I was a fierce debater. Yet at the same time, I was always convinced that on some level I was "thinking like a woman"--because part of me was convinced beyond all debate or contrary evidence that I was female.

This isn't that unusual; many other trans people report similar feelings, often from a young age (in my case, I can remember frequently hoping that I had been turned into a girl over night when I was four years old.) Many transgendered people believe in a "brain sex" theory--in fact, it is the theoretical basis of a separatist movement within the transsexual community.

Which isn't to say that the experience of transition hasn't changed me: both my emotions and my experience of them are different, both because of the effects of hormones and the relief from my persistent gender dysphoria. I experience my body in new ways now that I'm not always fighting against it. And I am aware too in countless ways how the expectations of me, of both my body and my brain, have changed. But the only thing that has changed about my inner convictions about my gender identity is that I feel much more comfortable about expressing them.

Whether or not people thought I was "thinking like" a man or a woman, I felt like a woman. Perhaps that's why I find the way that brain sex gets talked about so often to be problematical--because it is difficult to separate it from sexism and transphobia. For example, trans people are often put into a double-bind where if we defy gender stereotypes, we aren't real men or women ("why did you even bother to transition if all you do is wear jeans and tees?"), but if we conform to them, then we're fake men or women, only interested in the trappings of our internal gender. ("Real women don't wear dresses all the time, you know.")

Not that this kind of thing is limited to trans people--take, for example, the comments an editor made on a short story by the writer Bev Vincent:

The editor says: "The story seems far too personal, introspective and emotional for a man . . . It is hard to imagine a fellow from a place like [the setting] uttering the following line." The editor then provides three sentences from my story as examples. He or she continues, "And I can’t think of many guys from [setting] who call home every Sunday afternoon to talk to their family" [Emphasis his or hers]. Another brilliant insight: "Most men don’t think deeply about the dewy greenness of nature." The ultimate conclusion: "She [sic] needs to write more convincing [sic] from a man’s perspective."

The only problem is, of course, that Bev Vincent is a man. I wouldn't dare to presume to speak for the editor, but why do I have the feeling that if his name was Jack Vincent, he would have received praise for writing about a man's inner sensitivity? I mean, last time I checked Henry James hasn't been accused of needing to "write more convincing from a man's perspective."

Vanessa later told me that she can't help but sometimes feel complimented when she's told she "thinks like a man." I wasn't surprised. It is so deeply ingrained in our sexist culture that women aren't supposed to be competitive, aren't supposed to make a lot of money, aren't supposed to be on television for anything other than their looks; I could see how she would feel flattered to be told she transcended that fate.

But not me. Because when Vanessa is told that she thinks like a man, nobody believes that she really is one. But in my case, they would.

transfeminist joins us from The Second Awakening

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Remember The T

I am firm believer in having safe spaces for all people. However, when your safe space is just a blanket for oppression…then I will call it like I see it. In this case, I call it transphobic crap.

The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, also known as MWMF, is held every August in the woods of Michigan. It’s a community and space built for womyn, by womyn. I can see why this appeals to many of my womyn friends. To have sense of community and ownership is great for the self esteem.

About the festival from its website:

“Forty performances, a film festival, an artisan/craft show and a full roster of workshops, parties and dances are all slated for one glorious week in August on 650 lush green acres in Michigan. This year's line-up features Michigan's signature combination of new blood and longtime beloveds, representing every genre and generation through the sounds you hear from the stages as well as from the womyn you meet on the wooded path”

Well doesn't this just sound freaking peachy? Almost like a utopia. Well in 1991 a trans-woman, Nancy Burkholder, came out as a trans-woman to some others at MWMF. After that she was questioned by security and then promptly asked to pack up and leave. It was because this incident that Camp Trans was born.
Camp Trans is the trans-inclusive protest camp set up to inform the goers of the MWMF policy and how transphobic the environment at MWMF is. As of 2006 the policy has been withdrawn but with this statement by Lisa Vogel, the CEO/Creator/Head Honcho of MWMF.

