Did Tom Colicchio really tell Master Chef participant Art Smith to "Get those limp wrists going" for a quickfire challenge? Really, Tom? Really??

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I tend to write about things that I’ve experienced myself, and since I’m a sociology student, I also tend to enjoy making generalizations. So as always, feel free to shoot me down constructively, but I think I have a hunch about something:

The schools I attended before college were pretty anxious spaces – they were really good public schools where the focus for pretty much everyone in my classes was about getting into the most elite college possible. In fact, everything we did was assessed on the basis of how much it would help you get into a good college. Everyone knew each other’s SAT I & II scores, grades, and extracurricular activities. Everyone knew which extracurricular activities were more important, everyone knew which classes were more important, and everyone knew which schools were the best. This was how, for most of us, we saw the path for success; the path to become authentic, successful selves. Nothing else was more important.

The problem comes, of course, when you forget that some other things in your life are important. Like when you process your worth based on these communal definitions of success about limited kinds of academic performance, and any failures along the way risk indicating that you are nothing, a nobody. And should you fail, you have to be prepared to explain your failure along a narrative of success (“well, I didn’t do so well on the verbal section of the SAT I, but I got a perfect on the SAT II Writing Section, and my personal statement is very well written”). Any admissions officer at an elite college or university knows that the narrative of your school performance and your life, for that matter, directly affects your relative chances at being admitted.

I think what’s pretty commonly known is that although this kind of thinking seems limited to academic performance and admission to the nation’s best colleges, it’s also the logic that seems to follow a lot about other kinds of ideals – especially gender ideals. Gender and sexuality are narratives like any other. It’s a combination of images of success at any given time and their meaning along various hierarchies (Brad Pitt - unwaveringly masculine sexual ideal; Reese Witherspoon - intelligent and appropriately beautiful relationship ideal; Barack Obama - attractive, traditionally masculine, reliable leader). If you’re aiming to be a leader by society’s standards, you can pick one or a few of these ideals and carve your narrative on the path to success. Some people go at any length, carving not only their mind but also their body, the way they relate to others, their physical movements – what kind of handshake they give or how they posture.

Not everyone abides by these intense performance regimes, I don’t think. But a lot of people do, and I’d argue that nearly everyone does at some level. In the U.S. and other highly developed countries we seem to think we have these limitless possibilities of the self – so much opportunity. You can do anything! But it’s not really true, of course. There are rules washing over us all the time, reminding us of the consequences of certain thoughts and actions.

What would happen if the world ignored you because they don’t approve? You would be ignored. You won’t make friends. You can’t relate to other people. You won’t get a job. You won’t be sexually or romantically desirable. You won’t find love, which from what you’ve heard, means everything in life. You won’t get married, and you won’t have kids. You will be missing from the stories celebrated by everyone. And there’s nothing worse than that.

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So what happens if your son or daughter is gender-variant? How do you raise them? How do you interact with your child when she tells you that she hates dresses and wants more than anything to be a football player one day? Or what do you say when your kid asks you if he could try on your makeup, or bring princess dolls to school?

It’s easy enough, particularly for liberal-minded folk, to say that they’d support their kid, tell them they’re great and that they can do and become anything. But what happens when teachers or other parents tell your kid something differently, like that boys don’t play with dolls or that all girls look beautiful in dresses? What happens when the babysitter tells you that your kid isn’t making friends at the park because the other boys don’t want to talk about makeup and unicorns? Do you confront each and every parent, teacher or other person in your child’s life that imposes these traditional pressures of gender conformity on your child? Do you sit other parents’ kids down and explain to them that boys can wear makeup just like girls can, and then see how their parents react?

It’s not so easy. Gendery-minded people everywhere say it’s awful to tell a boy or girl that their varied gendered behaviors are wrong, but what do you do about literally every other person other than you that has a strong social and emotional influence on your kid’s life, on your kid’s ultimate decision-making process regarding gender and self-concept?

Do you instead take a more practical approach, and try to tacitly communicate to your kid that they can be gender-variant in private but recognize that the world is a harsh place? Do you put your kid through gender boot camp at the age of 3 or 4 (when gendered behaviors are most rapidly developing) and teach them to pathologize the expression of their interests, thoughts, desires, to suppress physical movements that could be interpreted as effeminate or too masculine? Or do you teach them to just stave off just the behaviors that are more inflammatory to our society’s gender order?

Raising children in this world is a battle when you start to see things from this angle. Most parents don’t realize what they’re in for until they have a gender-variant kid, because they effectively are pointed at and called on by parents, teachers, and the rest to provide an answer about how they feel about their kid’s actions on a daily basis: Oh, are you sending him to soccer practice with my boys? Does your daughter want to come over and play house with my girls? Look at him playing with all those girls – he’s going to be a heartbreaker!

Not to mention all the moments that some adults purposely ignore your kid when he says something gender incongruent. Sometimes there’s nothing more grating than disapproval through silence. And we all know the trouble that silence can cause.

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Zachary Woolfe joins us from The Awl:

The headquarters of Manhunt.net, a website that, as Wikipedia puts it, "facilitates same-sex introductions," are located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a worldwide center of learning and racial profiling. And other types of profiling as well! Coursing through the Manhunt servers are the profiles of the service's 1.5 million users, which rush towards each other at about twenty-three miles per hour, the speed at which fluid may be propelled through the male human urethra into whoever or whatever one desires, in whatever manner one desires it.

Those tastes—for safe sex, bareback, rimming, kissing, S&M, nipples, PNP!, no PNP!, and oh so much more!—are enumerated in your profile. There are photos of you which anyone can see, and also photos you can selectively lock or unlock. You can email, you can chat, you can (oh, can you ever) block. You can say if you're looking for "Right Now." You can see the particular people who have looked at your profile, and therefore the people who have looked at it, thought about it, and made the choice not to contact you, which can lead to agonizing minutes of self-doubt. Agonizing minutes turn into dull hours, and there goes your evening.

