What Needs to Be Said About the Orlando Shooting

I’m about to say a lot of things that will not be mind blowing. People have already said all of them, probably better than I can. But I try to think of myself as an ally, and ally is a verb not a noun, which means I need to do something. So if more straight, cis folks like myself need to keep repeating basic truths until America pulls our collective heads out of our asses, then I will do it. Repetition is a key to learning, and straight America has some learning to do.

The shooting in Orlando was a hate crime against the queer community. Gay bars are safe spaces for many people, where they go to find community, support, and acceptance. The shooter has made homophobic comments before. The choice of location was not an accident. This was an attack on the queer community. If you believe that with marriage equality the GLBT community is fine and should stop asking for more, stop and look at what just happened. 50 people were murdered for their sexuality and gender identities. People in the queer community die every day, of suicide and violence and poverty and AIDS left untreated and homelessness. This community is vulnerable, and that vulnerability was exploited in this attack.

The shooting further targeted one of the most vulnerable populations in the US: trans women of color. The club was a popular place for Latinx individuals, and hosted drag shows. It just so happened that the night of the shooting featured Latinx drag performers. This is not a coincidence. The fragile masculinity that pervades America says trans women are a threat to everything we care about. It’s not a surprise that they are the target of so much violence when their very existence is a symbol of fucking the patriarchy.

The shooting in Orlando was a product of toxic masculinity. When physical strength and violence are lauded as the symbols of masculinity, we create people who deal with their problems through violence. The shooter had a history of domestic abuse. When we excuse rape, intimate partner violence, and domestic abuse, we make it so much easier for the violence to just keep escalating. We send the message that violence is how to deal with problems. Toxic masculinity demands that men don’t show emotion and affection, which makes two gay men openly kissing a terrifying and horrifying prospect. It says that men have a dominant role, and any man taking on the woman’s role is a disgusting perversion, giving rise to further homophobia and violence against GLBT individuals, in particular trans women.

The shooting was related to the homophobia rampant in many Islamic communities. The shooting is not an excuse for Islamaphobia. This is where things get a little bit complicated, but I think we can all hold these two truths together. There is homophobia in many Islamic communities. It can contribute to the attitudes of the members of those churches. This is not unique to Islam. Many Christian churches contribute to negative attitudes towards queer people. We need to be able to criticize the damage that religious beliefs are doing without jumping to full blown Islamaphobia that says this man was an extreme terrorist sent by ISIL to destroy America. See the difference? Homophobia in Islam contributed. Every Muslim every is not an evil terrorist.

The shooting is further evidence of America’s gun problem. Yes, America is a unique place and we cannot wholesale import solutions from smaller countries or from Australia. But it is a fact that our gun violence far outstrips other comparable countries and we need to do something. It remains true that guns are dangerously unregulated, and individuals are capable of purchasing unnecessarily high powered weapons that can kill at a rate that knives or homemade weapons cannot. It remains true that guns are less regulated than cars or chemicals or all kinds of other things that are less dangerous. We need to face up to the fact that our obsession with guns is killing people, and we need to start actually doing research into how to make it better.

The shooting is not evidence that the shooter was mentally ill. People with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. There are many complex reasons that an individual chooses to commit horrific acts, but dismissing it with “they were insane” lets us off the hook for the ways that we have built a society that fosters violence. It also throws mentally ill people under the bus and makes them responsible for violence when in fact they are an already vulnerable group of people. We do in fact need better care for the mentally ill, but now is not the right time to talk about it.

Finally, and most importantly, if you consider yourself an ally, now is the time to show it. Speak up. Tell your queer friends they can rely on you for support right now. Give blood. Give money to GLBT organizations. This event was horrific, but if you are an ally then you need to step up. I am actively calling on my fellow straight, cis individuals to mop up our mess. Take care of the queer people in your life. It’s the least we can do.

Why Don’t Men Get To Be Sexy?

I was just recently watching a video of a dance competition in which the couple competing were dancing “sexy.” When the woman shook her hips, she got cheers. When the man did a little shimmy, the announcer said “that’s just wrong.”