“I would love for you and the other organizers of Camp Trans to find the place in your hearts and politics to support and honor space for womyn who have had the experience of being born and living their life as womyn. I ask that you respect that womon born womon is a valid and honorable gender identity. I also ask that you respect that womyn born womyn deeply need our space -- as do all communities who create space together...I wish you well, I want healing, and I believe this is possible between our communities, but not at the expense of deeply needed space for womyn born womyn….If a transwoman purchased a ticket, it represents nothing more than that woman choosing to disrespect the stated intention of this Festival...As feminists, we call upon the transwomen’s community to help us maintain womyn only space, including spaces created by and for womyn-born womyn.”

Previously the MWMF barred trans women from buying tickets and attending the festival. Around 2006 the rumor was that the MWMF was barely breaking even every year. So in case you missed what was really going on here, a struggling music festival realized it was losing money by not letting trans women attend and purchase tickets. They then lifted the ban but asked transwomen to essentially be seen and not heard. How many times do we have to go over this, separate but equal does NOT work. As a queer, no scratch that, as a HUMAN community we need realize that until everyone is able to eat a full meal at the table of equality, table scraps like what was handed to trans women at MWFW are inhuman, unacceptable and downright degrading.

This happens all the time, unfortunately. How many times have we forgotten that ever important T in our community so that the rest of us can have whatever we want/need? Whenever legislation is up for a vote we hear that it would be “easier” if we dropped the T or gender identity because people are not “there yet.” I'm sorry, but it’s up to the rest of the QLBG community to “get there” first, and fight for our trans friends and family. We need to stop taking the table scraps and start demanding a full meal for our community. We need our allies to be loud and proud because the harsh reality is, at the end of the day your voice has more pull than mine ever will. We need to constantly challenge spaces like the MWMF and hold them accountable for what they say and do. Camp Trans and the MWMF is happening August 2-9 this year. There are currently movements in place within the gates of MWMF to make it a more inclusive womyn's festival. However until the day that all women are welcome and included Camp Trans will continue.

***For More Info Related Check Out
“Transmissions From Camp Trans” by Michelle Tea in The American Bible Of America Essays by Alan Kaufmen

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Wow, what a morning. Did lots of things in a short amount of time today: catched the end of Sociology of Sexuality starring a number of sexuality superstars like Paula England and Elizabeth Armstrong; roundtabled at the section on children & youth, and then got involved at the subsequent business meeting; and went to Masculinities: Class, Race and Embodiment where I was swimming among the heaviest of hitters in the masc/femininities world, like CJ Pascoe, Barrie Thorne, and some very talented panelists...all in one tiny 50 person occupancy room.

Now, to reflect: I only caught the end of the sociology of sexuality event, but I really liked what I heard. I was able to listen to the whole of Orit Avishai's (Fordham U.) explanation of orthodox jewish sexuality and the kind of mental processing going on in (predominately female) orthodox communities -- her discussion and the Q&A that followed revealed for me the push and pull involved when doing the interviewing. Definitely going to be challenges to work as an academic that cares about the research and not an overly biased actor in the data collection process. I unfortunately missed England, Armstrong, and Fogarty's paper on college hookups, but was really amazed by the way that England answered the questions about their work. She repeatedly invited audience members to look at her data and begin their own analyses -- does this happen a lot?

My experience presenting at a roundtable, much like my experience sitting at a roundtable yesterday, was very productive. The organizer admitted that the three of our papers were somewhat haphazardly thrown together into one session because they were somewhat distinctive, but it was great hearing the perspectives of everyone there. I've really gained from a lot of direction about "what to do next" as far as my own work. People have been very helpful in suggesting bodies of work to look into, and even offering their contact info for further follow-up. Although I'm going to be super strained for time in the coming year, between work, classes, and the qualifying exam, I think I'm going to try and do some field work on my own and put together a paper. I can't be limited by classroom contexts anymore to start my own work and writing; it's time to take the initiative.