Part of the, how shall we say, charm of Manhunt for many of its users has been its resistance, since its early days in 2002, to any kind of substantive redesign. Yes, there have been a few tweaks here and there (ha!), but as other cruising sites like Gay.com and Adam4Adam.com regularly updated their look, adding more features and more flash, Manhunt has remained stubbornly the same: familiar, modest, even cozy. And staying the same in this case meant surging ahead: by December 2006, Manhunt said it surpassed Gay.com as the Web's largest LGBT-targeted site.

Well, yesterday that charmed time came to an end, and all of us lost a little bit more of our innocence than we had previously lost. Manhunt.net has been redesigned.

It has been given, says the site, "a slicker look and feel." Did they really have to bring lubriciousness into it? For shame. Because the old design was, for us gays (who may like change even less than other people), kind of treasurable. The old design was goofy and even a little comedic, a little ironic. You got so used to it! There were stubby little words in white and orange, and sometimes they flashed. The edges were rounded. There was so much blue! The backgrounds were so blue!

Now the backgrounds are a scary gun-metal grey, like the space ship in Alien. Little bits of blue poke out here and there, but a darker blue than before, a shamed blue. It is all very dark, dark and impersonal. The blown-up logo looks like an Aztec rune gone wrong (Arrows! A question mark! What does it mean?!). And the page is divided into many small boxes with very pointy edges, for things like Links, New Mail, Online Buddies, Blogs, Shopping, and Party Pics. It is hard to imagine that there can be this many small boxes on a single web page.

There is no goofiness, no irony. This is Sex, the new site says, and you are Going To Have It. Or, not: the palpable chill of the new design is something of a buzz kill. Just as the Internet got people off the streets and into each others' apartments in the first place, so the new Manhunt design discourages even going to each others' apartments. With the introduction of their video chat, and their spin-off OnTheHunt.com, launched in 2008, they have directly and indirectly been encouraging users to create porn when they could be searching for partners. There's not even a need for in-person interaction at all. You're tired! It's raining! Why take that train up to Hell's Kitchen when, instead of being on the hunt, you can be OnTheHunt? Virtual performance in lieu of performance anxiety! Ah, Manhunt! Ah, humanity!

Well, though it upset me, and may momentarily confuse some guys looking for after-work action tonight, chances are the redesign won't be as effective as precious, precious marriage in outraging the gay community. Emailed for comment, one user gave a typical answer: "eh its ok, liked it a bit better before, but just getting used to it. whatre u up to? wanna fuck?"

Zachary Woolfe writes Annals of Narcissism for The Awl.

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Sometimes life takes you to funny places, and you find yourself in roles you never thought you would play.

For me, that role is the Good Military Wife.

My husband recently joined the Navy. Luckily for me, he joined as a reservist, but you still have to go through boot camp and other preliminary training. This past weekend, he graduated from boot camp. And thus, it was my "debut" as a military wife.

I played the role so well - I kept our friends and family up-to-speed on his progress throughout boot camp, I wrote him letters every day, hell, I did a pin-ups photoshoot at the wonderful Studio L'amour in Chicago. I did what I could to plan a weekend in which my number one priority was for him to enjoy himself (and get back to base on time at the end of each day). I wore thongs! And I even coordinated a whole weekend of outfits - he would be dressed up (in uniform), so I should be too!

I even got to meet four of the highest ranking officers on base, because of my husband's achievements during boot camp. And boy, did I play the polite wife role so well. "Nice to meet you" "haha" your joke was funny. Aren't I a pretty wife? (OK, and what does it mean that I had a sex dream about his captain last night?? Sorry ... random, but ... weird.)

But I can't get too snarky ... some of it isn't so much be a good wife as it is the fact that I work in PR and understand the importance of appearances.

But if you told me 5 years ago, when I was graduating from the urban college life, that I would put my own life on hold for my husband to pursue his goals, I probably would have kicked you or at least laughed in your face. Not just about putting a man first, but even being married by this point. [I thought I'd marry around maybe age 30 ... in reality I got married at 24. See what happens when you fall in love with a wonderful person!] Anyway ... here I am, not only making sacrifices, but picking out the perfect military wife dresses (have to match his dress whites!)

The military has a lot of rules. I am slowly learning them. (Google the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 125 for a truly hysterical rule. And that doesn't just apply to when he is in uniform - it applies until he is retired from service. You can guess how many people violate that article.)

Anyway, back to rules. My husband and I are very affectionate. But holding hands on base is discouraged (instead I take his arm, which is actually really sweet). Kissing on base is out of the question beyond a quick peck. Also, my husband respects the uniform. He had to be in uniform all weekend after graduation, so he was the perfect gentleman - opening doors for me (normally, we have the habit of whoever gets there first holds it), using "ma'am" and "sir" (well, he normally uses that). And just generally looking very attractive (there's just something about a uniform!) (But does it work both ways? Do guys/lesbians have the same reaction to a woman in a formal uniform? [I'm leaving something like a Hooters uniform out of this ...])

My husband hasn't been to our apartment in over 2 months. In a couple weeks, he'll get weekend leave and can come home. And you know what? I'm already planning to take that Friday off from work so I can clean the apartment and prepare a lovely meal for him. When did I become a little homemaker? Or is it that I know he's been sleeping in barracks and now a dorm, and eating mess hall food for 10 weeks, and will appreciate his own bed and home-cooked food.

But I've even been buying sexier underwear! Talk about being a Good Wife. Normally, I wear the comfy stuff - I'll even wear men's boxer briefs under skirts and dresses. Talk about sexy. So, somehow, wearing sexy underwear has become something "special." I'm not sure if I'm more bothered by the feeling that I should wear sexy underwear, or the fact that I don't do it regularly (I've actually found some comfy sexy underwear, believe it or not. Thank you mass retailers).

