When I recently received a copy of Benjamin Law’s Gaysia to review, I admit I was a bit skeptical, given the title. I needn’t have been worried, however. Law blends an accessible journalistic style familiar to fans of travel writing with solid research and investigation into various queer cultures in the countries he visits. Each chapter focuses on a country, and I was happy to find that despite the cheeky title, the coverage is quite comprehensive when it comes to queer identities and communities. Law focuses quite a bit on transfeminine folks of various identities, as well as queer people involved in sex work, silenced lesbians, and even the often-abused wives of MSM in a repressive society, showing a refreshing willingness to consider queer life from all angles. The account is honest, as Law admits his own ignorance going into some situations, and thus particularly accessible to the reader who is interested in but not particularly familiar with queer Asian cultures. I was eager to ask Law some questions about his process and what he learned in his travels.
Avory Faucette: Though your style is accessible and reflects your journalistic background, I also wasn’t surprised to find that you have a PhD, since you raise a lot of important questions that I’ve seen in the recent scholarly literature around queer identity in Asia. What kind of research did you do in preparing for your travels? Were you at all influenced by academic research in deciding what topics to investigate in the countries you visited?
Benjamin Law: To be honest, the volume of academic writing on queer identities, culture and communities is so enormous, I had to back away from it and remind myself I was writing something pretty different – a work of adventure journalism. At the same time, a lot of academics were so enlightening and crucial in my understanding of how other cultures framed queer identity, especially Dr Peter Jackson. But most of my background reading was other journalism, actually. For prep, I’d try to email or call every expert in the field, in the country I was going to. And then when I’d arrive in, say, Myanmar, I’d have a meal with them, pick their brains, and ask for more recommendations of interesting stories, or people I should chat to. Most of the contacts I encountered were people I met on the ground.
AF: What was your biggest surprise in terms of how the people you met see their own identities or present themselves?
BL: I guess the biggest surprise was that nearly every preconception or expectation was completely dismantled by the time I left a country. For instance, as an outsider, you go to Bali assuming every male sex worker is living a life of rank exploitation and poverty, when a lot of them are middle-class guys with other jobs, but see sex work as a respectful way of supplementing their income. I’ll never forget when one money boy said, “Of course I’d ask for money after sex – I’m young and handsome, and no one should get this for free.” In a way, I sort of got where he was coming from! And then there are the stories I assumed would be happy, like the ladyboy beauty pageants in Thailand, where transsexual women get a lot of media attention and sponsorship deals if they win. But of course, as I quickly discovered, Thailand isn’t exactly this promised land for transsexual women. In some respects, their laws overlook transsexual women so much, that ladyboys are treated even worse there than countries were transsexual people are less visible.
AF: Were you surprised by how some of your subjects saw you as a journalist? I was struck, for example, by a story where someone perceived you as white, and your decisions in certain contexts not to reveal yourself as queer. Did you find that your own identity shifted significantly in the eyes of those you met as you went from country to country?
BL: Oh absolutely. My first rule was never to lie – I’m openly gay myself, but I’m not going to go out of my way to discuss my sex life with a religious zealot who believes homosexuality can be cured by the power of Christ, or Allah, or yoga, or whatever. But then, to get access to other openly gay men, I’d bring up my boyfriend back home, just to let them know they were in a safe space. Being a Chinese guy ethnically, but an Australian person in terms of citizenship, was interesting – some people saw me as outsider, and others saw me as someone they trusted more quickly, because I had a familiar face.