Finally, this last meeting with the gendery heavy hitters in the Masculinities session was a bit overwhelming -- there was a lot of stuff going on. Most of the panelists were offering some really amazing dimensions of masculinity at work, like Lucia Beatrice Trimbur's ethnographic study of boxing communities in Brooklyn, where privileged white men box against nonreactive, nonwhite trainers in a way that explicitly suggests a consumption of black identity in order to affirm white male masculinity. Or even Freeden Oeur's research on black masculinities that infused time narratives into a discussion about race and delinquency, about how black boys are essentially denied the more flexible time narratives that white boys are alotted and are instead forced into this hasty transition from consequenceless youth to potentially criminal black adult, policed in the hallways in classrooms and other realms.

Perhaps most interesting of all, though, was the discussion that followed. Unlike other parts of this conference, I found that the discussion here was pretty heavily charged -- there were a lot of very influential academics making assertions that washed a little bit over me (and perhaps others). It was a very wordy experience that required a vernacular I don't yet possess. To pursue pursue work that fits among this smaller community of researchers requires a great deal of attention to detail, and the people involved are very passionate about the field and care deeply about the implications of others' work. A very exciting session, for sure.

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+ news +

ENDA update,
our schools aren't really safe...so let's make an online one?!?!,
and get your transeducation for the week.

A warm, warm welcome to our new comics & video game writer, Bitchzarro!


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Visited a couple grad program tables at the prospective grad student section of the conference, then ran over to an event called Sexual Communities/Sexual Politics. Lots of really, really cool discussion about the definition of sexual community. Really interested in a model that Adam Greene (prof. at Univ. of Toronto) discussed which incorporates external and internal processes to explain the flow of a sexual community. He talked about certain gay communities in ways we talk about a lot on this forum (sexual racism, body fascism, etc.), and added a new way of approaching this discussion.

Then went to a smaller roundtable where I thought we were going to talk about a specific topic listed on the program, but then 2 out of the 3 presenters didn't show up for their own roundtable. Kinda stinky. But then proceeded to have a great presentation by the one participant and also a really productive discussion with the other people at the table. I really underestimated the importance of these smaller, less formal events. Makes me excited for my own roundtable presentation tomorrow.

Off to the grad student reception!
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Just left an introductory event designed for newbies to the conference. Very helpful. Emphasis on setting aside the nerdy impulse to hide away and not introduce yourself to other participants and presenters. I think it's mildly funny that half of an entire talk was about this emphasis on not being shy. Hmm...are sociologists generally lacking in the sociability factor?

I also had no idea how large this conference is. They're expecting over 5,000 people to attend events across two major (and quite nice) hotels.

Currently waiting for the Plenary Session on Obama to start (Why Obama Won [and What That Says about Democracy and Change in America]).

Update: Went to most of the plenary session, and I'm not going to lie, the first presenters were pretty fantastic. Not only did Patricia Collins' welcome bring me the same joy that her YouTube welcome video did, but some of the other panelists shared her inviting enthusiasm by making some off-the-cuff jokes. Melissa Harris-Lacewell (a prof. at Princeton) talked generally about the path that black community/politics took to assist in the election of Obama. Some notable quotes:

"Let's just pretend we know who black people are and that they have politics." (on the various definitions of black community and black politics)

"White people are black people on this question...doesn't happen very often." (on changes in perception of the war in Iraq)

"Young Americans helped make Barack Obama Blacker."

"McCain's use of green screen technology made him look like a "weird lizard dude."

"You gotta end on Jay-Z...why not."

I think the only real commentary I had after this event had to do with this overarching question about what Barack does for black communities -- echoed by Harris-Lacewell's Jay-Z reference about how he is helping include black people in the American dream. While many might assert that his election "finally makes this possible," what does this say about how our society is organized and the paths for inclusion? Do marginalized groups always have to be "elevated" like this into the American Dream? If this is so, it sounds like a lot of discussions I've heard people make about neoliberalism in our country, and how this is a problematic, nationally-sanctioned approach for reaching out to people in need.

