Jason (aka Queeriously) joins us from his geeky gay blog, Scarlet Betch:

I have always loved fantasy. Be it high fantasy a la Tolkien or Lewis, or B-list magic pony fantasy of the Tamora Pierce variety. I also love gaming... so, naturally wherever the two shall meet I'm so there. I was even a fledgling 10 year old D&D dungeon master... before my mother accused me of witchcraft and watched as I burned the manual.

So naturally, I have been chomping at the bit, awaiting the release of Bioware's new dark-fantasy RPG, Dragon Age: Origins. The publisher has a long history of extremely successful RPGs, including Mass Effect and the D&D-inspired Baldur's Gate series (which consumed roughly the entirety of my eighth grade existence).

Demian Linn of bitmod recently posted his spoiler-y run down of the steamy action your character can engage in. Evidently in addition to the standard hetero pairings with NPCs, there's also possibilities for gay, lesbian, and even trans relationships with NPCs.

Demian makes some great observations on the game design and Bioware's approach to sexual inclusivity:

"What you learn about the characters, however, isn't so interesting -- all of your romantic prospects adhere to parochial stereotypes. Both females seem wildly different at first, but are ultimately only interested in monogamous relationships, while the gay male character prefers a no-strings-attached open relationship."

"So what's the point of all this? Good question. Sex is a very difficult game design challenge, no surprise there, and Dragon Age does it right when it incorporates sex directly into the narrative (the aforementioned spoiler I don't want to reveal). But the casual sex, which could be used as a tool to deepen your understanding and empathy for the other characters, tends to reinforce the idea of women as alternately jealous, catty, smothering, and weak-willed (easily taking back a lover that has strayed), while perpetuating the stereotype of the promiscuous gay/bisexual man. I guess what I'm saying is...the sex could be better."

I find it interesting that even inclusive game publishers like Bioware find themselves playing into tired archetypes of sexuality and gender. Gender theorist Donna Haraway (the author of such works as The Cyborg Manifesto) wrote a lot about the exciting possibilities for video games and virtual reality to be spaces in which we are able to rewrite the rules of society as we see fit, i.e. without oppressive sex/gender/sexuality schemas. Granted, while Haraway is the bat-shit crazy bag lady of gender academia, I did resonate with the idea that virtual worlds were one such space in which gender and sexuality lines can be blurred and reformed. But when the creation of these virtual worlds are tied to profits generated by human social interaction, a truly revolutionary schema of gender/sex relationships is inhibited.

Problematic virtual sex schemas aside, I can't wait to get my hands on this game and get myself some hot elf booty. Way to go Bioware and satisfying me and every other fangirl who wrote Aragorn/Legolas slashfics!

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After coming out, many trans women go through what I call the “FAQ Hag period”, where large portions of our day are spent answering the inane and often times inexcusably intrusive questions from friends, relatives, classmates and the random “friends of friends” we added on Facebook without knowing them personally in hopes that it would help make our initial encounter less awkward. This phase can often last from a few weeks to a few months.

I'm on my second year.

Normally, I have my various writing and creative projects to distract myself from the white noise of curiousity slowly gnawing away at my patience slash sanity. However, since I've come down with the flu this week, I've had no energy whatsoever to put towards a legitimate article with hyperlinks and geek slang, so I've decided to let the Spanish Inquisition pass through me, like so many bottles of unnaturally flavored fruit drink. To take the edge off (and to make it a little more relevant to my “geek stuff” area of dubious expertise), I've included a few questions not about my trans or lesbian identities.

Let the madness begin.

1. Does your family support your decision?

Each of my immediate family had their own unique negative reaction to my coming out and subsequent transition, like a gentle snowflake of unpleasantness and distaste. They would avoid me, criticize the way I looked, and when time permitted, lecture me on the importance of finding one's own identity and not resorting to "such drastic measures" to feel like my own person. But it's gotten better, somewhat. Their initial negative reaction to my transition has been tempered, I think, with my departure to the Bay Area. At least that way they don't have to see me.

They generally refer me by my birth name and gender when I'm not around or when they think I can't hear them talking amongst themselves. My mother, to her credit, has been very good about naming and gendering me properly on Facebook and in the letters/cards/checks to help me pay my rent that she sends me, and it means a lot to me, probably more than it should. My father, still holding out on the hope that this is all just part of my “figuring out who I am” phase and that I can still turn this all around and go into the military or politics or law or whatever he decides I should have been instead of an artist that week, still calls me “son” in lieu of any of the myriad of names from which to chose from and despite regularly commenting on my Facebook status updates, claims to ignore/avoid pictures depicting how I look now (i.e. “dressed as a woman”). Recently, my father asked me to proofread an essay he had written for his psychology class, in which he chose people from his personal life that were textbook examples of Freudian defense mechanisms. He used me as an example of regression. I proof read and edited a whole paragraph in which I was referred to as his “son” who “pouts” and “slams doors” when “he” doesn't get “his” way. My therapist was not as amused as I was. My brothers have not called, written, twittered or smoke-signaled me since I left. I occasionally catch my middle brother on AIM, but I can tell that he's not interested. I really do love my family, and hope that they could come to love me back just for who I am, and not “despite” my recent life changes. But fuck, some people don't even have families to cry to their therapists about. I keep half-jokingly entertaining the notion that if I “pass” better, they'll be more accepting of me. And that's why I need to cut back on my drinking!

2. Did you ever go as “a girl” for Halloween?

No, but I do have an interesting Halloween transition workplace story, if you'd like? You would? Well golly then, okay!

Last October, I was working as computer lab/AV support for Arizona State University. I had come out to my co-workers and classmates as trans, but I hadn't yet begun presenting female on campus, and was planning to do so in December as the semester was dying down because my supervisor's supervisor thought that if there were less students in the lab, there was a less likely chance one of them would cause a scene at seeing me in a dress (this is why I often speak slowly and only when accompanied by visual aids to people with MBAs). We were told that for Halloween we could dress in our costumes. Except me. Because I had a “girl costume” and it was believed that if students and faculty saw me in a girl costume and then later in the school year saw me dressed as a girl, then they would just assume that I was just doing some elaborate cosplay and then subsequently throw a fit when I tried using the women's restroom or asking to be referred to with female pronouns, etc.
I had hoped that writing that out would be less painful for my brain then speaking it. It didn't.

The punch line to this story is that I didn't come dressed as anything for Halloween, looked silly in comparison to my co-workers, and then, when I began presenting female on campus “full time”, people still threw fits when I used the women's room and refused to tell people my “boy name”. A small petition was actually passed around to get me banned from using the women's room on campus, and I was eventually advised to use the handicap bathrooms, because they were gender neutral, although there were only two on the whole campus, and I didn't work or take classes near either of them. For a long while afterwards, I peed standing up when using the ladies room, because I figured “ fuck it, one way or another, they're going to complain”. But then I moved to The Bay, and nobody's given me shit. So, yay! Happy ending.

3. How did you feel about the portrayal/retooling of Gordon Dietrich as a closeted homosexual in the V for Vendetta movie?

While I normally disagree with arbitrarily putting in LGBT characters in media solely for the purpose of bashing/killing/showing them in pain to make a point or advance the plot, I felt that it was just a teensy bit appropriate given the message and theme of the film, which was very obviously an indictment of the Bush Administration (the same can also be said for the film adaptation of Watchmen). A lot of right-leaning comic nerds like to shit their pants about this (and generally all geek media that “goes for the cheap shot” by poking at Dubya), but the fact is that all the documentaries, stand up comedians, and witty political cartoons aimed at George W. Bush over his two reigns haven't even scratched the surface of the amount of socio-political damage that his administration had done to American society. Many who read the graphic novel during the Bush years (as I did, several times) applied those messages and ideas and questions to the current political situation, and were validated to see that the Wachowski Brothers had felt a similar sentiment. People are always going to infuse their politics into their media. Read just...about...anything by Frank Miller. The only difference, really, between a liberal interpretation of V/Watchmen and a conservative interpretation of 300 is that Alan Moore does not go on the radio spewing hate speech about the real-life equivalents of his antagonists. Actually, that's not true. Moore's silence on the “giant inter-dimensional squid marriage” issue is leading many of his hardcore fans, including myself, feeling very alienated from him and his work.

4. Many of the cartoons you've mentioned in your Avatar: The Last Airbender article are oriented towards a male audience. Do you enjoy any cartoons aimed at girls?

