Is there such a thing as legible identity privilege?
This thought was tumbling around a lot in my mind for a while, particularly in discussions of what it means to be femme and presumed as female, but also when cis folks would ask me about assuming pronouns when you’re “pretty sure you know” someone’s gender versus when it’s unclear.
As a starter, I’ll say that if there is a legible identity privilege, it’s certainly not anything like as strong as other privileges such as being white. As a white non-binary person, I am less vulnerable to violence and harassment than any black or brown person, full stop. I explicitly reject any arguments that white non-binary people make around “binarism” putting them in a riskier place than a black trans woman, for example. See b. binaohan for why that’s fucked up.
But considering this as its own possible thing, I have a few thoughts. One is that, like “passing privilege,” this has a lot to do with specific cultural context and how other people perceive you. The two are also related. A trans man who is presumed to be a cis man might experience “passing privilege” alongside legible identity privilege, because he “passes” for a cis man and also “man” is a legible identity. Conversely, a trans woman who doesn’t conform to particular beauty standards and expectations might not “pass” for a cis woman, but could have a legible identity in cultural context–it is clear to most people around her that she intends to be read as a woman, and she is a woman.
In activisty Pinterest-land, I keep seeing memes about how queer identity is “not just a phase.” I get that impulse, and I do think there are places for the argument–when people assume that queerness is a phase, especially in the condescending way adults often do with young queer women, it’s just obnoxious. But also, I’d like to question why we’re so negative about phases in the queer community. In other words–what if an identity is a phase?
I think it can be really scary to claim one identity and then change your mind. Particularly if the change is towards an identity perceived as “less queer” (which, for the record, is not a thing) you might get written off and excluded from communities that meant a lot to you. Lesbians can be pretty cruel when one of their own decides she’s bisexual or pansexual, and trans folks aren’t always the nicest to someone who decides that transition isn’t for them, or who first comes out as a trans man or woman and then realizes non-binary is more correct. I used to be terrified that this might happen to me, but then I started thinking, so what if it does?
Fun fact: people change. And our access to rights, or community services, or recognition, shouldn’t require that we have a bone-deep permanent understanding of our sexuality or gender identity. You can identify as something for right now. You can try something out and see how it feels. You can even be pretty sure about an identity for ten years and then watch as it shifts and surprises the hell out of you. Some of my favorite things have phases–project management, the moon, human lifespans. So while it’s not “just a phase,” it might be a phase, and that’s okay too!
I saw a femme on the metro the other day, and for whatever reason, this person’s gender presentation got me thinking. They were dressed relatively simply, their clothing all sharp black lines, but the combination of hairstyle, eyeliner, and a bold red lip pushed them into the femme box in my perception. They also had this challenging stare that made me blush and look at my lap, and for some reason, start thinking about the way I do femme in contrast.
Femme is one of the few identities that totally speaks to me—no doubt in part because, as an identity, it’s so fluid and can be so many very distinct things all at once. FemmeCon 2012 was one of the few events where I really felt community. One of the best things about it was that, as an entire conference for femmes, there were so many varieties of femme representing, and your femme was taken as given by virtue of being present there. There was no femme bar to entry, and so I saw femmes like me (“lazy femme” or “blah femme”) alongside a million other different expressions. I didn’t need to prove myself, or think too hard about the difference between what I’m able to show the world physically, who I am, and what I might want to be.
To clarify a bit: my gender exists somewhere between squishy shy alien creature and calm, helpy robot. It’s not really something I can represent in physical space. I am drawn to things coded feminine and to queering them, so I experience delight in the color pink, in spoonie communities of care, in fannish frivolity. Many of the things I love can most easily be interpreted through a femme lens—except, I sometimes fear, for me.
1. A queer-identified person who is geeky about data and shares an affinity with other queer data geeks.
2. A philosophy or orientation towards data that focuses on (a) challenging the norms of a data-driven culture or the data industry and (b) approaching data collection, use, and maintenance a way that may seem counter to generally accepted principles
At a recent conference, I only half-jokingly encouraged people to Tweet about my talk with the tag #dataqueer because I kind of wanted to make it a thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about dataqueerness lately, and what it might mean in relationship to my work.
As someone who works in data with other queer people, and enjoys geeking out about data with fellow queers, sometimes just being queer and being into data is a social affinity that I can happily share with others. But I’m also thinking of dataqueer as an orientation or approach to data. Smushed with a prefix this way, queer is often used to imply critically challenging norms, destabilizing or decentering hierarchies and binaries, and applying creative redefinition to a particular area of focus. If we think of it this way, dataqueer could be an identity that signals a particular approach to data.