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Fannie joins us from Feminists for Choice:

Dear Fannie,

I’m a 32 year old straight woman, and I’m interested in a relationship with a man who has a child. He’s a really great guy, but I’m finding it complicated trying to negotiate time we can spend together. He has partial custody of his child, and I love the kid; he really likes me and we always have a great time together. But most of the time that this guy and I can spend together, we’re usually not alone. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy spending time with both of them, it’s just that we expend so much energy just trying to schedule around and plan around the kid, it’s exhausting. In addition, I feel that I will always come second. I’m not suggesting that he shouldn’t put his kid first, but in terms of dating him it’s putting a strain on our relationship. Is it even worth it to pursue this guy?

Dating a Dad

Dear DAD,

Relationships with single parents always brings complexity to the table. Usually when singles get together, especially younger couples with no children, it’s easy to take things casually at first and move into deeper levels of intimacy, trust, and commitment. But in your situation, DAD, a certain amount of commitment is being asked of you upfront. While it may not be explicit, your Single Father is likely looking for someone who can one day, down the road, be a mother to his kid.

Depending on the situation you might not be the main parent, seeing how he has partial custody of his kid, the birth mother is likely participating in child care, but inevitably Baby Daddy isn’t just looking for a casual fling. Also considering how many of your dates involve spending time with Single Father and his child is a clear signal that your compatibility with the kid is important to him.

So, your question if it is worth the effort to get to date this guy. Well let me first present some silver lining to the fact that he’s a single father:

* He’s clearly invested and involved in his kid’s life seeing how he has partial custody, which suggests that he is responsible, grounded, and a decent guy.

* Given that he is no longer with the birth mother of his child, it would suggest that he has some relationship experience under his belt, and therefor maybe likely to be in tune with what he wants in a relationship and with what kind of a person. There are not enough words for how helpful it is to have a partner who is straightforward and knows what he/she wants.

* He’s probably more risk-averse and financially stable than if he was a single bachelor, shooting the shit. Assuming that he has a monthly childcare payment to make, it’s more likely that he will hold a steady job, not be erratically spending money on random shit, nor be carrying obscene amounts of debt from a spur of the moment purchase of a sports car.

* The fact that he’s even carved out the time to spend with you at all, as crowded and measely as it might be, shows that he’s very interested in you. Raising a child alone, no matter how resourceful the parent, or docile the child, is a full time job, and one that is not likely to leave you with much free time. The fact that he wants to spend what sparing free time he has with you says mountains to how he feels about you.

But do any of these points answer your question? No. Only you can do that. Is it worth getting to know this guy better? Worth the time and energy involved with managing both your busy schedules to see each other? If you’re not willing to invest a little time and energy into your relationship, then chances are that you are not that interested in this guy. Or at least not as much as he is into you. Think about it. Before he even calls you up to set up a date, he’s already got a number of a babysitter or called his ex to see if she can watch the kid. He’s done a multitude of Dad duties before he can even think of spending time with you.

All these things are part of the price of admission. As Dan Savage says, it’s the cost to ride the ride. Whether two tickets or twenty minutes arranging schedules, these are the costs to date him. And make no mistake, these are not the kinds of things that will eventually just go away. If he’s around your age, his kid is probably relatively young, and no one’s headed off to college in the near future. So if you’re gonna date him, get used to the dad-and-kid combo date and agonizing over your datebooks. But if you’re more concerned over the time you “expend” arranging time to spend together than what this guy’s feelings are for you… then I think you might have answered your own question.

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Sonia Soyomayor

Yesterday Sonia Soyomayor became the first hispanic, third woman and 111th person appointed to Supreme Court, confirmed by a vote of 68-31. So, we're making some progress toward diversity.