But it's funny how perspectives change as your life experiences change. I used to consider myself very independent, and I liked it, and wanted to keep it that way. But then I "met the right guy" and everything's different. I want to make him a nice dinner. I want to look sexy/attractive for him. I want to impress his bosses. I'm willing to make sacrifices for him. But I don't think that has anything to do with giving into some perceived gender roles. I think it's all about appreciating your partner, and doing things for them to support them, and show them you appreciate them, and do special things that might excite them. Love/marriage has definitely softened me. But that's not really a bad thing.

Besides .... I'm married to a man that wears a uniform!! So, he likes me in thongs ... I like him in his uniform!! Talk about the ultimate aphrodisiac. I'll stop now before I get graphic.

PS: Credit where it's due - the title of my post was borrowed from this book that I am currently reading: I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles by Lily Burana

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With the passing of the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, many in the gay community have taken the opportunity to reflect upon the historic moment in our collective queer history and how the community and movement has changed. The days of police bar raids and mass funerals of AIDS victims are quickly becoming a distant memory, replaced by the new gay identity of DINC consumerism (Dual Income No Children), HIV/AIDS as a manageable condition, Absolut Vodka-sponsored Pride parades, and gay marriage. And for an increasing number of gay men, these memories aren’t even memories. It’s history.

Mark Harris writes about this “Gay Generation Gap” in New York Magazine, commenting on the inevitable generational tension between the gay men in their 40s and 50s and those in their 20s. A tension particularly conspicuous as queers of all ages assembled over the past few months for Pride celebrations.

“And at some point, a group of gay men in their forties or fifties will find themselves occupying the same bar or park or restaurant or subway car or patch of pavement as a group of gay men in their twenties. We will look at them. They will look at us. We will realize that we have absolutely nothing to say to one another… there’s no topic, from politics to locker-room etiquette… that cannot quickly devolve into ‘What are you, 17?’... ‘What are you, some Stonewall-era relic?’ sniping…

“And here’s the awful stuff they throw back at us... At 45, I write the word ‘us’ from the graying side of the divide... We’re terminally depressed. We’re horrible scolds. We gas on about AIDS the way our parents or grandparents couldn’t stop talking about World War II. We act like we invented political action, and think the only way to accomplish something is by expressions of fury. We say we want change, but really what we want is to get off on our own victim hood. We’re made uncomfortable, or even jealous, by their easygoing confidence. We’re grim, prim, strident, self-ghettoizing, doctrinaire bores who think that if you’re not gloomy, you’re not worth taking seriously. Also, we’re probably cruising them.”

Harris offers a surprisingly even-handed critique of the seemingly perennial inter-generational skirmishes that Millenials and Boomers/Gen Xers constantly find themselves locked in. Gay Millenials are na├»ve, entitled, know-it-alls who are too quick to offer advice without putting in the time and suffering to gain sufficient experience for such opinions. On the other hand, to the 20-somethings the older generations of gays seem antiques of a political movement mired by self-serving identity politics emphasizing victimhood and perpetual struggle -- the idea of a free and equal society so far-fetched that actual victories are unnoticed. These generational struggles between Gen Yers and Gen X/Boomers fall well in the wider clashes between cultural generations. It’s no surprise that the 40-and-50-somethings resent the younger generation for enjoying the freedoms that they fought so hard to attain. This is the same kind of infighting that occurs between parents and their children, simply playing out in a culture which is not organized around such kinship systems.

However, I believe it’s too easy to just chock up this generational gap of perspective to the cyclical nature of cultural change. There is something to be said about how this new generation of young gay men socializes and reconstructs their queer identity in a different manner than their forebears. Ours (being the 20-something… I’m 22) is a generation that has never known true isolationism. We grew up as our society’s means of social organization were radically expanded and complicated by technology and the internet. No matter how isolated or sheltered a childhood we might have had, we were only a few clicks of a button away from a wealth of information on those unknowable gays and lesbians. Much in the same way that young men, both gay and straight, learn about and shape their sexual identities within the comfortable privacy of their personal computers and internet pornography, young gay men often learn about and replicate gay culture through the messages given to them via media, the internet, and popular culture. This is a radically different method of cultural reproduction than what existed in previous generations of gay men.

Harris notes that before the information age, the exceptional taboo surrounding homosexuality caused one of the only viable ways for gay men to learn how and what it meant to be gay was from their lovers. These lovers often were older gay men who took younger gay men under their wing and into their beds. This initiation of sorts into the gay life allowed for the integrity of a contiguous gay identity to be maintained; strung together from lover to lover-- one generation to the next. In this way gay men were connected to the previous generation of gay men and the stories, mannerism, social norms and mores were passed on organically.

This method of cultural transmission has, for the most part, been broken. My generation of gay men were brought up with homosexuality being an apparent and at times unavoidable presence in society. Regardless of how undesirable the concept might be, gay people at least existed in the communal imagination. Whether monstrous, comical, or realistic; gay people were a part of the conversation.

My generation of gay men has not been shaped in the same way that some major events in modern queer history have affected older generations. The peak of the decimation caused by the AIDS epidemic among gay men had for the most part passed by the time I entered elementary school. My gay generation never knew the horror of the unknown that HIV/AIDS presented to an entire generation of gay Boomers. Rather, I found my gay education supplied by secretive viewings of Queer As Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and late night airings of In The Life. Dawson’s Creek, Will & Grace, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer all featured gay and lesbian characters which comprised key parts of my queer cultural quilt. And so, is it any wonder that my earliest ideas of what it meant to be a gay man drove me to purchase a pair of tight black denim jeans and floral print dress shirts the moment I came out? I forced myself to pour over fashion magazines so that I might ‘queer eye’ my straight friends. My early queer identity stemmed directly from the media images of gay men that I consumed.

It was only after taking courses on the history of the modern gay and lesbian movement that my eyes were open for the first time to terms like polari, rough trade, and AZT. I learned about where and how the modern gay identity developed and about early queer rights leaders like the Mattachine Society, Harry Hay, etc. It was through learning about the history of the gay & lesbian and queer movements that I gained a greater understanding and appreciation for where we are headed as a community.