Do Power Puff Girls count? I have a screenshot of an episode as the wallpaper to my laptop. It's a shame that the movie didn't do as well as it probably could have if adequate care had been put into it. I think it's important to tell girls that you can be rainbows and bunny rabbits and still kick a lot of ass. I have on more than one occasion used “which Power Puff Girl would you be?” to help determine my compability with a potential partner. I've seen a few episodes of Kim Possible, don't love it, but I won't change the channel if it's on. For Christmas one year I bought my then-partner Season One of She-Ra: Princess of Power, and while I love the over the top “sword and sandal” genre, it was a little too Bad News Bears/Little Giants for me to get into. Personally, I think the best cartoon that a young woman can watch for the sake of a positive female role model is Scooby Doo, because most if not all of the work is done by Velma, who despite the Buddy Holly glasses and orange socks is way more attractive than Daphne, I always felt. Also, if you don't count Scooby, you're looking at a 50/50 split in gender representation on that show, which you'll be hard pressed on any TV show, ever. Many girl-oriented cartoons still managed to have a shit girl:boy ratio.

5. Has your taste in comics changed since you've come out?

Actually, with the cost of HRT and doctor's visits sans insurance, I have little to no money to devote to keeping up with current comics. I generally tend to save up and splurge on trade paperbacks. What I do buy is almost always Vertigo or whatever Warren Ellis is working on these days, so in truth, almost nothing has changed.

6. If you don't think the Bratz or Cooking Mama games portray women in a positive way, what games would you recommend?

Fighting games, especially Capcom ones. They often have better girl:boy ratios for character selection, and while impractically clothed, the female characters tend to be very dynamic and fleshed out and have amazing special attacks. My personal favorites are Marvel vs Capcom 2, Street Fighter, Darkstalkers, Power Stone, or Guilty Gear franchises. Smash Bros is okay. Games like Mario Party and MarioKart are nice too, despite the low number of playable female characters, because there's really nothing sexual about those games, and if you think otherwise, you're probably one ASL away from meeting Chris Hansen anyway.

7. So what is your beef with Marvel?

I don't have a problem with the franchise. I still buy their video games, see their movies, and all those other things I feel they spend more time and energy on than making good comics. I simply don't read their books anymore. I have been over Wolverine since I was 12. I don't care about the civilian alter-egos of the heroes, and personally would prefer more of a DC “taking up the mantle” approach where more emphasis is put on the hero identity itself. I could give a rat's ass about Peter Parker's love life or Tony Stark's alcoholism. It's great, it builds tension in the plot and creates a real mythos to the character, but after a few decades it loses its impact and I know it doesn't matter because Stark isn't going to drink himself to death, neither is Sue Storm ever really going to leave Mr. Fantastic and settle down with another hero. Marvel, I feel, keeps its characters in suspended animation, the status quo being more important than keeping readers interested in their characters and stories. I am so ready to be proven wrong on this one.

8. How did being trans affect you in college? Did people treat you differently?

Because I was in an art program and did a lot of socially conscious art, many of my professors and classmates assumed that my transition was all part of some very elaborate art project with some deep and profound social meaning, and some were very disappointed to find out otherwise. I had one professor who would, in the middle of a conversation, ask me to speak to him in “the female character”. I filed a complaint against this same instructor for telling me, in front of a whole drawing class, that I would never achieve womanhood since I could not bear children, and that my desire to be a woman was selfish, akin to his impossible wish to be six feet tall. Otherwise, the art department at my school was very respectful and accomodating, the occasional “name mess-up” aside. I was harassed once or twice by campus police or some other staff/faculty, but the school had “gender identity” covered in its anti-discrimination policy, and apparently nobody was outraged with my trans status enough to lose their job over it. Now that I've moved out to the Bay I've considered going back to school (or at least taking some community college classes) just to see what it's different than being a trans student in Arizona. Anybody wanna help make that happen?

9. What would be your dream “geek job” and how would you use it to express your queer/trans identity?

Because I went to art school and was taught that I was special and could do anything I wanted as long as I approached it from an “artist's perspective”, I've got it in my head that I can be the astronaut cowgirl rock star of my childhood delusions. I'm going to write new material and perform with my band Jetta & The Gendernauts and put a queer take on the GWAR/Lordi “spectacle horror rock”, and write for a comic or animated television series of my own creation and speak at Comic Con panels and tell hordes of strangers what it's like to be trans in the blank industry and how it affects my sensibility and inspire scores of others to follow in my footsteps and then spend the later years of my career staging absurd off-off-off-off-off-off broadway plays and musicals with robots and nazi samurais and somewhere in between all that convince myself that I can keep a girlfriend or three in the midst of all this.

So yeah, I'll probably working in some food court until I'm 47 and spend my lunch breaks taking Facebook quizzes and complaining on Adult Swim message boards about how they needed to give Korgoth of Barbaria a chance.

10. Why "Jetta"?

I made a list of all the cars I've ever ridden in and picked the one that sounded the most "me". That, and "Who betta than Jolene?" didn't have the rhyme effect I was going for.

And with that, I'm going back to bed. Adios, mother muchachos!

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Offensive much? Thoughts?

Thanks to manonetheside for the tip.
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When it comes to the movement, as it has been dubbed, we forget and often times leave out our allies. We also forget when we come out that it’s not just us but our families that go through the crap that we do, especially if you live in a rural area like I did growing up. It’s been said that having a gay boy in a country family is like having a flute at a honky tonk. Hi, I’m that flute, I’m also the oldest of 3 boys.

For those of you that don't know I have two younger brothers. Levi is 20 and Ethan just turned 18; I sit at the top at 22. We were all raised in a small farm town in Southern Ohio. Levi is attending trade school in Orlando and Ethan is currently a senior in Criminal Justice at the local vocational school. Ethan and I growing up never saw eye to eye on the gay thing. He was your typical country boy who was not a fan of the queers. I was 14 when I came out which made him 10. We grew up in the land where John Deer and flannel rein supreme so being gay was, and still is, a big deal. As my younger brother he had to put up with as much, if not more, shit from the other kids at school than I did. He had to hear the kids making fun of me, he got made fun for having a gay older brother, and a time or two to fit in he joined in with the rest of crowd and poked fun at the school fag.

Over the years we have talked about my being gay and what that means but I never thought something like what I’m about to share would happen. When I was talking with my mom the other day she told me of an altercation Ethan was in at school.

Mom: hey just thought you might be interested Ethan got in a fight today at school.
He stood up to some kid making fun of a gay guy at school.
Me: Really?
Mom: Yep. He even brought you up. One thing he told the kid was that Dakota and any other gay guy would be more of a "man" than he ever would. They have to take crap every day and they don't let stupid people get them down - they let it stir them to action to try to make the world better. He said "my oldest brother is gay...and if he had a mind too he could snap your ignorant little neck” He ended up throwing a milk carton at Ethan as he was walking away and then jumped on his back.Apparently Ethan threw him over his shoulder and penned him. Till the teachers got there the kid is getting suspended and possibly expelled...they have a new principal and they have a zero tolerance policy for harassment..I'm guessing you've had a bit of an influence on your younger brother there, dude.
Me: Sounds like it. Tell Ethan, I’m really proud of him. REALLY Proud.

I never thought I would see the day when my baby brother would turn around to be my biggest ally. When I called him to talk to him about it he said "I learned that being gay doesn't change who a person is at all." For him to stand up like that meant the world to me this was my brother and we were on the same page again. I know that back when I was a young budding queer kid to have someone stand up for me, like my brother who is a member of the football team and all around good ol’ boy, would have made me feel like I had someone in my corner and not so alone. I know that it was not only the kid that my brother was standing up for but for those who heard him, either at the scene or by word of mouth, would feel that maybe it was okay to come out and be who you are.

At the end of day I still don’t get the world I grew up in as it pertains to gender roles and the like. I still don’t understand how I came out, relatively, unscathed.

One thing I do know for certain is that we don't give our allies enough praise or recognition for what they have to go through. For my brothers it was a small town middle and high school being the labeled "the gay guys little brother" and taunted by those who did not like me just because I was gay. Our male allies have their sexuality questioned all the time and our female allies get labeled just another angry woman.

This is for all the allies out there, thanks. I appreciate you for standing up in ways that only you can and letting your voice be heard. I want to encourage all of you out there to take some time and honestly thank our allies for standing beside us and with us on the front lines. Thanks for moving our movement forward because without you, we may not be where we are today.

