I finally got my iPhone to successfully play Invisibilia, a much-lauded new podcast from the producers of This American Life. Overall, I really like the show, but I was disappointed and even a bit disturbed by the story in “The Power of Categories” focusing on Paige, a bi-gender person. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why I feel this way. The hosts cover Paige’s story sympathetically, and seem to have done their research. It’s for the most part a scientific take on the topic. But maybe that’s why, as a genderfluid, genderqueer, non-binary person who can’t quite even pick one word to describe my gender, it rankled me.
I find it funny, sometimes, how folks on the Internet perceive me, for better or for worse. So much of the writing I do is about identity and assumptions–about labels and the importance of not labelling others without permission, on the risk of misgendering someone you don’t know by assuming their gender in advance. I’m pretty heavily “out” online and in the world in general, so it’s easy enough to find out the words I use to describe myself. Every few months, it seems, I tweak my bio for a new gig or article, but some of the core words remain the same: non-binary, trans, queer, geek, femme, poly. Most of the time, when someone ignores these descriptors they’re just responding to one thing I’ve said and making an assumption about who I am, or they’re accusing me of “lying” about one of these words. “Lying” is funny in this realm: for example, it’s hard to list all the things that are wrong with assuming what others assume is in a non-binary person’s pants, and then accusing them of lying about their “birth sex” when they haven’t said much about it at all. Huh?
But then there are other ways of categorizing, used by trolls and serious critics alike, that are interesting in that they’re both wrong and make an important point about privilege, that I can take as a useful way to grow even if I disagree with the label. For example, the idea that I’m a “social justice warrior” or a career activist or one of those people who makes a lot of money to give talks and write books is a common thread. Full disclosure, I do sometimes make a bit of money to write an article or speak on a campus, and I’m highly privileged in that way. I can earn that money because I’m white, educated, and have connections in certain circles. A lot of activists do a hell of a lot more than I do and probably have a hell of a lot more to say (or at least things to say that really need to be heard by those in power), but aren’t invited to paid gigs because of systemic oppression and the discomfort people in power tend to have with radical people of color telling them that they’re wrong. I try to use the platform I have to point to voices of people of color and other marginalized folks, and to encourage white privileged people to do better. But I do accept some money for these gigs: in a given year, the equivalent of about a month’s salary. I want to own and acknowledge that.
I don’t belong to much of an “establishment,” as far as I know, in a formal sense, other than the establishment of privileged folks who need to spend more time educating ourselves and listening down the vertical hierarchy of power. I don’t currently work in an activist movement, though I have previously. I’m not so much a part of social communities (BDSM communities, poly communities, queer communities, trans communities) mainly because I don’t have the time. I miss having more involvement in trans communities online, and if there’s any community I might claim it would be those. But I can understand how I might represent something of a “radical establishment” position to some, and so I’ll take the criticism in a constructive way and focus in 2015 on exploring viewpoints that do not command much of a spotlight, particularly voices of color, and on examining my own privileged position and how I can make difficult decisions towards the ultimate goal of tearing down institutions systemic oppression. Sometimes, the best way to do this may be staying silent and making space. Other times, I will lend my voice to the fray because I do think it has some value–no more or no less value than any other single voice.
This third installment in the Radically Queer Gift Guide focuses on what to get the trans men, butch women, and otherwise masculine-leaning folks in your life. While this is not my own identity, I’ve found that Etsy is a treasure trove of ideas for trans-masculine folks and so I’ve compiled a few of my favorites here. If there’s a femme trans guy on your list, some of these suggestions might be especially relevant.
This next installment in the Radically Queer Gift Guide focuses on art, one of my favorite things to buy when I have a little extra cash floating around. Art isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to buy online, but these are some of the creators whose work I’ve found particularly meaningful that also make it available to purchase on the interwebs. I’ve included jewelry here, but I’ll do a separate post on fashion more broadly.
While I’m not exactly a great big fan of capitalist gift-obtaining sprees, I’m pretty excited to finally have a year where I remember to post a Radically Queer Gift Guide. Why? Well, I do enjoy putting my money where my mouth is, and so many of the gifts I’ll suggest in these series come from creators and businesses I’m proud to support. Others may be from larger companies, so of course spend at your own discretion, but I am guilty as the next person of sometimes falling prey to the lure of big-box geekery.
For the first post in this series, the focus is on books, always my favorite gift to give and receive. I’m featuring some favorites both old and new that will appeal to radicals, queers, activists, and anyone on your list who appreciates a bit of mind-opening in paperback form.
It’s been a while since I updated Radically Queer, and that’s mostly because I started a new job as a database manager in August. The job has been excellent so far, and one of the professional development opportunities I’d been most looking forward to as a part of it was Dreamforce 2014, a huge conference for Salesforce users taking place in San Francisco last week. Like my fellow nearly 150,000 attendees, I arrived to San Francisco excited to learn about better ways to use the platform and the new features Salesforce will be offering in the coming year. I was caught up in the enthusiasm of all the huge blue signs and volunteers stationed throughout the Financial District to make it easy for us to register and start the conference. But my experience went downhill pretty quickly Monday morning.
This being such a big, professionally organized conference, my expectations around language accessibility were high. I was a little surprised not to find any obvious accessibility request language or procedures on the main Dreamforce page, but a month or two before the conference I posted a question about ASL interpretation in one of the Dreamforce-related Success Community groups and a Salesforce staff member directed me to the events company managing the conference. The rep replied to my email with one question about keynotes and otherwise, I figured everything was handled. I’d registered very early for a couple of sessions a day, focusing on what I most needed to learn, to make sure it would be easy to provide interpreter coverage for me for the event. But when I arrived at my first session on Monday, I was surprised to find that no interpreter was present. The folks manning the door were also not able to provide me seating up-front, as the session had filled up and I could only sit in the middle of the huge room. I knew I wouldn’t get anything out of the session, so I left.
