On the Outskirts

One of the more difficult aspects of talking about transness is how many facets it can encompass. Because transness is more than just an internal sense of rightness or wrongness with your body: it catches up so much else in a whirlwind of confusion.

Take, for example, sexual identity. It is now a commonplace in queer communities--well, most queer communities--that a transgendered identity is separate from a gay or lesbian identity; that is, trans women are not "gay men who can't deal" any more than gay men want to be women. And yet: it is the rare trans person who has not had to confront issues of sexual identity as part of understanding their trans identity. A MTF trans person often has to confront the fact that many of the things that are markers of femaleness--high heels, makeup, skirts--are also markers of straight sexuality, and exactly what adopting those markers might mean for them when out in the world and attracting the attention of men. So, too, do many FTM trans people have to deal with the complicated issues of butchness in the lesbian community, and where, if anywhere, the the line between boi and boy lies.

However, an even more complicated relationship exists between the transgendered and drag worlds.

That doesn't stop many people on either side to deny it exists. "I'm not a drag queen," is the huffy refrain of many a MTF trans person, whether a transsexual or a cross dresser, either to defend the "realness" of their female identity, or to assert a heterosexual identity. "I don't want it chopped off," is the drag queen's rejoinder, an assertion of a gay identity and of a masculine body image, no matter what illusion is currently sported.

Both sides of this argument reveal the internal prejudices sadly too common to each group: the often unconfronted homophobia or at least queer queasiness of many trans people, and the misogyny of some parts of the gay community, especially in this era of washboard abs, body builders, and disdain for anything that seems soft, effeminate, or feminine.

But there is yet another angle on this. Many MTF trans people go through a very, how shall I put it, "draggy" phase at some point in their development--a time of wigs, heels, heavy makeup and short dresses. (This may be slowly changing as people begin to transition at earlier and earlier ages.) And likewise, there are some drag queens who live the majority of their lives as women, who may well have a trans identity but also a desire to remain inside the gay community, much as many FTM trans men who have previously identified as lesbians often keep their ties to that community.

Drag indeed is the crossroads of queerness, the place where gender and sexuality collide, where social expectations of both straight and queer communities clash as loudly as mauve eyeshadow with a bright orange dress. Take, for example, a recent experiment in my ongoing Field Intensive in Reality Show Studies: to wit, a rerun of RuPaul's Drag Race. In this episode, the contestants were introduced to several women who were all experts at a martial art--karate, krav maga, and boxing among others. The challenge was to take these women, all of whom had a "butch" or at least not conventionally feminine presentation and make them into a "real woman" version of the queen's drag persona.

To say this raised disturbing questions about masculinity and femininity is to be as understated as the guy at the end of the third Indiana Jones movie. The women, all by definition strong women, extremely capable, of course take on a "masculine" cast since they know how to fight and don't wear the trappings of straight femininity. And they are transformed...by gay men into mirror images of their own mirror images of "straight" femininity, along with a heaping pile of camp. There is something disturbing--perhaps only to my radical feminist self--about a man demanding that a woman walk in high heels as well as he does. Or at least it does because it is unreflective; there is an expression of superiority on the part of the queen, a conscious or unconscious needling of the women for not being able to perform femininity.

It doesn't have to be that way, of course, and my favorite drag performances have been those that use the artificiality of drag to force an awareness of the artificiality of the "feminine" constructs they imitate. And perhaps I'm expecting a bit much from the Supermodel of the World here. But that's just it: drag can't be uncomplicated, it can't pretend not to make constant commentary on all the worlds it confuses together. It remains on the outskirts of all identities, if central to none, and a fascinating nexus of everything both queer and straight.

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In A Very Special Episode Of Bitchzarro, we introduced you to the shocking, heartwrenching story of my my mental health.

And now today, the thrilling conclusion to a tale of tragedy, heartbreak, and an inconsolable hatred for Jawas.

Two weeks ago, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. I wasn't surprised. Okay, that's a lie. I thought I would be Bipolar. So I was surprised, but in the way of a gun nut who carelessly cleans their shotgun every night but ends up beefing it in a car crash. I knew the race was over. I just backed the wrong horse. You might find my comparisons between a diganosis and dying a little extreme, but looking back on how I duck and dodged the inevitable reveal, hoping that if I could get my shit together in time I wouldn't need the diagnosis and subsequent treatment, I can't ignore the eerie (and ultimately, inappropriate) similarities between my actions and that college lecture on how people cope with terminal illness that I interrupted by cheering when I got my highest score in Tetris, ever. It's a shame I didn't have to take the final. I think that professor was my good luck charm.

Having a diagnosis is like coming out. All. Over. Again. You have this metaphoric decoder ring that makes sense of all these feelings and experiences, and the more you show it to your loved ones the less valuable it becomes. Because nobody ever fucking believes you. I could construct this insightful pop culture reference about how the internet is like infinite monkeys pulling decoder rings from an infinite amount of boxes of Cracker Jack, and how everybody gets a different secret message from Little Orphan Annie so they assume that either you're decoder ring is broken or that you don't know how to use it, but I feel the reference would be lost on most of my readers, especially the friends who's pep talks about “getting over my bad mood” or “learning to love myself and not need surgery” are killing me by degrees.

In here, behind this screen, I am a trans woman coping with mental illness. Out there, I am a crossdresser who is often very sad and thinks they're being spied on by a guy in a white Sedan. Which is simply not true. It's a Plymouth Voyager, and if follows me to Trader Joe's again I'll...oh I'll...uh... GET OFF MY LAWN! WONDER TWINS ACTIVATE!

The first loser in the 20 man battle royale of black depression is conversation. It doesn't even put up a fight. It practically throws itself out of the ring, runs into the audience and wets its singlet. You can't tell people how you really feel, but you can't tell them what they want to hear because they'll know you're lying. So you think of clever, automated responses to the mundane everyday questions people ask you, hoping to come off as aloof and eccentric, with a dash of on-the-fly wit. But it doesn't work. Probably because you mixed up your “how I'm doing” stock response with your “what I want to eat” stock response and so now everyone thinks you're not paying attention or just have aphasia.

So you can't talk, which means you can't write, because you sound the same doing both. Writing is just carving your internal monologue into a digital tablet, and you don't want there to be any record of your existence because you keep hoping that one day the world will hit the “reset” button and erase your file. It's been months since I've contributed to my other writing projects, and would have flaked on this too if I hadn't received such rabid fanfare from the readers and editors of this blog and genuinely feel that you care, in some voyeuristic fashion. Or that you find me funny. Which for most humorists is the only human sentiment we understand.

So you can't talk or write. What do you do? You get some snacks and let the TV or computer do all the talking. They can do it for hours, even days, like a stupefying Tantra workout for your brain. You download MP3s of The Mighty Boosh's BBC radio show and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation. At first it's just a mild curiosity, but soon, before you have the volition or self-awareness to consciously decide, you're committed. Two or three episodes a day. Subtitled so you can learn all those goofy alien names. If you throw yourself in front of the train, you'll never know if Geordi trades in his visor for eye implants, or if Riker and Troi actually put all this sexual tension they're brewing like moonshine to some fucking use and I swear to god if any of you put spoilers in the comments I will find you, tie you to a chair and play the entire Boston catalog with a kazoo right in your ear.

To say I'm a little late to the Star Trek game is an understatement. Fuck, I missed the game and the playoffs. TNG ended 8 years ago (if we count the movies) and I'm just now starting Season 3. I'm sure some months or years in the future I'll train myself to keep a straight face and say it's because I wanted to wait until it was over so I could enjoy it in its purity without fear of someone trying to retcon or stretch another season out of a perfectly closed story. But I shall take this opportunity to be “straight up” while I still can: my fear of conformity prevents me from partaking of any massively consumed media while it is still “in”. It may be years before I ever give Heroes a chance.

It's a wonder I've stuck it out through two seasons so far. The show possesses none of the qualities I find attractive in a space opera. The campiness is unintentional and uncomfortable to watch, laser battles are scarce and there are no leather goddesses to be found anywhere. Nonetheless, I found myself compelled to hit “next” on my DVD remote. Well, not really, because DVD remotes don't have a “next” button, but ugh, if I don't cut it out with the fucking snarky asides we will never finish this.

Thankfully my support group moderator shed some light on this mystery and let me move on with my life; he noted that Star Trek is easy to get into because it's “fair”. I took some time to contemplate this (not too much, though, as I was busy weighing the merits of cheese and toast vs a ploughman's sandwich for breakfast) and have come to realize that Star Trek really is the embodiment of “fair”, and it may in fact be the fairest of them all. Of all the media I have or will cover on this blog, ST: TNG may be the most gender neutral. When I say “gender neutral” I don't mean the universally compatible restrooms that are becoming all the rage at universities and safe space coffee shops. I mean to say the show goes absolutely out of its way to buck our patriarchal perceptions of gender and sex, all under the facade of “business as usual out here in SPACE!”

