David Ross Fryer was my teacher at university. His classes transformed my way of conceiving the world – they opened up theoretical and practical possibilities that seemed inconceivable within the social scientific framework that saturated the academic environment. And in doing so, they made me believe that new worlds, new ways of living, and new forms of gender and sexual existence could be created. They motivated me to sink my teeth into queer theory, feminism, and Continental Philosophy – but most importantly – they encouraged me to remain critical, to ask questions, and mistrust boundaries. David inspired me to think about how I live my life, how I relate to others, and what I do to combat oppression. My writing on Below the Belt is one of the fruits of that inspiration.

What a pleasure it is then to read and review David’s latest book, Thinking Queerly: Race, Sex, Gender and The Ethics of Identity. Like his classes, it has that rare quality of providing a highly accessible introduction to the main issues in queer theory, while at the same time making a very innovative contribution to it. Put simply, Thinking Queerly deftly strikes a balance that most academics (Judith Butler exempted) spend their careers fumbling towards: it can be easily understood by the layperson, but it also provides rich food for thought for the specialist. In describing and explaining queer theory so well, David re-constitutes it, shows how it can be transformed, and even transcended.

So what does it mean to think queerly? The first chapter, “On the Possibilities of Post-Humanism,” grapples with this question. According to David, queer theory is stuck in a rut. It has criticized dominant norms of gender and sexuality but has failed to truly surpass them. The problem with queer theory is its almost exclusive anti-normativity: in dealing with socially-promoted values about gender, sexuality, and the body, it has ended up simply lifting the opposite on a pedestal. Polyamory counters monogamy, sado-masochism sneers at vanilla sex, threesomes mock the couple, the transgendered body challenges the cis one, genderqueer and genderfuck attack gender normativity, and so on. In other words, various queer life-forms have thrown down the gauntlet and started to fight the governing straight life-form.

To be sure, the development of this oppositional stance is a necessary step in the struggle for liberation – something to be welcomed. But David argues that queer studies should not stop there, that the full promise of queerness cannot be realized within this kind of framework. Turning to phenomenology, which he describes as a philosophical tradition requiring the suspension of “all presuppositions and agendas in [a] search for truth,” David extends the critical gaze that queer theorists have directed at heteronormativity towards queerness itself (4). And his findings are noteworthy: queer and heteronormative modes of existence are not necessarily in substantive opposition to each other; there is nothing about heterosexuality, monogamy, cissexuality, and monosexuality in themselves that is anti-queer. Rather, the problem lies in the social status of these forms of existence, in the modes of normative discourse that give them such a dominant role.

In this sense, the normative is “a methodological enemy,” a way of thinking that circumscribes the possibilities of human existence to a narrow set of socially-enforced identities (5). For instance, as David puts it, “normative thinking is the kind of non-thinking we engage in when we refer to an unnamed doctor as ‘he’…when we ask our children if they want to have children when they get married…when we take for granted the way the world seems to be” (5). Queer thinking, on the other hand, requires us to “think, really to think, about gender, sex, sexuality, and indeed all forms of identity and expression as being open to various instantiations, as having multiple – even infinite – modalities” (6). In the framework David proposes, a society should not be evaluated on whether most of its members are genderqueer multi-sexual polyamorists, but on the extent to which it is open to a diverse array of “possible modalities of being human,” which may very well be limitless (9).

In encouraging us to think queerly, therefore, David seeks to undo a knotty philosophical debate, and ultimately move the discussion past it. As described above, he aims to replace the entrenched divide between queer and normative thought with what he calls “post-normative thinking” – an approach that does not get wedged in the binary between dominant and suppressed identities, but instead inquires into the various possibilities of gendered and sexual existence and the ways in which societies enable or foreclose particular options. Implicit in this theoretical move is, I think, an unease with oppositional discourses and a recognition that queer thought has not really surpassed the heteronormative paradigm. In defining queerness as the opposite of the heteronormative, the latter ends up being tied to the former, and even becomes weirdly dependent on it. Truly getting over modern heteronormativity requires defining queerness as something other than the purely non-heteronormative, thinking queerly in more transcendental ways, and pushing queer theory in challenging new directions.

