Leslie Feinberg: 1949 – 2014

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Feinberg in 1997, in a photograph by Ulrike Anhamm (wikipedia)

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

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Sensitive but Flawed: 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 LGBT 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 pretty 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 a lesbian who experienced a lot of 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 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.

Transgender Theory

A couple of interesting posts about feminism and transgender theory from Helen G at Bird of Paradox.

Postmodernism and Structuralism, A Taster. This extract from Surya Monro discusses the ways in which postmodernist and structuralist theories can make the world a freer place for transsexual and transgendered people.

Gender Politics, an extract critiquing Janice Raymond and co. from Monro's book Gender Politics: Citizenship, Activism and Sexual Diversity.  

‘LGBT’ – Letters are not enough

Over the last few years I’ve gained the impression that a lot of ‘LGBT’ groups are still really L&G groups with the ‘B’ and the ‘T’ added for the sake of convention, rather than as indicators of any real support for bisexual or trans folk.

Adding the B and the T allows a group to avoid complaints about exclusion, but it is easy to exclude people through more subtle means. I’ve been to LGB and LGBT groups in which there are no bisexual or transgender members and the lesbian and gay members continue to express biphobic and transphobic views.

I mean, how many LGBT groups really know anything about bi issues, have bisexual representatives, hold bisexual literature, know how many bisexual groups there are in the UK (it’s 11 by the way)?

It’s just not enough to add letters to an acronym. There has to be more.

For a group to be considered inclusive I think there ought to be some minimum standards and expectations:

  • If the group has a lesbian rep and a rep for gay men, then there ought to be reps for bisexual and trans issues.
  • If the group holds literature that is specific to lesbians and gay men, it should also hold specific literature for bisexual and trans folk. There probably isn’t that much, which is why it’s even more important to have it.
  • The group should be aware of and have the contact details for the main bisexual and trans groups and campaigning organisations so that people can be signposted if necessary.
  • The group should also make efforts to ensure that transphobic and biphobic language is always challenged.

Otherwise it really shouldn’t be calling itself ‘LGBT’.

Thoughts on Gender and Masculinity

I was reading this post over at Questioning Transphobia today. In the comments Lisa expresses the view that since for many radical feminists “woman” (in the socially constructed sense of the word) is equated with oppression, one of the problems that trans women present for radical feminism is the visible presence of people who claim to find pleasure in being female and who desire female embodiments.  Obviously, trans women are not the only women who enjoy being female: there are plenty of cis gendered feminists who angrily reject the idea that they should see their gender only in terms of oppression, but in the terms of this argument, trans women would perhaps be more galling because they can be interpreted as actively seeking femaleness out, when I guess cis feminists who claim to enjoy their gender could be more easily dismissed with accusations of “false consciousness” and so forth.

No, I’m not saying I think all radical feminists would make such arguments or equate femaleness with oppression. I’m not sure what I think about that argument, really; I’m just trying to articulate it.

However, Lisa’s comments made me think about the problem of finding pleasure in gender because, if I’m honest, my knee jerk reaction is probably more in line with the radical feminist association of “womanhood” with oppression.  When I hear women (in general, not just trans women) talking about reclaiming and celebrating femininity/femaleness, there is a part of me that immediately recoils with the thought, “But why would anyone want to be a woman?”

But then, why wouldn’t I think that? The gendered experiences I have had as a result of being placed in “class woman” have left me with post traumatic stress disorder, two varieties of eating disorder and a tendency to depression. Thanks womanhood!

Having said that, I am perfectly able to admit the possibility that other women have had different experiences which are not any less valid than my own and are entitled to hold different perspectives which challenge mine.

And, though I may not acknowledge it very often, as I’ve got older and have been able to take more control over my own life, I have found more ways to take pleasure in my gender.

But I want to get at a more nuanced analysis of my negative response to femaleness here, as well as some of my feelings about masculinity.