People talk a lot about the expectations that are placed on women to look a certain way, and how those pressures negatively affect them. Nearly every woman I know has self esteem issues surrounding their body, has dieted or is dieting, worries about their weight, and is uncomfortable identifying themselves as beautiful. This seems to come about because women are hyper-sexualized and forced to be in the role of “sexually available” pretty much all the time. If you’re a woman, beauty is the price of admission for life. So when a woman acts sexy or dresses up or puts on new makeup, people cheer.

But there’s another element to the “women are the sexual objects” bullshit that doesn’t get much airtime and it’s one that pisses me off royally. Whenever I try to tell my boyfriend that he’s sexually attractive, he gets legitimately confused. It’s rare for men to be called sexy unless they’re movie stars. When your average man dresses up or tries to shake his booty, people laugh or shrug it off or say “you clean up good,” as if that’s all the validation that men need when they’re trying to present themselves nicely.

Why don’t men get to feel sexy too? Why don’t we treat men as attractive?

I’m a straight woman. I’m more likely to describe other women as hot or sexy than I am men. Isn’t that a little bit odd? Isn’t it likely that people are going to feel uncomfortable with their sexuality, their bodies, and their relationships if they’ve never been told they’re desirable, or never seen other people of their gender labeled desirable?

Here are some problems with men never thinking they’re attractive:

1. It’s considered weird if a woman initiates sex or intimacy

2. Men think that they must be the aggressors and feel a great deal of pressure to initiate

3. The idea that women must be convinced into sex makes more sense, because men are simply not attractive. Therefore no woman would ever want sex on her own, and so must be convinced/coerced/forced to have it.

4. Physical attractiveness and other positive traits get separated. Men see themselves as intelligent/funny/capable, but not attractive, whereas women are attractive and so cannot be those other things.

5. Men are more afraid of looking at their own bodies, being open to different sexual things, or seeing sex as a mutually pleasurable experience that they can approach in a variety of ways because they can’t conceive of their bodies as something sexy or interesting or attractive, but rather as a tool or instrument for doing things.

6. It just feels really awful to think you’re unattractive, and we’re teaching boys that their bodies will never be attractive.

We can do better. We can teach our kids that every body is attractive in some ways and to some people, and probably less attractive to other people. We can teach people that their bodies are desirable, that they’re desirable, and that they can both give and receive pleasure thanks to their bodies. Even men. We can teach each other that anyone is allowed to pursue a romantic interest (until that interest indicates they do not reciprocate the interest) and that there’s nothing creepy, weird, or wrong about women being the assertive ones or even about having a mutual relationship in which each partner initiates sometimes and some things.

I think men are sexy. I think my partner is sexy. And I want men to know that they are sexy.

Genders and Scripts

Let’s imagine two video games.

In both of these games a youngish protagonist finds that the woman they love has been abducted or in some other way put in danger. In both games the protagonist’s goal is to find and save the person they love, defeating the bad guys and living happily ever after. In both of these games, the central point is that someone is motivated by love to keep someone they care about safe.

Now let’s say that in one the main character is a man and in the other the main character is a woman.

The reaction to these two games would probably be drastically different. Especially within the gaming community, one would be seen as a fairly normal game, and depending upon the gameplay, graphics, and overall storyline, it could be considered a great game.

Meanwhile, the game with a female protagonist rescuing her female lover would be considered “political” or “radical,” boycotted by some, and probably harassed by the GamerGate style gamers who would see it as unnecessarily drawing in personal opinions to the gaming world, as beating them down with a liberal or feminist agenda, as a bad game because it broke the scripts that they were used to.

Except that the script is exactly the same.

It’s hardly exciting or new to realize that in some circles and cultures a person’s genitalia is more important than their actions, emotions, or personality. But what astounds me about these types of script flipping is that the exact same actions can be seen as normal or even praiseworthy when done by a man but as political or pandering when done by a woman. It’s amazing to me that simply writing a woman (even in exactly the same way as you might a parallel man) is considered by some people to be bad or unbelievable. It’s as if some people, even today, can’t find any way to connect with a character if they have the little tag that says “woman.”

And on the flip side, I find it fascinating that as a feminist I can be more drawn to the same script simply by adding a woman into a role typically filled by a man. I’m not sure that this is a bad thing due to representation issues, but I do hope that some day we can reach a point where the internal experiences of a character are what make them engaging and important rather than their pronouns or genitalia.

It is amazing to me how different a script becomes in its political and social role simply by changing a character from male to female.