Regardless of her voting history, seeing more diversity of people in such public positions of power is certainly a positive. True, the way she rules should be objective and based on the law. But the positive here is how she can serve as a role model. Women, people of color and those from humble beginnings can look at the Supreme Court and see themselves.

As for her comment about her comments, including her hope that a "wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences" would reach a better conclusion than a white man "who hasn't lived that life." Well ... I'm no member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but she has a point. She's lived as a minority in this country, and she's worked to get where she is. She hasn't had anything handed to her, and doesn't know what it's like to live with privilege. I'm kind of inclined to think that she does have a "richer" experience of the world, and perhaps may have more sensitivity in her role. But should a Supreme Court judge have sensitivity? Well, the fact that we put human beings on the bench, and not robots, leaves some room for personal history to affect things. And of course this is where the benefit of diversity comes back into play. Will we see benefits to having someone else on the bench who doesn't view the world through the lens of white, male privilege? Only time will tell. But, her comment points out the elephant in the room. Yes, she is qualified to sit on the highest court in the land, but so were a lot of white men, I'm sure. So it is most likely her experience as a Latina that helped her nomination in the first place, so why so much uproar over her calling out that fact?

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As the title suggests, I'm heading to the American Sociological Association's Annual Conference -- this year it's in the amazing city of San Francisco. This will be my first time attending the conference, so I feel like I'm finally doing my duty as a grad student in sociology and making my pilgrimage.

I'm going to try my best to liveblog from the major events at the conference from the perspective of a very excited student who's quite new to the sociological scene. Out of respect for the participants, I will not be writing about the smaller events with student presentations, nor will I comment on unpublished work. I imagine this will mostly be excited ramblings along the lines of "OMG research idol!!!!" but hopefully a little more readable than that.

After reviewing the 200 page (oof!) conference schedule, I've narrowed my list down to the following events:

Saturday, August 8
- Sex at Work
- Ethnography/Ethnographic Studies
- Why Obama Won (and What That Says about Democracy and Change in America)
- Sexual Communities/Sexual Politics
- Ethnographies of Place

Sunday, August 9
- Sociology of Sexuality
- Through the Lens of Gender, Race, Sexuality and Class: The Obama Family and the American Dream (have to present through part of this, but hopefully I can catch the end)
- Masculinities: Class, Race and Embodiment
- Feminism(s) 2.0: Gender, Sexuality, Race, and Community
- Presidential Address by Patricia Collins

Monday, August 10
- Education: Whither the Common School?
- Transnational Feminism and the Politics of Community
- Bringing Communities Back In: Setting a New Policy Agenda
- Interdisciplinary Standards of Qualitative Research
- Beyond the Boycott: Labor Rights, Human Rights and Transnational Activism

Tuesday, August 11
- Altruistic Cooperation in Communities, Evolutionary and Contemporary
- Portable Communities
- Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex
- Social Science Research in "Second Life"

Quite the itinerary, huh? This is going to be amazing. If there's anything particular you want me to be on the lookout for, let me know.

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For reasons unexplainable by science (and we've tried), comic books and queers just go together. There's just something about leading a double life...one of which entails wearing spandex...that speaks to the community. And while Batman remains in the bat-closet, there are oodles of out and proud superheroes, braving the dangers that make breeders quake in their crocs. These are the guys to call when the world absolutely, positively must be saved before the Project Runway marathon.

Moral of the story: I've compiled a dream team of gay superheroes....because I have that kind of free time and you've got nowhere else to turn for your giggles ever since you found your boyfriend on Lurid Digs. Leopard print curtains? Your standards are so low they've found Jimmy Hoffa.

Northstar (Marvel) – The crown queen of gay heroes. Officially out in 1992, six years after Watchmen introduced gay characters to the mainstream, he retains the honor of being the first openly gay male superhero in American comics. Canadian, but in a good way. Had AIDs, but got better, somehow. A regular feature in Marvel's Swimsuit Edition, as if you don't already have all the fucking issues. Superhuman speed enables him to pick out swatches and decorate an apartment in the time it takes you to decide if it's just a fart or if you're going to need to make a run for it. Most likely to maintain a blog where he complains about everyone else but in French so nobody can read it, which drives Wolverine apeshit.