There’s no doubt that I am strongly attracted to certain kinds of masculine performance and that a not insignificant part of me desires to be masculine.  I was talking to my girlfriend about this desire the other day and we were listing the men we would like to emulate. Then we started to jokingly wonder if we are just hopelessly “male-identified.”  I thought about this and came to the conclusion that, no, I don’t think this desire for masculinity is simply about being male-identified. In the first instance, I don’t feel a desire to actually be a man, not least because I don’t really think that men truly have a great deal under current conditions. Manhood may be presented as great and it may come with certain privileges, but that doesn’t mean it actually is great or results in a happy healthy life.

This is why you won’t catch me saying that “feminism is about equality.”  Sure, I like to believe that the logical end result of women’s liberation would be equality between the sexes, but I don’t see “equality” itself as the goal if equality is to be achieved on the terms of the present system. I mean, I’m a middle-class white woman, so if I was totally equal with a middle-class white man under current conditions, I guess I would have more chance of climbing to the top of the company ladder, working myself to death (never seeing my family and friends in the process) and having a heart attack at the age of 62, than I do as white middle-class woman. Marvellous!  And I’m not sure working-class women would really thank feminism if its ultimate goal was to get them access to a range of even more horrible jobs than they’re currently expected to do because, let’s face it, working-class men are expected to do lots of really, really terrible jobs. Yes I do think we should be fighting for the most equal treatment possible in the workplace for women because we all have to live and survive under the present system, I just don’t think feminism should be all about some kind of vaguely defined “equality.”  We need to be a lot more specific than that and we need to take issues like race, class and disability into account.

But I digress, back to gender; since my desire for masculinity has little to do with any idea that actually being a man is necessarily fantastic, I decided that it has more to do with my desire for certain kinds of gender performance/presentation which are allowed far more readily to people in the male category than they are to people in the female category.

Here are some of the men that I would like to emulate:

Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama in Battlestar Galatica

Power, authority, dignity

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Cary Grant

Style, grace, charm

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Johnny Cash

Gravitas, honesty, integrity

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Leonard Cohen

Sexual magnetism (and apparently prowess), couldn’t give a shit-attitude

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What they have in common (aside from great hair), I think, is a certain kind of masculine charisma and presence (the concept of charisma being as gendered as everything else), a way of occupying space with power and grace, and without apparent anxiety about their gender performance.  Of course these men all represent fantasies about masculinity which do not necessarily reflect the way they, or any other men, feel about their gender in reality, but fantasies are important. Fantasies are about possibilities.

These fantasies of masculinity and my desiring response to them remind me that women are not generally allowed to occupy cultural space in this way, are not even supposed to think of it as a possibility. It’s not that women can’t occupy space in this way. When a female bodied person attempts to take on attributes generally ascribed to men, her behaviour will not be interpreted in the same way and it won’t get the same results or rewards. It won’t be given the same space or cultural value.

When I am put in a challenging situation in life, I have to decide whether to respond assertively from a position of assumed authority, or to modify my behaviour to fit with the norms and expectations of white, middle-class femininity.  How I act depends on whether I think the risk is worth it. Whereas my white middle-class male alter ego would most likely be rewarded for assertive, even aggressive, behaviour, there’s a good chance I will be to some extent punished for it, even if that’s just with gaining a reputation for being a bitch and ball breaker.  I have been called “scary,” “intimidating” and “terrifying” in the past.  I have been asked to modify emails and letters to make them less “commanding,” when as far as I was concerned they were simply assertive. I can’t help but wonder if I would have been asked to make these changes were I male.  While I have no political problem with doing what is necessary to survive and make my life tolerable, I still HATE doing it. I HATE knowing that I am more likely to be rewarded in various ways for indulging in classically middle-class feminine behaviours, such as passive-aggression, manipulation and game-playing. I hate it even more when I catch myself indulging in these kinds of behaviours almost without being aware of it, so hardwired are they into my psyche.

Is my emulation of powerful male figures something to do with mourning the fact that I am denied what appears to be a highly pleasurable way of taking up cultural space? It may be about being denied access to a range of behaviours/identities which are constructed as “masculine” in my culture and generally kept as the preserve of male bodied people.  I wonder if the lesbian pleasure in drag king troupes and butch lesbian genders have a lot to do with this too. Is the butch dyke’s sexual magnetism something to do with her capacity to perform masculine power and authority, while remaining a woman all along?  Is it also something to do with her refusal to accept the idea that everything about the cultural construction of masculinity is bad and to be rejected.