So, thanks Ethan, I love you bro.

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The Rise of “Third Genders

In the second half of the 20th Century, the concept of the “third gender” gained considerable currency among anthropologists and LGBT activists. The hijras of India, the berdache and nadleehi of native North America, the xanith of Arabia, the female husbands of Western Africa, and the semen-eating boys of Papua New Guinea have all frequently been described as examples of institutionalized “third genders,” that have existed outside of the limits of contemporary Western society.

The concept was originally introduced in order to improve academic analyses of alternative sexual and gender identities. M. Kay Martin and Barbara Voorhies, who first identified “third genders” in an anthropological context, were attempting “to draw attention to the ethnographic evidence that gender categories in some cultures could not be adequately explained with a two-gender framework” (Towle and Morgan, “Romancing the Transgender Native,” 472). They advocated a different conceptualization, which posited male-bodied individuals who adopted feminine roles, female-bodied persons who assumed masculine roles, and those who were labeled as something other than men and women by their societies, as examples of “third genders.” They argued that the modern Western model of gender and sex, founded on binary principles, should not be used to describe cultures that recognize a wide variety of gender roles and that employ non-dichotomous conceptions of sex and sexuality in their social discourse.

In the 1980s and 1990s, American and European LGBT activists seized upon these anthropological ideas. They were eager to challenge and denaturalize the binary view of sex and gender that had become prevalent in their societies, and the slew of anthropological research about “third genders” provided a useful tool for doing so. If maleness and femaleness, masculinity for men and femininity for women, were truly natural and biologically given, then how is it possible that other cultures have, throughout history, institutionalized alternative sex and gender roles? How could other societies have recognized identities for those who are neither male nor female? And how could there be only two sexes and two genders, if various cultures had developed more? The identification of “third genders” thus enabled activists to argue, in the words of Riki Wilchins, that queers and transgender people were “born [not into the wrong body but] into the wrong culture” (Towle and Morgan, 472). The “third gender” began to function as a progressive and emancipatory mechanism for modern American and European transgender individuals.

However, the "third gender" concept has recently come under sustained and acerbic criticism from a small group of anthropologists and transsexual activists. They have found “serious fault” with it, on a number levels, by questioning its ethnographic accuracy and scrutinizing the idea that "third genders" are inherently progressive and emancipatory (Towle and Morgan, 469). This post will illustrate and evaluate this critique of the “third gender” concept, primarily through the use of examples from ancient and contemporary India.

Are “Third Genders” Ethnographically Accurate?

Critics of the “third gender” usually start their appraisal of the label by querying the extent to which it can accurately describe a wide variety of non-binary gender identities. They argue that it is intrinsically flawed because it functions as "a junk drawer into which a great non-Western gender miscellany is carelessly dumped” (Towle and Morgan, 484). It thus encourages people to view all gender non-conformity outside of its social, political and historical context. And by implying that many different kinds of non-binary genders belong in the same category, the concept homogenizes diverse peoples and cultures and implies a sort of universal, trans-cultural and trans-historical “third” gender identity. As Towle and Morgan explain:

“Ethnographic examples [of ‘third genders’] can come from distinct societies located in Thailand, Polynesia, Melanesia, Native America, western Africa, and elsewhere and from any point in history, from Ancient Greece, to sixteenth century England to contemporary North America. Popular authors routinely simplify their descriptions, ignoring…or conflating dimensions that seem to them extraneous, incomprehensible, or ill suited to the images they want to convey” (484).

Conceptualizing a particular gender identity as a “third gender” can lead scholars to overlook complexities and nuances in its meanings and to ignore how the identity functions within its social milieu. An example of this unfortunate tendency can be found in Nancy Nangeroni’s Transgender Tapestry article, “In Search of Mahu.” Nangeroni traveled to Hawaii to spend some time with mahu individuals, whom she considered to be a local category of transgender or “third gender” people. As Towle and Morgan demonstrate, however, Nangeroni homogenizes the only two mahus she meets by treating them as if they “are akin to mainland American transgendered people” (480). She does not duly consider how the mahu concept operates within its own social context and simply assumes that the mahu belong to the universal, transcultural “third gender.” This assumption caused her to ignore the fact that the term was used by the two mahus she met to refer to “effeminate men” and “homosexuals” and that they considered themselves to be gay rather than transgendered or “third gendered” (480). Nangeroni’s own desires and assumptions about the “third gendered” nature of the mahus took precedence over how the mahus viewed themselves. Her article is a clear illustration of some of the disadvantages of using broad concepts, such as transgender and “third gender.”

The reason that “third genders” are often employed in such an inaccurate way is that their use is motivated less by the desire to precisely represent non-Western peoples than by the need to make a political point within U.S. and European societies. As Carolyn Epple points out, anthropologists and queer/transgender activists have used the idea of the “third gender” to advance “social goals,” such as “deliverance from [the idea of] biology as destiny” and disruption of the notion that sex and gender separate unproblematically into mutually exclusive male and female and masculine and feminine categories (“Coming to Terms with Navajo Nadleehi,” 273). The use “third genders” is, thus, a form of crass cultural appropriation for political purposes – other cultures are only relevant insofar as they can be interpreted in a way that promotes the goals of transgender and queer movements in the U.S. and Europe. According to Towle and Morgan, this is highly problematic and hypocritical, since “a common complaint among trans individuals is that their lives and identities are violated and misrepresented for the goals of scholarship” – “it thus behooves us,” they say, “to make sure that we do not commit the same offense against [other cultures]” (470).

Are “Third Genders” Necessarily Emancipatory?

Another key aspect of the critique of “third genders” is a questioning of the extent to which they actually serve emancipatory purposes. Transgender activists and some anthropologists have tended to assume that the institutionalization of more than two genders means that a society is automatically tolerant and accepting of sexual and gender variation. Therefore, it can be placed on a pedestal, as a model for contemporary societies to emulate and an ideal for trans people to look back to. Nevertheless, critics of the “third gender” concept have carefully identified numerous flaws in this interpretation, which they deem to be naïve and dangerously utopian.

First of all, “third genders” can serve the function of making the other two gender categories more rigid, constrained and narrow. By placing anyone who strays from masculine or feminine norms in a “third gender” category, individuals may end up having to conform very strictly to those norms in order to stake their claim to manhood or womanhood. For instance, the late Vedic “third gender” term, napumsaka, was used to identify someone who was literally “not-a-male” (Zwilling and Sweet, “Like a City Ablaze,” 362). Any man who “was impotent…effeminate or a transvestite,” was considered to be one of the napumsaka (362). The concept ensured that a man, by definition, had to have progeny and could not be feminine. Thus, at least in the case of Vedic India, the “third gender” served to enforce restrictive and hegemonic masculine gender norms. Some scholars who have studied “third genders” in other cultures also share this view. For example, Epple has argued, based on her study of Navajo nadleehi, that the “third gender” concept “sets gender incongruence apart and keeps the meaning of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ safe from…disruptive influences” (“Coming to Terms with Navajo Nadleehi,” 273). Overall, instead of necessarily broadening the categories of acceptable identities, behaviors, and social roles for men and women, “third genders” can have the effect of supporting very restrictive understandings of maleness and femaleness.

Secondly, concentrating exclusively on an institutionalized “third gender” when studying another culture can prevent us from noticing other examples of sexual and gender diversity within that culture. For example, “by focusing [solely] on hijras…American readers may be less inclined to investigate other Indian discourses around sex and gender” (Towle and Morgan, 484). As John and Nair demonstrate, gender and sexuality in modern India are complex phenomena that have involved: a valorization of celibacy, forced sterilization for the cause of Hindu nationalism, the recent repeal of a colonial-era anti-sodomy statute, homosocial relations among heterosexual men, and tight regulation of women’s lives and bodies. But U.S. and European queer discourses and university gender studies courses are likely to focus narrowly on the most exotic aspect (the allegedly “third gender” hijras), while ignoring the many other interesting and relevant facets of sex, gender, and sexuality in the country.

Finally, “third gender” categories themselves can be “rigid and intolerant” (Towle and Morgan, 485). The fact that a society has institutionalized multiple gender roles does not necessarily mean that it offers more freedom and individual autonomy. As Anuja Agrawal points out, it could also be the case that “the greater the number of genders, the greater their oppressive potential, as each [gender] may demand conformity of the individual within increasingly narrower confines” (“Gendered Bodies,” 294). She uses the example of castration practices among the hijras to illustrate her point. Indian public discourse maintains that a “real hijra” must be an emasculated individual, not a feminine or cross-dressing male (292). Therefore, assuming a hijra identity can be oppressive because it often entails considerable pressure to have one’s genitals ritually mutilated (without the use of anesthetic) in a religious ceremony known as the nirvanam. Clearly, having an institutionalized “third gender” role does not automatically translate into a freer and more tolerant environment for individuals.