Transhumanism, Gender, and Definitions

In the process of talking about things like transhumanism, I’ve started to hit a wall in my questions when it comes to identities, most particularly gender identities. It makes perfect sense why people should get to define their identities for themselves. It makes complete sense that there are more identities than male and female, that we need new words and new perspectives about how people can act and dress and talk. This is all new and exciting and I love the conversations about how we can make gender identities reflect the ways that people actually feel and identify.

But there’s been something hanging around at the back of my head that just came to light while reading this article about cyborg as gender (content note: the author has a really rudimentary understanding of trans issues that really detracts from the rest of what he’s saying). And then I realized: I no longer know what the heck gender is.

So the traditional definition of gender is the outward, cultural expression of your biological sex. Gender activists have pretty much blown that to smithereens, and the existence of intersex, trans, genderqueer, agender, bigender, and all sorts of other gendered people really complicates the idea that there is a one to one connection between sex and gender such that gender is an expression of sex. Really the fact that there are people who express the same sex differently (even people in the same culture or family) calls into question the idea that gender is the culture version of sex. The idea that gender is just an outward expression of the body parts you have is pretty outdated.

So what about other definitions? Some newer definitions include the idea that gender is how you feel or identify personally. If you feel like a woman you are a woman. That makes sense, but what does it mean to feel like a woman? Does it mean you’re more comfortable in the body typically assigned to women? No, because there are absolutely trans* or genderqueer people who prefer feminine pronouns and identify as femme but who don’t physically transition to a body assigned female. Does it mean to act stereotypically “feminine” or want people to treat you like a woman? No, there are butch trans women, and cis women who behave outside the norm, and tons of women of all stripes who are active feminists who want to change the way they’re treated.

Is it just about what feels comfortable? Does it feel comfortable to use certain pronouns or a certain name? That seems so far removed from the original definitions of gender that I’m not sure it makes sense to call them the same thing anymore. Perhaps it has to do with comfort in certain clothes or behaviors, but again, the labels that we give to gender seem to have little to no correlation to the outward expressions of gender. There are men who cross dress and women who buzz their hair, but we still recognize that if they identify as a certain thing they get to be that thing.

So when I say “I identify as a woman”, I’m not even sure what I’m saying anymore. When someone says that their gender is cyborg (which seems to make about as much sense as a lot of other gender identities: it’s a particular way of relating to your body and presenting your body to the world), what are they saying? I saw someone once write that they felt autism took the slot in their brain that people typically reserve for gender. They believed their gender was autistic. I’m starting to wonder if “gender” might not simply be a word for “first or basic identity”. Perhaps it’s the thing that we most strongly see ourselves as, and as we begin to create new gender categories, the old ones are becoming less and less helpful since they don’t actually point to a coherent category anymore (as anyone can fit into the categories of male and female. This isn’t a bad thing, it just means we need better categories that actually describe the ways people act and dress and speak without all the stupid baggage of the gender binary).

If that’s not the case, then it might be more helpful to break down the concept of gender into slightly smaller categories. There are already words for how you present (femme, butch, etc) that could be fleshed out to simply describe someone’s aesthetic. We might also need better words for the variety of things that “sex” encompasses (chromosomes, primary sex characteristics, secondary sex characteristics) to allow people to identify if they so choose based on their bodies. Maybe we also need more words for passive/assertive distinctions, or other personality differences separate from gender. But none of these seem to get at the question of core identity that many people view gender as. The problem seems to be that there are so many components to what a gender identity can look like that we’d need more words than anyone could possibly keep track of to label all the combinations that could exist.

None of this is to criticize anyone’s current gender identity. None of this is to invalidate the way people feel in relation to their bodies. It’s simply to question whether the words that we’ve inherited are the most useful in labeling the ways that we feel, or if we need to explore what we mean when we say them. It’s entirely possible that someone has already clarified a newer definition of gender that I was simply unable to find (if so, please link me), but I don’t think relying on words that imply a connection between sex and gender or between gender and the body is very useful when the ways that we understand gender today don’t rely on those connections.

I would love it if we could start to expand core identities beyond gender (which is the first category most people try to ascribe to people), so that people would allowed to identify as autistic or black or disabled first if they felt it was the most pertinent element of their identity. In order to do that, I think we need to start questioning what we mean when we say gender.