Ok. So this post has turned into “all about me! me! me!” but to try and bring it back to a point, I think we do need to work towards more nuanced understandings of the pleasures  of gender and the various ways in which our feelings about our genders are always tied up with issues of race, class and sexuality.  I am not simply a member of “class woman.”  The fact that I am white, middle-class and a lesbian makes my experiences very specific and I need to understand that other women’s experiences will be just as complex and specific as my own.  While I have had experiences which have led me to occupy an always problematic and sometimes angrily resentful position with regard to my womanhood, I need to understand that other women may have just as good reasons in their lives to feel much more positive and celebratory.  And, speaking generally again, it would be good if we could talk about these things without trying to invalidate each other’s experiences of gender.

This is Not a Theory: Transphobic violence

I’ve been thinking about what to write in response to the recent blog coverage of violence against trans women, coverage which has been sparked by the murder of Angie Zapata, a young Latina trans woman. I didn’t want to write a post repeating what other people have already said so well, but neither did I want to say nothing.

Reading the posts about this dreadful death and other violent attack on trans women, I realised that I need to return to real lived experience.  You may have noticed that I like theory — all kinds of theory — but let’s get one thing clear, the fact that I try and maintain a trans-supportive position on this blog and in my actual life does not have to do with my reading theory (no matter how queer), it has to do with what I’ve seen of the real lived experience of trans men and women.

The other day I sat down with my notebook and started to make a list of incidents I know about which involve the mistreatment and oppression of transfolk in my area.  Here goes:

An older trans woman is having a drink in a local gay-friendly bar. A couple of men come up to her, take hold of her hair and pull, assuming it is a wig.  It isn’t.  Ok, let’s rewind and run through that again.  A woman is minding her own business in a bar and a couple of men come along and try and pull her hair off in an attempt to publicly humiliate her and prove that she isn’t really a woman.  Have they done this before? I would think it highly likely.  She tells me this story and laughs it off. She also tells me that she gets a lot of verbal abuse while travelling on the bus. She laughs this off too and tells me it doesn’t really bother her much.

I meet a trans woman at a conference.  We have a conversation about the work she’s doing in transgender rights and I don’t think about it again until a couple of years later when I hear that some men broke into her house one night and beat her almost to the point of death.  They did not steal anything so we can only assume the attack was due to the fact that she was a prominent out trans woman.  She was in hospital for a long time and I don’t know what’s happened to her since then.

Another well-known trans woman and her family are attacked and beaten up at their home by a gang of men.

An older pre-operative trans woman is kept in hospital unnecessarily because none of the care homes in the area can “cope with it.”

Another older trans woman is denied her hormone treatments because she’s been moved into a care home and the new doctor there “does not believe in it.”  Local transgender advocates have a struggle on their hands to get this rectified.

I hear that suicide attempts have gone up because the waiting list for treatment is so long.

I hear that a young trans woman I know, who lives in a nearby town, has been put under police protection because the threats against her are getting so serious.

I am aware of a young trans man being placed in entirely inappropriate student accommodation with a large group of cis-male students and then having to decide whether or not to be out or to risk discovery and possible consequences.

The student union LGBT representative tells me that a high proportion of the calls received by the local student helpline are to do with people seeking advice about gender issues, but the  students themselves remain largely invisible and do not come forward for help due to fear of being identified.

What I think I’m trying to say here is that cis-gendered people must not forget that these murders happen at one end of a continuum of violence that trans folk have to deal with every day of their lives, a continuum starting with “smaller” acts of violence which, in devaluing transgender lives, lead logically to the big ones.  Attempting to rip a trans woman’s hair off  follows the same logic as beating her to death – both actions are based on a deep feeling that this person’s life is unimportant, is not worthy of respect and is not to be valued.

And one for the road…

At a feminist event I watch as a feminist patiently informs a trans woman of the reasons why she shouldn’t expect to be allowed to join a Reclaim the Night March with the women, but should stand on the sidelines with the men as a supporter.  The trans woman admits to being confused by this argument.