Back to the Future: Where Next after the Critique of “Third Genders”?

Overall, critics of the “third gender” concept have demonstrated that it is not as ethnographically accurate or emancipatory as its proponents have insisted. They have shown that: (1) the notion of a “third gender” homogenizes other cultures because it combines a wide variety of gender peculiarities under one label; (2) its use is motivated more by queer/transgender political aims within a U.S. and European context than by a desire to represent other societies accurately; and (3) the “third gender” concept can serve to rigidify the definition of the other two genders, take attention away from other forms of sexual and gender diversity in a society, and also oppress the people that fall under the category. In my view, these are convincing criticisms – but does this mean that we should avoid using the notion of the “third gender” altogether?

While the concept is definitely flawed, I do not believe that it should be completely abandoned. What if a person identifies with, and feels comfortable in, a “third gender” identity? Critics of “third genders” seem to be quite skeptical about whether anyone would really ever want to identify themselves with that label. For them, “third gender” categories are essentially imposed on other cultures, by modern U.S. and European observers, who are eager to make theoretical points about the social construction of the binary gender system. But “third genders” could have a basis in people’s lived experiences as well. 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.” If people, such as Mona Ahmed, were found to truly identify as “third sex” or “third gender,” then the concept cannot be dismissed so easily and should not simply be viewed as a sole product of Western anthropological and queer thought about other cultures. More research is needed on the extent to which people actually identify with a “third sex” or a “third gender” identity.

Furthermore, while “third genders” can definitely be oppressive (e.g. - the hijra imperative to undergo castration, as described above), they are not necessarily so. A “third gender” category can be highly restrictive and demanding of its members, or it can be very relaxed, fluid and inclusive. For instance, genderqueer identity, which could be conceived as a contemporary Western “third gender,” sets very few requirements on its members. All that is required to assume this identity is feeling a lack of exclusive belonging to one of the two dominant gender categories (man and woman) – no special dress code, social roles or mannerisms must be taken up in order to be able to call oneself genderqueer. There are even no pronoun obligations, and genderqueer people are free to call themselves whatever they choose – phe, ze, she, he, hir, they, sie etc… Thus, there is no necessary connection between “third genders” and oppressive social categories and no reason to automatically dismiss them as anti-emancipatory.

A final problem with the critique of “third genders” is that it seems to naively assume that modern anthropological and queer categorizations of non-Western genders are simply misrepresentations, and that a more accurate description of such cultural phenomena is easily attainable. But in reality, representing another culture is unlikely to ever be fully satisfactory from an empirical point of view. As Vinay Lal explains, regarding the hijras:

“every fundamental description of [them] is inadequate. To reduce [them] to transvestites is merely to assimilate them to increasingly larger classes of people around the world who engage in cross-dressing…to describe them as eunuchs or hermaphrodites is to ignore the fact that some are both, while some are neither…[and while] they often indulge in homosexual behavior…[hijras also] contemptuously dismiss homosexuals as not of their kind” (“Not This, Not That,” 129).

He is also skeptical about the utility of the “third gender” label in describing them:

“the third sex, or trityaprakiti, which is neither male or female, does not…appear to be a fully satisfactory designation…it shows a debilitating dependence on…Aristotelian logic, which works within the framework of either/or duality. Indian logic, at its simplest, presents a more diverse array of possibilities” (130).

What Lal means by this somewhat esoteric passage is that Aristotelian logic (currently dominant in Europe and the United States) pushes people to select one primary identity and encourages them to believe that they cannot have other identities that conflict with the primary identity. Under this framework, one cannot simultaneously be “third gender,” homosexual, and a woman – the concepts imply mutually exclusive anatomies and social categories. However, according to Lal, “Indian logic” is much more accepting of paradoxes and can tolerate the juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory identities in one body (130). Under this more flexible framework, “hijras may well be both male and female [and] nonmale and nonfemale” (131). They could be women, homosexuals, and transgendered individuals at the same time. Thus, the problem with the “third gender” label, as applied to the hijras, is that it imposes an either/or Aristotelian logic in a culture that does not give primacy to such a framework: hijras are either “third gender” or they are not. But within the Indian cultural context, they are considered to inhabit numerous identities simultaneously, and therefore, it would be inaccurate to provide them with simply one label.

Therefore, critics of the “third gender” concept will have to avoid the assumption that non-binary genders in other cultures can easily be represented. Labeling them as “third genders” may not be accurate, but other designations might be equally inappropriate as well. As Lal stated above, “every fundamental description of the hijras is inadequate” and describing them accurately would involve getting inside the Indian cultural context, which is more accepting of multiple, paradoxal identities (129).

***For More Information***

The most comprehensive critique of the notion of “third genders” can be found in Evan Towle and Lynn Morgan’s article, “Romancing the Transgender Native.” Several more specific studies have also been published, which have questioned the utility of the “third gender” concept in terms of describing a particular culture. See, for example, Murray’s “On Subordinating Native American Cosmologies to the Empire of Gender,” Epple’s “Coming to Terms with Navajo nadleehi,” Boellstorff’s “Playing Back the Nation,” Agrawal’s “Gendered Bodies: The Case of the Third Gender in India,” and Lal’s “Not This, Not That.” For books and articles that are more in favor of employing the “third gender” notion, see Herdt’s Third Sex, Third Gender, Nanda’s “The Hijras of India” (in Parker and Aggleton’s edited volume, Culture, Society and Sexuality: A Reader) and Zwilling and Sweet’s “Like a City Ablaze.”

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The first person I knew who told me they weren't transgendered was a crossdresser I'll call Gene. He (and he did later come to insist on male pronouns, and stopped calling himself Gina on the message board we met on), decided that he really was in it for the clothes, and didn't find himself aligned with the other crossdressers on the board, who all thought of themselves as transgendered.

It was a little jarring to me at first; I had naively assumed that crossdressing=transgendered, so having someone overturn that conviction was surprising. But as I reflected on it, I could see his point. And since that time, I've met other people like Gene, some crossdressers, some genderqueer, and even some transsexuals who identify completely as their post-transition gender and have no desire to continue with any kind of transgender identity.

There exists, however, a group of trans women--at least, they seem to be exclusively trans women--who resist being placed under the transgender umbrella. Some refuse to even call themselves transsexuals, preferring the term Harry Benjamin Syndrome instead. They claim that transsexualism is a case of being "neurologically interesexed" by which they mean that they have a "female brain," and therefore a medical, not a psychological condition.

All well and good. I myself believe that transness will ultimately be seen as having a physical component, if for no other reason than it is a part of my thoughts and behaviors, and therefore must map to a physical structure in my brain. Likewise, there are a number of arguments to be made for removing Gender Identity Disorder (the official designation for transness) from the DSM, the same way that homosexuality was previously removed.

If this was as far as the HBSers went, I think they'd be uncontroversial. Unfortunately, it is not. Using Benjamin's old terminology (but ignoring the rest of his scale of transness, which included other forms of transsexuality--and Kinsey numbers, for that matter), the HBSers claim to be "true" transsexuals as opposed to "transgenders" who can never really be women. To bolster these claims, there are frequent references to the "more than 300" studies collected by Zoe Brain which are supposed to unequivocally prove that transsexuality is an intersex condition of the brain, and that this intersexuality distinguishes "true" transsexuals from mere transgenders.

Except that they do nothing of the kind. Ms. Brain has indeed collected an impressive number of studies, but she has done so by including studies that show any difference between male and female brains, not the small number of studies specific to trans people. (In fact, the main source of nearly all the claims rest upon the Zhou study that was based on postmortem analysis of just six transsexuals, all of whom had been on hormones for an extended period of time.) Worse, even those studies that do deal with transsexuals do not include other kinds of trans people, so even if there are identifiable differences in the pre-HRT brains of transsexuals (as this study seems to suggest), there is no way of knowing if those differences aren't present in the brains of, say, crossdressers as well. While there are a lot of reasons for believing--as I certainly do--that there are physiological causes to transness, the claims of the HBSers that they are "neurologically intersex" or that they are some how biologically distinct from other trans people are simply not proven at the present day.