Let's consider the women of the Enterprise, circa Season 1. You have Beverly Crusher, Chief Medical Officer and single mom. Her station allows her to relieve Captain Picard of duty when he is deemed medically or mentally unfit to command. There is a small number of things more empowering than being able to pull rank on your boss who you have very telegraphed (in a wide ass font) feelings for, and Michael “Make Fried Chicken And They Will Come” Steele is working to make them all illegal. Her (and her replacement Pulaski) serve to pre-emptively balance out the age range on the ship; with all these sex kitten “special guests of the week” that come on the ship and give Riker a burning sensation when he pees, the uneducated observer might come to suspect that the future is some sort of patriarchal Logan's Run where women too old to jump on trampolines suggestively are euthanised. Thanks for the assurance then I will still be of value to society when I too enter my “faceplate of makeup and coat one size too large for me” phase, Gene Roddenberry.

Then you have Deanna Troi, empath and ship's Counselor from Betazed, the planet of therapists. That's girl power for you. Sticking a woman who can invasively read people's feelings on a ship where people will be confined in a closed space for long periods at a time, during which they will be attacked by robots, succumb to alien diseases and find themselves in situations that the human grasp of physics. Fuck off Jem, this is really really outrageous. Nay, be not deceived by my heckles and jeers. I am quite fond of the Deanna Troi character, because her existence marks a phenomena that I am oh too eager to have return to television. She is eye candy, and unapologetically so (the producers even made her lose weight just to be on the damn show), but rather than risk the ire of women everyone by making her brainless and pedantic, the creators twisted the trop one its head and made Deanna the second most irritating character on the show (the first being a tie between Wesley Crusher and the entire Ferengi race). Even the people for whom Deanna is geared can't fucking stand her. There's something caustically beautiful about taking a commodity (in this case, the “sex appeal”) and just throwing it away right in front of everyone so you they really know how you feel. Deanna's annoying. Not because she's a woman, or a half-alien, or even because she has the quackiest job on the starship. She has a gratingly phony “alien accent”, poor dialogue and stupid clothes, attributes that are pretty gender-generic. Hating everyone equally, the final frontier in tolerance. Roffle. Jay Kay.

Why did Tasha Yar get saved for last? Is it because I really liked the two Trekkies documentaries? Or because I thought her character could've done some great things if Denise Crosby hadn't left the show after Season 1? Or because I wish I had the hair capable of pulling off her look? The answer to all these...is none of your goddam business. Butch yet proudly feminine, sexual yet restrained, Yar is a box of chocolates shaped in a heart sent to the feminists of the world. And I ate every last fucking one of them. She's shamefully validating for the girl sci-fi fan looking for positive portrayals outside of the Whedonverse. Aside from her one-night stand with Data (which some women have read as a woman “taking care of her own needs with the help of some gadgetry”...yeah, you know who you are...), she does not carry torch, unlike her aforementioned comrades, and some say that may be why Yar wasn't given any real development by the writers. Actually, it's just me who says that. I also say that TNG had something very special with Denise Crosby in the role, something that could not be replicated if tried. If the series were remade today, she would change out of her uniform into a tank top, shorts and heeled boots anytime there was a security breach...which would happen at least once an episdoe, even if it was only a false alarm. Don't give me that look. You sit through an episode of Two and a Half Men and tell me television is getting better. Spoiler Alert: you won't be able to, because if you haven't beaten yourself unconscious with the nearest piece of Battlestar Galactica memorabilia, you'll be giggling at the sound your drool makes when you gargle it. Unlike Crusher, who was replaced in Season 2 by the older, even more matronly Pulaski, Yar was eventually replaced by Worf, a male, as if to say the creators knew that they couldn't just cookie cutter another dynamic female role like that. Disappointed I may have been at the unfortunate tipping of gender ratio, I can appreciate that sort of honesty. One token “chick” character was enough.

The women of TNG are as empowered and independent as the plot demands. They are not all very interesting or singular, but they are fair. Like a promotional free lunch, they can be dull and predictable, but isn't the ultimate goal of equality activism to have your behavior, values, and appearance be judged as “normal” or as an acceptable alternative to a default? They're average women. And in the future, in the age of space exploration, we'll all become average. And that's the bittersweet message behind it all. One day, no one will be special because they're a woman, or gay, or trans, or what have you. We'll be judged on our abilities and the convince-ability of our accents. Which is...yeah. Fair.

After all, it's not like I'm taking these three fragile, flawed female characters who are surrounded by immaculate, all purpose swiss army knife men and putting them under the microscope. The fact is the men have no more french fries in their happy meals than their female counterparts. Handsomely aged Picard is forever torn between the sophisticated gentleman officer and the cantankerous, tough-love spewing old man that equally occupy his mind. Ladykiller Riker's libido is so out of control he falls in love with a holodeck program. Worf like women who throw furniture and Data...everybody thinks they're Data. That's the key to the success of the show.

Everybody looks at poor fish out of water Data and sees themselves. Queers see a variant person who's life is pointlessly obstructed by people who demand he justify his existence. Objectivists see the struggle to adhere to absolute truths in a world being painted gray. Glenn Beck sees things too horrifying for words and Stevie Wonder still can't see shit. If queer and gender theorists weren't busy with things like fighting for our equality, they could spend days even arguing the implications of a sentient being having their gender irreversibly programmed into them. Perhaps I will go forth into the world and assemble my own team of academics to discuss such a notion. Yesterday I learned “red delicious” is not slang for apple, it is a type of apple grown. So it might be a quite awhile before I should attempt such a scholastic feat unsupervised.

Picard and Riker are not examples of mangificent men. They are superb officers, and their gender is secondary, no matter how ludicrous their relationship with it is. It will be noted, however grudgingly so, that both have stuck up for a woman's right to serve equally with men, and while both episodes in question (“Code of Honor” and “Angel One”) are considered travesties by even the most forgiving of Trekkies, it's a bit much to expect both a compelling episode and a positive message in a time where Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson ran for president and nobody laughed. Such is the beauty of space opera. Everyone gets taken down a notch. You have the star of Roots walking around with a shiny viewfinder on his face. Wil Wheaton, God Emperor of all geekdom and the only authority to whom I answer to, made out with a girl who can turn into a giant fur beast. Nobody's sex appeal is getting out alive. And alas, she finally comes around to her point. Without sex appeal, without attraction, there is no enforcement of gender norms. It is my belief that women are told they should wear makeup and do their hair everyday because it makes them attractive, not because it's necessarily what “women do”. Vice versa with men growing beards and working out and not wearing eye liner. Someone who can remain attractive while “playing with gender”, whatever the fuck you that means, does not suffer a loss of gender validation, but is such a powerful/attractive _____ that they can “make it work”. There is no “making it work” on the Enterprise. Everyone wears the same ugly jumpsuit that bunches around the crotch, eats the same generated food and plays the same holodeck games where they are king and everyone lives to amuse them. In space, people are only as special as their duty and skills with a phaser allow them to be.

And that's all all I got to say about that. I know what you're thinking. “What? You gave the three female leads of TNG their own paragraphs, and yet you compress the male cast into one? That's uneven.” Yeah. It totes is. Write your own breakdown of Next Generation character profiles if you want, but I can't in good conscience talk about a gender that I don't identify with. Despite over 20 years of history I still find myself unable to grasp the nuances of masculinity. I think Riker looks like a creepy uncle with that beard. Do you really want me dissecting the merits of his manhood? I didn't think so.

If you only remember one thing I tell you, it's this; forget it. I'll sit here and tear into The Next Generation for five pages, and when Season 3 comes in the mail on Monday I'll get about as much sunshine as I did this week watching Season 2. It's awkwardly written, uncomfortably acted, and I can't get enough of it. Because it's fair. Each episode, each character, fails all by themselves. It doesn't need unfortunate social norms or misinformed opinions about race, gender, or...science...to convey its stories. It says the bare minimum and just keeps going. And in a time where I feel like everyone, even my loved ones and allies and fellow communiteers are keeping an eye on the right bus to throw me under, I can get by just fine on the bare minimum of tolerance and social sensitivity lip service. There might not be a better deal available in television. Judging by how I treat something that is admittedly helping me get through perhaps the worst depression of my entire life, I probably wouldn't deserve it if it existed.

Speaking of obligatory lip service, I apologize for using these articles to air my dirty laundry. I will strive to do more geeking and less bleaking in the future. If I remember. In the meantime, feel free to tell me some of your experiences in therapy or mental health treatment in general.

It'd be only fair...

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Mishana Hosseinioun joins us from As It Ought To Be. For the complete article with citations, please visit the original post.)

“All economic organization is homosexual.” — Luce Irigaray

Paul Schrader’s erotic thriller, American Gigolo (1980) does much more than simply explore the roving life of male prostitute, Julian Kaye, played by quintessential Hollywood sex-symbol Richard Gere (idolized by men and women alike); it supplies viewers with first-hand evidence supporting Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray’s phallo-critical theory that “all economic organization is homosexual”1, or “hom(m)osexual” (between males), as she would specify. What is more, the film adds layers of complexity of its own to Irigaray’s argument. While, in her essay on ‘Commidities among Themselves,’ Irigaray writes of male-to-male relations lubricating all capital flow, many elements in American Gigolo point to the ever-present nature of homosexuality in the economic realm and beyond. As the latter would suggest, the homosexuality that Irigaray regards as the basis for all economic transactions is perhaps just one of the many outward manifestations of repressed homosexuality in society. As such, a scene that depicts a transaction between Julian (or the effeminate, “Julie,” as he is called) and a married couple—exemplary of the homosexual economic organization to which Irigaray refers in her central thesis—can be read as one of the more pronounced expressions of subdued homosexuality of male characters in the film. Given its rich symbolism and rhetoric charged with an unmistakable hom(m)osexual undertone, this particular sequence calls for deep analysis through the lens of Irigaray’s critique of Lévi-Straussian kinship structures.