 

Gender: Female…I Guess

I’m pretty clearly a cis individual. I’m pretty straight and I wear relatively femme clothes. I have a feminine haircut (although it’s short) and rarely (if ever) present in a way that isn’t quickly and clearly recognizable as female. When asked to identify my gender on surveys and such I answer “female” without hesitation.

And yet.

And yet I feel almost no attachment to the idea of being a woman. I don’t have any strong feelings about making sure people identify me as the correct gender (although when my mom said I looked like a twelve year old boy I was a bit miffed). At one point I was posed with the hypothetical question whether it would bother me a whole lot if my breasts were removed and I was pretty much not bothered by the whole idea. I could take em or leave em. I don’t really much care what my gender is. This is not to say that I identify as agender or feel uncomfortable presenting as femme, just that I only do it because it’s the path of least resistance. It’s easy.

I’ve wondered for quite some time now whether I would even identify as female if it weren’t for the strict policing of the gender binary. The more I think about my gender, the more I think that it is the way it is because I’m a rule follower, I’m not strongly attached to any gender, and I’m fairly lazy about my gender presentation so I end up firmly in the “cis” category simply because it’s where society has pushed all of my impulses. Want to dress up fancy? Buy a dress. Want to look pretty? Wear make up. I’m encouraged in some things and discouraged in others, an so I end up with the amalgam that most people identify as female just by not fighting back.

And for a long time I didn’t even think about gender identity. I just went about my life and wore whatever I felt like wearing and ignored the elements of being female that I didn’t really care about (makeup? What’s that?). But despite the fact that I’ve never made any effort whatsoever to look, act, or be female, somehow I ended up squarely in the “lady” camp.

So I feel like I have to ask myself: if I lived in a society in which gender was more fluid, there was more of a spectrum, and things weren’t policed so heavily, would I even identify as female? The answer is probably not. Would I be happier and more comfortable in my skin if I didn’t feel like I had to follow certain rules and boundaries and ways of being because I’ve somehow ended up as a woman? Most likely. It isn’t like I’ve spent my life feeling deep anxiety about my gender identity, but perhaps if things were more fluid and open I would feel a bit more comfortable in my skin.

If I feel like this, someone who was raised by staunch feminists, who is surrounded by queer and non binary people, who has very little by way of gender enforcement in their life, and who generally doesn’t care a whole lot for performing roles for others, then how many other people must there be out there who are probably somewhere closer to the middle of the gender spectrum than even they might imagine? How many other people would identify in a different way if it had even been presented as an option for them? How many people wouldn’t even identify at all if we weren’t so fixated on gender as the end all be all category?

In terms of the larger questions about gender, sexuality, and oppression, this group of people is probably not at the top of the list of “people who need our help”. But I do think it’s worth mentioning that if we open the door for a wider variety of gender identifications in order to help those who truly are distressed by the current state of things, there are probably thousands of other people who will feel just a bit more comfortable, a bit more themselves. And while that shouldn’t be the focus of activism, it’s a great thing to keep in the back of our minds: there are tons of much quieter people out there whose lives will be made easier and better for all the loud, out, genderqueer or trans* people we know and are fighting for.

But it also makes me sad, because if somehow I, the most cis, straight person in the world, can have my gender identity damaged and distorted by the gender binary, then think of all the other people out there who have had small parts of them taken away. If all we see are the people who are SO hurt by the mandatory gender binary that they feel they must speak up about it and must fight back against it, then imagine all the smaller hurts and destructions.

Of course this is all speculative. I have no evidence that there are tons of other people out there who only identify as cis because they hadn’t even thought about an alternative, and who have suppressed certain parts of themselves in order to be cis. But I sure as hell wouldn’t be surprised. And if that’s the case then it’s just another little reason to push back against gender policing of all kinds.

Asexual Trauma

Over at Queer Libido there is an amazing post about why Alok does not feel comfortable identifying as asexual. Alok is a South Asian man, and because of the tendency to emasculate and desexualize Asian men, he does not feel comfortable terming himself “asexual” without an exploration of the fact that it was trauma and colonialization that acted on his body to put him in the position he is in now (very brief summary, please read the article itself as it’s fantastic). As is my odd tendency when reading things from men of color, I found myself nodding along at many of his comments. I have no desire to co-opt his feelings or his narrative, and I deeply don’t want to play the oppression olympics, but his identification of trauma as an important part of sexual identity and his desire to look at a journey rather than a “born this way” mentality felt so important and personal to me.