It may be true that the politics of the country have changed in a way that dates older gays and their political priorities, but in the same respect I continue to be shocked by the general lack of knowledge of modern queer history on the part of young gay men. Risky sexual practices like barebacking are having a resurgence despite safe-sex education efforts; HIV infections rates continue to rise for MSMs; a widespread political apathy amongst gay men severely limits the effectiveness of our advocacy; and continued systemic racism within the gay community are all signifiers that we need to take an even closer look at where we came from and where we are going. Sure, many scholars are calling this generation the first "post-white" "post-homophobia" generation, implying an inevitable victory in the culture wars for the queers and the left in general. However, I do not believe our struggles can be won by mere leftward cultural drift.

Although this is perhaps for further discussion on another post much of the rhetoric which epitomizes this marriage-obsessed generation of gay rights activists is oddly reminiscent of that which came about during the 1950s. I find it interesting that conservatives during the 1950s sought to strengthen the institution of marriage to accomplish many of the same goals gay marriage activists seek to change about gay men; namely making them less promiscuous, more long-term-relationship oriented, and more industrious. They regarded marriage as being a prime stabilizer of men so that they might become a productive and reliable workforce for the growing American economy. But we now know that the proposed stabilizing affects of marriage are largely overstated, if true, at all. With divorce rates in America hovering around 50%, it is clear marriage is far from a risk-averse investment. If marriage was a bond, it would certainly not get a AAA rating.

In the same way, gay marriage advocates now claim that marriage rights will cure a whole host of problems which afflict our community: promiscuity amongst gay men, workplace discrimination, health care access, end of life decisions, even the continued prevalence of homophobia in our society. While I am sure some of these problems might be affected or mitigated by more gay people getting married, it is wildly optimistic to assume that being married will somehow prevent you from getting fired for your sexuality, or spared a beating at the hand of a bigot.

So, while it may be true that the Gay Boomers and the Gay Gen Yers have developed in very different times with dramatically different results, it seems that we all are headed back into a more conservative swing of the political pendulum.

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Serano's Whipping Girl

This post is the first in a series of engagements with the work of Julia Serano, a trans activist, spoken word performer and biologist who provides a unique take on contemporary gender issues in her book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Whipping Girl is a staggeringly ambitious endeavor. In the book, Serano outlines a new theory of gender, criticizes the pervasive devaluation of femininity in society, sets out a blueprint for reforming queer/trans activism, provides a series of inspirational essays on trans woman empowerment, and offers fascinating autobiographical analyses of her own sexed and gendered experience. All this amidst an impressive array of useful new terminology, such as “effemimania,” “oppositional and traditional sexism,” “gender entitlement,” “subversivism,” “trans-mystification,” and “passing-centrism.”

Whipping Girl has much food for thought to offer anyone who is interested in trans issues or gender studies, and it is unfortunate that the book has not received much attention in academia. For example, a recent Google Scholar search for “Julia Serano” yielded only one review article for Whipping Girl, alongside Serano's publications in the field of biology. While the book is highly accessible for non-academics, it has much to offer from a theoretical and conceptual perspective and should become a fixture in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies classrooms. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Whipping Girl is without its problems. The book is compelling precisely because it offers interesting perspectives on gender issues that are subject to substantial critique, counter-critique, and engagement. In other words, it is a fiery discussion-starter. It will lead students and scholars to re-examine all of their taken-for-granted assumptions about sex, gender and sexuality, whether they are gender essentialists or social constructivists.

Is Gender an Individual Experience?

My own engagement with Serano’s work begins with one of the main aspects of her theory of gender: its individualism. For Serano, “gender is first and foremost an individual experience, an amalgamation of our own unique combinations of gender inclinations, social interactions, body feelings and lived experience” (225). While others’ expectations of gendered behavior can influence people, their genders will be primarily “experiential” and reflective of their own subjective feelings. To be a woman or a man is to feel like one. The gender labels we use in society can only legitimately fit on a person if they are in line with her deepest experiences.

This individualist view of gender is problematic because gender is, by definition, a collective category. When people state that they are doing activity x or feeling emotion y because they are women or men, they are not simply making a claim about their individual experience. They are simultaneously linking that experience to the presumed thoughts, emotions and actions of all or most other men and women. While there is no hope of actually knowing the experiences of such vast numbers of individuals, people succeed in imagining a transnational and trans-historical gendered community whose members think, feel and act as they do. Identifying as a woman or man means identifying on a collective as well as a personal level. The image of a gendered community is conceived in the mental imagination of gendered individuals and in discourses which make claims about the collective characteristics of men and women, e.g. - women have a mothering instinct. To reformulate Benedict Anderson’s famous quotation on nationalism, “[gender] is imagined because…the members of [any gender] will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Imagined Communities, 6).

Ethical Implications of the Experiential/Individualist View of Gender

There are also ethical dilemmas inherent in Serano’s individualist-experiential conceptualization of gender. Her view of gender as individual experience has the function of placing individual expressions of gender beyond criticism. Serano condemns queer theorists for what she calls “subversivism,” or “the practice of extolling certain gender and sexual expressions and identities, simply because they are unconventional or nonconforming…[and] creating a reciprocal category of people whose gender and sexual identities and expressions are by default inherently conservative, even hegemonic.” (346-7). She argues that the queer community has “created a new gender binary, one in which subversive genders are ‘good’ and conservative genders are ‘bad’” (349). This is the direct result of the mistaken notion that it is possible for anyone, except the individual herself, to apply value judgments on her gender. The following passage summarizes the argument:

“…we should turn our attention to challenging all forms of gender entitlement, the privileging of one’s own perceptions, interpretations, and evaluations of other people’s genders over the way those people understand themselves. After all, whenever we assign values to other people’s genders and sexualities – whether we call them subversive or conservative, cool or uncool, normal or abnormal, natural or unnatural – we are automatically creating or reaffirming some kind of hierarchy. In other words, when we critique any gender as being ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ we are, by definition being sexist.” (359)