Tasmanian Devil (DC) – While other heroes struggle with prejudice and maintaining their secret identity, Hugh Dawkins struggles with a really shitty superpower. Able to transform into a giant talking, you guessed it, Tasmanian devil, Hugh is charged with fighting giant bee-people and solving mysteries like “the case of the delicious missing children”. Will not handle the press very well, unable to determine if reporters are wondering what it's like to be gay or what it's like to look like a Satanic wookie and resorting to ripping off the head of the nearest living creature screaming “I'M NOT A MONSTER, I WAS BORN THIS WAY!” at the top of his lungs. Movie deal likely.

Flatman (Marvel) – 2nd in command of the Great Lakes Avengers. So thin he can fit through Ann Coulter's ass cheeks, and able to stretch wider than [insert politician]'s web of lies and bullshit. Claims to have a doctorate in “stuff”, which is probably a division of queer studies. Once won a superhero poker tournament, beating out The Thing, a man who can't express any emotion other than “is it lunch time yet?” and Spider-Man, who's so good at keeping secrets that every one of his villains knows his secret identity. Practically guaranteed to be the first superhero shoved up the ass of another for mutual sexual gratification.

Midnighter & Apollo (Wildstorm) – When DC realized they could never realize the dream of so many slashfic authors by making Batman and Superman's romance public, they made generic copies of them through their Wildstorm label to give its fans what they've been waiting for in the cheapest way possible. The dark and roguish Midnighter will try to play the part of the outsider, despite the fact that everyone will prefer him to the aloof and painfully good-looking Apollo. At some point they'll break up, one of them will become a villain, it'll rekindle their spark, they'll fall back in love, and all the while Tasmanian Devil is waddling awkwardly through his apartment, looking for some tongs and a friend who can keep a secret.

Fabulance (independent) – Teenage superhero, snappy dresser, and power twink. Featured on GayWired.com and Echo Magazine. Current arch-nemesis is the “notability guidelines” wikipedia. His weakness against cover charges will somehow be exploited by every villain they face.

If we don't get any hate mail over this, next week I'll do SuperFriends of Dorothy: Lesbian Edition!

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Feminism & Femininity

One of Julia Serano’s main arguments in Whipping Girl is that feminists have assumed a belittling view of femininity and degraded people with feminine gender expressions. She claims that well-known feminists, such as Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, “have forwarded the idea that femininity is artificial and incompatible with feminism” (320). Liberal feminists in particular have portrayed femininity as a “man-made ploy designed to hold women back from reaching their full potential” (331). They have singled out feminine beauty practices, effusive ways of expressing oneself, and certain feminine gender norms (such as having men open doors for women) for especially vitriolic criticism: since femininity pushes women to focus on their appearance and families rather than their careers, and to speak in a softer and more emotive manner, it contributes to keeping women subordinate to men. The following passage sums up the crux of Serano’s argument about the relationship between femininity and feminism:

“[Feminists] share the belief that (1) femininity is not a natural form of expression, but rather one that is socially imposed; (2) most women are ‘duped’ into believing that their femininity arises intrinsically rather than due to extrinsic forces such as socialization or social constructs; (3) people who are ‘in the know’ recognize that gender expression is artificial and easily malleable, and thus they can purposefully adopt a more radical, antisexist gender expression (e.g., androgyny, drag, etc.); and (4) because feminine women choose not to adopt these supposedly radical, antisexist gender expressions, they may be seen as enabling sexism and thus collaborating in their own oppression.” (337)

While the above passage does provide a somewhat caricatured view of the feminist position on femininity, it rightly points to a tension between feminism and feminine gender expression that is yet to be resolved. Serano suggests that feminists need to change their view of femininity by embracing and empowering it. She claims that, “the anti-femininity tendency may represent the feminist movement’s single greatest tactical error” because it puts off and excludes feminine and heterosexual women from feminism (320). It is also a moral mistake because, by critiquing other women’s genders, feminists engage in exactly the kind of gender regulation and policing that they are supposed to be fighting against.