Later, I Tweeted my disappointment, including the @dreamforce handle, and I did get a quick reply asking for my contact information and offering a follow-up. I was told to expect contact from a particular representative, who didn’t contact me by the end of the day, so I tried again with a DM through Twitter. I received a call on my cell phone, which I couldn’t answer in the loud conference environment, but later received a text and figured out from the matching number that the Salesforce rep had tried to call me to set up an interpreter. We were able to coordinate through text and e-mail and I did get an interpreter for the one remaining Wednesday session that I really wanted to attend. Once the interpreter was scheduled, the staff did very well day-of–the door staff knew to expect me, made sure I was understanding/lip-reading, and told me the interpreter was present. A member of the event company escorted me inside and told me to sit anywhere, and I met the interpreter, who was great. I just wish this service had been available for the Monday and Tuesday sessions.
For the Dreamforce team, this experience should provide several cues for next year. I hope they’ll learn from their mistakes and that I will be able to access the conference fully. I know that I’ll be hesitant to register unless I have a very firm commitment from Dreamforce around ASL interpretation!
- Give attendees an easy way to make accessibility requests. This would be simple to do both on the registration page, with a link on the main event page, and/or with a way to make requests in the Agenda Builder. A clear policy on accommodations offered would also be great to read on the Dreamforce site before the conference.
- Reserve seating up front for those with accessibility needs. Many of these sessions have huge rooms, so it would be great to know that I could sit up front (at least for any sessions I registered for in advance) to facilitate lipreading if an interpreter wasn’t available. While it’s the best policy to always provide interpreters upon request for full access, this is a good option to provide as a next-best accommodation.
- Confirm interpreter availability before the conference and offer a refund if interpreters are not available. If interpreters are requested and not available, attendees should know and have an opportunity to attend. While I got some value out of Dreamforce, it was greatly reduced and I would’ve appreciated knowing in advance that my request couldn’t be honored and having the option to cancel my trip. Or, if interpreters would only be available for certain times, I would have selected sessions in accordance with that availability.
- Train staff in how to work with Deaf and hard-of-hearing attendees. Dreamforce is not the only culprit on this one, and it always saddens me because it would be such an easy fix. Let volunteers and staff know that there may be Deaf and hard-of-hearing attendees present and particularly if someone identifies themselves as such, it’s important to speak clearly and face the individual in question. Staff should use text-based communication (SMS, e-mail, Twitter) to communicate with the attendee when necessary unless an attendee affirmatively says that he/she/they can use the phone/have an interpreted line.
It’s #TERFWeek, which at first made me cringe, until I realized that the week is about educating the broader feminist community about the harmfulness of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). This is a group of people, mostly women, many lesbians or queer-identified, who claim to be feminist, yet exclude trans women, one of the most marginalized and oppressed groups of women, from their communities. They’re usually the ones arguing that trans women in the women’s room or in lesbian groups or at MichFest are dangerous, often have weird convoluted mental requirements around transition-related surgeries to recognize trans women as women, and can be found outing trans women on the Internet (including previous names, arrest records, employer info, and home addresses) and generally making lives miserable.
Here’s the thing about TERFs: they’re not feminists.
Now, you could make the argument that a feminist is anyone who says they are one, but I don’t think that really jives with the definition. At the very least, TERFs are extremely hypocritical feminists opposed to the actual tenets of feminism, a movement that is about oppression to patriarchy (which includes, you guessed it, rigid gender norms and a hierarchical binary gender system!)
In this post, I’d like to focus specifically on why feminism must include trans women. I also believe that it must include trans people generally, but if you subscribe to the narrow definition of feminism being about male/female equality or equity, then trans women would be the focus here. It’s also important that feminism focuses on issues such as violence against women and lack of access to employment–areas where trans women are some of the most targeted and affected. Read the rest of this entry
Well, probably not, but I’m starting to wonder whether I might fall somewhere on the asexuality spectrum. As I joked in one panel, “I think I have the gender thing figured out, so why not be confused about my sexual orientation now?” For me, the sticking point in the definition of asexuality is the meaning of “sexual attraction.” If asexual means not sexually attracted to others, and grey-A roughly means not very sexually attracted to others, or only in certain ways, then it’s important to know what sexual attraction actually is. Do we, like porn, know it when we see it?
Since I can’t be in anyone else’s body, I can’t know exactly what the norm is. I know that I feel excitement when I find a person attractive. I want to flail at them a lot and probably cuddle. But the idea of smushing our genitals together does not necessarily occur, and if we end up being sexual with each other, there is inevitably a conversation about how I would rather not engage in any of the typical sex acts, or might be down for a limited menu someday but there’s no guarantee.
Since I know from some awesome asexual educators that asexuality does not necessarily correlate to low sex drive, or to whether you masturbate, or to whether you’re willing to have sex with an allosexual person (someone who does experience sexual attraction), I wonder what it does require. And of course, labels are not essential, but they can be helpful sometimes. I find that folks who are ace or a little grey-A or demisexual or even educated on asexuality seem to have a better understanding of my particular sexuality than others.
Any thoughts? If you do experience sexual attraction, can you describe it? Do you typically think of having sex with that person/want to see them naked/etc or is it more “you! You’re a awesome!” and sex is icing?
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!