Two main problems arise from this argument. First, while the San Francisco queer community, which Serano critiques, may have developed the extremely harmful tendency to constantly lambaste people's genders for not being subversive enough, queer theory is not explicitly concerned with critiquing individual genders. Rather, its focus is on gender at the structural level: an appraisal of the gender norms that people are expected, and sometimes forced, to live up to. As such, queer theory itself should be able to provide all the necessary intellectual resources for a critique of subversivism, as a system of norms designed to control people’s genders. Second, even though the evaluation of individuals’ genders can be an extremely oppressive and dangerous practice, it must remain a possibility. What if a woman claims that her personal gendered experience is the result of an intrinsic inclination to remain subordinate to men? What if she refuses to take a promotion at a new job, because she would then be placed in a more powerful position than her husband? Because we can never know whether this gender expression is sincere or coerced, Serano’s framework would probably exempt it from criticism. If we criticized the woman, we would be practicing “gender entitlement,” and “privileging our own perceptions of other people’s genders over the way those people understand themselves” (359). And yet, should it not at least be morally permissible to evaluate her gender expression, since it clearly circumscribes her autonomy and dignity? Serano’s conception of gender could lead to a form of “anything-goes” libertarianism in which the individual is the sole arbiter of moral value and any gender expression is equally valid so long as it is the outcome of personal experience.

Overall, the individualist conception of gender put forward in Whipping Girl raises several interesting questions: (1) Is it possible to identify as a particular gender on a purely individual level, based on personal experience, or is gender also a form of collective identification that evokes an “imagined community” of similarly gendered individuals? (2) How, and to what extent, is it morally permissible to critique others’ gender expressions? Should we promote gender libertarianism, in which the individual is the sole assessor of her own conceptions of gender? We can discuss these questions in the comment box below. The next post in this series, coming in two weeks’ time, will address Serano's view of the uneasy relationship between feminism and femininity.

***For More Information***
You can find out more about Julia Serano on www.juliaserano.com and here is a whole page about Whipping Girl that has a collection of reviews, a preview of the first chapter, and a useful glossary of some of the new terminology that Serano introduces in the book. For more on the concept of an “imagined community,” see Benedict Anderson’s excellent book on nationalism, Imagined Communities, or just have a look at this Wikipedia page. Serano’s work has also been addressed in a Below the Belt post by bookmonkey and in these two posts by askfannie: "Observations on TransSexuality" and "Sexist Feminists."

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So I live in New York City, and we have a pretty strong contingent of what locals call "hipsters". I realize I may sound a bit like an old fogey by quoting the group of people like that -- I know the category has been around for a while in various regions of the country -- but I still approach the idea with some confused caution.

I guess I need a working definition before I start analysis:

"Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20's and 30's that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter." (Urbandictionary, No. 2)

And what's important for my criticism is this definition as it relates to feminism and gender progress (particularly for men): "Hipsters shun mainstream societal conventions that apply to dating preferences and traditional "rules" of physical attraction....The concepts of androgyny and feminism have influenced hipster culture, where hipster men are often as thin as the women they date. The muscular and athletic all-American male ideal is not seen as attractive by confident and culturally-empowered hipster women who instead view them as symbols of male oppression, sexism, and misogyny." (Urbandictionary, No. 2)

I understand that there's only so much that Urbandictionary can really help with regard to critiques of an entire culture of people, but you get the idea. In an attempt to subvert many conservative aspects of society, this new culture is formed that draws its group lines with passion and confidence. And that's what first freaks me out, I guess. In creating this super liberal group for themselves, my interactions with hipsters have often been somewhat jarring because I don't listen to the right music (especially if you listen to something mainstream...you're done), I don't dress like them, I don't have politics like them. Cultures like this become hypercultures with clearly delimited lines that serve to exclude.

But I think my real point is less whining about how there's this super cool group I don't feel comfortable hanging out with. My real, somewhat academic interest here has to do with images of masculinity and desire. Hipster guys do something somewhat revolutionary in that they have seemingly recreated images of desirable men. They can wear eyeliner, wear tight jeans, and basically dress like a stereotypical gay guy -- and still be considered attractive by a large group of (hipster-minded) people. Pretty amazing. Normally being this kind of guy in any other circumstance would not produce this effect.

My critique, however, is that I'm highly skeptical that hipster culture is actually addressing some of the real issues that also exist among more hegemonic forms of masculinity. Particularly when hipster culture seems to center itself around being "the new kind of cool", part of me worries that this "new [hipster] man" is really just a repackaging of a largely dominant manhood. Are hipster men more willing to be more submissive in romantic situations? Are they willing to be romantically sought, or are they still expected to be the romantic and sexual aggressor? And as far as taking steps towards more egalitarian sexual relationships, I am curious if women are invoking more dominant roles in the bedroom or if sexual practices are the same [read: non-egalitarian] as in more traditional relationships. Are hipster men in relationships part of a more progressive approach to labor -- are they doing the dishes, staying home with the kids, or not having a masculinity crisis because they're not the breadwinners?

Too many questions. Hipsters out there, give me some answers!

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Yasmin Nair joins us from nomorepotlucks:

The popular and populist history of gays in the United States goes something like this: In the beginning, gay people were horribly oppressed. Then came change in the 1970s, where gays like the men in the Village People were able to live openly and had a lot of sex. Then, in the 1980s, many gay people died of AIDS, and that taught them that gay sex is bad. The gays that were left began to realise the importance of stable, monogamous relationships and began to agitate for marriage. Soon, in the very near future, with the help of supportive, married straight people—and the help of President Obama—gays will gain marriage rights in all 50 states, and they will then be as good as everyone else.