As someone who never presented as feminine until I reached halfway through high school, I was never viewed as sexual. I never viewed myself as sexual. As someone who at an early age got into her first relationship and had sexuality forced down her throat, I often saw sexuality as invasive, as taking away my autonomy. Guilt has figured heavily into my sexual repertoire: I owe someone my sexuality, I owe the world my sexuality and my body. My partners have often reminded me of this fact, doing everything from telling me what clothes I could wear to guilting me into sex.

Clearly my experience of the violence and trauma of sexuality is very different from Alok’s, as my experience is that of a white woman (someone whose sexuality is deemed compulsory) rather than a brown man (someone whose sexuality is denied). However Alok’s experience of wanting to recognize his own trauma, the violence that he feels when it comes to sexuality, the distance he feels from being allowed to be a sexual subject, all these things feel familiar and important. Each of us feels that we have had our autonomy taken from us in some way, him by his race and me by my gender.

It seems intensely important to me to recognize that actively accepting the role society has created for you is not compulsory. If society bills you as sexless, you do not have to acquiesce to asexuality even if you don’t find yourself strongly pulled towards sexuality. Identities are political and they don’t appear in a vacuum. The trauma that we experience out of our oppressions plays a clear role in how we feel towards our sexuality and our bodies, but it can also play a role in how we feel comfortable identifying. As an example, I have always felt uncomfortable with the fact that the most obvious identities I have are heterosexual, monogamous, and cis, because these are the roles that society demands I have. I have spent time asking myself whether I want to publicly identify myself with these things because they have been used to damage so many women.

While Alok’s experience is one of being forcibly de-sexualized, and so he feels uncomfortable embracing that, mine is one of being forcibly sexualized. Each of these experiences can leave you feel as if you have no space to act, no connection to the body that is being acted on, no intimacy with yourself. Each of them can be traumatic. Alok asks that we openly acknowledge our trauma when speaking of our sexual identities. As I mentioned in a previous post, our histories are an important part of our identities today, and we cannot ignore that. The politics and traumas involved in those histories are part of that, and I want to be open about the fact that my body has been a site of sexual violence and mental health violence, often at my own hands. These are part of what I react to when I say I am asexual. These are part of reclaiming my body.

As Alok says “The dilemma of this brown queer body is its inability to see itself through its own eyes. The mirror becomes a site it which we view what white people have always told us about ourselves. Regardless or not of the status of my libido, I’m not sure I will ever feel comfortable identifying as asexual because it seems like I am betraying my people. ”

This dilemma is true for any person with oppressions. There is no right answer when it comes to sex. There is no certainty about whether we are the actor or the object of our sexuality. Perhaps this is the problem with labels, with identity politics, with trying to be a part of a community based on a sex drive. But perhaps this is the place we can begin to be open and vulnerable, to see ourselves as both the site of others’ violence and our own reclamations. Maybe this recognition could be the beginning of a sexuality more complex and more empathetic than any of us has seen before.

I don’t know how we can proceed from recognizing that bodies are one of the most common sites of trauma, but I know that we need to start there.

Internalized Prejudice

Society’s prejudices and assumptions are tricky. They can sneak in in all sorts of ways you don’t expect and wish you could get rid of.  It’s nearly impossible to grow up without internalizing some sort of prejudice or judgment, and it’s incredibly difficult when you realize that the assumptions you grew up with are wrong. Doubly unfortunately, many of those judgments often intersect with our oppressions: e.g. I have a great deal of internalized fatphobia thanks to my eating disorder, which is incredibly difficult to control and combat. Another example of this might be radical feminists who vehemently oppress trans women. When you’ve been oppressed, you often end up with a lot of hatred towards other people or even towards yourself. But the most interesting examples of internalized prejudice (at least to me) are the times we actively work against ourselves in ways we would never do to others.