What Does It Mean to Queer Data?
One possibility is that dataqueerness is simply about questioning the central principles of a data-driven society or industry. In business, this could mean looking at how we can use data for something other than increasing profitability and revenue or reducing risk. In academia or policy or the technology industry, we might think about how we can both be data-oriented and also question the value of a data-driven society. Rather than thinking about privacy as an afterthought or an extra layer, following the core assumption that More Data Is Good, dataqueerness might mean always asking why we need data as a first principle rather than just how to collect more.
Being dataqueer might also be about focusing on data that is messier or less obvious to analyze, spending time on the unusual data points or outliers. It might mean thinking critically about established categories and instead looking for new and different ways to slice information. Why, for example, is it always 18-35? Why are gender categories in marketing data always male and female? (What is the value of gender as a marketing demographic in the first place?) Someone who is dataqueer might take risks in going beyond how the standard data professional would approach data, and instead think creatively, applying different values or looking for different outcomes. A dataqueer person might even use data to show the harms of collecting data, or work within data with the aim of destroying or complicating data.
These are just some nascent thoughts, of course. What does #dataqueer mean to you?
Why is it that some women who are sexually dominant assume that they have license to make everyone they meet do as they please, or that women who are sexually submissive are expected to defer and automatically be interested in them sexually? I’m not saying that all, or most, dominant women are like this, but I encountered one casually (not in a romantic/sexual context) and it really baffled me. My understanding is that kinky relationships are something to be negotiated, based on trust. So perhaps that sort of dynamic would evolve within a relationship, and I can respect that. What I don’t understand is someone who assumes that because they take on this role they should suddenly have everyone wait on them hand and foot. That’s called arrogance.
I was just in the shower, thinking (like you do) about lesbian stereotypes. I think that there’s at least some assumption that if you’re a gay girl, you might have been a tomboy growing up, or you really get along with “the guys.” And for some lesbians, I know this is true, but I never fit into that mold. I didn’t have any really close guy friends as a kid – sure, I had a few male friends, but I never connected with them in any significant way. I had fairly “girly” interests, and I’ve always been touchy feely and liked long conversations. Not that there aren’t men like that, but not so many in elementary and middle school. My best friends were always girls, and I got along well with girls. But when I young and assumed that I was straight, and when I was a bit older and identified as bisexual, I always figured that once I was in a serious relationship with a guy, he would be my best friend. That was what I was looking for, and it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t just… happen.
Now I know there are exceptions, and there are plenty of lesbians who relate well with men but prefer women romantically, and plenty of straight women who don’t have any men friends but connect with their romantic partner. However, the example that comes to mind is my parents, who indeed were best friends throughout thirteen years of marriage and fifteen years and counting of divorce. My mom has always been heterosexual and she’s always had close male friends. It didn’t occur to me that the same wouldn’t happen for me, but in my only serious relationship with a man, it really was a “Men are from Mars” situation. We were just speaking different languages.
Since then, I’ve always thought that women are preferable as romantic partners because you can fall in love with your best friend. And I think there’s something to that – if your best friend is always a certain gender, and you’ve never been particularly close to the other gender, you’re probably at least somewhat unlikely to suddenly become best friends with someone of the other gender because you get into a romantic relationship with them. So maybe it’s not that unusual when a girly girl becomes a lesbian. After all, doesn’t it make a certain amount of sense?
Lesbian book club reminder: the poll is up now for round three and will be open until Sunday afternoon. Please vote! Also, feel free to start discussing for round two if you read the book.
I’ve been greatly surprised, the more I make contact with various parts of the lesbian community and lesbian pop culture, how much the “butch and femme” dichotomy is alive and well. I realise that despite all the changes and movements away from binary trends, we still tend to think in twos, but for some reason I thought this was an outmoded distinction. Then again, among the lesbians I know in real life, most don’t really talk about being butch or femme. I know some lesbians who are decidedly butch, but then I also know a lot like me, who I don’t think of as butch, but if I think about it I really can’t characterise them as “femme.”
As far as I can tell, femme is often more or less the default for “not butch.” It seems that butch has a more built-up set of characteristics, possibly because it implies masculinity and differentiating oneself from the norm, from the femininity default that women are born into. When I think of a butch woman, I think of her in terms of three areas: appearance, activities/mannerisms, and sexual “stuff.”