Having laid out this vision at the outset, David then boldly implements it in the rest of the book. The second chapter, “African-American Queer Studies,” offers one of the best summaries of the various definitions of the word queer that I have ever read. But more importantly, it provides a critical introduction to a long-neglected body of literature, a much-needed genealogy of African-American queer thought which puts to shame anyone who believes that queerness and African-American identity are antithetical. David gives us informative readings of classic writers such as James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and bell hooks – and he also whets our appetite for exploring the work of modern African-American queer theorists, Philip Brian Harper and Robert Reid-Pharr. While all of these authors are concerned with analyzing and struggling against the combined weight of gender, racial and sexual oppression, David does a fine job of highlighting the often subtle differences between their approaches.

Chapter three, “Towards a Phenomenology of Gender Identity,” takes on the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, two of queer theory’s most canonical thinkers. David argues boldly that “these theorists fail to offer a sufficient answer for how to overcome the oppressive [gendered and sexual] regimes they are exposing” (53). Having convincingly uncovered the historical contingency and tyrannical character of the current gender system, they are nevertheless painfully vague on how exactly it can be transformed. Foucault talks about moving people to engage in “the undefined work of freedom,” but hardly says anything further, while Butler urges people to destabilize the system by “perform[ing] subversive acts of gender parody” (53). These are hardly impassioned rallying calls, and according to David, “they have not even engendered a radical following on a small scale” (42).

To make matters worse, Butler fails to move beyond the scientific positivism that seems to be part-and-parcel of oppressive gender regimes. To support her argument that sex is a cultural category impregnated with assumptions about gender – and not the soulful and bodily essence producing gendered behavior – Butler relies mostly on textual analysis of the work of French feminist thinkers, such as Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig. But she realizes that this is not enough, that her “audience, academic and lay, wants evidence—cold, hard facts” (52). For her work to be applicable in reality, it cannot limit itself to the world of obscure academic texts. And to deal with this problem, Butler relies on scientific evidence – exactly the kind of move she herself has criticized. Near the end of Gender Trouble, she develops further groundwork for her claims by drawing on the work of Anne Fausto-Sterling, a feminist biologist. And in doing this, Butler again places science on a pedestal as the ultimate arbiter of whether or not the sexed and gendered binary is real. David thus identifies a hypocrisy at the core of Butler’s theory: she negates the validity of positivist science while lying in its bosom.

So where do we go from here? Can we overcome the dead-end in which Butler and Foucault seem to leave us? How should the current gender and sexual regime be challenged and how can we get over the continued obsession with positivist science that Butler subtly reinforces? As in the first chapter, David suggests that we should turn towards the transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. He describes this approach as “a form of thick description of our experiences of the world [which] aims at uncovering the essences of our experiences as well as the structure of…consciousness itself” (53). Starting from the individual human subject and her life, and comparing/contrasting it with the life-experiences of as many others as possible, we can build up a knowledge of what is transcendentally true about sexuality and gender. Crucially, David emphasizes that this is not a search for the essence of – for example – what it means to be a woman or a homosexual. Rather, it is a revolutionary search for all those existential possibilities that gendered and sexed categories hold within them, one that is likely to uncover a multiplicity of possible identities, from genderqueers and ladyboys to men and women.

This challenge to established thinking in queer theory is laudable, a welcome revitalization of a drowsy academic debate. Nevertheless, it also leaves a lot of questions unanswered. David argues that knowledge of gender and sexuality should be grounded in the sum of our individual experiences of these phenomena – but in putting forward this view, does he assume that all our experiences are of equal weight? In a world where heteronormative, misogynist, racist, ableist, classist, and cisnormative perspectives and practices are dominant, is there not a palpable risk that our experiences will be polluted by them? Or at least that it may be structurally difficult for marginalized experiences to be taken into account? Moreover – as fellow-blogger Julian Real has warned – what are the consequences of positing change in solely ideational or experiential terms? Will oppressive structures really be overthrown through a deeper analysis of our own and others’ experiences? And should we be ditching an oppositional queer framework, when heteronormativity is still in such a dominant position?