This sequence is just one instance in which American gigolo, Julian—in exchanging his sexual services with a woman in return for money—actually inserts himself into a transaction with another male. Upon entering the Palm Beach home of a client, Julie addresses the man of the household: Look mister, someone’s made a mistake here. I don’t do fags. When the husband tries to explain that it is not what he meant, Julie promptly stresses that he does not do couples either, to which the husband takes offense and retorts, no, no, no, you don’t understand, it’s just my wife Judy. Not me! Just her. The camera, turning back on Julie to capture his response to the husband’s emphatic disavowal, does not miss the telling shift in Julie’s eyes which graze a nearby male statue just milliseconds before he blurts out, OK. Such body language implies a nonverbal show of understanding on Julie’s part, of the husband’s true homosexual intentions; while the movements of Julie’s lips—a part of the body that is spoken through by culture—cannot similarly engage in the taboo as his eyes do, and are thus obliged to acquiesce to societal convention by forming the word, OK.

Only moments later, the husband continues, but I can watch, greedily asserting his only right that would bring him close to another man without appearing overtly homosexual. He states this less as a question than as a reiteration of a contract already established non-verbally between the two men. ‘Course, Julie says, reassuring the husband, as though merely confirming their pre-signed agreement. Would you—would you like a drink? the husband offers, to which Julie mumbles, No, yet simultaneously pairs with body language that would suggest otherwise. Mid-No, Julie, loosening his tie and making deep eye contact, begins to walk in the husband’s direction. With fear in his eyes, the husband scolds, Not yet!, which represents his being made uncomfortable by what he obviously felt (and possibly enjoyed with guilty pleasure) as Julie’s sexual advance towards him. As the camera zooms in swiftly onto the husband’s panic-stricken face in this scene, a slender, crystal statuette is made apparent just behind, to the side, and in line with the husband’s head, perhaps serving to mirror his psyche at that very moment and, more specifically, showing that he is reminded of how his relation with another man will always be mediated by a third party. The arms of this handless figure stick up in the air and the head drops lifeless to one side, in an almost feminine rendition of the crucified Christ2, foreshadowing his wife who will later be seen lying in a similarly passive position in a bed in the next room.

Immediately afterwards, Julie changes the topic, exclaiming, I think I’d like my money now, to which the husband, with similar aloofness, responds oh sure—sure, the second sure, fully aware of itself as a line spoken straight out of a socially-approved skit for two men seemingly conducting “business as usual”. Despite never having met one another before this particular interchange, Julie and the husband’s dialogue here strangely appears rehearsed, which can only mean that they play a similar role with other men, day-in and day-out. Both seem to recognize that their proper sounding dialogue, tailored to cultural standards, is simply a way of escaping the unease prompted by direct hom(m)osexual confrontation and the patent shadiness of their business. “Hom(m)osexuality is played out through the bodies of women, matter, or sign and heterosexuality has been up to now just an alibi for the smooth workings of man’s relations with himself of relations among men,”3 writes Irigaray, summing up the sexual struggle that takes place in this film sequence. In this situation, the homosexuality plays itself out through superficial dialogue, and in the following scene, through the ‘superficial’ wife.

Julie follows the husband into the bedroom, on the way, passing a phallic shaped cactus, perhaps symbolizing the husband’s “prick” (i.e. cactus needles) which is in a state of chronic unpleasure,4 given that it presumably cannot relieve itself of the tension of pent-up homosexual desire. As the two men enter the room, lying on the bed, in white sheets, is the almost naked, crucified, silent, doll-like, wife whose blonde hair and pale skin make her the closest thing to invisible (not unlike the crystal statuette from the previous scene) so as to maximally erase her from the subsequent sexual exchange in the bedroom; by her bedside lies an abstract piece of art, yet-again, phallic in shape. Its position on the nightstand is significant in that it both represents an unconsciously fetishized object that might be used to arouse the husband sexually and to make sexual contact with his wife bearable. While the hard, twisted, cold metal seems to highlight the frigidity and frustration surrounding his relationship with her and signals the violence that lies ahead, it is possibly evocative of the husband’s infantile fixation and fear of “sterility”, otherwise know as castration.

Julie is asked to engage in sexual relations with the wife as the husband, standing watch at a safe distance from the bed, yells a series of command. “Woman exists only as an occasion for mediation, transaction, transition, transference, between man and his fellow man, indeed between man and himself,”5 reaffirms Irigaray, clearly describing the way in which the wife here is merely an object to be filled, a vehicle through which the two men can carry out their homosexual exchange, and nothing more. When Julie attempts to contest this tripartite system by whispering to the wife to forget that her husband is also in the room, the husband reasserts himself and barks from the back of the room, Oh, no, no, from behind—it has to be from behind! in blatant reference to anal sex. Further evidence that there is no escape from this “triangular trade,” in which the female body is merely utilized a means to an end within an otherwise homosexual exchange, comes from the way in which the camera refuses to ever really capture Julie and the wife alone in a single frame. As soon as the husband no longer becomes visible in the background, the phallic artwork on the nightstand enters the frame and stands in for the second phallus that is required in the transaction, emphasizing Irigaray’s argument of how an exchange cannot take place in society in the absence of hom(m)osexual parties.

Later, the husband orders Julie to slap her—slap that cunt which demonstrates the husband’s frustration at having a woman stand in the way of his homosexual encounter with Julie, just as it shows how the repression of his homosexuality manifests itself into physical symptoms, namely as sadistic outbursts. The expression, cunt, reduces the wife to her mere genitalia, which is tragically the source of the husband’s pleasure as well as pain given that the cunt is both a window and a wall leading to and separating him from a homosexual encounter. In other words, his homosexual desires can only be achieved by means of a female body, yet are eternally doomed to suppression given the lack of direct access to another male; he vocalizes, and thus externalizes this repressed tension, by literally projecting his anger onto her body which is a constant reminder of his infantile fear of castration, as well as a reminder that his encounter with another male is forever sentenced to mediation, filtration, and thus, to dilution, by that cunt.

Not only does this film sequence provide backing for Irigary’s argument that all exchanges are ultimately homosexual6, it draws attention to the repressed hom(m)osexual desires that stir within males on a more regular basis and that desperately seek outlets for articulation. Given that forms of socially acceptable expression of such desires are limited and are, thus, never fully satisfied—as this particular instance in the film suggests—a patriarchal society is left but with one thing as its last avenue of expression: violence; hence, the murder of the wife on the night of the sexual exchange with the gigolo. Although this attempt to exterminate the female from the triangle-trade altogether is successful in one respect, the film shows how the entire monopoly falls apart as a result.7

In painting hom(m)osexuality as central to all socio-economic intercourse, Luce Irigaray once and for all complicates the kinship structures near and dear to the late “father of modern anthropology,” Claude Lévi-Strauss; yet even Lévi-Strauss, who writes that prohibition gives rise to a counter-claim, may not realize that his argument extends beyond the sphere of the incest taboo and already treads into the domain of homosexuality. Lévi-Strauss’ theory is even at work in American Gigolo, where Julie’s sexual transactions almost invariably contain male involvement and can be taken to represent the residue left behind by repressed homosexuality in society. In the same way that incest prohibition creates a need to make up for a subdued desire, the prohibition of homosexuality evidently calls for some sort of compensation, as well. “[…] every negative stipulation of the prohibition has its positive counterpart. The prohibition is tantamount to an obligation, and renunciation gives rise to a counter claim.”8 Just as a man’s renunciation of his sister calls for an obligation to give his sister to another, and claim the other’s sister for himself, figuratively speaking, certain men’s renunciation of their homosexuality makes it inevitable for other sexual forms of male interaction to spring up. All of this makes for the fact that Julie and the husband display a sort of censored homosexuality.

Whether it is Julie’s obsessive behavior towards picking and choosing clothing and scrutinizing himself in the mirror in the privacy of his own home, as the ultimate expression of his being stuck “in the closet,” or the way in which the convertible Mercedes he drives also speaks to the tension that lies between the need to keep a lid on his true sexual orientation as well as the inability to fully repress his identity—hom(m)osexuality, as American Gigolo and Luce Irigaray’s Neo-Marxist theory of “Phallocentric Ecnomics” have shown, lurks around every corner, and “bums a ride” (rides a bum) only when safe.

–Mishana Hosseinioun is a Drafter with the 2048 Project: Humanity’s Agreement to Live Together at the UC Berkeley Law School and a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford, England.

Further Reading:

Photography and Other Modes of Crying at Your Own Funeral by Mishana Hosseinioun, 8/23/09

Black on White: Reading Fanon Against Mapplethorpe by Mishana Hosseinioun, 9/11/09

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We’ve been really fortunate that in the past couple years there has been an increase in literature about dating practices and romance. A 2008 study finally demonstrated how white people employ gendered and racialized preferences when selecting potential partners. And most recently, a study in Men and Masculinities (entitled, “The Perils of Being a Nice Guy”) describes in great detail how heterosexual women engage in sometimes contradictory desiring of ideal male partners; while these women say that they value the nice guy, they only really want to be with the hegemonic bad boys.

