RIP Leslie Feinberg (1949 – 2014)

A little round-up of posts about Leslie Feinberg who sadly passed away this week at the age of 65. It’s only through the immense courage of people like Feinberg that our own lives have become possible. We should remember them with honour and gratitude.

My favourite quote appeared in Sassafras Lowry’s Lambda Literary piece Losing our Hero:

“As queer folk, so many of us have been rejected and abandoned that we’ve had to build our own worlds. So many of us have found ourselves so alone when we come out. We grow ourselves up. We build our own families and in a way queer books become our parents, our grandparents, our best friends and families. We curl up with them on cold nights on borrowed couches uncertain of where we will sleep tomorrow, or in bathtubs, our ears ringing with the sound of a lovers footsteps walking out the door a final time. We turn to books to prove that we exist. Books keep us company, raise us up, and give us hope that survival is possible. In a way, through queer books we build a relationship to that book’s author as well. For so many of us, Leslie is more than a beloved author. Zie has been part of our family. Now, as we mourn hir loss, we’re left trying to understand a world that is much darker and colder without hir to fight for us and protect us.” 

Books by Leslie Feinberg
Stone Butch Blues 
Transgender Warriors
Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time has Come 

Website: Transgender Warrior

“Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”

Sensitive but Flawed, Reflections on the film, ‘Albert Nobbs’ (2011)

Albert Nobbs is a film which I found both impressive and disappointing.  It’s unusually intelligent about gender but it also contains some of the weaknesses that often undermine the representation of LGBTQ characters in film and, ultimately, it left me feeling ambivalent.

Set in nineteenth-century Ireland, the film centres on the figure of Albert (Glenn Close), a person who has been assigned female at birth, but who from adolescence onwards has lived as a man. Despite developing a successful career as a waiter in hotels, Albert’s shyness and fear of discovery has resulted in him becoming lonely and socially isolated.  Albert’s life changes when he meets Hubert (Janet McTeer), another female-assigned person who is living as a man.  Hubert has a more positive outlook on their predicament and opens Albert’s eyes to the possibility of an independent life, of owing his own business and perhaps even marrying.  Albert sets about courting a young woman called Helen (Mia Wasikowska) who works in the hotel, not realising that she is already involved in a romance with a young man called Joe who wants to emigrate to America.  Seeing an opportunity here, Joe persuades Helen to lead Albert on in the hope that she will gain access to his money.

Spoiler Alert – this post discusses the plot in detail 

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Transphobia in the film ‘A Mighty Wind’

I’ve been in the mood for silly films recently, so the other night we sat down to watch Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, a mockumentary about 1960s folk bands reuniting for a tribute concert.  It wasn’t as good as Spinal Tap, but it was quite fun and a gentle comedy. I didn’t like all the jokes, but that’s the case with every comedy film and I don’t need humour to be totally in line with my politics at all times.  However, right at the end of the film, something happens that’s much more problematic when, in a nasty cheap-shot, Guest suddenly inflicts a transphobic joke on the audience.

One of the bands featured in the film is called The Folksmen and their bassist, played by Harry Shearer, has a very deep baritone singing voice.  At the end of the film we revisit the bands after the concert and find that Shearer’s character is now in the process of transitioning.  The joke, of course, is based on the idea that Shearer looks funny dressed in women’s clothes and that the character is still playing with the band and still has a very deep voice which we’re obviously supposed to agree is hilarious.  The message here that transitioning is inherently funny is bad enough, but the voice joke seems extra mean when, for trans people, being misgendered on the basis of voice can be extremely distressing.

As someone who experienced bullying on the basis of my gender presentation at school (are you a boy or a girl?) and who now sometimes gets mistaken for male (which, frankly, scares me), I experienced this scene as a slap in the face, so I hate to think how upsetting it could be for a trans person.

Julia Serano talks about the film in her book Whipping Girl, which I haven’t read yet, but found this quote in which she identifies Shearer as the stereotype of the “pathetic” transsexual who isn’t deluding anyone: “The intense contradiction between the “pathetic” character’s gender identity and her physical appearance is often played for laughs—as in the transition of musician Mark Shubb (played as a bearded baritone by Harry Shearer) at the conclusion of 2003’s A Mighty Wind.”