In the end, David’s book has left me with more questions than answers. But I am not disappointed: I am simply hungry for more. It is my hope that David and others will continue to take queer theory to new levels and to apply it in a variety of interesting domains, thus ensuring that it stays relevant in a rapidly changing world. The closing chapters of Thinking Queerly provide a glimpse at some possibilities for further exploration. And in dealing with subjects that are broader than gender and sexuality, David shows us that it is possible think queerly in many other areas of theoretical and practical life.

The fourth chapter, “What Levinas and Psychoanalysis Can Teach Other,” attempts to reconcile phenomenology and psychoanalysis, two philosophical traditions which have historically been at odds, by showing how they can actually complement each other. And in the final chapter, “Reading Responsibility in The Hours,” David gives us a beautiful interpretation of a classic film, while applying the seemingly incompatible ethical philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Emmanuel Levinas to it. In this, he deftly combines Sartrean and Levinasian views of the essence of the ethical, showing through The Hours that it is found both in respect for one’s own inherent freedom, as well as in the responsibility we have for the fate of others.

Overall, in Thinking Queerly, David develops a treasure trove of useful resources. He turns a critical gaze on queer thought and exposes the dangers of a purely oppositional mindset. He also challenges canonical thinkers in queer theory, and moves beyond the poststructuralist critique by positing individual and collective experience as foundational for true knowledge of gender and sexuality. And in addition to these insightful contributions, he introduces us to long-neglected topics in academic and popular discourse, such as African-American queer studies, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis. But perhaps most importantly, David gives us a memorable lesson in heuristics: do not allow seemingly irreconcilable binaries to dominate your thinking – challenge them, try to bring them together, and you might find new worlds unfurling before your very eyes.

***For More Information***

David Ross Fryer is a Professor of Women’s Studies at Drexel University. In addition to Thinking Queerly, he has published a number of books and articles, including The Intervention of the Other: Ethical Subjectivity in Levinas and Lacan. I highly recommend this book – although its title sounds very arcane, it provides an accessible introduction to these two thinkers, as well as a useful overview of recent developments in philosophy through the lens of the humanism/anti-humanism debate. Regarding the substantive issues that Thinking Queerly brings up, I have a hunch that Judith Butler’s somewhat veiled endorsement of positivist science has been reproduced elsewhere in queer theory – and certainly in my own writing. This could be an interesting area for further exploration. It might also be useful to read Thinking Queerly alongside Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. While these two books are radically different, they share a desire to move past certain roadblocks within queer theory and to put our individual and collective experiences of gender and sexuality front-and-center. You can read excerpts from Whipping Girl here and you might also want to check out the discussion that this book spawned on Below the Belt.

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[Trigger warning: This post deals with virulent misogyny and violence against women.]

I had a whole post planned earlier this month about my challenges trying to reconcile genderqueer-ness with being female-bodied and a feminist. And then a gunman opened fire on US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, killing six people and critically wounding her. And I locked myself in my room, scared and horrified, and wept for hours. I cried because it was a tragedy, but also because it was entirely predictable; for many of us watching the US political scene, it confirmed that fact that the question had never been whether something like this would happen, but only when.

After the shootings, there was a lot of discussion of the shooter's mental health. But in the end, it doesn't matter whether the shooter was neurotypical or not; as an internet friend of mine pointed out, even people with paranoid schizophrenia do not make things up out of thin air, but are influenced by the culture around them. And in this case, the culture is not pretty. It is no coincidence that the Democratic Congressperson who was shot in a literal extension of the US right-wing's violent rhetoric is a woman.