AF: Finally, I was particularly interested given my own research into how some Asian cultures classify gender and sexuality in how you described kathoey people in Thailand. I’ve noticed that it’s very hard to get any sense from English-language literature of whether kathoeys and other gender categories (hijras in India, fa’afine in Samoa, etc) are really a distinct category in the given culture or just another understanding of what white Westerners would call trans women. Your explanation seems to suggest that ladyboys are basically trans women and that the idea of kathoey has died out. Do you think that in Thailand, or in other queer cultures you researched, gender and sexuality are mostly understood as separate categories with a Western model of transgender identity, or do you think there’s a fundamentally different understanding of gender (or how gender and sexuality relate) in these cultures compared to in the US or Australia? You described some fairly complex understandings of identity categories in a few of the countries you visited, and I found myself wondering to what extent they might affect a general cultural understanding of gender (as opposed to something very much internal to queer subcultures).
BL: Every culture has different vernacular for what’s often similar things. But then in some places, like Myanmar/Burma, the language is really specific, because the gender and sexual identies are so super-specific and don’t have an exact parallel – apwint, abone and thange, for instance. I mean, I think it’s really interesting that the West uses the acronym LGBTIQ, whereas in many other cultures, those alliances aren’t seen as inevitable or natural, necessarily. Gay Burmese men would probably have little or no understanding, concept or care-factor about lesbians, and one country that might subsidise sex change operations because transsexuality is seen as an illness, might also stone homosexuals to death.
Thanks to Benjamin for generously answering my questions about the book and to Cleis for the review copy!
It’s been a while since we had a Radical Reading column around these parts, and I confess that it’s due to the fact that I read Excluded, written by Julia Serano and published by Seal Press, about three times before I felt like I could really talk about the book. The October 1st release date came and went, and I knew I needed to get a review up, but I just kept dithering about what I wanted to say. In a way, though, I think it’s appropriate to post this review as 2013 comes to a close, as this was such a major year for intersectional feminism and (perhaps more obviously) its discontents.
Excluded summarizes some of Serano’s earlier work since her widely-read (in the trans community, anyway) Whipping Girl and then tackles the issue of trans women’s exclusion from feminist spaces. This topic clearly hits a chord with trans and cis feminists alike, and it’s been brewing in feminist, queer, and alternative sexuality communities for several years. A post I wrote about the cotton ceiling debate back in 2012 remains the most popular post on QueerFeminism.com, a site I founded to give a voice to communities that have been excluded by many mainstream feminists, and rarely a day goes by where I don’t find some example of cis feminists being transmisogynist to a greater or lesser degree on Twitter. Furthermore, Serano’s book comes from an important voice at this important time–unlike some of the other trans authors popular in radical queer communities, Serano is a binary-identified bisexual trans woman. She describes herself specifically as bisexual, a transsexual woman, and a femme tomboy. Much of Excluded reminds us of the danger of assuming that the gender binary is a conservative force, and the continued prevalence of biphobia or perhaps general bi-cluelessness in communities that rally around the term “queer.”
Today is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, and in half an hour “The Day of the Doctor” will premiere worldwide on BBC. I want to take this occasion to share just a few thoughts on what it means to me to be a queer Doctor Who fan, because in my experience there’s more of a connection than you might think.
The Doctor himself may be rather sexually ambiguous, but there is a certain queer ethos to the show that’s easy to see if you look for it. The Doctor values quirkiness and unpredictability. He jumps into new situations with both feet. He never takes himself too seriously. Personally, I think certain Doctors would be a fan of glitter.
In my experience, being queer is a lot about some of these same things. Being a proud geek and a proud queer go hand-in-hand for me, because they’re about embracing difference and letting your freak flag fly.
Though there are legitimate complaints and criticisms about Moffat’s misogyny and the role of women in the show that I don’t want to overlook, I do appreciate the fluidity of recent characters and plots. I will always have a soft spot in my queer heart for Captain Jack Harkness and for River Song. I’ve loved watching the Doctor evolve from a relationship I frankly found a bit ridiculous with the immature Rose Tyler to the utter glee of River and her teasing “Spoilers!” River is, in certain ways, very queer, and I love it.
The story of the Doctor is, like my own queer journey, a story of possibility. All the options are feasible if you go in with your mind open. Fish fingers and custard anyone? Bowties are cool.