Why isn’t there more talk about contradictions between gender politics and desire? Why is it okay for progressive feminists or gay people to hate on hegemonic masculinity where it exists and then also harbor desires for the same characteristics that make up this destructive ideal? Why should we reward ourselves for wanting the bad guys and turning away the nice ones?

First, it should be noted that when I refer to desiring “the bad guys” and turning away "the nice guys,” I am referring to images of men and behaviors that are both gendered and racialized. My vantage point (which I’d argue is quite similar to the vantage point of many heterosexual women) is the mainstream gay male community, where ideal types are traditionally white, typically masculine, and are within a range of body types that lean taller and thicker.

Second, before I have a rant about progressives that employ contradictory desiring, we have to talk about beauty privilege and American individualism. There’s a lot of talk in sociology about the American individualism, but the piece of it that I want to bring into this discussion dissects this national philosophy to understand a privileging process. In the U.S., there is a sense that individuals can do anything as long as they work hard enough, no matter the struggle. Best encapsulated by the phrase, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps" (a phrase that, correct me if I’m wrong, was a defining message of Reagan’s successful presidential campaign), individuals are not only capable of but ultimately responsible for any success or failure that they encounter. The “bootstraps” mentality has often been used to justify cutting welfare programs and policies designed in the interest of racial equality, and now, I argue, also justifies beauty ideals and acceptable romantic desires.

Although we’ve seen a lot of feminist work in the last couple decades about beauty and how oppressive beauty ideals can be, rarely do you see a discussion about how beauty privilege is reproduced at the individual level. The beautification processes that many of us engage in (everything from putting on make up to working out in the gym to modifying how we talk or move to be more attractive) reflect a “buy-in” to a mentality that if we work hard enough at it, we can be one of the beautiful people. While true to a minimal extent, this is actually a mechanism to reproduce structural inequality between beautiful “types” – or rather, groups of people at the top of hierarchies of race, gender, class, ability, etc. – and those who are not beautiful. For example, drawing on the 2008 study linked above, rarely, if ever, do femmey Asian guys get the girl.

After wasting countless (seriously, countless) hours not only hearing the complaints of others but also whining myself about not feeling attractive and not being able to get the guys that I want due to systemic, oppressive beauty ideals, I’ve decided to try and step back think about matters of blame. Yes, like many other gay guys that are sometimes quite literally rendered invisible to the Hot Gay Plastics, I tend to blame the hot gays for everything. Why should they deserve this kind of attention? Why can’t I even get a lick of the attention that they get in the world, when it’s **so clear** to me that they don’t deserve it? And why wouldn’t they want to be with me?

And there the problem is, in that last sentence: Why wouldn’t they want to be with me? For many, myself included, there seems to be this deeply rooted thought that perhaps, if they (the hot people) realize why they’re wrong, if they work hard enough at it, they’ll realize that my desire for That Type of Guy deserves to be rewarded; that I can be squeezed into the mainstream ideal of success and desirability that has also for years denied me of its privilege. In essence, despite having been subjugated by structural inequality, my romantic desiring often reflects the same hegemonic ideals; and further, this process of whining about beauty and trying to make myself beautiful has felt so natural that often I forget to look at my track record and realize how implicit I am in this inequality.

It feels trivial to admit and think about the fact that many of us want what we can’t get or also that we want something that either doesn’t exist or doesn’t make us happy, but it’s important. Particularly given recent talk about the “mancession” and the honestly quite pathetic (but nonetheless real) crises couples face when male partners take up traditionally female domestic roles, these are crucial questions to ask in the interest of gender and romantic equality.

So, male-interested parties – take a second and step back. Think (again) about your dating track record and images of people you’d really want to be with. Are they all white? Butch? Have a tendency to treat people like shit? Look like or act like Brad Pitt? And, perhaps more importantly, what are the qualities in men that turn you off? Hot People don’t exist unless there’s a market for them. Never forget that we’re the market.

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An amended version of this article was originally published in the first edition of Exposition Magazine.


As with sex, similar challenges to the heterosexist model can be posed when considering gender. Traditionally, feminine and masculine genders were presumed to be the bio-psychological correlates of femaleness and maleness. Indeed, most ideas about gender are founded on the social meanings ascribed to biologically sexed bodies. For example: the uterus, vagina and breasts are defined as the central aspects of being female, and from this the claim, the idea emerges that women are “made” primarily for bearing children. Based on this conception of female sex, norms are then established about women’s gender: since women are “made” to reproduce, they should “naturally” perform the vast majority of childcare and household activities. Society presumes to know exactly what nature intended for our sexed bodies and uses that as foundational information for the creation of a gender system – feminine roles follow naturally from femaleness and masculine roles are the biological consequence of maleness.

However, the vast transformations in gender norms across the centuries have led sociologists Don Zimmerman and Candace West to challenge the view that gender emerges unproblematically from sex. Rather, this pair has somewhat awkwardly dubbed gender as the product of “social doings of some sort.” If gender characteristics emerged naturally from biological sex, then we would expect to see little change in conceptions of gender across time and place, and rebellions against gender norms would be few and far between. But the historical record demonstrates otherwise.

There are obvious examples here: a hundred years ago it was considered unwomanly to partake in sports or to vote. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic games, claimed that, “women’s sports are all against the law of nature.” Similarly, the only places that permitted women to vote before the 20th Century were the Pitcairn Islands (1838), New Zealand (1893), the Cook Islands (1893) and the Isle of Man (1881). Who would have foreseen that, by 2009, the world would have seen all but one country (Saudi Arabia) adopt women’s suffrage? And who would have predicted that, since 1950, there would be over 40 women heads of state in countries as diverse as Pakistan, Rwanda, Britain, Germany, and Argentina?

Women’s education in the West was also severely restricted until the 20th Century and largely limited to learning about traditional domestic skills, such as sewing, cooking and child rearing. And although women had been allowed to attend lectures and sit some examinations at the University of Oxford since the 1880s, they were only admitted as full members of university in 1920. By the beginning of the 21st Century, this situation has completely changed. While it used to be considered unwomanly for females to develop their intellects, studies by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) have shown that, since the 1990s, women have enrolled in British universities at higher rates than men.

Such changes in gender norms provide easy empirical examples for arguments in favor of social constructionism. But gender as a social construction has also been conceived of in a deeper, more personal sense. Philosopher Judith Butler has pointed out how, in Western culture, it is common to assume that all individuals’ gender “doings” (mannerisms, clothes, social roles) are reflective of some inner, bio-psychological male or female essence. But what if this assumption of an essential self, driving behavior, was flawed? What if gender primarily consisted of acts, which are not necessarily tied to any inner essence, acts that are performed under the pressure of social regulation? In her work, Butler questions the very basic assumption that an essential self necessarily lurks underneath our skins, controlling and dictating our gendered behavior.

Empirical investigations of this thought-experiment have found that gender often does function as a “social achievement,” rather than as the expression of an internal essence. While gendered behaviors may become so routinized and fixed that they might appear to reflect such an essence, they have a significant “learned” dimension and are frequently subject to social approval or disapproval. This dynamic is usually most evident when someone fails to “do” their gender appropriately, when they do not take the kinds of actions that are considered appropriate to their gender in a particular society. Examples abound: women who do not shave their legs or armpits, men who color-code their notes or speak in a high-pitched tone, women who are loud and outspoken, men who choose to wear makeup and so on. Even though we might not be aware of it, our genders are always open to evaluation and if we fail to “do” them properly, to follow the proper social scripts, it is likely that we will be noticed. The range of possible reactions to such “gender failures” can stretch from approval (in some feminist and queer circles), to mild amusement and mocking, to outright disapproval and violent enforcement of gender norms.

Feminine men and trans women are the most frequent sufferers of this last tendency. In her book, Whipping Girl, Julia Serano argues that the high levels of violence meted out to men who express femininity and men who want to become women is the result of “traditional sexism,” or Western society’s devaluation of everything that is female or feminine. The fact that people who have been assigned masculine genders by society, choose to be “womanly” challenges the still-persistent idea that femaleness and femininity is inherently inferior to masculinity. If being female or feminine really were demeaning, then why would anyone want to choose them?

But whatever the causes of violence against trans people, there is no disputing its prevalence. According to a project commissioned by the NGO, Transgender Europe, the killing of a trans person is reported somewhere in the world once every three days. A particularly tragic example of this all too common form of violence is the 2008 murder of Larry King, a thirteen year-old American schoolboy. He was notorious in school for his feminine choice of dress, his flirtation with other boys, and his desire to be called Leticia. After Larry spread a rumor about another boy in his class being his ex-boyfriend, the boy came to school the next day with a gun and shot him.


