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Why Do We Have to Gender People to Be Polite?

Today’s gender pet peeve: why does being polite in so many languages have to require gendering?

I mean, in historical terms, I know the answer. Gender has been infused into everything we do as a society for so long, and manners are just one part of society and culture. A lot of languages use gendered terms to refer to people, and so it make sense that polite forms address would follow this pattern. But it’s still annoying.

Earlier in the day I’m writing this post, I had a server who called everyone they presumed to be female “my lady” or “my ladies.” Not only gendering, but ownership, too! Gee, how refreshing. It was particularly cringe-worthy when he did it to folks of color.

Slowly, queer communities are starting to come around on this language. Terms like “Mx.” are available, and neutral terms like “friends” are being used in place of “ladies and gentlemen.” But the mainstream is still going to Mr./Ms./M./Mme./Herr/Frau/Signore/Signora everyone, and it’s frustrating. Personally, I think misgendering is much more rude than “casual” forms of address!

It’s always one of the most frequent questions I get when I talk about personal data and gender: “I understand that calling someone by a first name avoids the gendering, but my boss insists that we need to address people politely if they’re giving us money.” And sadly, this is frequently where things come down. My only answer is to keep pushing, try to demonstrate the impact (including financial) of misgendering, and hope that the culture will continue to evolve so that “casual” forms of address are no longer inappropriate. Or hey, if nothing else, ask folks how you should address them! When you collect addresses, offer a “prefer first name” choice next to all your salutations. That way, nobody gets offended.

Monoganormativity: An Opening Salvo

two people embracing on a sofa, with one person holding hands with a third behind the second's back

credit: Getty Images

People in meatspace keep looking at me funny when I use the term “monoganormativity,” so I guess it’s time to talk about it.

For a long time, I’ve noticed similarities between queerness and polyamory when it comes to the trajectory of each movement and the focus on more normative versions of a given identity. In queer-land, this is the tendency of large LG(B)((T)) organizations to focus on same-sex marriage, adoption, and other priorities and messaging that support a “just like you” framework. We call these tactics, as well as relationships that default to assumptions about how relationships work that come from the straight world, “heteronormative.” Monoganormativity is the same idea, just a corollary that springs up in poly-land.

monoganormativity: culture, practices, and behaviors that mimic those considered “normal” among monogamous people within the context of a polyamorous culture or relationship.

For example, when the default focus in conversations around polyamory is jealousy or relationship hierarchy, I consider that focus monoganormative because it’s aligned with the monogamous culture norm that partners should be jealous of and need to be more important than others, despite the fact that the context is polyamory. I’d also call the tendency of a lot of (but certainly not all) newly poly folks to focus on one couple as a foundation and write relationship rules springing from this baseline, rather than rethinking possible relationship styles, monoganormative–and the same goes for media coverage that focuses only on triads and couple-plus structures when discussing polyamory.

This isn’t intended to be an indictment. Most of us grow up in a context where monogamy is the norm. Even typing “monogamous culture” felt funny to me, probably because like white culture, it’s unnamed and pervasive. No one ever asks “when did you decide to practice monogamy?” just like no one ever asks “when did you realize you were straight?” It takes time to defeat internalized monoganormativity, no matter how proudly poly you are. I’ve heard so many folks who practice radical, non-hierarchical poly express guilt when they realize they “just want to be the most important!” in a situation, despite their fundamental commitment to egalitarianism.

So I don’t want to condem anyone who feels these feelings (myself included), but I do want to suggest an awareness of monoganormativity both in culture and in how we conduct intimate relationships. It’s okay to be jealous, it’s okay to practice consensual relationship hierarchy, it’s okay to have moments when you want to be the only one. It’s also okay to be monogamous. Let’s just stop pretending that monoganormativity doesn’t exist.

Creating Change 2013 Reminds Me of the Power of Southern Queer Diaspora

As organizers, sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in law, policy, and discrimination and forget about the importance of culture. As I follow the #cc13 hashtag today, I’m reminded of how powerful diasporas can be and how strong my sense of Southern self is.

I grew up in North Carolina, and a big part of my identity formation as a queer teenager rested in opposition to my location as a Southerner. It was easy to dislike the South while imagining the big queer meccas awaiting me over the Yankee rainbow. But as a trans queer adult, I’ve learned that Southern culture has a profound and often positive effect on who I am.

Being a Southerner means instant nostalgic connection as you wax rhapsodic with others in the Southern diaspora about grits and sweet tea, biscuits and cream gravy, even those awful “salad molds” of Jello and pineapple and whipped cream. It means a shared language of “bless her heart” and “come to Jesus meetings.” It means ingrained traditions around generosity and creating family wherever you go. Being a queer Southerner means forging tighter bonds with members of this diasporic niche, and examining the relationship between queer and Southern identity.

As I read the Tweets from North Carolinians in Atlanta this weekend I feel a sort of hometown tug, and look forward to visiting my high school in a few weeks, where I’ll be doing a trans 101 program. Though I often feel envy for those who grew up in liberal areas with many resources, and thus learned how to describe their own genders and sexualities long before I did, I also often think about the surprising openness of conservative straight white parents who approached me after graduation and said they’d learned something from my speech on how discrimination forms and leads to anti-gay bullying. That moment is a touchstone that reminds me something very important: every group on this planet is made up of individual people. The power of a diaspora is both to spread culture outward and to return with new perspectives that might change individual minds. Queer Southerners are living examples of our region’s diversity and potential, as are those conservative parents who cast aside prejudice and upbringing for a moment and were willing to listen to a 17 year old who had something to say.