I think of “butch” as meaning very masculine, but also fitting a number of other stereotypes – often overweight or big boned and very muscular, often doesn’t pay a lot of attention to dress, etc. But there are other sorts of masculine women. I find myself very frequently attracted to androgynous women, what I suppose you would label “bois” – petite women with short haircuts who retain feminine features, so that they more or less look like a 12-year-old boy. There are also women who are very traditionally attractive but wear a lot of boyish clothing. I find that the more choices I make about my own appearance, the more I start to move away from the traditional feminine. Aside from my usual suit-and-tie combination, I’ve found that I really like how I look in more masculine casual clothes as well. Now that I’ve found a good way to style it, I love my extremely androgynous haircut. Yesterday, I was wearing a faded black tanktop that looks like a “wifebeater” essentially and I found myself flexing my muscles in the mirror and taking my glasses off to blur my feminine features. When I was a teenager, I used to wonder what my “boy self” would look like. I’ve been drawn to masculinity for a long time, and I absolutely love dressing in drag. I just feel really comfortable and really sexy when I’m androgynous. However, I try not to think too hard about it, because I really don’t want to be a man, or at least, not a heterosexual man. More on that later.
Something else that I think bolster’s someone’s “butch” image is the things she does. This ranges from activities – maybe owns a motorcycle, knows how to change her own oil, likes sports and having a beer with her buddies – to more simple things. These are an area, actually, where I think femmes affirmatively make themselves femmes – by spending time on makeup and hair, wearing lotion, shopping, etc etc. I also think this is a place where a lot of people end up falling in the middle. I don’t look like the stereotypical butch, but I know how to change the oil, I like (not US) football, I never wear makeup or “do” my hair, etc. It’s hard to think of me as really femme for that reason.
Here’s where my own heebie jeebies come out. Now of course, everything in this post is a generalisation, talking about stereotypes into which most lesbians probably don’t fit. But I’ve read a little about fantasies and lesbian sexuality and I have to say some of the butch/femme sexuality really throws me. The reason is that it seems, to me, to come really close to heterosexual sexuality and really close to the kind of “male oppression” stuff that has become more and more a turnoff to me since I stopped having sex with men. Of course, I’m sure there are lesbian women who fantasise about choking on a dildo, or being fucked painfully, or having sex with someone who identifies as male. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s just that for me, being on either side of that equation would be a major turn-off. Being with a man, especially sexually, turned me into a weak, meek person completely unlike myself. If I were on the “female” side of that equation in a lesbian relationship, there’s nothing to say the same thing wouldn’t happen. At the same time, if I were on the “male” side, I don’t want to be hurting someone or interjecting heterosexuality in the relationship. To me, the beautiful thing about lesbian sex is that it’s two women, exploring female sexuality. I do need to learn to mentally disconnect certain “heterosexual” acts that I actually enjoy from heterosexuality, so that I can enjoy them with a woman. I’ll admit that. But when actual roleplay starts up, I can’t see myself as a butch or a femme, because I don’t want that particular dichotomy in my bed. I want whatever power differential is set up (and believe me, I like power differentials) to be between two women, using our female energies. Man, I’m a hippie.
That wasn’t supposed to turn into a rant, but anyway, that’s my take on the butch/femme roles. If you really enjoy fitting into one or the other, more power to you! I’m just happy as an androgynous, outside-the-box lesbian who likes other androgynous, outside-of the box lesbians. There it is.
My new favourite dykeblogger, Card Carrying Lesbian, posted this the other day about people constantly challenging her gayness, and it really resonated with me. I haven’t had a lot of outside challenge to my lesbianism, but I have had some internal struggles, and I hope that I eventually reach her level of confidence. Now it’s time for a long personal sexual history rant. Ready? Let’s go!
When I was, oh, about ten or so, I wanted to be a boy. This decision was very vehemently attacked by both the boys and girls in my fifth grade class, and my best friend physically fought me on the playground. Shortly thereafter, I gave up on the idea. When I was about twelve, and my body hair started growing in, I was briefly excited about shaving and then decided that shaving is stupid and stopped. A little boy in the neighbourhood made the highly intelligent comment, “what’ve you got trees growing under there?” when I lifted my arms one day, and I started shaving again. I was not by any means a popular child. I didn’t dress attractively and I didn’t hang out with the popular kids. I wanted to be popular though, and so I latched on quickly to boys, shopping, and makeup.
I was definitely boy crazy. I know hindsight is 20-20, and maybe I’m seeing things differently now because of my “enlightenment” about adult me, but I’ve noticed some things looking back about my boy craziness. One is that I liked really pretty boys. It was almost entirely about aesthetics, as it probably is to most girls that age. I was into the Backstreet Boys and NSync. I realise now that when I masturbated I thought about straight couples and particularly focused on elements of the woman’s body (funny that I can still remember some of those teenage fantasies). Anyway, I didn’t have any actual experience besides one exploitative five-second “relationship” that I blocked out so much that I forgot about it for a while.