Sexuality may appear to pose the most obvious challenge to the heterosexist model. People have at least a passing familiarity with the idea that sexuality can be fluid and changeable, as shown by frequent pop culture references to the Kinsey Scale (which ranks people on a scale from 0 to 6 based on their propensity for homosexual or heterosexual sex) and Freudian notions about the essentially bisexual nature of humans. A more flexible approach to sexuality is arguably more familiar and popularized than theories of “gender doings” and “third sexes.”

Nonetheless, studies purporting to have discovered the biological pre-ordination and essentially fixed nature of sexuality still abound. Researchers led by Charles Roselli of Oregon Health & Science University have alleged that “gay rams” have different brain structures than “heterosexual sheep,” and further research on sexuality in other animals has predictably led to examinations of human brains. Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have recently argued that gay men’s brains resemble those of straight women. The two halves of heterosexual women’s and homosexual men’s brains are fairly equal in size, while for heterosexual men the right hemisphere is slightly larger. Based on this influential biological framework, sexual orientation would be determined while a child is still in the womb.

But failure to account for diversity once again poses a challenge to this view. Lacking, for instance, is an explanation of the prevalence of “situational” homosexuality in single-sex settings such as prisons, pirate ships, British boarding schools, and armies. In those cases, sexuality appears to be strongly influenced by the institutional setting, not any biological pre-determination.

Philosopher Michel Foucault has also pointed out that “homosexual” and “heterosexual” identities are inventions of 19th Century bio-medical discourse. Previously, sexuality was not viewed as a state of being (as something one is) but simply as something that one does. If a man was a “sodomite,” that simply meant that he committed sex acts that were considered “immoral,” not that one was incorrigibly a sexual “deviant” by constitution and essential identity. Thus, the concept of “sexual orientation” (as homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual) has a fairly short history.

And while people have certainly existed who had an exclusive or predominant attraction to one or both genders, the notion that sexualities must necessarily be classified on that basis has not always been dominant. In certain segments of Ancient Greek society, sexuality was defined more by social class status than gender. For upper caste Athenian men, in particular, the gender of their partners did not matter so much. Rather, it was important that the “active” partner (the one who penetrated) was in a higher social position than the “passive” partner. So, older men could penetrate younger males, women, and slaves, but they could not have sex with each other. In that sense, sexuality was a way of maintaining the hierarchical social order and gender was not considered to be an overly significant factor in determining eligible sexual partners – at least not as significant as it is today.

Historicization, thus, leads us to the conclusion that alternative conceptualizations of sexuality must be at least theoretically possible. There is already a proliferation of diverse sexual communities on the internet and in some metropolitan areas (S & M-ers, foot and armpit fetishists, etc), which suggests that it might be possible to have socially recognized classifications of sexuality, which are not based on gender. But right now, we are limited, at least on the level of social recognition, to sexualities defined on that basis. For better or worse, we are only socially intelligible if we define ourselves as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.

As Society Made Us?

Overall, social constructionist theories have significantly altered our understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality. It is no longer possible to argue unproblematically that there can only be two sexes, that masculine and feminine genders are the natural outgrowths maleness and femaleness, and that sexuality is fixed at birth and solely determined by innate biological drives towards one or both genders. The key advantage of the social constructionist paradigm is that it can point our attention to how phenomena that are considered natural or biologically given may actually be the historical products of collective human agency or, to reiterate West & Zimmerman, the result of “social doings of some sort.”

In ideological terms, this way of looking at the world can be highly useful. Feminists, queer activists and intersexuals have defined the 20th Century gender and sexual order as fundamentally unjust, and social constructionist theory clearly suggests that this order can be changed: since humans created it, they can also undo it. Constructionism shows that a world in which intersexual infants are not operated on at birth, where trans people are valued and respected, and in which a plurality of different sexualities co-exist peacefully, is possible. This is the progressive potential that burns at the core of social constructionist theory, and which has drawn so many people on the Left wing of the political spectrum to it.

***For more information***

There are many books and articles to choose from on the social construction of gender. For a sociological perspective, see West and Zimmerman’s classic article, “Doing Gender,” which was published in the June 1987 edition of Gender and Society. Judith Lorber’s Paradoxes of Gender approaches the topic in a similar way. If you are looking for a more critical and philosophical perspective, see Gender Trouble, Bodies that Matter, and Undoing Gender – all by Judith Butler. The three volumes of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality are probably the best introduction to the social construction of sexuality out there. You might also want to have a look at Carol Queen’s Pomosexuals and David Halperin’s How to do the History of Homosexuality.

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The internet has completely revolutionized the exchange of information in the world as we know it. Obscure pieces of data that used to require a trip to the library or the family’s outdated encyclopedia set are now available to everyone in a matter of nanoseconds. Imagine the bar fights that have been avoided because drunken disagreements over the silliest of statistics can now be solved with a text or quick search on your cell phone browser. How connected we are, as distance means nothing in a world of webcams, Skype, and Facebook. However great all of these advancements may be, the truth about the internet is found in a song from Avenue Q that went viral on YouTube a few years ago:

The internet is made for porn.

While other fields have prospered due to the internet, the porn industry has grown leaps and bounds. Much to the chagrin of the established companies like Vivid, Playboy, Falcon and the like, the internet has made it such that any entrepreneurial individual with so-so looks, a webcam, and a not completely obsolete computer can be tomorrow’s Top Porn Star. When Kurt Wild, of gay porn fame, could be making cash online while living as a straight man working at Subway during his ‘off hours’, that tells you that the field has completely opened up. (Wild, by the way, was fired when one of his customers recognized him and complained. He is a married man and the father of three, who, in his spare time, makes gay porn.)

Wild is in himself a good, if not humorous, example of the true issue here – orientation identification and the porn industry. Not so long ago, the porn industry created the term ‘gay for pay’ to encompass those men who did not define themselves as gay but readily performed gay scenes on camera. Their reasoning was simple: gay porn, compared to straight porn, paid on average 3 times the amount. You could go hungry doing straight porn; you could make your car and house payment doing gay porn. Thus we were besieged by men who would let-someone-else-suck-their-penis-but-wouldn’t-reciprocate, all the while their wives and girlfriends wait outside in the green room (or in one famous story, in the car with the baby, ignorant of what is happening inside).

Back to Wild. Kurt has been a busy boy. He has worked for any number of famous internet studios (yes, there are famous internet studios!) and has starred in hundreds, if not thousands, of videos. However, Wild does not consider himself gay or bisexual; at times he has leaned towards ‘bi curious’, but he most commonly sees himself as straight. He has gone on Tyra Banks’ show to assert his sexuality, and makes a clear (to him) distinction between having sex with men and having a self identification with anything beyond straight.

This ambiguity makes plenty of people uncomfortable, because the divining line between “straight” and “anything other than straight” for men (in mainstream American culture) has been your involvement (sexually) with other men beyond the ‘exploration’ phase. One could argue Kurt Wild is a thousand or so movies past the point of ‘finding himself’, so he should be pretty clear on who (and what) he is. He, like many others in our society for a host of reasons (beyond porn) refuses to let society force him to categorize himself.

From a sociological standpoint, that’s sort of like refusing to let your heart beat. Unless you are the most practiced yogi, that’s an autonomic response, and you simply can’t control it. Similarly, Wild and others in his industry can refuse to define themselves all they want. (Another good example is Mr. Aaron “AJ” James, who starred on MTV True Life, and has contended that he is straight to his family, many of whom could not accept it) That’s their prerogative. In skating, Johnny Weir has done this repeatedly.

However, labels and categorization are functions of society; label yourself whatever you wish (or not), society ‘rights’ the situation if you choose incorrectly (or not at all). It’s automatic. You have no control over it. All the complaining in the world won’t change it. Escoffier (2003) makes this entire concept of labels in gay porn (among gay-for-pay actors) much more involved, because he indicates that it is less about identification and more about the construction of a second self, a “gay persona”. This persona only has relevance (and ‘life’) when the actor is engaging in a related activity, such as creating porn, stripping, or escorting. To Escoffier (and many of the actors he interviews) sex and sexual situations are mechanical, and it’s the involvement of feeling (and lack thereof) that make these men able to identify themselves as straight, “pansexual”, “onnisexual”, or something other than gay or bisexual.

Thus represents the problem of ‘bi-curious’ some internalize, some use it; few take it seriously. In a world of boxes labeled “straight” and “gay” we need somewhere to place people, even porn stars we don’t want to know personally. It is highly limiting, and does not allow for a fluidity of orientation or gender, but as a recent post highlighted, it is, to a great degree, the world in which we live.

And if you’re a man, in gay porn, guess what box you’re in?

Jeffrey Escoffier (2003), Gay for Pay: Straight Men and the Making of Gay Pornography, Qualitative Sociology 26:4, pp. 531-555.

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In Reality

I'm not a huge fan of reality television. I watched one season of "Survivor," and have regularly watched "Project Runway" for the last four years. Oh, and while I began my transition, "What Not to Wear" was sorta helpful, even if the feminist in me now rebels at either a man or a woman telling women how to "look like women." (Hello! By definition she already does, just not the kind of woman you prefer to see!) But that's about it; generally, the genre doesn't do a lot for me.