It gets worse. In trans and queer circles, HBSers are notorious for their disruptive, dismissive, and insulting attitudes towards transgender people and even queer people. A quick trip to the Enough Nonsense blog will regale the reader with a heaping plate of homophobia, ableism, lookism, transphobia, and even nice side dish of political paranoia. (Transgender people are now socialists?) And that is hardly the worst of the bunch--witness, for example, the wanton destruction wrought at this thread on Bilerico. For people who claim to not be transgender--hell, who reject the use of transsexual as applied to themselves--certain HBSers spend an enormous amount of time on queer and trans sites vociferously shouting down anyone who dares intimate that transsexuals--or some transsexuals, at least--are transgendered. (They favor a "No true Scotsman" line of argument--if you're transsexual, but call yourself transgendered, then you're not a "real" transsexual.)

And surprisingly for a group that claims to be women, only women, they are remarkably antifeminist in thought. The belief that there is only sex, not gender, that biology is destiny, and their preoccupation with how a woman "should" look are, shall we say, unenlightened at best.

The claims to an intersex identity is also problematic; as Raven Kaldera, who is both intersex and trans, says:

"And anyway, you might want to think hard about why you want to be classed intersex. If it's for "legitimization", that's colonization of someone else's identity without their permission, in order to please people who probably don't deserve to be pandered to. If you think you'll find it easier to get a sex change, you're wrong - intersexuals who desire sex reassignment (and there are a few of us) often find it harder than "normal" transsexuals to find endocrinologists who will work with us. [....] Claiming the medically defined identity of intersex when you have none of the problems involved has been compared to claiming a nonexistent disability to get better parking spaces, or claiming a minority identity that you don't have in order to get a better job in an area with affirmative action laws. We are all minorities, and we don't need to prey on each other."

But perhaps most damning of all the things I can say about the HBS theory is that it simply uses the arguments previously put forth against all trans people to demonize and Other some trans people. That is, Janice Raymond has said that transsexuals can't be women because men can never be women; Germaine Greer has mocked transsexuals for their unwomanly looks, and I'm sure neither care about the BSTc region of the hypothalamus in their determination of what makes a woman. Likewise, Heart and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival won't care what your MRI shows while they try to not sell you a ticket. (But fortunately, neither will Mara Keisling and other trans activists who work hard for the rights of all trans people, even the ones who would gladly discriminate against some trans people.)

Nobody should be forced into an identity that doesn't fit them--trans people understand this truth quite intimately. But neither should one group attempt to deny another group's own claims to identity, especially another disprivileged group--such sandcastle imitations of the real oppression impress nobody but their sculptors.

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+ news +

More Don't Ask speculation,
Boy Scouts get slapped again,
and Andre J is AMAZING for the week.

Internship Opportunity

BELOW THE BELT is looking for an intern! Job responsibilities would include maintenance of two of our weekly posting slots -- Housekeeping and Crosspost Saturdays. The job requires decent knowledge of the blog and online news-world(s), and offers a great opportunity to network under professional circumstances with leading bloggers out there. Those interested should email toughstuff(at)belowthebelt.org with a statement of interest.


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It might appear to the average reader that I do not, in fact, care for most things, and that my talents are limited to pointing out the homoerotic subtext in various media and bellyaching about the bigoted patriarchal heteronormativity found within video game marketing. Not true, nagging voice of self doubt that keeps me from participating on message boards and other things I dream of doing while drinking chai tea in the bathtub at 2 in morning. In the Venn Diagram of my mind, there is something that fits into both the “Stuff I Like” and “Stuff I Have Nice Things To Say About” categories. And that is something is cartoons. I fucking love cartoons. More than Seth MacFarlane loves the sound of his own voice. I've watched every episode of every Adult Swim series, have an entire external hard drive devoted to Animated Batman and Justice League, have been known to watch Spongebob Squarepants while sober, and have had to talk myself more than once out of cosplaying as Dr. Girlfriend. I don't share this information to impress you, as if we're in bizarro world where the coolest kid is the one who has the least semblance of a life, but as a helpful reminder to myself as to why I don't have a girlfriend. Or own a pet.

Why cartoons, you might ask? Well, I have narrowed down all my nonsensical pontification into three, concise answers. The first, the one written on my “art student” hat, is that my background in Brechtian theatre has conditioned me to reject most live-action media that insists upon the suspension of disbelief and/or striving to achieve a “realistic” effect. The second, which we will call the “obvious choice”, involves me lying on the carpet listening to ocean sounds while looking into a kaleidoscope for an hour. The third (the one we're going to focus on because we don't have the time to properly dissect Brechtian theory and because my parents are disappointed in me enough as it is) is that cartoons are often the most progressive shows on television, providing messages on tolerance, identity and all that other feelgood shit. A very popular example is Spongebob Squarepants, who's queer overtones are so documented they deserve its own blog. And I know at least one person who's cited Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends as a promoter of racial tolerance in an academic thesis. But today I want to focus on a somewhat more obscure cartoon, at least to the “grown ups who like cartoons” demographic. Not quite anime, not quite “kids show”, it's gained a cult following rivaling some midnight movies and features a voice cast including Mark Hamill, Jason Isaacs, and the late Mako. I'm speaking, of course, about Avatar: The Last Airbender.

A brief synopsis for people who don't feel like Netflixing it and then reading this article later; A:TLA takes place in a world divided by four peoples: The Water Tribes, The Earth Kingdom, The Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation. Each people share an affinity for their element, and some can even “bend”, or manipulate their element to suit their purposes. Once every generation is born the Avatar, a bender who can master all four elements and is tasked with maintaining the peace between the civilizations and serving as a diplomat of sorts to the spirit world. The industrious Fire Nation launches a century-long war against the other three peoples, and it's up to Aang, a 12 year old (or 112, if you count suspended animation) airbender and the current Avatar, to master the elements and defeat the Fire Lord before some comet comes and sets the world on fire fuck it look it up on wikipedia.

Unlike other fictitious “chosen one/savior” characters, the Avatar is not a product of prophecy, born under just the right conditions and raised for the sole purpose of slaving some evil and then dying/ascending to heaven/becoming the very same evil they were supposed to extinguish. The Avatar is a spirit, reincarnated throughout the centuries. In previous lives, Aang has lived as been a member of every people (many times over) and at least of those past lives was that of a woman. At some point in this fictional universe's history, the most powerful and spiritual person in the world was a woman. That, to me, presents an interesting query about the role of societal and religious norms in determining gender norms. We, as a Judeo-Christian culture, tend to adopt a “one body, one soul, one chance” attitude to life. Much of the anti-gay static from the far right consists of “if you don't pleasuring yourselves in ways God did not intend you to, you will burn in hell.” God does not grant second chances. But what if he did? What if Jesus was reincarnated? Furthermore, and a little more on the topic of gender, how would Christianity's attitudes towards women be different if it had been mentioned, somewhere in the Bible, that Jesus had been a lady in a previous life? Or that at the Second Coming, Christ would appear in the form of a woman? If some ancient sea scroll or whatever they wrote all this shit down in ye olde times surfaced saying that we would have to endure many lifetimes on earth to be worthy of the splendor of heaven, would the Evangelicals of the world change their tune on the subject of gays and trans folk? How much is this “one life, one chance” way of thinking obstructing our efforts to build a gender equal future? How would your opinions on yourself, your gender, your sexuality, change, if you, like Aang, could walk to a village where a statue of a previous you stood, one of a different gender? Shouldn't we be more open, as a society, to the idea that we are not the glistening snowflakes we thought we were?

Just, you know, making inane observations from a cartoon I saw.

Another thing that I find refreshing about Avatar, from a “gender/queer studies” perspective, is that while many kid shows are quick to tell you that prejudice is bad and makes a lot of people really unhappy, Avatar goes the extra mile to demonstrate the effects of misogyny and chauvinism on both the people who espouse it and those who are oppressed by it. In your regular cartoon, the “be nice to girls” episode would consist of the alpha male of the show not letting the spunky girl play soccer with them after school, until one day they're short a person and they reluctantly allow the girl to play and she scores the winning goal and everybody learns a valuable lesson and has tuna casserole for dinner (AGAIN? OH NO!). In “Warriors of Kyoshi”, Sokka, the warrior/comic relief of the group, insults the all-female militia, and is soundly beaten by their leader (twice). After being humiliated (twice), Sokka expresses humility and asks to be trained in their fighting style, and is told he must don female garb and makeup like the rest of the fighters. “Whoa dude looks like a lady” humor ensues, though I doubt anyone actually laughed.The message I deduced from this scenario is “not to insult somebody's traditions and rituals and then expect to be educated in them without having to lose a little face”. I think anybody who's ever heard the “well maybe you should be educating me so I don't offend you” argument might know what I'm talking about. If they're not still screaming at their computer screens.