Defining Femininity

Serano’s argument is enabled by her specific definition of femininity. She critiques both social constructionist feminists and gender essentialists for providing “monolithic” depictions of the term (321). The latter “artificialize femininity [by] characteriz[ing] it as though it were a unified social program designed to shape women’s personalities and sexualities via a combination of social norms, constructs and conditioning. The former “describe feminine traits as though they were bundled in a single biological program initiated only in genetic females” (321). Serano attacks these definitions by pointing out that they are one-sided: they view femininity as a unified system that is imposed on women, either socially or biologically. In response, she offers her own, allegedly more complex, conceptualization of femininity: “the behaviors, mannerisms, interests, and ways of presenting oneself that are typically associated with those who are female” (320). She qualifies the definition by noting that these characteristics may also appear among male-bodied people and that they are separable: a person can have some feminine characteristics, but not others. For instance, some women may have effusive voices, but may not dress very femininely. Femininity is not a single, unified set of characteristics that necessarily follow each other: each individual can have some feminine and some non-feminine traits.

While Serano portrays her definition of femininity as complex and multifaceted, it is actually just as monolithic as the social constructionist and gender essentialist definitions that she criticizes. By portraying femininity as “a set of traits,” Serano provides the most benign interpretation of it and totally discredits the view that it is also a set of norms that women are supposed to adhere to, a normative structure that recommends appropriate behavior for women. Femininity is both descriptive of women’s identities and behaviors and prescriptive of them. A truly multifaceted definition of the term has to consider both of these dimensions. By positing femininity in a mostly descriptive manner, Serano shields it from any criticism. Feminist critiques of femininity do indeed sound patronizing and intolerant if we accept Serano’s view that feminine behaviors, mannerisms and interests emerge mostly intrinsically and are simply natural characteristics of feminine people. There would indeed be no reason for critique if femininity was solely a set of traits that people “just have” by virtue of their nature.

Changing Feminism, Changing Femininity?

But if we recognize that femininity also has a social and normative dimension, which can regulate and construct women’s identities and behavior, the critical feminist approach to it does not seem so unnecessary. In fact, examining what constitutes femininity, the kinds of actions that one needs to take in order to be recognized as feminine in society, can shed much light on the pressures that women are under and the social expectations that they are pushed to meet. Serano seems to seriously underplay this aspect of femininity, which leads to a rather uncritical attitude, as evidenced by her blithe comment that “femininity and thinness have become almost synonymous in contemporary Western culture” (322). She does not pause to think about the problems that the symbiosis of femininity and thinness causes for modern women, or about the rampant eating disorders that are affecting young women in the United States and Europe. She seems to simply accept thinness and body regulation as constitutive elements of femininity today and does not provide much criticism of them. Moreover, she does not consider whether the regulation of women’s bodies that modern Western femininity seems to require means that there might be a serious problem with femininity itself and that femininity could be just as damaging to women as it could be fulfilling and empowering.

If being exceptionally thin and hyper-regulating one’s body is indeed intrinsic to Western femininity today, then feminists do have good reasons to maintain a critical distance from it. While Serano believes that feminists should change by accepting and empowering femininity, the real question might be to what extent femininity needs to change in order for it to become acceptable to feminism. While Serano is highly critical of feminism, she does not extend the same critical gaze to femininity.

Feminist Critiques of Masculinity

Perhaps this is because Serano views femininity as the victim of what she calls “traditional sexism,” or the belief that everything that is female and feminine is artificial and inferior to all that is male and masculine. While this is an accurate portrayal of the relationship between femininity and masculinity in society, Serano mistakenly accuses feminists of reinforcing “traditional sexism” with their critiques of femininity. For example, she writes that “the lion’s share of feminist attention, deconstruction, and denigration has been directed squarely at femininity…those feminists who single out women’s dress shoes, clothing, and hairstyles to artificialize necessarily leave unchallenged the notion that their masculine counterparts are natural and practical” (339).

