One of the trickier things about queer movements, unsurprisingly, is finding the words to describe ourselves, our community, and those around us. Words are incredibly important to many people in terms of self-definition and claiming membership in a community, but the words to describe gender and sexuality are often new and have different definitions depending on who you talk to.
One thing I just saw at work, though, in an interesting CDC report on health disparities, is a definite linguistic gaffe.
Although Healthy People 2010 specifies that health disparities include “differences that occur by gender, race or ethnicity, education or income, disability, geographic location, or sexual orientation,” only a limited number of regularly published national- or state-level health reports include information on sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, or heterosexual identity) as a demographic variable for comparison.
Since when is “transsexual” a sexual orientation? There are some differences in opinion on the meaning of words like transsexual and transgendered, but I’m pretty sure most people commonly understand “sexual orientation” to relate in some way to sexual desire and/or sexual partners. Trans* identities, on the other hand, refer to an individual’s gender identity. Can we get this right, CDC? It’s bad enough to lump “T” in with “LGB,” while simultaneously ignoring trans peoples’ needs and priorities. But I think it’s even more egregious to suddenly refer to trans* as a sexual orientation, as if trans people didn’t have sexual orientations in addition to gender identity. It’s part of a broader trend of ignoring the sex lives of trans people and assuming that a trans person’s identity is entirely constructed around hir gender identity/transition. To me, it feels dehumanizing.
There’s been a lot about children and gender identity on my radar screen lately, from stores with gender-neutral children’s clothing to the media ridiculousness surrounding little Shiloh to the tragic murder of a 16-month-old little boy whose mother’s boyfriend didn’t think the infant was “man” enough. I’ve also been tapping into my own inner-child potential as I try to resolve issues with depression and finding my gender identity.
Childhood, ideally, is all about play. Children who are given safe spaces to exercise their curiosity and explore their surroundings as they grow up are more likely to be well-adjusted adults. Adults, in fact, could learn something from children. It’s amazing how a problem changes shape and how solutions present themselves when you take a step back and approach the problem with your imagination guns a blazin’.
And that’s the thing about childhood. Imagination doesn’t do well with boxes. It’s about exploring possibilities, playing, learning. As we get older, society draws lines and we all learn where those lines lie. We learn that boys do this and girls do this, and we learn behaviors that society considers “appropriate” to our gender. And for those of us who don’t feel 100% comfortable with our gender, it may take years to unwrap those neat little packages we’ve been dressed up in and try to find who we are, independent of this thing called “gender.” It may take a lot of play.
I was just reading an article comparing US and Mexican abortion laws, and the author, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, made a really good point that I think we need to keep reminding ourselves of as we fight for our liberal values. We can talk about individual autonomy and choice all we want, and that perspective can be great, but choice doesn’t mean much if you can’t access the choice. Often choices require financial privilege or other means that not everyone has. While some forms of privacy/autonomy are easy for governments to ensure (negative liberties that don’t require the government to take action, only to refrain from it), positive autonomy requires resources.
This is where I go all socialist on you, but I really think we have a lot to learn from forms of government (and on a smaller level, forms of community activism or tribal systems) where the focus is on the group rather than the individual. Yes, this form can hurt women when they are blended into the group as a whole, but it also can provide guarantees of community support. The individualist system often claims to give all individuals a choice, autonomy, etc., but if the individuals do not have the resources to exercise these rights, then those individuals (often women) will suffer. The challenge is to find a balance, where women are not marginalized, not erased, and not harmed in between the lines of the law. It’s probably a challenge that can never be fully realized, but it’s a good goal.
At the moment, I’m working in the subscriptions office of a major symphony orchestra, and I’ve found some trends emerging in the past four months or so when it comes to the spin callers and patrons place on gender (and sexuality). This is just a list, maybe intelligent thoughts will follow:
- Husband: “You’ll have to talk to my wife. She’s my secretary/social secretary/the family secretary.”
- Callers assuming that the wife might be home during the day but the husband will only be home at night.
- Callers saying “is your wife home?” or “is your husband home?” without any evidence that the relationship between the male and female member of a household is indeed husband/wife.
- Callers assuming that “partner” means opposite sex.
- Callers suggesting that a patron bring a date to the symphony, as opposed to a friend or family member.
- Wife: “My husband’s in charge/has all the control/etc.”
- Husband: “No, she doesn’t want that” or “Honey, you don’t want that.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about “masculine” and “feminine” since the Women + Power conference, and about “aggressive” versus “emotional.” I’m just reading Vanessa Veselka’s essay, “The Collapsible Woman,” and she offers an interesting alternative to the strong/weak dichotomy in discussing what society expects of rape survivors. “We need to articulate a new vision that equates feminine strength not with repression and bravado, but with compassion and grit.”
Compassion and grit.
I love that. I think it’s a good workaround for my own insecurities about just how “emotional” I want to be, and what it might represent. I want a way to be a generous and loving friend, someone who cares about people, sometimes has a lover or two, can act as a mentor, sometimes needs to cry, likes doing “girly” stuff from time to time, but at the same time is proudly queer, child-free, and entirely career-oriented. I’m someone who thrives on relationships with friends and lovers, but doesn’t want a life revolving around “family,” with the implicit meaning of husband or wife + brood of children. I am happy to lead a life directed by ambition, but sometimes suffer from depression when I use that purpose to isolate myself or make being alone my cry of pride. Oh, the little white lies we tell ourselves. But I’m not prepared to say that what I truly need is the opposite of what I’ve been preaching, to “confess,” because it isn’t. I do need to be alone. I need to pursue projects, and I need to forge my path through life independently. At the same time, I need the support and love of others, holding my hands but not holding me up.