By the time Sokka finally overcomes his prejudice and accepts his rival/teacher/sexual tension for who she is, and learns to appreciate and celebrate her womanhood, it's too late. The Fire Nation attack the village, and he is forced to flee with Aang and Katara, possibly never to see her again (I may be wrong, Netflix took a little while getting Season 2 to me and I don't feel like spoiling it by looking it up). Later, in the season finale, Sokka's next love interest, Princess Yue, is forced to reject his advances because at 16 she's already betrothed to her tribe's “stereotypical jerkface” in an arranged political marriage, and then sacrifices herself to save the moon, and subsequently, the world. I think Sokka's learned a very valuable lesson about the harm outdated views on gender norms can do. But he's not the only one enrolled in sensitivity training. Pakku, the sexist water-bending master from the last three episodes, is at first an icy chauvinist, which isn't really all that ironic because his powers include dominion over ice. In his eponymous episode, you learn that Pakku's disdain for women stems from the love of his life running out on him and going to the other side of the world to escape and have a life free from the tribe's archaic gender norms (the “one that got away” turns out to be Sokka and Katara's grandmother). I found this profound, not only because I have the mindset of a very easily impressed eight year old, but because prejudice in its many forms is often portrayed as being the result of misinformation or some other easily excusable reason, and it's nice to see prejudice for what it is; a cycle. If you hate, or support a system that hates, you will eventually cause yourself harm, which will just make you hate even more. It's a shame I'm not very good at what I do, or that could have sounded really profound.

Avatar talks a big game with its gender equality message, and it backs it up with some of the most dynamic female characters in animation. Unlike many other shows/movie series/franchises, Avatar features strong, female characters on both sides of the good/evil conflict. Stars Wars, Lord of the Rings, even Transformers featured “boys club” antagonists, with strong female baddies left to the shitty “expanded universe/spinoff” that often comes with trying to stretch out the cash cow. Even comic books are prone to this; when a female villain becomes popular enough she will inevitably switch over to the good side or at least dabble in neutrality. In Avatar, the good guys get water-bender Katara, the group's “conscience” who frequently switches from compassionate and maternal to raging fury. Despite being the “love interest” of the main protagonist, Katara avoids falling into the “damsel in distress” cliché and actually saves Aang's ass on a couple of occasions. The bad guys get fire-bender Azula, the sadistic perfectionist slowly losing her mind to her insecurities To foil Katara's innately good nature, Azula is cruel, paranoid, competitive, and delights in her destruction.

Between the two of them, they span the spectrum of feminine archetypes commonly found in fiction, from nurturer to protector to spoiled princess to cunt. While splitting the entire range of human emotion between two characters is not something to be encouraged in writers, the fact that the show featured enough female principles to spread it around like that is a step in the right direction. Normally when you have polar opposites the trend is to stick them together to make some wacky mismatched duo, but Avatar puts them on opposing sides with differing goals and motives, preventing them from encountering that “oh, I guess you're supposed to be the anti-me, let's duel to the death, I suppose” moment you get with token characters (of both genders). While you could argue that Katara and Azula comfortably fit into stocks and stereotypes, they don't feel like token characters, and this is important, because it tells the viewer that they're not here just because they're girls, they're here because they belong.

Ideally, I would have liked to see Katara and Azula split into two characters each, both to spread out the personality, and also to balance out the sausage fest we have with the rest of the characters. But this was a nice start. We need to see more female villains in media, and not just sidekicks or “brains of the operation who don't get their feet wet” types, more girls who shoot fire from their mouth. And we could stand to see some more reciprocity in the rescusing of asses. We're never going to vote a woman in the white house if we scoff at the notion of Pepper Potts rescuing Iron Man (see Marvel fans? I'm trying).

While we're on the subject of girls, I would also like to mention what I find to be very empowering about the show. Boy on girl fighting. In many shows, the token girl is either hands off support, or exists solely to fight the other token girl, who's existence on the show is solely to fight the other girl (i.e. Cheetah from Super Friends), or is giving nigh-invulnerability when fighting all the nameless mooks who will always be taken down by her because they're too afraid to hit a girl (alas, you've fallen for our evil scheme to wait for you to knock yourself out!)

Media seems to adhere to the notion that a girl can raid tombs and save the world, but she simply can't match up to an able-bodied man. This is bullshit. If you've got superpowers and he's got superpowers, or if she's a samurai master and you're a ninja, there is no reason the two of you cannot have a fair fight. Really, we should be getting with the program on this one. We were a generation raised on Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, games which featured girls breaking guy's faces in. I'll be up front with you, the action and fight scenes are what sold me on Avatar. They are equal to or greater than “the shit”. People throwing fire and rocks at each other and there's swords and catapults and flying buffalo. And not once, not once, do they take a “okay, girls get to safety” break.

Despite my attempts to embrace pacifism and live and let live, I crave violence with good art direction and sound editing.

Treating a woman like a delicate glass house that can not and should not defend herself under any circumstance is just another form of sexism. If girls grow up seeing women kick ass, then they'll believe that they can kick ass, and we'll see more girls playing sports, more girls in self-defense classes, more girls striving for the same playing field that a man has. Featuring prominent female antagonists in media sends a message to the future men of our generation that yes, it is honorable to compete/match wits/debate/insert analogy here with a woman, and there is no shame in losing, because in the end, we are all the same: human. Ultimately, this touches up on why I think cartoons are so important to us in the digital age; it gives us the chance to impart knowledge and understanding on children in a way that stimulates and motivates them, and by reversing some of the gender norms in cartoons, creators and illustrators could inspire the next generation or two to pick up where we left off in our struggle for reduced bullshit tomorrow. Also, they are pretty to look at and are sometimes very funny.

It's a silly theory (or two), I know, especially considering that despite my attempts to credit it as a show empowering women, it is still a show with a male-dominated cast with a male protagonist aimed primarly at male viewers, and any idiot who tries to extract deep spiritual questions from a cartoon is doomed to fail. But that's what I do around here. That said, I don't think I'm very good at the "gender theory" stuff. I might have to go back to pointing out the Ho Yay in Watchmen.

Moral of the story: Avatar for the win.

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Last time I discussed the controversies and problems surrounding the use of the word cis; it seems only fair to talk this time about the controversies and problems around the word trans.

I invariably use trans as short for transgendered, and transgendered in its so-called "umbrella sense": embracing anyone with a variance with the gender assigned to them because of their biological sex. (When referring to a transsexual's gender, however, I use trans as an adjective modifying that gender: trans man, trans woman. Although this is slightly confusing, I agree with Julia Serano and helen boyd that the space is vital in avoiding "othering" or invalidating a transsexual's gender--something that transwoman doesn't do, since it implies that transsexual women aren't women but something else entirely).

This umbrella sense of the word evolved in the last few decades as a way to be a catch-all to include crossdressers and transsexuals (and later, other people who migh identify as trans--such as some genderqueer people and some drag kings and queens). It evolved from the earlier meaning of the word, coined (as "transgenderist") by crossdressing activist Virginia Prince in the 1950s1970s. In her conception, a transgenderist was someone who lived as the "opposite" sex without having surgery. Always a controversial figure, Prince was at least partly motivated to create the term out of her dislike for transsexuals--even though she spent most of the latter half of her life living fulltime as a woman; most modern-day trans people (at least this trans person) would be more likely to call her a transsexual than a crossdresser or even a transgenderist. (This was hardly Prince's only contradiction--she did found Tri-Ess, the crossdressing support group that explicitly bans both transsexuals and non-heterosexual crossdressers, even as she spent the last half of her long life essentially transitioned and allegedly dated men during that time).