Much feminist criticism has indeed been directed at femininity, but Serano writes as if feminists have tacitly supported masculinity and taken a wholly uncritical attitude to it. This is simply untrue. For example, Germaine Greer writes that, “masculinity requires the creation of dangerous situations” (The Whole Woman, 376). Her critique of masculinity is focused on its propensity towards violence and domination: “any man who is not good at ‘killing in war’ is less of a man” (376). Furthermore, the central concept of feminist theory – patriarchy – exposes how masculine gender practices and norms serve to maintain a hierarchical society in which women are second-class citizens. While some liberal feminists may have tacitly glorified masculinity by basing their activism on women’s access to allegedly masculine professions (politics, law, business), feminists have generally provided strong critiques of both femininity and masculinity. Thus, Serano’s criticism that feminists are reinforcing “traditional sexism” rings hollow.

Overall, the argument about femininity put forward in Whipping Girl raises the following questions: (1) Has the relationship between feminism and femininity been strained? Should feminist ideology be reconfigured to accept and empower femininity or does femininity need to change in order to become acceptable to feminism? (2) To what extent is femininity a set of intrinsically derived characteristics of certain people and to what extent is it an extrinsic normative structure, aimed at constructing identities and regulating behavior? We can discuss these questions in the comment box below. The next post in this series, coming in two weeks’ time, will address Serano’s criticisms of queer theory and social constructionist conceptions of gender.

***For More Information***
You can find out more about Julia Serano on www.juliaserano.com and here is a whole page about Whipping Girl that has a collection of reviews, a preview of the first chapter, and a useful glossary of some of the new terminology that Serano introduces in the book. For more information on the feminism/femininity dilemma see Hollows, Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture. Serano’s work has also been addressed in the following Below the Belt post by bookmonkey and these two posts by askfannie: "Observations on Trans Sexuality" and "Sexist Feminists."

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Nomi Network is a ground-breaking non-profit organization that seeks to leverage the capitalist market to combat sex trafficking around the world. The people at Nomi have chosen Cambodia as their pilot program, where they invest in the lives of women survivors of sex trafficking and sex slavery by offering access to channels of production which enable them to create products that can be sold to Western markets. Normally, I tend to be skeptical of the fair-trade movement for its general lack of oversight, it's slightly colonialist undertones (it causes third world artists to cater to first-world stereotypes of their culture), and stories of western retailers or administrators who corrupt the system by taking large commissions off the top of sales and pass relatively little on to the artists who they purport to serve.

But Nomi seems to be different. They specifically are targeting their educational and work opportunities to women survivors of sex trafficking and slavery to offer them viable alternatives to remaining in or re-entering the sex trade. While I don't think that all forms of sex trade are bad... I have an inkling that the vast majority of it which happens in Cambodia is... well, VERY bad. While I think the work that Nomi has set itself out to do is tremendously commendable, I hope that in the future they will be able to see how not all sex work is damaging to the practitioners, and also expand their services to aid men who are victims of forcible sex trade. There seems to be a general sense that women who engage in sex work are victims and men who engage sex work are enthusiastic participants, which isn't always the case in both scenarios.

Anyway, Team Nomi informs me that they have officially launched their website, where you can learn more about Nomi Network's approach to leveraging the marketplace to eradicate sex trafficking.

The website provides an interactive map of stores in New York City that currently sell fairly traded or slave-free merchandise. You can also explore opportunities to get involved with their efforts to end human trafficking.

Be part of the Network. Things are just getting started, but they'll be soon be announcing the release of their first product: Nomi's signature slogan tote bag, available for pre-sales on August 15. For more information, visit the new website here and check out the video below.

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