Sunday, 25 September 2016

Gender Failure.

I recently joined a non-binary book club (FB group) and the first book selected (democratically) for reading and discussion was ‘Gender Failure’ by Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote (Arsenal Pulp Press 2014). I'd already read this – being a big fan of Ivan's work – so it was a case of rereading for me and this time making notes.

I like the title for a start, which follows that of the authors' toured show. In a more positive mood – or world – I might be up for Kate Bornstein's notion of ‘Gender Outlaw’ (her book is about to be reissued too btw), but currently the more diffident ‘Gender Failure’ suits me better.

Gender failure, in the authors' terms, refers primarily to the gender binary; both as in failing at and being failed by:

Rae (p242): “I am a gender failure. I failed at the gender binary, unable to find a place in being either a man or a woman with which I felt comfortable. But ultimately I believe that it's the binary that fails to leave room for most people to write their own gender stories.

Rae (p217): “Throughout the interactions I've had over the past ten years, I've learned that the gender binary is more of a comedy skit than a fact. People read each other, assign identifiers, and then play out a script accordingly. A lot of the time these interactions are absurd, playing themselves out on the ground and thirty thousand feet in the air in the same ways.

Ivan (p247): “Sometimes it exhausts me, all the head shaking and stumbling around to navigate and negotiate the two-ring circus that is this gender binary, walking pronoun tightropes and balancing between my safety and someone else's comfort.

But also, failing at being trans:

Ivan (p247): “You are free to call me trans and I am proud to lift this name up and hold it, right there in the sun, and you would not be wrong, but this still feels like I am borrowing a word from someone else, that it is not all the way mine, really, and my friend who lent it to me might need it back, or they might need it more than me”.

Rae (p200): “The invisibility of not even being considered trans at all by some members of the trans community because I had not changed my body with hormones or surgery.

Rae (p105): “I opened my mouth to respond, but then shut it. I didn't know where to begin to express how invisible I felt.

The sense of not being trans in the right way, or feeling you're not trans enough, or even at all, is certainly something I understand – as well as identifying within border territories:

Ivan (p234): “I had already spent years feeling like I was perched with one foot on a trans-shaped rowboat and the other foot resting on a butch dock, balancing myself and my language and words and work in the space between them.

Having to a large extent theorized myself out of a trans identity, putting most of my weight on the (femme) dock, I'm still reluctant to untie the painter and let the (trans) boat float away without me. Then again, I might just follow Rae's advice and retire from gender altogether:

Rae (p250/1): “I would highly recommend retiring from gender to anyone who is feeling like the spectrum or the binary doesn't fit. Many people look at me strangely when I tell them, but the decreased pressure of having to perform a gender makes up for all the misunderstandings.

The refusal to participate is a valid response. Don't gender, it only encourages them. Or something.

Throughout the book, the authors, in alternate chapters, write about their own lives and related topics – Ivan includes a couple of essays: on TDOR (‘Listing My Sisters’) and problems in public toilets (‘The Facilities’) – or just tell stories, with gender itself being one of them:

Rae (p239-242): “More and more, I have thought of my gender as a story I tell myself. (...) After all that has changed for me, I'm more inclined to leave the narrative open for myself than I have in the past. Now that I define my gender and sexuality as stories I tell and agree upon, I want to leave room for future possibilities that I have not been presented with yet.

There are many fine words, much fine writing here. I've copied out numerous passages for my own reference, and may quote from one or two more in later posts. In the meantime:

Rae (p19): “There should be as many books like this as there are people constrained by the gender binary, and I hope in my lifetime to read as many of them as possible.

Yes, indeed. And me, too :)

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Femme vs. feminine.

Femme means different things to different people. To see how different, check out this What We Mean When We Say “Femme” round table at Autostraddle. As facilitator Cecelia writes at the start: “We live in a world where it is totally possible to claim the same word as someone else and completely disagree on what the word means.” And they certainly do.

But as I've said before, femme is notoriously difficult to define. (I've given five separate expositions so far in this blog – all linked in a comment here). For me, femme is sort of femininity, but also sort of not. It annoys me when people use the word "femme" as synonymous with "feminine", because it isn't. Not least because feminine comes with a load of heteronormative (and patriarchal) baggage, which femme critically circumvents.

Welsh femme Georgina Jones has recently written about the differences between femme and feminine in Bustle:

— Many folks outside of the queer scene don't fully understand what femme means or recognize its distinct differences from feminine;
— To put it simply, "femme" is a descriptor for a queer person who presents and acts in a traditionally feminine manner;
— All femmes hit upon two key aesthetic and identity-related traits: being feminine and falling somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum;
— Intentionality (quoting Evan Urquhart here) is the key to distinguishing a femme identity from a traditionally feminine one;
— Femme isn't about acting feminine or "girly" in the ways mainstream society generally feels that female-presenting people "should" act;
— Ultimately, "femme" is about breaking binaries. It's about subverting cultural expectations. It's about being more than one thing. It's about queerness.