This is, of course, a reductionist version of gay history, but it’s also the version of gay (not queer) history that plays out in today’s mainstream media representations of the fight for gay marriage, an issue that is now seen as the alpha and the omega of gay rights in the United States. On May 26, 2009, the California Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 8 would stand, thus upholding a ban on gay marriages; it also ruled that the 18,000 or so marriages that had already taken place would not be invalidated. The decision released a wave of anger in the mainstream pro-gay marriage community. A month later, the Obama administration’s response to the Smelt suit seeking to invalidate the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) brought forth yet another set of petulant tirades and much dramatic rhetoric about “betrayal” by Obama.

An outsider might think that both Proposition 8 and the DOMA case are symptomatic of a widespread wave of unrest among gays and lesbians across the land, who will now take to the streets if need be in their relentless quest for gay marriage. The outsider might also think that this is what every queer in the United States wants: the right to marry. But, in fact, both instances have exposed the fact that the fight for marriage is a drain on the political, economic, and emotional resources of a community that never really wanted gay marriage to begin with. Rather than see the Prop 8 and DOMA debacles as symptoms of a renewed need to fight for gay marriage, I suggest that this is the time to dump gay marriage and return to the real issues that concern us, as queers who are faced with the multiple forms and challenges of inequality in a neoliberal world.

Gay marriage, as framed in the United States, is the ultimate neoliberal fantasy, in that it allows for a politics of the personal to masquerade as a necessity for policy change. In the process, it serves to distract us from the very real issues facing millions of U.S. citizens and residents. For instance, a primary argument for gay marriage has been that it would allow gays and lesbians to acquire health care and other benefits via their spouses. But this claim ignores the fact that the United States is the only Western nation that does not provide health care to its citizens, and that approximately 50 million Americans are without health care. The ability to marry would not help the millions of gays and lesbians without health care in the first place.

As law professor Nancy Polikoff points out in her comprehensive book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law, the United States is unique in the way that it draws such sharp distinctions between the married and the unmarried. Countries like the Netherlands and Canada do treat gay and straight relationships equally in that they permit marriage, but what’s often ignored by U.S. gay marriage activists is the fact that these countries also treat married and unmarried people in equal ways. In other words, in Canada, you can be unmarried and still have health care and, in various instances, you can name a person who is not your romantic partner as the beneficiary of your estate. In the United States, however, your marital status is, increasingly, what determines your legal status as well as your legitimacy as a subject of the state.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the treatment accorded to single mothers on welfare. Following the egregiously named “Welfare Reform” package of 1996, poor women in particular have been subject to the kind of state intervention in their lives that would be held as unconstitutional if exerted on any other segment of society. With the collusion of the Religious Right, single mothers are required to undergo marriage counselling in an effort to get them to marry the fathers of their children. The stigma against unmarried people swirls around in U.S. culture at large, with an overwhelming array of messages in the media about single people as desperate, lonely souls who need to find their lifemates if they are ever to be considered as human beings. It is no coincidence that such a widespread deligitimisation of single people comes at a time when fewer people in the United States are getting married—currently, less than 50% of U.S. citizens are married. Divorce rates are higher than ever among those who do get married, sparking great anxiety on the part of the Right.

While the gay and lesbian community is widely seen as a liberal/progressive one, its rhetoric around marriage often mirrors the discourse of the Right on the need for marriage as a stabilising force. Gay marriage activists have taken to deploying the strategies of the Right in asserting that marriage is necessary to cure a host of ills, for instance even going so far as to claim that not having marriage increases the social stigma faced by the children of gay couples. But surely we live in an age where the children of unmarried straight people are not considered “bastards,” and are not disallowed from inheriting property or from receiving parental and state support because their parents were not married. In such claims to moral standards, gay marriage advocacy hearkens back to the conservatism of the 1950s and earlier eras. It’s this conservatism that allows for a blinkered distraction from the other, and more pressing, issues that face queers who are not, after all, immune from the ravages of the world. Or, as Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore puts it, “The spectacle around gay marriage draws attention away from critical issues—like ending U.S. wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, stopping massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids across the country, and challenging the never-ending assault on anyone living outside of conventional norms.” In this way, gay marriage, in framing, reinforces the kind of social conservatism that’s essential to maintaining the myth of the United States as the ultimate arbiter of the value of the subjects over which it claims to hold dominion: whether they be Iraqis, Afghanis, or those whose sexual lives do not fall into the patterns the “normal,” monogamous, two-parent household.

As a result of its growing conservatism, the gay marriage movement is gaining support from mainstream media and a range of politicians, including prominent Republicans. This is not an indication of the liberalisation of the United States (inasmuch as we can consider liberalism desirable, which it is not), but its increasing conservatism. At the same time, the vast resources invested in gay marriage also mean a depletion of resources that could go to issues that affect queers on other levels of the state’s interaction and imprisonment of their bodies. At a recent queer anarchist conference, I met with activists Liam Michaud-O'Grady and Ashley Fortier, from the Montreal-based Prisoner Correspondence Project. Their group helps to establishing links between queer prisoners and queers on the outside, with a long-term mentality. I also met with Michael Upton, a graduate researcher at the University of Manchester, whose multi-nation work analyzes and critiques the intellectual property rights issues that surround the global AIDS pharmaceutical industry.

Both projects reminded me that queer activism, while still flourishing and sustained, is muted or silenced in the cacophony around gay marriage. Yet, in the 1970s, prisoner solidarity was a key part of the gay movement. In the 1980s, the wholesale critique of BigPharma was integral to the mandate of queer activist groups like ACT UP. A Chicago attorney who specialises in working with gay groups in countries where embattled queers need the support of international activists to resist the harassment they face told me of his conversations with funders who said, bluntly, that they were only interested in funding gay marriage initiatives. In Connecticut, the gay marriage group Love Makes a Family decided to disband when gay marriage became legal in that state. But surely there is more to gay rights than marriage, and surely a group that could, presumably, corral the kind of economic and social capital that LMF had access to could continue to think of directing its energy to the issues of, say, queers in prison. Instead, it chose to disband. As Nancy Polikoff wrote in a Bilerico post: “The folding of this Connecticut group confirms my fears that marriage is the end point for many people and that achieving justice for the same-sex couples who don't marry and for all the gay men and lesbians, and their children, who are not partnered is not on the agenda.”