It’s the kind of joke that can be understood as a Microaggression, something that a lot of people would insist is “not a big deal” and should be laughed off, but when taken in the wider context of the way power and privilege play out, it is a big deal.

A Talk by Del LaGrace Volcano

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk by Del LaGrace Volcano and I thought I’d post my notes here.

Del  LaGrace identifies as a ‘gender variant visual artist’ and has published several books about lesbian sexual subcultures, especially female masculinity and drag kings. The latest book pays attention to queer femmes.

Del uses the term ‘queer’ in the sense that it implies a ‘questioning’ (inquiry) and as a resistance to any imposition of ‘obligatory gender.’   Del started by talking about the gender binary and intelligibility. The first thing someone does when they look at you is decide whether you are male or female.  If you’re not intelligible as either, your identity is illegitimate and you are pathologised.  Del wants to question the whole notion of fixed sexual identities and explore possibilities for deliberately choosing beyond the parameters of male and female.

Del raised interesting points about gender and desire, describing showing images of masculine female-bodied people to groups of gay men who were rather disturbed when they found out that the sexually attractive body belonged to a ‘woman.’  Likewise, lesbians would be disturbed to find themselves attracted to male-bodied feminine people.  It made me think that we tend to associate this kind of sexual panic and insecurity with homophobic people and violent male responses to the discovery that a female object of sexual interest used to live as a man.  But, to what extent are we all subject to the norms that create these insecurities?

Del argued that we need to think about the fact that we ‘cannot not believe that there is truth in gender,’ not least because who gets to produce knowledge/truth is very tightly regulated.  As we know, only certain types of female bodies are allowed to take up cultural space.

Queer strategies of subversion focus on some basic questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I belong?
  • Who is my community?

This interested me because I know I’ve been asking myself these questions since my teens and I suspect they resonate with most people who fall between binaries in various ways.  I don’t have any firm or final answers to these questions in my own life, but I keep on asking them.

Del was resistant to the idea that some kinds of bodies are more transgressive than others. It is rather the case that some kinds of bodies are more visibly transgressive. Queer femmes are less visible than butches and drag kings, and the latest book is an attempt to make them visible.  This is also important because mainstream representations of lesbians tend to depict us as quite conventionally feminine women who do not threaten the gender order.

The ‘queer feminist methodology’ in making the images was based on a desire to make the subject feel empowered in the process of constructing the image. Del wants to create images with ‘speaking subjects’ partly because it is important to remember that the history of photography is the history of the violent exploitation of those who are considered marginal and disposable.

Del said that queer feminists tend to try and distinguish their feminism from the feminisms that exclude them.  I would like to have heard more about what exactly this queer feminism involves and its implications for feminism, but the images got me thinking.

I felt that the images present an in-your-face femininity, edgy, sensual, and often composed through a juxtaposition of the materials and signifiers of conventional femininity with something unexpected that creates a defamiliarising effect.  This image of Kathy Acker for example. I can see that this defamiliarisation of conventional femininity could be considered a feminist act.

The queer femininity in the images seems to be linked to the use of materials and technologies – clothes, jewellery, makeup, hair products, tattoos and piercings.  As one questioner pointed out, this brings up some uncomfortable questions about the role of capitalism and consumerism in queer subcultures. To what extent is this kind of gender subversion possible without engaging with consumerism? Del said that the femmes tended to accessorise in an environmentally friendly way, but there’s still a problem here.  Before we unquestioningly celebrate this gender subversion, we need to remember that a lot of people would lose their jobs on the spot if they turned up with green hair, big tattoos and obvious piercings.  I am always anxious that we do not use queer theory to set up alternative gender hierarchies and expectations that become normalised or idealised.  If certain kinds of queer ‘looks’ become celebrated, wouldn’t that just reinstate the system we’ve been trying to deconstruct?

Still, it was interesting and it made me think about the importance of certain materials and technologies in my own gender presentation.  I have a strong liking for certain materials, especially cotton, denim, velvet, corduroy.  I think I own about 12 velvet and corduroy jackets.  These materials have become extensions of my sense of my own gender. This is why I never talk about gender being ‘natural’  because I don’t think any of us have a chance of a non-technologically constructed body in this world.