How to Be an Activist Through Eliminating Hurtful Language

As a writer, blogger, and activist, I think I have a certain responsibility to think about how I express myself.  Whether I’m writing a post or an article, having a casual conversation, or replying to a Tweet, it’s easy to use language without thinking about it.  We all talk in the feminist and queer communities about how harmful societal norms are–whether it’s the pervasive use of “crazy” as a negative term, the way rape culture is subconsciously taught and accepted, or the societal pressure on women to be thin and “pretty.”  A lot of us end up with increased awareness of certain types of language through activist communities, and I love how this happens and very much encourage everyone to blog or just talk about terms you notice people using that support the kyriarchy.

Today, I want to talk about a particular group of words that I find harmful and am working to eliminate from my own speech.  The words I’m thinking of are associated with the garbage–from words that describe what we take in (“junk food,” “trashy books”) to words that describe what we are (“trailer trash,” “sloppy seconds”).  These words, in my experience, tend to apply primarily or only to things that are associated with poverty or “low” culture.  When a middle or upper class person talks about things in the first category, it’s common to speak of guilty pleasures and indulgences–“I know I shouldn’t eat so much junk food; I’m putting trash in my body but it’s just so good.”  This kind of language implies that 1) we should be guilty about things that are labelled “trash” and 2) these are a temporary deviation for middle and upper class people, ultimately linked to individual responsibility.

I could go on for days about what’s wrong with the way we talk about individual responsibility in Western capitalist countries, but to stick to my main point, what sucks about this kind of language is that it implies that people who consume such things should be guilty, and further that they are bad people because of what they consume.  It’s not a big leap from “junk food” and “trashy magazines” to trailer trash, or from saying someone’s clothes are trashy to saying that she is trashy.

Elitism is easy not to notice when you’re raised to value education, health, etc. and to look down on “guilty” or “nasty” habits.  I know I tend to talk a lot about “guilty pleasures” or be embarrassed about certain books or music.  So here’s a challenge to those of us who were raised in that environment, or for whatever reason find ourselves boxing habits into “good” and “bad” categories.  Let’s try to think about these problems when we’re writing, and especially not to use words like “junk” or “trash” to describe habits or people. Also, let’s try to avoid the trap of talking about how people are “victims of their environments” or using the language of pity when talking about access to education and culture.  This kind of language assumes that culture has an innate value, that people who don’t have access to “high” music, literature, food, or clothing are stuck with “low” forms.  It ignores the inherent value of these things and ascribes unnecessary guilt to their consumption.  Taste is a matter of individual preference, so let’s all make an effort to stop demonizing others’ tastes and start questioning the origins of our own.

The Importance of Culturally Appropriate Interrogation Techniques

Although the current interrogation manual used by the Army does, I am happy to say, specifically prohibit the use of sexual or religious interrogation techniques, I was rather disturbed to read about the previous approach to interrogation, based almost entirely on the degree of physical force used to determine whether inappropriate techniques were being used.  This approach is flawed from the general standpoint of how the armed forces should look at lawful interrogation versus torture in the first place, but I was specifically bothered by the use of sexual and religious methods designed to humiliate a detainee because they represent a complete failure to understand why these methods are inappropriate.  In conducting interrogation, the question should not simply be, “are we torturing the detainee in violation of international law?”  Certainly, that should be a threshhold question, but beyond that there is another question I want the interrogators to be asking.  “Are we using techniques that (1) are actually designed with the sole purpose of obtaining information and (2) conform with our social expectations of dignity and respect for human beings?”  The whole point of having laws of war is that there are certain expectations that apply, even when dealing with the enemy (putting aside for the moment the question of whether some of these detainees even are legitimately “the enemy.”)  

I’m bothered by any interrogation technique that is designed to humiliate the prisoner because it’s disrespectful and it doesn’t work.  First of all, from everything I’ve seen and read, the most effective interrogators are those who are patient and develop a rapport for the detainee.  Respect is a very powerful tool, as is cultural understanding.  Ideally, interrogators should be those who speak the subject’s language and whenever possible either come from or are very familiar with the subject’s culture and religion to whatever extent possible.  Even inadvertant cultural faux pas can diminish respect for the interrogator and make a subject defiant.  Intentional humiliation techniques in many cases are only going to harden the subject against revealing anything, and at the same time they compromise the interrogator.  If the army uses these techniques, it’s going to develop self-hatred and psychological damage among its interrogators as well as the detainees.  It will also further damage our already pretty shitty international reputation.  And finally, using these techniques is evidence of a purpose that has little to do with information – desire to humiliate, to dehumanize, to make one’s self greater than the subject.  Use the Golden Rule, folks.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Unrelated note: Please note that discussion is open on Patience & Sarah, as is the Round Four suggestions thread.  To encourage more discussion in the future, I’ll be posting specific discussion questions within each round’s discussion forum on the boards to get the juices flowing.  Of course, anyone is welcome to simply post their thoughts or start a thread with a question of their own, but I’m hoping that more directed discussion will encourage more participation.  Of course, as always, this is an entirely guilt-free group, and if I’m the only one reading in a round I’m just happy to have read the book!  Feel free to comment on a discussion post well after the round has started if you read the book late.  I myself haven’t read P&S yet, which is why discussion questions aren’t up yet 😉

Quick Hits

1) Fascinating interview up at Salon today with Richard Rodriguez, a gay Catholic Mexican-American author, on Proposition 8 and the role of religion.  He focuses on the relationship between the feminist movement and women gaining ground and the difficulties for churches founded on a male hierarchy, the reasons why religion has focused so much on Prop 8, and the cultural treatment of gay men in Mexican-American communities.  I highly recommend you give it a read.  I think I’m going to try to get a hand on his books soon.

2) The discussion board for Round Two of the lesbian book club, focusing on Irene Gonzalez-Frei’s Your Name Written on Water, is up now.  If you read the book, please pop in and give us your thoughts!