But why just talk about Representative Giffords? Let's talk about Hilary Clinton, or Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, or even Sarah Palin. Let's talk about the women in our entertainment who are killed off after their plot point is done, or the polytechnic students who were murdered here in Montreal 21 years ago, or, like, every feminist blogger in the history of everything, or the fact that most of the trans people who are murdered each year are women. To be a woman in this culture is to be on permanent display, and to be found wanting. And while men who hold divergent views or don't live up to expectations meet disapproval and disagreement, women who dare to transgress their patriarchy-assigned roles (which are, paradoxically, impossible to satisfy) must be put in their place. Witness the Playboy article that suggested “hate-fucking” was appropriate punishment for female politicians with whom their readers disagreed. Witness every single street harassment case where a woman's refusal of some guy's sexual advances is met with violent threats and, occasionally, action.

If you are a man, and you believe I'm blowing things out of proportion, ask your female friends what they think they should do to be safe if walking to their car in a dark garage. Compare it to what you'd do. Whether it's warranted or not, we are taught to be afraid. Constant fear is it's own kind of violence.

There are times when I think things are ok. After all, women in Western countries can drive, and work in almost any field (albeit at lower rates of pay than men), and choose who and whether to marry (most of the time), and vote, and access birth control (some of the time), and I have a number of male friends and colleagues who don't forget too often that I am actually a person too. And then my friend holds the door for me and I realize he doesn't think I'm as capable as he is, or I become suddenly aware of how short my skirt is and how high my heels are as I walk home, or a female politician I'd never even heard of is shot in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses. And then that little spark of fear that never quite goes away flares up again, and I am afraid.

And so, the next time someone tells me that feminism has accomplished its goals –– or that what women really need to be successful is to make more money — I'll laugh, and laugh, and laugh. And then I'll cry, because while the punishment for being female can still be death, the work of feminism is not fucking over.

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I was three paragraphs into my article about my holidays, mainly how being "out" and/or being "stealth" affected my treatment at the hands of other party guests, when the sharp stabby abdominal pain, now 26 hours strong, finally forced me to the floor, vomiting undigested pepto-bismol and calling everyone, anyone who had access to the sort of painkillers I purposely keep away from myself lest my mental anguish ever reach such nowhere-to-run, nowhere-to-hide state of agony.

Within a few hours I found myself hooked up to an IV and subjected to tests and machinations of the medicinal. It was determined I had acute cholecystitis, an inflammation of the gallbladder. I was scheduled for surgery the next morning, just three days into the new year. I tried not to think of it so much as losing an organ (albeit a totally useless one), and instead of learning a valuable lesson in how to maintain your dignity when insisting your trans identity be respected in a medical environment.

You don't.

When I checked in I was asked what medications I was taking. I truthfully recited my hormones and their doses out of some strange sense of caution that has been cross-bred with pride for generations in hopes of appeasing me, the Monarch of Awkwardly Honest Land. I tried abdicating the throne just hours later, to no avail.

"Are you currently on any medications?"
"You don't seem so sure."
"Well, I'm on estrogen and spironolactone, for hormone replacement therapy, but I wasn't sure how relevant it was to my treatment."

Apparently it was mondo relevant, which is the equivalent of two and a half super relevants. My hormone therapy had likely agitated a pre-existing condition to the point where it required surgical intervention. I know this because three doctors, a nurse, and a surgeon told me. The only explanation I can come up with for why this fact needed to be repeated to me by various individuals over a course of two days is to shame me for trying to keep my transition a secret from the medical staff (albeit a poorly kept secret, as it was listed on my intake form), or to reprimand me for playing with nature, as many medical professionals have accused people in my position of doing. Either way you look at it, it's a hard sell. Look at it from my perspective. I'm developing the feminine features that aid in presenting my gender identity and I hastened the inevitable removal of an organ that might have ruptured and killed me. Give me some sunglasses and a clip of an 80's hit. I need to celebrate in freeze frame.

I can be nonchalant about it now because I survived the operation and have eaten my first big ass bowl of ice cream sans kaopectate, but at the time I was scared and in the most pain I'd ever felt in my life and what I really needed from my medical caregivers was reassurance and information and maybe a bedpan so I wouldn't need a dose of morphine to make it to and from the damn toilet. I didn't need to be blamed, however subtly, for what you perceive to be a misjudgment in body chemistry. I have a doctor, a therapist, and two clinics to make sure I don't walk on a landmine in my journey to grow into body and mind I'm comfortable with (and tame a unicorn, if applicable). Just shut up and take this ticking time bomb out of me before I die and your billing department has no one to bill for all this morphine I've consumed.