Contrary to what the gay mainstream and the press have decided, gay marriage is not the movement. Marriage should never have been our goal to begin with, since, at best, the goal of marriage is a symbolic and sentimental one. Over the last number of decades, gays and lesbians have in fact forged interesting and productive social networks outside of marriage. But with the recent publicity, few in the United States now remember when domestic partnerships were actually seen as a sexy, desirable and viable alternative for those who didn't want to marry. In Massachusetts, and now in Connecticut, for example, several employers have begun to disavow domestic partnerships for all with the simple logic that now that everyone can get married, everyone should, if they want health care and other benefits. Such decisions have raised nary a whisper of protest among the gay marriage group. Today, if any major organization is asked: if civil unions or domestic partnerships could be crafted so that they provided exactly the same benefits as marriage, would you accept them? The answer is usually a resounding no. The goal of marriage has become an end unto itself.

The point, to borrow from Polikoff, should be to make marriage less necessary, not to allow it to become an integral part of access to rights as basic as health care and custody of children. The intense personalisation of gay marriage as an emotional cause (i.e. as something that should matter because of the grief it causes your gay neighbour), is just another way to rationalise and increase the relentless privatisation of everyday life, another way to absolve the state of its responsibility to its subjects. Increasingly, I hear from straight friends that they are being compelled to marry because they are afraid that their unemployed/underemployed partners might be left vulnerable without their health care. All of this is depleting energy from the fight for universal health care. The United States is the only Western nation that does not provide health care. That, and not the fact that we don’t have gay marriage, should be something that shames us all.

As we quibble about marriage, it's easy to forget that a rise in poverty and the lack of health care means that large segments of society are already denied their rights to decent education, housing, and a sense of security about their well-being.

As for the argument that some proponents make about marriage being the only way to have your love recognized—really? If your love can't abide not being recognized by the state, perhaps it's time to consider that you might have bigger problems than simply getting a piece of paper to validate your relationship.

As for the famous line about the 1000+ benefits that can only come through marriage—what about those who are excluded from these benefits simply because they're not married? And here's the basic question: why should marriage guarantee any benefits that aren't available to those who don't want to marry? Why build up the power of the state to coerce people into marital relationships that they don't want, just so that they can get the basics like healthcare?

Marriage has, for too long now, been held up as the only solution to a host of problems, including the lack of health care. The fight for gay marriage, in granting that institution so much importance, is slowly eroding the possibility that the rest of the population might get rights and benefits without marrying each other. The fight over gay marriage has emerged as a progressive cause that all progressive straights should join when, in fact, it's a deeply conservative movement that strips our movement of any imagination. Instead of asking for one way to grant rights and benefits, we ought to be advocating for a multiplicity of options.

Let's dump marriage now.

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What started as a brief conversation with someone about ‘Chuluaqui Quodoushka’ – the teachings of a new age religious group called The Deer Tribe Medicine Society - ended up turning into today’s post and I’ll tell you why.

It all began when an acquaintance told me about a course she had taken in the States about the aforementioned Chuluaqui Quodoushka. ‘It was brilliant’, she said, ‘its based on Native American principles about sexuality’. She went on to tell me that Native American Indians apparently ushered young men into adulthood by allowing older female tribes people to teach them how to make love…

This sounded somewhat fanciful to me and upon further investigation, my suspicions were confirmed. Modern day descendents of the Cherokee Nation have done just about everything they can to distance themselves from the ideas expounded by The Deer Tribe Medicine Society and its founder Harley Reagan.

But my interest was piqued. Not by a bunch of new age sexual fetishists but by the idea that people could be taught how to have sex before they are unleashed upon the rest of the world. And this in turn reminded me of a little tale I was told a while back. It went something like this:

‘Dear Kate

I found your blog the other day and I thought you might be interested in my situation. I just turned twenty-nine and somehow, I am still a virgin. I know it means nothing but I can't help feeling embarrassed and ashamed.

I am a decent-enough looking guy; I'm not crazy or weird in a way that makes people run away. I was even pretty popular in school. Anyway, the relevant bit is that as thirty looms large on the horizon and I feel like more of a sexless freak, I have been considering the possibility of paying for sex and getting the first hurdle out of the way. I dunno if I'd have the guts to do it but I just keep thinking about it. I have no illusions that the first time will be great anyway, so why not just get it done in whatever crap way necessary?

Best wishes,

Nothing too unusual here. I get emails like this all the time. Granted, they are not often from twenty nine year olds but in general, emails from older virgins are far more frequent than you might think. The point is that being a virgin is difficult in today’s society. Being a twenty nine year old virgin is even harder. What kind of woman is going to expect to sleep with a twenty nine year old man only to discover that he has no experience whatsoever? And what kind of thoughts are going to be going through said man’s head at the prospect of such an occasion? I’ll tell you what thoughts are going through his head. They are here:

‘My name is Dan and a few months ago I wrote you an email about my situation. I want to update this for reasons that will become obvious.
In October, I turned twenty-nine and still a virgin. Many years of drastically falling confidence had taken their toll to the point that I was even considering the possibility of getting my virginity out of the way by paying for sex. Your reply was very sympathetic and warming and I thank you for that!

The reason I am writing, is that after much talk with close friends about letting go of worry and embracing whatever comes in life, I have managed to turn a huge corner. I feel that the conscious effort to change to a more positive outlook on life has led me to this most recent situation...