But I guess things change. This year I've been watching the biggest bear in the woods, "American Idol," for the first time since my marriage imploded. The combination of this being Simon Cowell's last year--and I was always a Cowell fan; as a former English major, my professional training was to end up something like him, except without the money--and the inclusion of an actual queer-person-we-know-is-queer (Ellen Degeneres), instead of the cryptoqueer Clay Aiken and I-know-you-won't-ask-but-I-really-want-to-tell Adam Lambert piqued my interest. I have to say, "Idol" has improved somewhat since the third season, which was when I stopped watching; they do a lot less audition trainwrecks, and this year was notable for not having a single incident of trans-shaming during the auditions. Also, Crystal Bowersox is cool and makes me hum with hope that her love of Melissa Etheridge comes from more than just the similarities between their voices, ahem.

Hell, I even watched the grandaddy of all reality shows, the Oscars, on Sunday. Although fun viewing tip: did you know that you can miss a large part of the show, say by watching Matt Dillon be scrumptiously amoral in Drugstore Cowboy, and still flick back to the Oscars in time for the Best Adapted Screenplay award? 'Struth. And yanno, I can say all sorts of super feminist stuff about Kathryn Bigelow finally making a movie that was dudely enough to win the Oscars (not that she's dudely, or even that The Hurt Locker was especially dudely in the way it was directed; on the contrary, Bigelow was honest about men in a way I've never seen a male director be. But. The movie was still all. about. dudes.) But how can I talk about that, when there's this in the world:

From the article:

"Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton and Nina Poon understand transformation. According to PR Newswire, the three women have teamed up with VH1 and Left-Right Inc. for a new fashion makeover show, Transform Me. Each half-hour episode follows the makeover of one woman badly in need of a transformation — on the outside and inside. The subjects quickly find out this won’t be your typical makeover, since Laverne, Jamie and Nina are all transgender women."

OK, I'm dense: but "I Want to Work For Diddy" wasn't on my radar two years ago, and anyway, having a trans person on a reality show isn't that big a deal anymore; we're like the gay folks in the "Real World" reruns from the '90s, only with a lot less flannel shirts and Hole albums in the background.

So I don't know much about Ms. Cox, except I admire her for her success and for turning her 15 minutes of fame into a full half-hour. Kudos, ma'am, kudos.

But: is it good for teh Tranz?

I'm...divided on this. I guess it was inevitable; ever since "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," there was going to eventually be another program to mine sensationalistic gold from somewhere on the LTBG spectrum, and sadly for those of us who love women...on television...(or, you know, wherever), lesbians aren't doing it for network execs. (Besides, to fit in with the horrific sexuality stereotypes of "Queer Eye," what could they possibly do? "Lady Mechanics for the Straight Woman"? "Sex Toys All Girls Would Like"? Actually, I'd have watched that last one.)

But still. It's hard. On the one hand, having three (count 'em! Three!) trans women on television at once, and none of them is either a) a sex worker b) a dead sex worker c) played by a cis woman and d) played by a cis man--well, that's an accomplishment. It's why "Queer Eye" was even halfway tolerable: gay people! On TV! Played by gay people! And everyone on the show agrees that's a good thing!

However...a makeover show? Really? Do I even have to go into what an enormous minefield that is--with the double whammy of policing acceptable feminine behavior coupled with the underlying theme about the artificiality of a trans woman's gender? Do we have to go there? Couldn't we have a show about trans lawyers or something? (I know of at least four of those, one who was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court.) Does it have to be about teh shoez?

But I'll probably watch, because there's a slender ray of hope in the write-up that this will be a tiny bit more than a makeup show. And because, seriously, when am I ever going to see that many trans folk on TV at once? I mean, besides those old light beer commercials.

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It’s by no means a unique struggle to move to a new place and try to find community; starting over, meeting new people, and learning the way of the land is a challenging task for anyone. For me, moving from a small community of students in Virginia to a big city was definitely a culture shock, but until now – nearly four years later – I haven’t been able to really work through and articulate what I find odd about large urban spaces.

Recently I’ve been reading a book by Mary Gray called “Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Urban America.” In her book, Dr. Gray powerfully describes learning the ways of a small community that leans politically to the right, and the difficult process that all members of the community experience confronting LGBT issues. The inescapability of a small, rural community demands that all members of this town have a stake in social and political outcomes.

The story Dr. Gray tells reminds me of my experience as an activist in a small, pretty homophobic college community. At first, when I had no foundation of support, oppressive forces within the community were crippling. It’s hard to explain what it can be like to be living in a total institution without a support network to those who have never experienced it before. But gradually, as I learned more about myself and was eventually able to meet kind and sympathetic people, I began to understand what change can feel like in small communities. It can be exposing, debilitating, eye-opening; individual or small group behaviors can have profound impact on your neighbors. It’s intimate. Total communities like those found in small college campuses or small towns are unique spaces where the self may be at odds against a powerful few; the local organization of politics and power plays a considerable role in the well-being of any given individual.

Urban spaces certainly have their perks; the popular notion that LGBT people can run away to New York or San Francisco and finally “be themselves” certainly holds some truth. But I argue that part of the luxury of big cities – the anonymity and ability to do certain controversial things without devastating repercussions – comes with a price. It’s much harder to see how beautiful it can be to make a difference for not only a small group of individuals but also the every day operation of local institutions and the people who make up that community. In big cities, presentations of self can hold much less meaning in terms of how others in that space interact with any given individual.

I’m not arguing that cities do not provide a space for individuals to grow and, much more practically, offer a safeguard against abuse certain people might experience elsewhere. Or am I trying to say that it’s sugar and daisies to live as a marginalized person in a seemingly inescapable small town. I guess I’m just trying to articulate that localized struggle can bring about some truly transformative and powerful experiences, and it takes some strength to willingly be part of it. Cheers to those who work hard to make a difference in these small communities.

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March is Women's History Month, a time to reflect on the fearless women of the past who have done awesome things like fought for our right to vote, made great discoveries in science, flown in space and more.

But it's a time to reflect. Have women come far enough? Or, have we come too far? Recent reports point out that women outnumber men at colleges. (And this is a problem because ... well, some of these women can't get a date!)

In the recent recession, men have been losing jobs at a faster rate than women, and some worry that women will soon outnumber men in the workplace.

Could we argue that feminism has become too successful? Is it time to create a Men's History Month? To establish more college scholarships for men? To make the workplace more man-friendly?

Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. These are just recent trends and speculations. Are women truly starting to reverse roles against men and become the dominant gender? Or is this just a temporary phase, and something will come along soon enough to make things "right" with the world (just like the end of World War II)? Or will things gradually even out, where in general, equal numbers of men and women attend college and work outside and home (and stay at home).

Or are we so set on having such separate and defined gender roles that if one gender is to advance, that must be at the expense of the other? If women are to succeed, that can only happen if men fail. Is our society set up that way?

One of the major criticisms of feminism, even by feminists, is that it didn't do enough for men. Meaning, feminism redefined the role of women, but what did that mean for men? Did feminism neglect working to redefine the role of men to match this new role for women? When a society is structured in such a way that this gender is this way and that gender is that way, and one supplements the other, when ones changes, the other has to as well. Otherwise, the gender left behind feels resentful, as if the other took over and left no role for them.

However, one thing feminism did do is reveal that the distinct two gender society is not beneficial for anyone. Even the gender that is told to be the dominant one, the powerful and successful one, can feel left wanting more. What about the men that don't want to dominate? Feminism told women they could be whatever they want, but men can be whatever they want too. Just like women don't have to stay at home and raise children, men don't have to work outside the home or be fathers at all.

I've often read that the first wave of feminism was at the suffragettes, and the second wave was the "bra burners" in the 1970s, and we're currently in teh third wave, but I don't think that's the case. I think we're still riding the end of second wave feminism and still working on redefining the role of men and women as "whatever the individual wants it to be."

If that's the case, will there be a next wave of feminism? Will it even be necessary? Or will it be something else? Will the LGBT movement move further into the spotlight as the next way to redefine gender in a widespread way?

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Web 2.0 is the aspiring model you meet on OkCupid who is obviously not into you but still booty calls you every couple of weeks despite not actually knowing your name. On the one hand, it has provided queers with community and informational resources unrivaled in the history of our movement(s). On the other, operating the internet is no fucking secret, thus for every educated, informed safe space on the web there are 15 or so wretched hives of scum and bigotry where even the most progressive and sensitive of people may indulge in the decadent pleasures of othering and Admiral Ackbar macros. Worst of all, they never pay their half of the Waffle House bill. Bitch. I should have known you'd break my heart.

In the two years that I've been out as trans, I have come out in person to four people, all in one on one situations and usually when there was some sort of background activity or noise to occupy our attention in case there was an awkward silence. For example, I came out to my brother while we played Smash Brothers on the Wii, and to this day he claims that I used the temporary distraction caused by the breaking of the news to give me an opening for a cheap shot to win the match. He was only mostly wrong. Ell Oh Ell. By then, I had already come out on my LiveJournal, and a few months later, after I had accrued enough “photographic evidence”, I changed my name and uploaded new pics on my Facebook, which for many of the iGeneration is “coming out”. While I admit to purposely avoiding “spilling the news” to loved ones in person, I didn't do so out of fear of their reactions or to my safety. I laugh when I'm nervous. And any situation that can not be diffused by my “talking blueberry muffins” joke makes me nervous. Many winters ago the girl I was seeing threatened to stab herself in the leg with a knife if I didn't promise to never see my best friend again. I laughed. So she cut herself. Apparently I got the answer wrong. She was bleeding and, freaking out, I laughed some more. She can no longer wear short skirts because I am a slow learner. Ell Oh Ell.