Yet despite the rise of the inclusive sense of transgendered, all too often it is seen as merely a synonym for transsexual. More recently, this may be because transsexuals have tended to be at the forefront of trans activism; with the biggest stakes in trans rights, this is a natural act of self-interest. But let's not kid ourselves: mostly this is because the media sensationalize trans people, as Julia Serano has observed. Transsexuals take chemicals that force drastic changes to our bodies; have surgery that permanently alters our genitals; and live a narrative with unhappy beginning, troubled middle, and fairy tale ending. (Actually, many transsexuals have only some or even none of these things, but we are talking about stereotypes and media perceptions here.) Crossdressers, on the other hand, can have surprisingly normal presentations in either gender; are often not particularly kinky; and may even be boringly straight. (And again, many are some or none of these things--but in this case, this is more due to the invisibility and erasure of crossdressers in discourse.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, these divisions often play out within the trans community itself--one hears of a supposed trans hierarchy, which goes from successful and always passable transsexual down to a panty-wearing fetishist. Transsexuals angrily deny that they are "transvestites"; crossdressers huff that they are not drag queens; drag queens mutter about not doing it as a kink. It's a sad mirror of the real kyriarchy, which privileges those who most closely hew to gender stereotypes and stigmatizes those who break them, a process I like to call sandcastling--because these parodies of the real oppression are as pointless and fragile as sandcastles under the shadow of a fortress wall.

The close identification of transgender with transsexual does more than simply reinforce gender stereotypes, though: it also erases the very real gender dysphoria and pain crossdressers experience. If transsexuals have the comfort of a narrative, crossdressers live without closure--what helen boyd called "the sound of the other shoe not dropping." Partners of crossdressers worry that their loved one will one day decide to transition; crossdressers themselves sometimes feel diminished because they "only" present as the opposite gender some of the time. The social stigma for crossdressers is also pronounced: while transsexuals have run for elected office, incidents like the cases of Sam Walls and Eric Brewer--politicians who had pictures of themselves crossdressed leaked to the press--have seen their careers destroyed--even Stu Rasmussen, who identifies as male, has had breast implants to feminize his appearance and wears women's clothing fulltime. (Likewise, there are many professions where transsexuals are out about their history, but you will almost never hear of a lawyer or surgeon who is open about being a crossdresser.) This stigmatization--as well as the dominance of transsexual discourse--help keep crossdressers the great dark matter of the trans universe, their precise numbers difficult to know, the population predominently closeted.

No discussion of the word transgender would be complete without talking about the controversy raised by some transsexuals who don't want to be under the umbrella at all; this will be the topic of my next post.

transfeminist joins us from The Second Awakening

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I had a conversation the other day with a someone who’s an active parent member of her 3rd grade kid’s school and cares quite deeply about the performance of her kids. She was receiving calls from her kid’s teacher about the fact that her child wasn’t being compliant in class and was resisting authority. She inquired as to what had happened, and the teacher explained:

“I asked her ‘Would you like to clean the blackboard?’ on five different occasions and she always told me no.

“Did you ever give her a directive like ‘Please clean the blackboard?’”

“Well, no…”

“That’s why. In my culture, you give people directives.”

I grew up in a culture where “Would you like to clean the blackboard?” in fact means “you better say you’d love to clean the blackboard or you will be punished.” It would actually be quite rude in my family to give someone a directive like “Clean the black board” or “Please clean the black board,” because both essentially come across as mean or too demanding.

But I’ve never given much thought to the kinds of messages and rules that are communicated just with that one question. By asking that question in my culture, you are giving a directive. You are literally giving the child a choice to offer whether or not they would like to clean the chalkboard, but the cultural meaning associated with that question is that you should know to offer your help otherwise you could be judged for being disobedient.

Just imagine how a question like this can be shaped and modified to create all sorts of complicated trouble. This situation originally came up as a cultural issue between racial/ethnic groups (white and Latino), but you can easily see it happening in multiple scenarios:

- Within a cultural group but across generations
- Within a cultural group but between genders
- Across socioeconomic class
- Anything, really

It’s just really striking to me to think about because when you imagine how schools are organized or run, lots of people just assume that if you have a commitment to equity in schools on paper that there’s going to be an equal playing field – it’d just come down to the individual, to the individual commitment to working hard to succeed. When in fact…it’s not. There are structural inequalities, like cultural traditions of communicating demands in class that result in how you are assessed.

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My previous post attempted to characterize Harvey Milk’s political philosophy and activist approach. It argued that he engaged in a form of “grassroots gay realpolitik,” which eschewed back-room alliances with high-ranking straight liberals in favor of augmenting political and economic power for gays through pragmatic coalitions with unions and small business owners. He also believed that achieving “visibility” by coming out en masse would go a long way towards eliminating negative stereotypes about gay people and that the best way to argue in favor of queer rights was to appeal to the principles of individual liberty embedded in the U.S. Constitution. Milk’s thinking was clearly ahead of his time, in many ways, and he deserves to be recognized, appreciated and canonized for his inspirational leadership and pioneering role.

Nevertheless, there were also important flaws in his activism, and this post will provide a brief summary of some of the criticisms that can be leveled against him. While Milk developed an effective framework for gay male rights and gay male freedom, he did not build effective links with other sexual and racial minorities, and he failed to develop a broader moral vision for the general liberation of gender and sexuality. He was also not very interested in thinking about oppressive conformity and gender politics within the homosexual community itself, and he largely ignored the emerging devaluation of feminine men in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood.

Lack of Alliances with Other Sexual and Gender Minorities

Despite his skilful coalition building with unions and small business owners, Milk failed to develop alliances with other groups seeking changes to the dominant gender, sexual and racial order. Feminists, lesbians, transsexuals and non-White communities were largely excluded (or excluded themselves) from his campaigns, and the movement he developed was far too white gay-male centric.

Although Anne Kronenberg was closely involved in Milk’s staff, few lesbians took part in Milk’s Castro Street demonstrations. According to Randy Shilts, “lesbian leaders had…spread the word that Harvey was anti-woman, partially [due to his] close alliances with drag queens” (211). “He’s a man,” they used to say to Kronenberg, “he’s just going to use you and throw you out” (211). While this attitude is extremely sexist towards both men and drag queens, Milk did not do much to reach out to lesbians; he did not bother to dispel the negative rumors that lesbian leaders had been spreading about him. Milk’s main constituency was the gay male community, and aside from hiring Kronenberg as a campaign manager, he made very few attempts to include lesbians in his activism.

Furthermore, even though he managed to secure a close friendship with the leaders of San Francisco’s Chinese-American community, he failed to make strong links with other racial minorities, such as the city’s Latinos and African-Americans. He allegedly campaigned less in their neighborhoods because he “assum[ed] that they would be too homophobic to support him” (Shilts, 170). But this is very uncharacteristic of Milk, given the fact that he was able to overcome homophobic reactions from the unions and develop strong a partnership with their leaders. And he was also fond of saying, with regards to queer issues, that “everyone can be reached, everyone can be educated and helped” (220). For Milk, there was no such thing as a person or a community that is indelibly homophobic.

His approach to the Latino and African-American communities clearly contradicts this view and suggests that he may have harbored racist biases against them, even though he often admired the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. Avoiding the neighborhoods of these two racial minorities was also a major tactical mistake, since he “left virgin…territory” to other candidates (Shilts, 170). Indeed, Art Agnos owed his victory over Milk in a Democratic Primary for the California State Assembly to the fact that Milk diminished his campaign efforts in many non-White neighborhoods. This move eerily foreshadows Proposition 8 opponents’ reluctance to campaign in the Latino and African-American areas of California, which certainly contributed to their defeat.

No Vision of General Sexual and Gender Liberation

Although Milk focused far more on changing social attitudes towards homosexuals than the “gay moderates,” his approach to this issue was still somewhat limited. He believed that one of the best ways to alter the heterosexual majority’s opinions about gays would be to convince straight Americans that opposing queer rights could undermine the foundational principles that that their country was built on. He did not reflect very deeply about why homophobia was so endemic in society and how dominant ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality would have to be transformed in order for homosexuality to be accepted as a part of everyday life.

This is what was crucially missing from Milk’s activism. He thought that the principles of individual liberty, embedded in the U.S. constitution, were the major weapon in the fight against homophobic society. But would that be enough? Certainly, it is possible to argue successfully that, given the rights to freedom speech, freedom of association and the (still contested) right to privacy, the persecution of homosexuals is unconstitutional and “un-American.” However, this is still an overly legalistic argument (which is what Milk often reproached the “gay moderates” for). Would it have been possible, instead, to conceptualize the oppression of homosexuals as just another form of sexism? As Riki Wilchins points out in Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary:

“A man having sex with a man or a woman having sex with a woman is itself the most profound transgression of gender norms conceivable. It is at the heart of homophobia. It need not harm gay political aspirations to admit the obvious. That if it is gender-feminine to pull a dress over the male body, it is gender-feminine to pull a man down on it as well” (57).