...A few nights ago at a rock nightclub with friends, a female friend who I had always thought was stunning but out of my league, drunkenly confessed that she really liked me. I was in total, and I mean TOTAL shock. Before I knew it, we were kissing and spent the rest of the night doing the same. She made it clear that she was willing to have sex that night and she came back to my place for coffee but I felt so in shock and wary of her being drunk that we left it at that - with the promise of a date. My confidence from that night was boosted immeasurably, along with my newfound attitude of wanting to embrace the scary changes which can make life wonderful.

We met a few days later and hit it off right where we left off and it was so exciting! We got a little tipsy, and then quite drunk, although I must stress that alcohol only greased the wheels of an already rolling wagon, and then we had a great night of conversation and flirting and increasingly passionate kissing, before walking back to her place.

I was more drunk than I realised, but completely in control of my thoughts and kept thinking, ‘Is this it? Could this be it?’ Before I knew it we were on her bed, then becoming naked - a new first for me – and then we were doing all those things I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to taste. And it all felt so natural.
For a first time, I would guess it was pretty good. The only flaw was that I was a bit too inebriated to, (there's no other way to put it, sorry), actually cum. But I had my first taste of actual, real sex, giving and receiving oral, and intercourse. I had actually had proper sex!

As we talked afterwards, I told her that that had been my first time, and she was shocked. She said she never would have guessed, and that it had been perfectly good sex for her, especially considering our states of being at the time. We slept on and off and I felt more than anything, a pleasant calm, a reassurance, like I can’t believe I thought it was anything other than a natural thing to do.

Remembering the night now, a day later, it all seems like a hazy surreal dream. I almost forget that I am no longer a virgin. Everyday things seem surprisingly the same, mundane, same as always... but I feel different inside. I am so far from being experienced but I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders and I find a new courage to look forward in life with hope and confidence.

Please forgive my getting a little carried away and poetic! But as I look forward to learning so much more, and with my confidence threatening to soar for the first time in years, I feel the need to share this story with you.
I hope this follow up is of interest to you... and thanks for your blog, which I have found a comfort at times.

Best wishes,

Well now, as if that were not good enough…there was more to come. Literally. But not before I explain my point. Sex is an important part of our lives. I do not need to tell you that. Learning how to do it well – or even incredibly well - is all just a part of a process. Learning to drive a car, speaking a language, these all require practice and patience. Sex is no different.

Now imagine that some kind, loving person had taken the time to teach you everything you needed to know about the language of love instead of putting up with the fumbling blur of painfully inadequate moves that most of us still recoil from when we recall that inchoate time of our sexual lives. Imagine that our first sexual experiences played out like this:

‘Anyway, I asked her how she felt about me being a virgin to start with and she said she almost felt a bit bad for ‘corrupting’ me, but not really because I was so obviously happy with the ‘corruption’. She is moving overseas at the end of August. We both knew this when we hooked up so the whole thing has been on a no-long-term plans basis.

And the best bit? She has decided that it is her responsibility to leave the country having equipped me with as much experience as possible by introducing me to all the different elements of sex.

Its really cool to have someone be totally open and honest, showing me things and asking how it is, helping me find what I like or don’t, telling me what works best, encouraging me to explore everything...she always asks if there is anything I want to know, to just ask and she will be honest. Everything is completely relaxed and curious. To be honest, it's like a guys dream come true’.

No kidding. It’s not a dream; it’s a total fantasy! And not only that, but the love gets shared around. Imagine how pleasant it’s going to be for the next lucky lady who gets to spend ‘quality time’ with this unusual young man.

Here is a man who has been taught to talk about sex, to ask questions of his partner, to enquire as to whether one likes this…or that? This is a person who is aware of the fact that what might please one person, might not please another and not to take it personally if they don’t. And whilst the idea of ‘ushering young people into adulthood by teaching them how to make love’ was always going to be an iffy one and clearly open to abuse, it does make you wonder…what are the really important bits of information that we should be telling young people? What would actually benefit their sexual lives? Because lets face it, they are going to have a sexual life whether you think they are ready for it or not so we may as well tell them something that is actually worth knowing.

And as far as I have been able to work out in the last twenty five odd years – and it didn’t happen overnight, I wish someone had spelt it out for me - learning how to communicate with a partner is the single most important path towards pleasure that one can walk. And it works both ways. Here is why….

‘Hi Kate,

Do you remember emails from a guy called Dan who recently lost his virginity to a lady? Well, I am that lady that you sounded interested in hearing the other side of the story from.

I will admit I was shocked when he told me he was a virgin - for a couple of reasons, number one, I wouldn't have guessed it because we were both drunk and I just thought maybe it had been a while for us both and number two, to have the balls to admit something like that to a complete stranger took guts.

After he told me I was in a state of shock. I think the best image is to liken me to a goldfish. Not much sentence making was going on but I realized he had chosen to tell me so I said it was all OK even though inside, I have to admit that I panicked a bit.

Afterwards, I went off to work and thoughts started flashing through my mind like why me? I don't have anything good to offer! I’m not sure I want to corrupt him. I'm not good enough for this role. Then I just decided that it was meant to be, that for whatever reason he had chosen me and so I decided to take him under my wing and find ways to make it fun but educational.

We explored what he liked and then he explored what I liked but I always made sure that he got to try everything he fancied and I got to do the same. I did point out though that everyone was different and it’s all about communication but that it didn't have to be verbal. Anyway, we took it from there and it was great to see the change in him and how much more confident he was around women, and blokes for that matter. I think a weight has been lifted off his shoulders.

When I first met Dan, I had just come out of a very long-term relationship and you fall into habits and we had stopped exploring so it was great to meet someone who I felt comfortable with that I could explore and reconnect those feelings of desire without feeling judged or embarrassed.

It was as much learning for me as I think it was for him to be honest. But fun too and I believe everything should have an element of fun or positivity to it or why bother! It brings a smile to my face knowing that he will at least be going out there with a few tools that he can develop and have fun with.


The partner in crime :-)’

Let that be a lesson (in love) for us all. Amen. Today’s sermon is over.

virginityproject joins us from The Virginity Project

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