Considering those extracts in reverse order:

— I certainly like the notion of femme as breaking binaries and subverting cultural expectations; and similarly Elizabeth Marston's formulation of femme as rogue femininity.
— No indeed, it isn't. At least, not necessarily. Individual femmes might do this, sometimes, or appear to do this, if they want, albeit not for the obvious “mainstream” reasons.
— Is intentionality the key? Yes, I think so. Femme is knowing what you're doing, as someone once said. And consequently, I think femme has to be claimed; it has to be a conscious identity.
— Do you have to be queer to be femme? Yes, you probably do, at least in some sort of way, though I might include queer heterosexuality in there.
— But act in a traditionally feminine manner? I'm not so sure about this one. It's a bit too strictly formulated for me. I don't think I do anything like that very much. My femme is far more covert.
— That's certainly true. Then again, I'm not sure everyone in my own queer community fully understands this either. Maybe you have to be femme to get femme. Even if we don't agree what femme actually is...

Okay, I'm not sure where I'm going with this now. This was supposed to be about femme vs. feminine, wasn't it. It seems thinking about femme has caught me in a feedback loop, and it's getting late. So I'll finish by quoting Laura Luna Placencia again:

Femme means whatever you want it to mean for yourself and however you want it to look like if that gender feels like home to you.

Right :)

But in that case a femme can define their femmeness as being feminine, if they want to, can't they.

Damn.

I'm going to bed.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Nottinghamshire Pride 2016.

Sunday, 31 July 2016 is when I intended to post this post, but computer problems have meant I've not been able to get online until today. So here it is, belatedly, now:
___________________________________________________

Another year, another Pride...

Okay, it was only my second, so I can't get too blasé about Pride just yet.

This year I was near the front, in the midst of people from QT Notts, NTH, and BiTopia, marching behind, and in solidarity with, QTIPOC Notts – and that for numerous reasons, as outlined on this banner...



...including, but not limited to, solidarity with our own in the LGBT community:
— queer people at the intersection of multiple oppressions, based on race, religion, sex, gender, sexuality, etc.
— trans women of colour, who were on the front lines at the Stonewall Riots that kick-started this whole thing; and who are statistically most at risk of hate crimes and murder.
— the queer latinx community targeted in Orlando, for whom the march stopped halfway for a minute's silence.

Although all that strikes a (necessary) sombre note, more than anything Pride is a celebration. Latin rhythms led the parade, beat out by drummers from the Nottingham School of Samba (I wouldn't mind doing that; I used to be a drummer). And there was dancing and chanting – “we're here, we're queer, we'll never disappear”, and whistles and more drums and more percussion, and banners and flags and balloons and streamers, and all kinds of rainbows. I now possess a fabulous rainbow feather boa (a rainboa?) courtesy of a kind woman along the way.

And there was an even stronger trans presence, it seemed, than last year. Chameleons and Invasion were again out in force, their huge banner leading the main body of the march behind the fire engine. And there were trans flags everywhere – including a trans flag sponge cake on the Chams stall. Yum :)

5000 people turned out, so the media said – as in this piece for ITV News, complete with pictures.

And here's another one – me from behind with a “Bi erasure” placard:



“Stop that! We exist!” Yes, indeed.
___________________________________________________

Acronym guide for the uninitiated:
QTIPOC - Queer, Trans & Intersex People of Colour
QT Notts - Queer Together Notts
NTH - Notts Trans Hub
LGBT - Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender

Friday, 3 June 2016

Not writing.

Two years (or so) ago I wrote about ‘Writing’; or, more accurately, about having finished writing something (always the best part of writing, I find) and sent it off: my submission to Queer Feminine Affinities.

QFA does seem to be going ahead now. There was a related ‘Queer(ing) Femininities’ workshop at Goldsmiths college in London last week (check the tweet stream for more on this); and the further "call for papers" at Feral Feminisms deadlines at the end of June. After that, I guess the editors (Alexa and Vikki) will put it all together, though it'll probably be quite a while yet before QFA finally appears – for one thing, that was CFP #8 and the published issues of FF have only reached #5 so far.

In the meantime I've been offered the chance to contribute to two other planned anthologies: one on crossdreaming and stuff; and another about “living life with a non-binary gender”, focusing on “relatable storytelling from a personal standpoint”. But I'm finding it hard. I've had the second proposal for several months and still have the figurative blank sheet in front of me. Because, what is there for me to say, at least that I haven't already said? My gender "issues" (such as they are) are mostly internal, and my actual life is arranged so that they hardly impact on me at all. Working from home, sitting at the computer (editing and suchlike), I have no work-related problems; while in the wider world, outside the front door, my gender is read as male, with all its associated advantages. My gender expression, while somewhat femme, is not so outré that it causes me any trouble. In fact, people mostly just say nice things.

For instance, this is about as femme as anything I wear:



To my eyes that coat is pretty damn femme – one of my friends told me outright that it was “effeminate” (which of course made me happy) – and it does get serious stares sometimes, as if whoever can't quite believe it. Purple suede, furry cuffs and trim, cut short at the waist, it's clearly not a "man's coat". All the same, it is still just a coat. It's not a skirt. It's not a pretty frock. Nobody is sufficiently disturbed by it to give me grief; and I'm certainly not going to complain about that.