The beauty and convenience of social networking is that a Facebook or Myspace profile is essentially a digital badge of identification. It's got your face, your name, interests, politicial affiliation, sexual orientation, and even a link to the person you're involved with. Announcing any major changes in this public identity of yours can be (but sometimes isn't, as many trans folk who tried to chane their names on facebook have learned) as simple as clicking “female” or writing in “Green” where “Democrat” was writ before. And you're done. You're out. If you wish to customize your user experience, as the underpaid girl in the blue polo would say (if I ever shopped there), you can post a note/blog/journal update on the subject, or get an app, like SGO, which allows queers to list their sexual orientation (if Facebook's “interested in” does not do it justice), how long they've been out, who they're out to, their gender identification, etc. My SGO profile even lists my transition journal, which is a classy, four star way of saying “a link to my paid LJ account”. I hadn't felt so empowered with such little activity since I learned that my DVD player remote had a subtitle button. With all the time I saved from not navigating the DVD menu, I was able to memorize and forget the first 10 digits of Pi. And blame it high fructose corn syrup.

But there are no free three-martini lunches (look it up, n00b) on the internet. Like the virus that cripples your PC because you downloaded what you thought was I Think I Love My Wife before it came out in theaters (pirating software is like buying drugs: don't do it from a source that doesn't have a solid street rep. Or in front of your grandma. If she heard about this it would kill her. Just kill her), using social networking as the runway upon which to debut our more authentic identities carries with it a lot of bullshit. Some of it is preventable. Most of it is not. And that's not your fault. There was a time when social networking was considered a privilege for the outgoing and tech savvy (for instance, Facebook used to require a valid school e-mail ZOMGWTFBBQ), but is now becoming more and more vital to societal and economic interaction. Everyone has to have one. Or two. As the accessibility of the product increases, the general IQ and social tact of its userbase will decrease. A person is Isaac Newton, people are Tea Baggers. It's as stone cold of a human truth as they come. How and why will this basic fact of human nature interfere with your user experience? More after the break.

And now, some math.

I have 341 friends on my Facebook. 8 are family (this is actually a low figure compared to others), 25 are friends and classmates from college (Arizona), and 28 are friends that I've made since moving to California. These are people who I feel comfortable (i.e. allow) to take pictures of me. That leaves 280 people. The “miscellaneous” pile that includes high school classmates who I haven't seen in 6 years, other bloggers, friends of friends, people I see at social functions but never talk to, and the people I meet once at a party, friend, and never hear from again. That is a rather wide gap of casuality. But with Facebook's randomly selected “you should write on this person's wall” and the plethora of apps available that allow you to answer random “interview style” questions such as “does x look good in a mini skirt” or “if you were in court and x was a judge, would they let you off the hook”, the distance from A to B becomes shorter every day, and out of nowhere you get a flurry of questions or comments from someone you don't really remember anymore. Below are some nuggets of my own awkward mine.

“When did you trade in your man card? Lol”

“Ha! Nice pics! Costume party?”

“I didn't know you were a drag queen. How long have you been gay?”

What is the best way to respond to questions like this? Your guess is as good as mine, boyo. Trying to follow my lead on this will yield you the same results as using the Dune film adaptation as the basis of your book report. When I'm polite and try to be informative, it invites people to make even more problematic comments because obviously “I'm a good sport about it”. When I'm firm or snarky, I am chastised for being one of those mean trans folk who doesn't give “regular people” a chance to be educated. I have had some minor success in simply deleting the wall post/comment and writing that person a short e-mail about the problems with their comments or assumptions. But by then it might be too late. That person might tell two friends. Who'll tell two friends, and so on, and so on. The sleeping giant has become a nuisance. 280 casual acquaintances becomes a perpetual Q&A session. Not that we need such an archaic means of gossip spreading to complicate our lives anymore. Most of us can be looked up on google. Now anyone, regardless of how little your identity is their business, can get all the “dirt” they need to deny you a job, post pics of you on /b/ for others to mock, or just flat out harass you. That which has given us our voice takes away our privacy and dignity.

Now you might decide to do the “smart, reasonable thing” and a) hide or subdue your queerness on the profile you use to interact with your family, coworkers, etc and/or b) create a separate profile with which to fully express yourself. All you need is an e-mail address to start a profile, and those might as well grow on trees. I have five. So do what you need to to protect yourself and your reputation. With that, I can agree. For now. Four or five drinks later, I will tell you that there is no reputation to defend. Myspace, especially, is up to its knees in trans folk who create profiles with the sole purpose of fetishizing themselves (and by extension, all trans people), who fill their pic galleries with scans of forced femme art and outfits they wish to own one day, lament about not being a“real girl” in their status updates and decorate everyone's comments page with glittery graphics. They refer to themselves as a “tranny” or “t-girl” in their profile, unaware of the furious in-fighting that has occurred in the trans community over the use of those words.They seem to embody every negative stereotype that cispeople paint us as, and ultimately, they get just as much representation on the web as you or I may. Perhaps even more so, since people with these kinds of profiles tend to be much more generous with the friend requests, perhaps because they don't risk losing any face in doing so. Now, before you hit me with that laser beam, check yourself: I'm not hating on fetishists. In fact, as someone with a FetLife account who used to blog almost exclusively about her kink activities, I would say I feel an affinity for fetishists and deviants everywhere. However, you cannot deny that no matter how much we may love our fellow queer, there are some that we wouldn't want being considered as the “template” for the rest of us by the majority. I know this, because I'm one of those people. You do not want me as a mascot, community. Please remember that I said that. Just in case I don't.

Action and reaction. It is the law of the internet. For every queer who uses the internet to stand proud and promote awareness of themselves and the community, there is a cisbigot (or 5) who will use it to make us targets for mockery and harm, or a well-meaning n00b reinforcing negative stereotypes.

The interwebs cannot be a substitute for real, meatspace representation. Joining myspace groups and posting to LJ comms will not give the public a true sense of our presence and numbers. Coming out by changing a few profile settings on Facebook will not spare you the invasive questioning and unwanted comments (unless, you know, you're smart about it and delete everyone you don't trust to be sensitive with that, but if I had done that I'd have no story to tell). We must remain active in the flesh and blood community, and maintain our visibility, while simultaneously using tools like Facebook and Livejournal to connect with queers from all o'er the land and show not only the world but ourselves that we are not alone and our pride extends borders, both physical and poetic. If you can update your facebook via twitter, I think you can manage this.

Relying solely on social networking as a community and for spreading awareness and education to people who might actually be interested in knowing will only make us invisible with time. On a related note, I think I'm super cereal about joining a support group. I know my Tamagotchi is there for me and all, and I totes appreciate it, but she simply can't give me the validation and support I need to get through this.

And that's all I got to say about that.

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The Label Fable

Please note: This article has been flagged by the editorial staff for possibly offensive remarks. Please use your own discretion in reading.

When did activism become self-righteous absurdity? When did political correctness become extreme sensitivity? It seems that new labels pop up everyday, each one less inclusive than the last, each one triggering yet another debate over validity, political correctness and implications. The term “bisexual” is no exception.

A couple of years ago, I noticed the term "pansexual" popping up in a lot of bi forums and discussions (for anyone out there who isn’t familiar with the term, “pansexual” means being attracted not only to both sexes, but to all genders). During one such discussion, I made some snide, offhand remark about changing our label just as people were finally starting to understand the term “bisexual”. I have a lot of unpopular opinions, and so was prepared for a little backlash, but the reaction to this comment was nothing short of hysteria. Half of the forum members attacked me for insinuating that pan and bi were the same thing, the other half attacked me for not using the term "pansexual" myself. Three things became clear rather quickly:

1. a lot of bisexuals are, apparently, only attracted to cisgendered people.

2. a lot of bisexuals feel that the term "bisexual" excludes those who do not fit into standard gender roles.

3. a lot of people feel the need to redefine their sexual orientation based on their preferences.

It seems that, because of their generic nature, common labels are falling out of favor in certain crowds. “Male”, “female”, “bisexual”, “gay” and “straight” are no longer sufficient to many, and I'm left looking like an ignorant asshole because I disagree.

I do not understand how using the term "bisexual" indicates a lack of recognition or attraction towards trans or genderqueer individuals. I have no issue calling myself bi while recognizing the many different gender roles there are and being open to attraction to any one of them. To be honest, I prefer the term "queer" because I think if any label fits me it's that one, both in orientation and in personality. Still, if people ask, I say I'm bi. I always have, because people seem to comprehend that better than “queer” or “biamorous” or “pansexual”. I don't understand how this is exclusionary to trans folk or to the androgynous. It means I am attracted to people, regardless of what bits they have in their pants. I don’t know how it could possibly get more inclusive than that.