By framing the gay movement as yet another battle against sexism, Milk would have connected it to the broader struggle against gender and sexuality-based oppression, instead of simply fighting for the constitutional rights of gay males. Such a general approach towards sexual liberation tout court would have greatly facilitated connections with feminists, transgender individuals, and lesbians. It could have also included heterosexuals; by exposing how straight sexual expression was also limited in some ways by societal norms. But Milk did not concern himself much with deeper questions about the origins of homophobia and its connection to systemic sexism and gender oppression. Perhaps due to his history of activism in right-wing Republican politics during the 1960s (he handed out leaflets for the Goldwater campaign on the New York subway), he was most likely to conceptualize the gay movement in a patriotic way, as working to fulfill the promise of individual liberty in the U.S. constitution. While this approach had its advantages, an inclusive vision for the general liberation of gender and sexuality was missing from Milk’s thinking.

Furthermore, the nature of Milk’s grassroots coalition-building (developing pragmatic alliances on the basis of common economic and political interests) was likely to encourage people to tolerate the gay community and to work with it when it was in their interests. It was no guarantee that homosexuality would be accepted. Was a homophobic union member, who developed a congenial working relationship with the gay community, more likely to accept her/his gay son or daughter? It is possible. But it is also possible that this person could take the view that homosexuality is fine, but not in his or her family. Working pragmatically with gays and developing an awareness of and sensitivity to homosexual issues are two separate things. While they could go hand-in-hand, they also might not. Milk's realpolitik-style coalition building was, thus, more likely to inspire tolerance for gay people than acceptance.

Lack of Interest in the Politics and Sociology of Gay Identity

Finally, Milk did not seem to care very much about gender politics within the gay male community. During the 1970s, as more and more gay immigrants flooded into the Castro, the neighborhood culture of dress and mannerisms turned away from effeminate and hippie models towards what Randy Shilts termed “macho conformity” (137). The homosexual fashion of that time was “derived from the most virile male images of the society – cowboys, constructions workers, and military men” (136). The problem with this was that femininity among the gay men of the Castro was starting to become passé and a total turn-off, which foreshadowed the general devaluation of “flamboyant behavior” (read: effeminacy) in American gay culture that is still ever-present today. Shilts points out that a cruising ritual between two men could have easily failed in the Castro of the 1970s if “the first stare was too longing, if the nod came off at all prissy, [and] if the salutation’s tone [usually a grunt] was not aloof or masculine enough” (136).

Rick Nichols, a close friend of Harvey Milk, was irritated by this new intra-community gender discrimination. He often complained that the gay immigrants came to the Castro to be free, but all looked alike: “all they’re doing is fitting into another mold, finding a new conformity” (137). Milk responded that “this is the first chance [the new gay immigrants] have ever had to be free” and that the obsession with machismo and masculinity would eventually diminish, but he did not dwell too much on the issue (137). He was considerably more interested “in the vast [and increasing] numbers of handsome young men,” than in the “sociological implications of the burgeoning gay counterculture” (137). Thus, Milk can be reproached for ignoring the emerging “traditional sexism” within the San Francisco gay community, which posited that masculinity in men was superior to, and more desirable than, femininity (Serano, Whipping Girl, 15). This type of sexism is still common in the gay community today, and gay conservatives, such as Andrew Sullivan, have often touted it (as explained in this previous post).

Conclusion – An Ominous Foreshadowing?

Perhaps it is slightly unfair to level all these criticisms at Milk, given that he was one of the first nationally-recognized out gay public officials and that, in many ways, he changed the queer movement for the better. As explained in my previous post, his approach was certainly superior to that of the “gay moderates,” who focused excessively on building high-level connections with liberal politicians, defined progress for homosexuals in almost exclusively legal terms, and argued for rights on the conservative basis of portraying gays as “just the same” as the straight majority, “except for a few bedroom gymnastics” (Shilts, 86). Milk greatly improved on this elitist and traditionalist model by developing a powerful grassroots movement, encouraging visibility for gay people, building useful political alliances, and showing that it is possible for an out gay man to be elected to public office.

Nevertheless, the flaws in his approach must be recognized, especially since they seem to provide an eerie foreshadowing of some of the major problems that the queer movement faces today. The dominance of gay male concerns and the exclusion of lesbians, feminists and transgender individuals is still a pressing issue nowadays. Racism in queer spaces and an unwillingness to engage with non-White communities also remain major problems. And “flamboyant” (or feminine) men are still discriminated against in the gay community. Thus, while Harvey Milk is a great role model for modern queer activists to follow, his approach is also emblematic of many crucial flaws in today’s LGBT movement.

***For More Information***

This post has been largely based on information from Randy Shilts’ excellent book, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. This is so far the only major publication to focus solely on Milk. Otherwise, there are many audios and transcripts of his speeches, pictures of his campaigns, and short articles about his life, on the Internet. Most of them can be accessed via this Wikipedia page. For more on “traditional sexism” and the devaluation of femininity in heterosexual society and in queer communities, see Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. Her work has been addressed in detail in these previous posts. If you want additional information on how homophobia is closely linked to sexism, see Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Gender Binary, edited by Joan Nestle, Clare Howell and Riki Wilchins.

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Penelope Trunk, CEO of the website brazencareerist.com recently tweeted about her miscarriage, thankful that she won't have to have an abortion, which in her home state of Wisconsin requires a 3-week waiting period. And believe it or not, the interwebs are all riled up over it. On both sides. She was even interviewed on CNN.

At first I thought "why??? why would you share that??" But then I read her post on why she would. And I'm glad she posted. For three reasons:

1. Miscarriage is a natural function. It happens. It happens more than we may realize. And it's not just a quick thing. It happens for awhile. It can be sad, it can be a relief. But it's common. So why don't we talk about? Now, I know women talk about it, quickly and quietly ("Oh did you hear? Sue lost her baby. Yeah, 6 weeks. Sad. ... So what's for lunch?"). It's usually a sad event in someone's life. A broken promise. A chance ended. A friend of mine just lost her baby, 5 days from her due date. It's tragic. But it's part of life. Why do we act like it is a big secret, a hushed occurrence? Many women experience them. According to Penelope, 75% of women. So for many of us, it's a common part of being a woman, or having a uterus.

2. Abortion is a right in the US. Whether or not you agree with it, it is still a right. But many states are chipping away at that right, like Wisconsin's 3-week waiting period. Penelope Trunk is a 42-year-old mother of two. Why would we make her wait 3 weeks? She's an adult that can make her own choices. Do we make people arbitrarily wait 3 weeks for other procedures? Also, to some people, abortion is "ending a life." But to others, it's giving a life back. It's a procedure. A surgery. Pro-choicers don't deny that it's "murder." But sometimes it's the best choice that can be made. So if Penelope didn't have a miscarriage, should she carry this baby to term? At the expense of the two kids she already has (although I don't know her reasons for not wanting a baby ... but they're her reasons and her choice). I have another friend who has two beautiful children, but both of her pregnancies were very difficult for her. Her physician told her if she got pregnant again, he would strongly advise she abort. Would the pro-life movement argue she carry the baby to term? Even if it could kill her? How is that pro-life - leaving the two children she already has without a mother?

My point is, abortion is a right, but it's a right we rarely talk about calmly. Penelope talks about it calmly, without shame. We need more of it that. The more we can talk about abortion objectively, the less it's this mythical scary evil terrible thing that only devil women choose to have. Lots of compassionate, rational, smart, successful, caring, kind women choose to have abortions. It's not just the tramps and the hussies and the evil selfish bitches.

3. Her post is a sign of the times. We expose ourselves so much these days: online on sites like Facebook, Twitter, You Tube. On television on reality shows and talk shows. Everywhere you look, it's TMI. But that's the way it is. That's what gets attention these days. It almost seems unnatural that I don't post my every thought and activity and photo ever taken on Facebook. (I guess I'm a hold out in this sense?) So why shouldn't someone be open about a miscarriage? It's something many women have experience, and thus can relate to, so why not get it out there? For the longest time we couldn't talk about periods or sex or poop, but now we can, and it's taken some of the taboo away from it. Will this tweet help take the "hush hush" attitude away from miscarriages?

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