Happy Day of the Doctor!
It’s time for another post in the “dear fellow white people” vein. There’s been a lot of cultural appropriation showing up in my feed reader lately, and while the white culprits may have been well-meaning when they embarked upon the appropriative act, it shows a remarkable degree of “wow, we really just don’t get it, do we?” Even while I was writing the first draft of this post, for example, one of my favorite bloggers, Spectra, published a post you have to read to believe on a white woman my age who went to Kenya and claims to be a Massai warrior princess. Big surprise, she’s now writing a book to profit on her experiences.
I suspect the common practice of cultural appropriation has roots in both colonialism and capitalism, though you don’t have to be a self-avowed capitalist or aware of your colonialism to do it. There’s simply a tendency among white people to see that something is good, and then have a reaction of “I want to have that” without seeing the problem with that attitude. Capitalism sees things as property, and people as beings that should want more property, always, while colonialism ignores the concept that land, practices, symbols, and goods might be sacred or collectively held in favor of declaring the white European’s value system superior and rushing to lay “first white claim” on that land, practice, symbol, or good. When we don’t try to make an exclusive claim on something, we still tend to feel that it’s okay to share (appropriate) in the name of equal access. (Yep, because white people as a collective totally believe in equal access to resources.)
Here’s the thing about equality: it’s not equality when you run around taking things from less privileged, systemically oppressed folks and then make a profit from your New Age bookshop or power yoga studio or whatever. Nor is it equality when you use cultural values for parody or humor. Nor is it equality when you mark up cultural resources, turn them into a fad, and limit the access those of the origin culture have to a resource. That’s called stealing.
Now, is there ever a case in which cultural exchange is valid and appropriate? Sure! My recommendation (one that I’m trying to follow myself) is simply that we as white people be sensitive to where things come from, and aware of the violent history of colonialism and current state of systemic oppression that might make those of non-white cultures a little wary about our interest. (This, by the way, applies regardless of the situations of our personal ancestors and other axes of privilege along which we may fall further down). There are plenty of tools out there that we can use to educate ourselves on cultural origins and the perspectives of people of color. We can also respectfully ask questions to our friends who come from the culture in question (keeping in mind that there is no duty to educate) or to those who publicly offer themselves as resources. We can proceed slowly when it comes to our appreciation, rather than immediately asking “how can I have that/be a part of that/become an expert in that?” When seeking education on a subject that has its origins in a particular culture, we can take our money to teachers from that culture rather than approaching white teachers. We can avoid supporting white folks who profit from another culture’s resources.
Some white people are inevitably going to say “but wait, my situation is different, I only care about other cultures.” I suggest that those folks at least make an effort to think critically about how that statement sounds while they’re say, enjoying a beer at the DC football team’s game. What seems harmless to one person may in fact me a reminder of colonialism, cultural theft, and genocide to another.
As a white person, I don’t want to use #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and the Schwyzer debacle as a platform for my own thoughts, but I do want to lead my readers to just a few amazing women of color speaking for themselves. Please take a look at the following bloggers and authors, as well as the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag on Twitter and Mikki Kendall’s article explaining the subject.
Andrea Smith, Conquest
Adrien Wing, ed., Critical Race Feminism
INCITE! Women of Color Collective, Color of Violence and The Revolution Will Not Be Funded
Jessica Danforth, ed., Feminism for Real
Gloria Anzaldua & Cherrie Moraga, eds., This Bridge Called My Back
Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, eds., The Revolution Starts at Home
bell hooks, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center
I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. I lived in the same house for 18 years of my life and went to Wake County Public Schools throughout my formative years. My parents voted in local elections. A lot of my friends were conservative and religious, and some weren’t. A lot of my friends were white, and others were black, Latino/a, or API. I was a bit homophobic and pro-life as a pre-teen, and later came to my more liberal views in the process of coming out as bisexual at 16 and learning to read critically. My grandfather was the rector (head minister) of the oldest church in Raleigh, and I grew up going to Episcopalian Sunday school. Several of my friends as a child were immigrants. At 17 I protested the Iraq War outside of the building that housed Senator Elizabeth Dole’s offices. I was happy when John Edwards was elected and couldn’t stand Jesse Helms. I drink sweet tea and eat hush puppies. I still don’t understand Yankees.