I do not understand declaring oneself neither male nor female. Yes, one can feel they do not fit into a stereotypical gender role. Yes, one can be born with the "wrong" parts. Yes, one can feel a certain sense of androgyny. But, in the end, gender and sex are not the same thing (at least, they are no longer viewed as the same thing). Everyone does have a sex, whether they like it or not. One quick glance at the nether regions will confirm this, and I truly do not understand the desire to deny it.

Mostly, though, I do not understand redefining orientation to highlight preference. All bisexuals are attracted to both sexes. Attraction to gender is a preference, not an orientation. Some bisexuals prefer clearly defined genders, some prefer androgyny, and some don’t care much either way. Likewise, some straight men prefer big titted blondes, some lesbians prefer spiky-haired butches, some gay men prefer androgynous girly-boys, and some don’t care much either way. Redefining your sexuality to make these preferences clear seems not only unnecessary, but rather ridiculous to me.

At this point, I realize this is probably coming off as a tirade against the term “pansexual” itself. It’s not. As a lover of etymology, I am aware that words, terms and definitions evolve with the times. I have no issue with this, or with people choosing the label that they think suits them best. What irritates me is that this obsession with political correctness has led to a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of labels.

Labels are not meant to be specific—in fact, making them specific defeats their purpose entirely. Labels are meant to give a quick, generic synopsis of a person, summing things up as quickly and easily as possible. Details are offered on a person-to-person basis, as they should be. To most of the world, I am a white, bisexual, female hippy, not only because that is true, but because it’s easy to grasp; it gives everyone a general overview of who I am. To those who know me well, I am a liberal, moderately feminine Canadian of European descent who is attracted to artsy, feminine women and rugged, quietly intelligent men. This is also true, but would not make a very effective label.

We must not forget that political correctness was born from the desire to show acceptance and respect to those who differ from us. If we are to create an environment of mutual respect, we must also establish a simple language as the foundation for a healthy dialogue. Getting hung up on semantics and creating a dozen labels that all essentially mean the same thing is always going to be divisive—an ironic side effect of political correctness. So go on and label yourself however you like, but keep in mind that labels are to define yourself to people you don’t know; if they don’t understand the term, all the thought and care you put into it is moot.

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An amended version of this article was originally published in the first edition of Exposition Magazine.

The Social Construction of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality

“Male is to female, as masculine is to feminine, as penis is to vagina.” These few words embody the predominant view of sex, gender, and sexuality in the 20th Century. This period was historically governed by the presumption that male and female were the only two sexes. Masculinity was viewed as the natural manifestation of maleness, while femininity was considered to be the biological outgrowth of femaleness. And heterosexual sex – defined as the union of penis and vagina – was perceived as the only normal form of sexual expression. Anyone who did not fit this supposedly natural and divinely ordained heterosexist model (such as: feminine males, masculine females, people who changed their sex, intersexuals and homosexuals) was liable to discrimination, police persecution, and pathologization. Gender and sexual nonconformists were frequently branded “freaks of nature,” harassed by law enforcement, and placed under the not so benevolent care of the medical establishment. For example, a common “treatment” for gays and lesbians during the 1950s was the so-called “aversion therapy,” whereby psychiatrists attempted to rid homosexuals of their “immoral” desires by subjecting them to electric shocks. The horrors of this procedure have been poignantly depicted in the queer-themed films, Latter Days and But I’m a Cheerleader.

In the latter part of the 20th century, however, the heterosexist model began to come under consistent critique, questioning and consternation. The rise of feminist, gay and lesbian, transgender, and intersex social movements augured the de-pathologization of gender and sexual difference. Those who deviated from the heterosexist model were increasingly viewed as individuals deprived of their human rights, rather than sick people in need of fixing. At the same time, sociologists, historians, philosophers, queer theorists, and feminists began to question the naturalness of the heterosexist model. Since it was no longer possible to simply write off the lives and experiences of gay, transgender and intersex people as illegitimate and unnatural, this diverse group of scholars began to take them seriously in their work. Taking their cue from Simone de Beauvoir's now famous assertion, that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one,” they posed the following puzzles: “if masculinity for men, femininity for women, and heterosexuality are indeed natural and biologically pre-determined, then how is it possible that feminine women, masculine men, and homosexuals even exist? If sex is physically given at birth, then what do we make of the experience of transsexuals, who’s mental and physical sexes do not match? And how do we explain the diversity of masculinities and femininities across time and space?”

Contrary to the heterosexist model, which depends on assertions about biological given-ness, these scholars developed the idea that the categories of sex, gender and sexuality are socially constructed: they are created by human beings and depend on collective agreement for their existence. A good example of a social construct is money. Little multicolored slips of paper have no inherent meaning to them, and yet, they are extremely valuable in society. Their role in economic exchange can only occur because of a tacit social agreement about what they mean. While the slips of paper are certainly real, their most important function (as symbols of economic value) is purely a social construction. Similarly, while bodies, behaviors, mannerisms, and sexual desires are real, the meanings that we give to them, the way in which we organize and categorize them, are created by humans and reliant on social agreement for their existence.


The argument about the social construction of sex is perhaps the most difficult to make. Eager skeptics would surely say: “But aren’t there clear differences between male and female anatomy? And how would we reproduce without the two sexes?” Nevertheless, the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, has put forward a convincing argument that sex, at least in its 20th Century manifestation, is not a natural given.

The heterosexist model assumes that there are only two sexes, that all humans have either male or female sex characteristics, and that everyone is necessarily a member of a particular sex from birth. However, the existence of the intersexed, or people with a mixture of female and male sex organs, suggests otherwise. Knowledge of this phenomenon may come as a surprise to most because, until very recently, it was standard practice for doctors to, in Fausto-Sterling’s words, “catch intersexuals at birth.” Confronted with “ambiguous” genitalia, doctors rushed to operate on the infant in order to surgically craft “appropriate” male and female reproductive organs. Intersexuals were, thus, literally erased from existence in order to enforce the two-sex system.

Those intersexuals who escaped the surgeon’s knife faced an altogether different kind of erasure: social exclusion and discrimination. The story of the Spanish hurdler, Maria Patino, whose mixed sex characteristics were revealed by “femininity tests” mandated by the International Olympic Committee, is emblematic. While Patino had only ever known herself to be a woman, the tests showed that she had Y-chromosomes and testicles inside her labia, and this resulted in swift disqualification from competition at the 1985 Kobe World University Games, abandonment by her boyfriend, and the revocation of all her previous awards. “I was erased from the map, as if I had never existed,” she recalled. And while Patino did manage to return to competition, regaining her status as an athlete was an uphill struggle of titanic proportions, both financially and emotionally.

If intersexuality casts doubt on the proposition that there are only two sexes and that all bodies separate easily into male and female categories, transsexuality poses another challenge to the central tenets of the heterosexist model: it questions the assertion that sex is given from birth and remains constant throughout life. Trans activist and gender theorist, Julia Serano, has described transsexuality as the state of experiencing “subconscious sex” (or the sex one profoundly feels oneself to be) as fundamentally at odds with birth sex. Many trans people will take steps to change their physical bodies later in life in order to remedy this disjunction. This means that sex is not necessarily a fixed category that one is born into. Instead, it is more useful to conceptualize it as an “assigned” classification. Doctors, using socially agreed-upon definitions of what constitutes a man and a woman, will assign children a sex at birth and parents, relatives and everyone else will treat the child accordingly. But this assigned sex may not match the sex that a person feels himself, herself or hirself to be.

On the whole, the basic flaw that critics have identified in the heterosexist model is over-simplification: it overlooks the actual variety and complexity of sexed bodies and experiences. In the words of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, people who adhere to the heterosexist model tend to “regard femaleness and maleness as exhausting the natural categories in which persons can conceivably come: what falls between is a darkness, an offense against reason.”

The actual diversity and complexity of sex, viewed outside the framework of heterosexism, has prompted some to propose a fundamental transformation of our two-sex system. For example, Fausto-Sterling has argued that we should add a further three sexes (herms, merms and ferms) to our classification scheme, in order to come closer to capturing the diversity of human bodies and lived experiences. And while she has been criticized for basing her argument solely on genital diversity (as transsexuals have taught us, sex is not necessarily defined by one’s genitals), the presence of “Third Sexes” in some non-Western societies does suggest that a two-sex classification is not inevitable and can be transformed.

For instance, Serena Nanda has argued that the hijras of India represent “an institutionalized third gender role, [they are] neither male nor female.” This idea is controversial: some have claimed that since hijras are born male (or intersexual), but adopt feminine behaviors, names, mannerisms and styles of dress, they are simply trans women living in an Indian cultural context. But there is also evidence to suggest that some hijras do identify themselves with the “third sex” category. Take the example of Mona Ahmed, a hijra interviewed by prominent photographer Dayanita Singh. When Singh asked her about whether she would like to have a sex change operation, Ahmed replied negatively and explained: “You really do not understand. I am the third sex. Not a man trying to be a woman. It is your society’s problem that you only recognize two sexes.”

The second part of this article, which deals with the social construction of gender and sexuality, will be posted in two weeks' time. Until then, please feel free to start a discussion in the comment box below!

***For More Information***

On the social construction of sex, see Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. To find out more about intersexuality, check out The Intersex Society of North America. There is a lot of literature on trans issues, but Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity is a useful start. On social construction in general, see Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality. For a more radical view, check out Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter.

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