When I was sixteen, I came out as bisexual. I couldn’t not like boys, I mean come on! They were so pretty. My mom was sceptical about the liking girls part, if only because I had so adamantly liked boys, and talked about how cute boys were for so long. But at seventeen, I started my first relationship, which lasted six months, and it was with a girl, so she believed me. In college, I ended up in another relationship, this time with a man, and it lasted a year in a half. I won’t tell the entire story, but the basic idea is that I was looking for love, he was looking for love, and I believed that a relationship could work on that alone. And it did, and we got along pretty well for a while, and we decided that we loved each other. We had very little in common, but it worked. He was very sweet, and sensitive, and I still think he’s a great guy. We ended up losing our virginity to each other, and had sex together for about a year. I’ll come clean. I kind of enjoyed parts of it. I even kind of enjoyed intercourse. But I became a closed off person, ridiculously meek, and lots of other things I’m not proud of. It’s not like I was having orgasms, or anything like that.
After we broke up, I had sex with two other guys, and fooled around with a few girls. I matured a lot in a couple of years, and I started thinking about it. I realised that my interest in men really was mainly aesthetic. They look kind of nice. I kind of like sex with them. But at that point, I didn’t want sex with them. If I had a choice, I’d never have sex with them again. And over martinis in a foreign country, my dear friend Kat broke it to me. Yeah, I think you’re a lesbian.
It all kind of started to make sense.
In another post soon, I’m going to start talking about my views on choice in this arena, but for now I want to quote something from the post linked above.
I’m not saying boys are yucky. I’m just saying I prefer women so much so that I’ve excluded men from the realm of my dating possibilities.
Yet for some reason many people will never believe that I’m a lesbian because I can admit that sex with certain men didn’t suck.
Wow. I’ve never heard another lesbian put it that way, but YES! Exactly. I prefer women. I prefer how they look, how we relate, how friendship and sex can intertwine, and so many other things. I’ve made a choice, and that’s that I don’t ever want to be in a relationship with or have sex with a man again. And lately I’ve been feeling a great defensive need, and been putting that one long-term relationship with a man in a box, talking about how bad the sex was and laughingly thinking that he “turned” me, but that isn’t true. Yeah, the sex wasn’t great. We weren’t open with each other, we weren’t sexually compatible with each other, I was generous in bed but he wouldn’t kiss me below the neck… et caetera, et caetera. But that doesn’t mean I never liked being with him, and I think I should stop lying about it.
The funny thing, too, is that my sexual history is so unlike my sexual preferences. I’ve never had good sex. I’ve never had sex with a woman. You’d think that I’m sexually immature, but no, not really. It just so happens that when I broke up with him, I got way pickier. I got pickier about the gender I have sex with, and also about the people I have sex with. I have a new rule that I have to really like a person, and I have to trust them, to have sex with them. So far, that’s worked brilliantly for me! I love being single, and I know that when I meet women with whom I really connect, I have the option to have sex, and the option to pursue a relationship. But I’m in no hurry. A relationship really is about more than love. It’s also about someone you connect with, and enjoying being around. So the fact that my sexual history is skewed in a very masculine direction means nothing about my sexuality. The ending of the linked post, I think, is perfect for this one as well.
Dude. I kiss girls! ONLY. 😀
A month or two ago, I had a discussion with a friend on the bus about identity. We were talking about gay identity, and I was telling him about my seminar paper. He started telling me about how in the black community (he’s black and I *think* straight, though I hate to make assumptions) there are definitely gay men, but no one would ever talk about it, because of the certain image that the black man is supposed to fit into. He explained that a lot of people feel that your “Blackness” is supposed to be superior to all else, and presumably a certain narrow kind of blackness, so that being gay does not fit into that identity.
I’d heard about this phenomenon before, and it got me thinking about how we essentialize all sorts of identities. I definitely think it’s true of the queer community. I’ve noticed myself doing it a lot, not so much anymore, but when I first left the South, with my Southern identity (letting my accent get stronger, cooking a lot more Southern food than I ever cooked at home, exaggerating elements of my background). But where I see it happening a hell of a lot, and where it’s been bothering me a lot lately, is the essentialization of the female identity.
I think many of the problems I’ve been struggling to understand lately – legal, social, political – come from a refusal to accept the diversity that exists among women. Abortion and reproductive issues? Women aren’t supposed to have sex outside of marriage. They’re supposed to be good, pure, and chaste. Even the modern woman isn’t supposed to sleep with *too* many men. Maybe birth control is okay, but abortion? You’re not supposed to talk about it. The abominable state of rape laws and selective prosecution? Women are supposed to dress modestly and stay away from bars and wild parties. Homosexuality? Psh, don’t even get me started.