This is all to say that being a North Carolinian is complicated. Our political views are diverse and vary widely throughout the regions of the state. Those of us who grew up in the cities experienced liberalism and conservatism in nearly-equal doses. Many of us changed our minds on political issues several times while growing up. Many of us have had to think about what our families’ pasts mean as we’ve become adults. Some of my ancestors likely owned slaves. My great-grandfather was a bootlegger. My great-grandmother was married to an abusive alcoholic. My grandparents called black people “colored” until they died and my great aunt thinks I’d be pretty if I just “did something” about my hair. My mother is a proud former flower child, a socialist, and a prison reform advocate.
Being a North Carolinian does not, contrary to the actions of our General Assembly, mean being a jackass, a sexist, a racist, a homophobe, a bigot, or a crusader against reproductive rights. Those people exist in our state. They have always existed in our state. And they exist up North and in the Midwest, too. I’ve met them everywhere I’ve travelled. I’ve also met amazing people all over the South, from fireball activists to unassuming Christians who accept all people because they believe that to be Christian is to live as Jesus lived.
If Pat McCrory had offered me those cookies, I might have thrown them in his face. I praise the woman who did receive the Governor’s offering for her restraint. But I also know that McCrory could be my grandfather or great-grandfather. Being a North Carolinian, again, is complicated.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that people change. Deeply-held beliefs can be altered when you meet someone who doesn’t fit into your worldview, when you’re forced to consider the impact of your bigotry. You might be persuaded by a logical argument, or it might simply be the kindness of someone who isn’t like you that sways you to change your tune. Maybe you come around through prayer, or discussion, or reading. Maybe the simple passage of time has an effect. I don’t excuse the actions of the bigots in my state, nor do I accept their simple apologies. Actions speak louder than words. But I am hopeful, perhaps more so than most, that there will eventually be positive actions. Because I am a North Carolinian, and that is something anyone who stands against us will have to accept.
I’ve been trying to think since I attended the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference in June how to write about some of what came up in a particular femme discussion. We talked a lot about power, which is a concept I’ve struggled with. After turning it over in my head, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am powerful, but not in the ways that are most commonly described. My power comes from my enthusiasm. Whether I’m rocking out to some silly pop song while kicking the ass of a tricky database, squeeing over the next Doctor Who episode, or kneeling for a lover, I’m seriously fucking enthusiastic. And there’s power in that–in the ability to be unabashedly joyful, to throw yourself into something without reservation or shame. But it’s not a kind of power you hear much about, even in queer and trans communities.
My power is not a masculine or macho power. It’s not the kind of power that comes from leading others or from defeating the enemy or from standing up in front of a room full of people and being right. Nor is it the femme action hero kind of power of a Lucy Liu character who kicks all sorts of booty without ever messing up her eye makeup. I’ve tried that, and I do admire those femmes who strut their stuff, make cutting remarks, show their power by negotiating for salaries or starting a business or leading their communities. But that’s not me. I’m more likely to think of a comeback five minutes later, and I approach conflict with “can’t we all just get along?” I’m a pacifist. I do public speaking but I don’t feel like I’m showing my best self on a stage. As a geeky introvert, showing power in an extroverted way is something I can do, but not something I love doing.
My power comes not from these typical sources but from making mistakes, from giggling at what a fucking nerd I am, from throwing myself into something I love without shame. It isn’t a dominant kind of power or the power of a leader, but it’s no less valuable. And while we’ve gotten to the point of recognizing femme power, I think we could take a next step in recognizing power that doesn’t focus on leadership or winning or getting things right. Sometimes power is shy or submissive, is geeky and obscure, is less than obvious.