It’s often easiest to recognize our own prejudices by how we treat ourselves. Oftentimes our behavior towards ourselves is far more honest than our behavior towards others. Our behavior towards others is more often moderated by societal norms, group expectations, shaming behaviors from others, and empathy. Interestingly, many people appear to find it easier to express empathy towards others, whereas towards themselves they rely on rules and “shoulds”. We fall back on the things we’ve internalized because trying to inhabit our own emotions can be more difficult than inhabiting someone else’s.

But the ways that we treat ourselves in comparison to others can reveal a lot. If you have a great deal of privilege and treat yourself super well and think awesome things about yourself while you simply treat other acceptably, that says something. Or if you treat yourself like crap over things like weight, gender, or mental health status, this might reveal some internalized prejudice. Oftentimes these are things you don’t even notice at first. But if you take the time to examine each judgment and negative thought you have about yourself, you might realize that it rests on a myth about how people should be.

As an example, I’ve been incredibly insecure for some time about my sexuality. I don’t have a high sex drive and I’ve often felt that I’m broken or that something is wrong with me when I’m not actively attracted to someone that I love and want to be with. I’ve often avoided thinking about it out of fear that I have some sort of trauma in my past that I haven’t processed, or that I don’t really trust people. It was only after reading a number of websites about asexuality that I realized that some people are simply wired to not have a strong sex drive. There’s nothing wrong or broken about it. The judgment that I had towards myself was actually reflecting an attitude about anyone who differentiated from the sexual norm. I was even medicalizing my own difference, telling myself that asexuality was a mental or physical defect, or that I would get over it when I was healthy. While I thought that I was simply making a judgment about myself, a closer examination revealed that I had some assumptions about what sexuality should be that were highly offensive and erased the experiences of many people (including myself). Many of us have experiences like these.

So what do we do when we make realizations like this? I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with the fatphobia I know I have because of my eating disorder. It’s hard. You don’t know how to treat yourself or others, and you certainly don’t know how to convince your mind that it’s wrong. How do we argue against ourselves? How do we learn to treat ourselves better?

In general I am not a huge proponent of guilt. Generally if you’re feeling guilty you already know you’ve done something wrong, the guilt has already played its role to tell you that you have behaved inappropriately, and from there on out it just turns into self-flagellation. Particularly with internalized oppressions that are directed towards yourself, I can very rarely see guilt being helpful (I can just imagine someone feeling fatphobia towards themself, feeling guilty about it, hating themself even more, and then proceeding to link fat with shitty once again).  When you turn oppression and stigma against yourself, it does not help for either you or others to guilt you or tell you how shitty you are or how you don’t understand. You are the one suffering here, and while your suffering is contributing to negative conditions for others, you do need to take yourself into account. Here are some suggestions:

1.Sympathy towards yourself and others.
Cut yourself some slack! Cut other people some slack! Now I know that this borders dangerously on telling people to just calm down and let prejudice and stereotypes and oppression go cause it’s no big deal. That is not what I mean. I mean that if someone is already struggling, feeling guilty, and really working to improve their actions and mindset, then you don’t need to beat it into them any further. You can offer them praise for things they do well or simply tell them that yeah, things suck.

2.Imagine whether you would do these things towards other people.
Oftentimes we’re far more willing to be jerks towards ourselves than towards others. I call myself horrific names I never would call others, and expect ridiculous diets out of myself that I would tell others they should never engage in. It can be helpful to spend some time imagining what your reaction would be if the offender was someone else. Sometimes I have to imagine that I’m speaking ot my best friend instead of myself so that I can understand how cruel I’m being.

3.Try to explain why you’re mad at yourself so that you can see what myths you’re using.
This might seem somewhat useless, but it can be incredibly helpful. Taking the time to examine what you’re actually saying about yourself, to read up on some of the social justice literature surrounding some of your issues, and to really dismantle the hidden assumptions that you have can make it much easier to fight back. Once you put those assumptions into plain English it’s often obvious how stupid they are. From there, you can remind yourself of these myths when you start to beat up on yourself again.

4.When calling someone out who is the victim of their own stigma, try to be more gentle than you might otherwise: they’re probably fighting a really hard battle.

It’s incredibly hard to recognize our own prejudices and to act against them. It’s particularly hard to fight them in our own lives. Unfortunately we rarely talk about these internalized elements of oppression, and they can be one of the fastest ways that oppression reproduces itself. Let’s start that conversation.