Here is what society has told me about being a woman: Career is great, but family still comes first. Getting married should be an ultimate goal. When in a group of other women, marriage and boyfriends are the most acceptable topic. Always shave your legs, underarms, and bikini area. Nice girls don’t have hair. Wear makeup, lotion, nail polish, etc. Dress provocatively, but not <i>too</i> provocatively. Wear jewellery and skirts. Short hair is only okay if it’s still “cute.” Women should be independent, but society should still protect them. Drink, but don’t drink excessively. Girly cocktails are the acceptable beverage of choice, by the way. Sexuality is something that can be gossipped about, but never discussed openly in mixed company, and certainly never with your sexual partner.
Of course, the list goes on. Anyway, I find that thinking about it this way makes it easier to understand my position on a lot of things. I don’t want society to dictate how I can be a woman. I don’t want it to say that I can only marry men, because that’s what women do, that I can’t take control of my own reproductive health choices, because I need to be protected, or that if I dress a certain way and get raped, it’s my own damned fault. I want society to celebrate diversity and allow women to be independent and free to choose who they are how they want to live their lives. I want attacks on diversity not to be tolerated, but I don’t want paternalistic “protection” that puts me in a box.
For a long time, identity has been something that’s really interested me. When someone asks in a generic sense, “what are you?” or “how do you identify?” what do you say? (Really. Let me know in the comments; I’m curious). I first became interested in the topic in terms of regional identity (for example, I think being from certain places such as New York makes you more likely to identify with your city, whereas being from some countries may make you more likely to identify with your nationality, and being from certain regions or ethnic groups may strengthen the sense of a regional identity). But this morning, I was thinking about sexual identity, a topic I’ve been focused on a lot lately in grappling with some of the issues related to gay rights in the developing world. For once, however, I wasn’t thinking about the problems of identifying in the first place, but for those of us who do identify happily as straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, about how important that identity is.
To answer my own question, the strongest identities I claim are being Southern and lesbian (which also encompasses being female). If pressed further, I’d say I’m an academic, a humanitarian, and multilingual. You’ll notice that my race doesn’t come in there (I’m white) nor do my ethnic origins (European mutt). I think we tend to claim identities that make us unique in some way, have a strong sense of group belonging, or are particularly important in our lives. Being from the South makes me culturally unique, and in some ways I’m proud of that heritage (with the obvious big fat disclaimers). Being a lesbian is a similar strong point of identity for me because it’s something I haven’t come in contact with a lot, and every time I come into contact with lesbian culture I feel a strong sense of belonging and group identity. The other three things I mentioned are just things that are very important in my life. I’ve been in school for the past eighteen years (and like it), human rights are a huge issue for me and what I plan to do for my career, and languages are my strongest passion and something I also expect to integrate into my professional and personal life.
I’d guess that for people who come from racial and ethnic minorities, that’s more likely to fall on their list. People who have careers or qualifications that are important might consider those things part of their identity (scientist, computer expert, doctor, musician). People who are a little more dedicated to an art form might claim that as an identity (actually I’m really surprised at myself for not putting “writer” or “cook” down – perhaps some reflected insecurities). Those whose beliefs fall more neatly into a recognised system may include their religion as an identity. Straight people, on the other hand, are in most cases unlikely to immediately say “I’m straight!” when asked what they are.
I think this is a bit of an obstacle when we’re trying to explain why sexual identity should be everyone’s choice, and everyone should have equal rights – we want to say that straight people are included in that, but it’s harder to conceive of how straightness is important in someone’s life and an important part of identity. I think, though, that perhaps the problem is that we just label things differently. If I think about what my gay identity involves, it includes a number of things – whom I’m attracted to, with whom I form relationships, what “family” means to me, with whom I have sex, what group I fit into/how I associate, and how I see myself as a woman. I think that the same things for straight people may come up in their strong identity markers, just in a different way. For example, to many straight women, being a mother or wife may be the most important identifier (not that lesbians can’t identify this way too, of course, but in the context of a heterosexual relationship it’s the relationship to one particular man that is important to the woman, or to the child of that one particular man, which means that the relationships do relate in some small way at least to the sexuality). Maybe some straight women identify strongly as a sex worker, or as part of some group that consists of straight women (I have no idea what that would be, but work with me here). Maybe they identify as feminists, and a big part of feminism for a particular woman is how she relates emotionally and sexually with men.
Anyway, I have no idea what my point is. Thoughts without a conclusion: it’s what I got marked off for in tenth grade English. There will probably be more on this later, but I am curious – how do you identify?