So getting back to the topic of femme power, I want to recognize that some of us are uncomfortable in a tight, killer-hot action hero ensemble. Some of us want to wear floofy yellow dresses or femmey sweatpants and be powerful even when we’re dressed in what one conference attendee called “blah femme.” Some of us feel more comfortable and authentic in a different kind of presentation, and it’s that comfort and authenticity where I find my power most firmly resonates.
Thursday afternoon I went to the big #TimeIsNow immigration rally at the Capitol and I was struck by the shirts we were all wearing that said “LGBT Families for Immigration Reform.” I felt like a bit of a jerk for criticizing the shirts later to a friend, but it just kept niggling at me. Why LGBT families? Why not LGBT people?
My question gets to a bigger problem that comes up a lot in LGBT organizing work when we want to develop messaging around “X Is a Trans Issue” or “X Is an LGBT Issue.” The challenge, generally, is to convince an audience of LGBT folks (or in my case, often trans folks) that some policy area that’s not usually associated with the core goals of the movement is at its heart an LGBT or trans issue. We usually do that in one of two ways:
- Link the issue to core LGBT movement issues. This is what the t-shirt example does. We tend to think of family issues as a movement priority, whether that’s marriage or second-parent adoption or binational family immigration issues. A lot of LGBT immigration reform proponents have used the example of binational couples to make the argument: if we agree that queer families are a core issue for our movement, then we should be concerned about the immigration laws because they often separate families. Other examples of this include linking reproductive rights to transition-related health care or framing health care as an LGBT issue via hospital visitation policy problems.
- Tell a tragic compelling story about a queer or trans person. Strategy B is what comes up when you don’t have a good hook with an agreed-upon issue, or sometimes alongside that hook. You find some really sad examples of violence/abuse/discrimination, preferably using people who are considered upstanding and acceptable according to movement values, and you tell their stories from a human rights angle. “This person is part of our community and the abuse he/she/they suffered is so bad that it triggers a need to consider this an LGBT/trans issue from a human rights perspective.” So for example, you might find a gay man and a trans woman who were raped in prison and use their tragic stories to illustrate why prison reform is an LGBT issue.
Neither of these ways are wrong, exactly. It’s true that the agreed-upon core issues often do touch others, like immigration, and it’s also true that compelling stories are a good way to remind people that we’re all human and we need to support human rights. But I think we can do better.
Why is immigration a trans issue? Yes, it’s about human rights, and thus we should care from a solidarity or ally perspective if we’re non-immigrant trans people. Yes, some trans people have experienced really shitty things at the hands of our immigration system, and we want that to stop. Yes, draconian immigration laws separate queer families, including families with trans members. But it’s also a trans issue for reasons that are less sexy and harder to describe.
Trans immigrants have to deal with a lot of shit, not only when they experience the really amazingly awful, front-page-headline story kind of treatment. They deal with daily microaggressions that are compounded by dual identities, and often also by race, class, and ethnicity. Some of these trans immigrants are not ideal candidates for a Facebook post or a fundraising email. They may have a history of criminality or be too politically radical to use in a carefully-orchestrated communications strategy. They may not want to be part of such a strategy. And then, beyond the individual people who are both trans and immigrants, our immigration system as an institution overlaps a lot with the problems trans people are fighting. The problems with our immigration system and the violence and discrimination trans people face are clearly part of the same disgusting web of policing, capitalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, and kyriarchy. There’s not much difference between the vigilantes with guns who stand at the U.S.-Mexico border and those who beat up or murder trans women in the streets. There’s not much difference between police harassing immigrants with “papers please” policies and racial profiling and police harassing trans people with gender policing and asking for ID to use the restroom.