Compassion and grit. Amen, sister.
First, just a couple of administrative notes. For some reason, comment notification e-mails were not coming to me, and I missed a number of older comments in the moderation queue. If you’re one of those people, I apologize for not approving your comment sooner! Those of you who asked specific questions in comments on the About page, I did see your questions and I’ll be responding soon. Thanks for your patience 🙂 Also, I want to thank everyone who’s kept me on your blog reading list despite a few months of mostly dead time. This is a transition point for me in blogging, and the workshop at Omega on blogging reinforced something I knew already–that I need to post consistently and keep to a set schedule if I want readership to come and stick around. So from this point forward, I’m setting a minimum goal of three posts per week. I hope you enjoy the content and pass the word on about this blog.
That said, I just want to post a wrap-up about the conference in Rhinebeck. As you may have gathered, I was liveblogging and Tweeting from a mobile device, specifically an iPod Touch, and so the one-fingered typing has some limitations! Some of my favorite quotes from the weekend are on Twitter (peachy_penumbra), but I wanted to say overall how much I enjoyed the conference and how inspiring, funny, and yes, powerful, many of the women who shared the stage were. I also made some great friendships over a very short period of time, and got to meet a lot of cool young women who may not have been able to speak on the stage, but had a lot to say off of it.
For me, the conference was a mixture of feeling empowered and refreshed, and on the flip side, feeling a little bit angry and frustrated. On the one hand, there were these great organic conversations going on, the empowerment of being in what really felt like a safe space (so safe that yoga and naked sauna-ing were involved!), and fabulous speakers that made me feel like I could achieve a lot more than what I’m doing right now. Women like Gloria Steinem, Isabel Allende, Helen Thomas, Lateefah Simon, Jensine Larsen (etc., etc., etc.) are a great inspiration, even if some of the younger activists make me feel downright lazy! On the other hand, there were some negative aspects to the conference.
There was a lot of emphasis on nurturing, caring, embracing the “feminine” instead of only focusing on power and aggression. I have an instinctive clench-up reaction to that. Part of it is a psychological struggle that I’m going through personally and won’t get into at the moment, but another part is that this masculine/feminine dichotomy is so frustrating. I felt that a lot of women, especially older women, were saying things like embrace your feminine side, we’re learning these values to pass on to our children, let’s think about our husbands and men in our lives, etc. In other words, there was a fairly heteronormative, dichotomous gender-based structure to this whole thing. Lesbians and transgendered people were mentioned from time to time, but I think that there was a deeper structural issue at play. I noticed it in the insistence on labeling everyone’s “two sides” masculine and feminine in our intergenerational discussion, even when a woman was trying to say that these things don’t really have to do with gender. Why do we always have to think in twos?
Hopefully our generation is moving in the right direction on this, though, and I think we are. Overall, it was a great experience–inspiring, thought-provoking, and challenging. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to attend more events like this in the future.
I’m reading Jane Sexes It Up right now, and one of the essays in that collection made me think of something I hadn’t in a long time – that extremely uncomfortable feeling you can get as a little girl around grown men, when they’re joking or talking about something you don’t quite get. It might be sex, it might not be, but there’s a fear and discomfort there whose origins I wonder at. Do we have some innate understanding of the sexual and the shameful as children, even if we don’t understand it?
I recently read Ariel Levy’s fabulous Female Chauvinist Pigs for the first time, and highly recommend it. One point that really stuck out for me is that women often subtly put down other women for not dressing in a sexy, revealing manner and in doing so cite lack of self-confidence. Some women who show a lot of skin for whatever reason feel that this not only makes them feel confident or is a product of their confidence, but that others who don’t dress the same way must not be confident, or must be disparaging of their looks. I have no problem with women feeling sexy when they put on a short skirt or a low-cut top, but I do think something’s going on when a woman’s assumption is that this is the only way to show self-confidence. Levy does a great job at pointing out how this kind of argument can be used to draw women towards everything from Girls Gone Wild cameos to unwanted sexual experiences.
Surely, women can hide behind baggy or “unattractive” clothing. I did that a lot as a kid and as a teenager, and in fact I was not self confident. One of the ways I showed my self-confidence and comfort with boys, in turn, was to start dressing “sexier,” to start showing off my breasts and legs. But I eventually found that for me, that clothing actually didn’t really make me feel sexy. It did in a way, but at the same time I was often self-conscious, because I kept having to tug at a strapless bra or make sure my skirt was covering my rear. Those clothes required a lot of effort, and they weren’t comfortable. Now the clothes that make me feel sexy vary – one of my “sexier” outfits is a pair of cargo pants and a very butch black muscle top, while another is a thin v-neck yellow and brown artsy tank with wide straps and a pair of stretchy black gaucho pants. I feel sexy when I’m put together, when my clothes fit well and feel good, and I’m smiling. Sure, other girls may feel the same in clothes that made me uncomfortable, but if anyone pities me and tells me that I need to get some self confidence and dress the part, I’ll laugh. I invite you to join me.