Is what I wish I said.

Instead I remained silent. Because I was in pain. Because I was terrified I wouldn't live through the operation, or denied it at the last moment because I couldn't pay, because I was trans, because my maniacal and delirious laughter at my first dose of morphine might suggest that I was just faking it all along. I let the doctors and surgeon say this shit to my face without so much as an eye roll of assertiveness. I didn't want to become one of those trans women left to die in the hospital that I had read about as I was first coming out and deciding if being happy with myself was worth my life (which it totally is, yanno, before we get too dark and depressing). And I didn't. They did the operation and I survived and here I am dancing to "I'm Not Your Toy" by La Roux in a friend's chair, which many will agree is the opposite of "dead in a hospital". My plan to be spineless in the face of criticism with the hopes of receiving the treatment that will save my life succeeded.

While I really need to focus on kicking the shit out of myself while I'm down, I will take a moment to say I wasn't in much of a position to advocate for myself, after you factor in the drugs being pumped into my bloodstream, the hunger and thirst from not being able to stomach anything without pain for over a day, and the pain and terror I was in. I can't stand up for myself and be curled in the fetal position on my girlfriend's lap, crying because deep down I'm worried I'll never see her again. But god damn it if I won't self-flagellate myself in hopes I can in the future.

When asked "if I had any questions" about the surgery, I asked how big a gall bladder was. I wasn't going to be any good for myself.

That's probably why I brought backup.

Throughout my hospital stay, my partner, my bff and their boyfriend all stayed with me in shifts so I wouldn't be alone. They impressed upon the nurses what name and pronoun I should go by, and corrected them when I was mis-identified. Eventually, all the nurses came to name and gender me properly, even the ones my visitors had no contact with. And unlike the anesthesiologist, who asked me when I was having "my transgender surgery" minutes before she put me under, no nurse asked me the details of my transition or operation status (though that might be because I was wearing a fucking hospital gown and that question could be answered with just a pinch of the fabric). While likely that this is due in part to nature of nurse profession and philsophy, which is to treat people rather than the illness or something like that I'm not a nurse so I wouldn't really know, I couldn't bring myself to overlook the importance of having people who validate my gender identity close to me during the process.

An uplifting and potentially informative ending to this ordeal? No angsty socratic questioning and letting the commenters sort it out? Yes, it's a new TCMV, for a new BTB, for a new year.

If you end up going to the hospital, bring your friends. Or bring your enemies, even, if they'll stand behind you and insist on you being treated with respect by medical caregivers. You, like me, might find yourself too racked with fear to stand up for yourself when going mono e mono with the doctors, but if you've got a posse you might be able to get them to give you that respect in a public setting.

Or maybe this won't apply to you. Maybe when you get checked into the ER or have your appendix removed, you'll stand where I laid down and contend for your rights. Or maybe the work of this current generation of activists can make it so you won't have to.

Or you do what I did, and cleverly time your exploding internal organ to coincide in the same week as your court date to change your name, and have your friends drag your vicodin'd, sutured and glued ass to lean shakily before the judge who approves your name change so when you go to your follow up appointment later in the month, you can make the hospital put your correct name and gender on file.*

*If you have forms from your physician who attests that you've completely transitioned to your current gender even though I haven't had bottom surgery SHHHHHHHHH don't tell anyone!

So add this to your collection of horror stories slash uplifting real life lessons involving trans persyns for when you find yourself in a similar situation and want to know what to expect.

And for those of you looking forward to my holiday essay and disappointed that it's not being posted, spoiler alert: I was treated better by people who read me as cis lesbian than those who read me as trans, even if those people had known me for years. BIG SURPRISE YEAH THAT REQUIRES A WHOLE TWO PAGE OP/ED.

BTB needs a lot of work for the new year. We need more contributors, more multimedia, more everything. There's a lot of shit going on. The blog, much like myself, needs some time to reach battle operational.

Then it's back to the fray.

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