I have a problem with the “link to a core issue” strategy because I want to know who came up with those core issues. It’s not even that it’s a single-issue marriage movement, it’s that it’s a movement of five or ten or fifteen core issues. We have hundreds of issues, and how we prioritize them necessarily varies from person to person. Of course organizations and individuals have to prioritize their use of limited resources, and I support using strategies such as determining who is most marginalized within a community, determining what issue areas are tackled the least and thus need more resource commitment, and determining what issues a group can tackle most efficiently with given resources. But it doesn’t take many resources to simply say “we care about this.”
I have a problem with the compelling story strategy, and with the overall “we care about this because we are all humans” strategy, because it both privileges the easiest-to-package stories and can become weak and diluted. When we hear “X is a human right,” it may be absolutely true but we hear that so many things are human rights and it doesn’t necessarily speak to us. I think we need to acknowledge the specificity of our interest in different issues as queer and trans people. So again, immigration is a trans issue because we as trans people are dealing with this tangled web of policing and patriarchy and bullshit, and part of addressing that system is supporting immigration reform. Immigration is a trans issue because trans immigrants experience multiple forms of oppression that make them one of the parts of our trans community most in need of social, legal, and policy change.
I think that we have an enormous untapped creative potential as a movement, and that we need to start going all-in, taking risks, and supporting social justice in all its forms not simply because we are humans but because we are humans who know the tremendous pain and suffering a broken system can cause. We need to acknowledge that this is what queer and trans work is about, whether we’re working for marriage equality or health care coverage or immigration or protections for sex workers.
I’ve been seeing a lot of social media attention today to the release of The Trans 100, a list which I’m honored to be a part of along with many friends, colleagues, and personal heroes. Much of the attention is congratulatory and positive, some is focused more on who’s not on the list. And I think that both of those things are great. The spirit of the list, as I understand it, is to highlight all the amazing work that is done in our community: to use the 100 people on the list not as an exclusive club but as one handful of examples of people who have done great work in the past year to support trans lives in the US in myriad ways. The idea is to shift the conversation from focusing only on deaths and violence to adding a sense of celebration to our need to mourn those lost. Working in “transland,” as I sometimes call the movement, can be a paradox, as we are so often simultaneously trying to promote and celebrate the work we do as proud trans people while at the same time realizing that the work we do is focused on eliminating huge discrepancies and barriers, on reducing tremendous hate and violence. It can be an odd intersection at which to work sometimes (how do we get excited about a victory that means we are simply more likely to be alive, employed, or healthy at a baseline?), and I believe that it is crucial we never lose sight of both sides of that story–and of the other discrepancies that too often divide success from discrimination and violence along race, class, and ability lines.
I am happy about this list because it wide-ranging and it shows our collective power and ability to do great things in the face of adversity. I’m glad to see many POC on the list, a nice range of local activists, to see those doing cultural work alongside those doing legal and political advocacy. I’m glad that there are many lesser-known names, and that online activists have been included alongside on-the-ground grassrootsers. Though I’m thrilled to see my NCTE colleagues Mara and Harper Jean recognized, I’m also cheering hardcore for those who work with such amazing small radical projects as the Brown Boi Project, the Audre Lorde Project, Planet DeafQueer, and Transformative Justice Law Project. There are too many of my own heroes to name here, and also too many whose work I must. research. NOW. So while I’d like to see even more underrecognized folks on the list, more people of color, sex workers, people with disabilities, etc., I’m applying my critiques to a tone of celebration today. We have this list and it has some attention and hopefully that attention will lead to what we really need–more people nominating next year, more people volunteering to work on the project, an even more diverse and inclusive list. I’m excited to see who made the various breakout groups that will be released in coming months, and I look forward to working with this great big kickass community to achieve things that are bigger and better every year. I’m glad that my friends and colleagues are the kinds of people who recognize gaps in such a list and will bring them to light, because it makes us all better.
¡Viva la revolución trans!