On the other hand, it does all mean that there's nothing much for me to say. I can't write about the difficulties day to day of living life with a non-normative gender, because I don't really have any. (There's privilege for you and then some.) No interesting, amusing, moving, inspiring, or even ordinary tales to tell. Nada.

So I'm stuck. Not writing.

Any suggestions? :/

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Border Territories.

A few months ago I wrote about feeling increasingly non-binary. That was largely because "male" has never felt quite right to me, and it was feeling increasingly not right, too binary. So I got off that train. But now I'm sitting in the station and the tannoy is announcing that two trains are about to leave: all stations to "male" and "non-binary". HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME. Aaarrgh.

It seems a bit daft to say this but "non-binary" is now feeling too binary too. The fact that "non-binary" is a definite thing sets up another (problematic) binary between "non-binary" and "binary" and insists that I choose between them. I don't want to. Although "male" feels restrictive, discarding it in favour of "non-binary" feels restrictive too. I don't want to choose. I want to catch both trains. Or, perhaps, catch a different one to the border territories, from Platform 9¾.

Actually, most of my supposed "core identities" are like that. My Twitter profile includes the words “on the nebulous border between cis and trans”. In other words, both cis and trans, and neither. On the border.

Similarly, I've often declared my sexuality to be Kinsey 1½. Because neither 1 nor 2 (on the Kinsey scale) has ever felt quite right either.

Straight, but not quite.
Bisexual, but not quite.
Male, but not quite.
Trans, but not quite.
Cis, but not quite.
Non-binary, but not quite.

On the borders.

Minnie Bruce Pratt has written powerfully about outsider spaces, border territories:

I see you and me and her on the edge of town, a place out of my view when I was growing up, like the Quarters or the Milltown, but this another kind of gathering. It is a world of those the world casts out, calls freaks, the women-men of the sideshow at the circus, seen as tawdry, pitiful, hidden, wasted, walking their path of reeking sawdust between the tents. Except the people there have lovers, marriages, children, poor-paying jobs. They have marigolds in pots, they play the harmonica, they write books. You live there, and now I live there too, with those who know they are both man and woman, those who have transmuted one to the other, those who insist they are neither. Outside the pegged tents people stand and peer in at us, no words for us, though just by stepping over the ropes they could join us. I could cross back into that staring crowd and be without question a woman amusing herself, Sunday afternoon at the carnival. But I would rather stay here and talk to you in this in-between place, sitting with a friend, our food spread out, savory, spicy, on the table before us.

That in-between place sounds nice. I think I'll stay there too.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Dysphairia.

In her post last Friday, ‘The right to bare arms’ (a nice title, reminiscent of Sex and the City's ‘A Woman's Right to Shoes’), Lynn Jones writes about her decision to stop shaving her arms, in case her son, “Wee Man”, should perhaps notice and ask why. On such small concessions and compromises are our lives built. Fortunately, this is not one I have to make myself. My arms are generally hair-free, along with (most of) the rest of me.

I've mentioned before that “my body issues are relatively minor” – and so they are; but body hair accounts for most of them. Body hair depresses me, yet removing it is tedious and time-consuming (on average 20 minutes a day) and requires at least a modicum of energy. Inevitably, when I'm in the dumps, I don't much feel like bothering, but then the unrestrained growth adds to my malaise and perpetuates it. If you see me with obvious body hair, chances are I'm in a slump.

Shaving with an electric razor with maximum ease, I've found, requires it to be done every two days. After three or four days the foil struggles to pick up the ends, making the whole thing more of an ordeal. And if it's got that far, my supply of spoons will probably be at a low ebb too. It's always better if I can keep on top of it.

At the moment I'm clean shaven (apart from my back, which I can't reach – but I can't see it either, so it doesn't matter so much). Being clean shaven both looks better (in my opinion) and feels better. Legs feel nicer. Torso too, especially under silk. Arms can sometimes itch with the wrong clothes, but I prefer how they look hairless – and my hands. (I like my hands anyway.) As for pit hair... in the words of MSgt. Ernest G. Bilko: “Ugh! Yechh! Ugh! Did you ever see anything so unsanitary?”

I hesitate to call this distaste for hair “gender dysphoria”, since it's hardly anything when compared with other trans people's dysphoria. All the same, when I see my body with hair, it just seems wrong. That hair shouldn't be there. It needs to be gone.

Going back to Lynn's post again... No, no one has ever said anything about my shaven arms, either. Do they not notice? Are people too polite to comment on personal grooming? I guess the only way I'd discover the answer to those questions is by asking them, but I probably won't do that. Instead, I'll continue to fight the (futile) fight against body hair by stealth, quietly keeping my own kind of dysphoria – dysphairia – at bay.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Cakes and icing.

I'm currently rereading the 2002 anthology ‘Genderqueer’ (editors: Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, Riki Wilchins; subtitle: ‘Voices from beyond the sexual binary’). Early on, in one of her own essays, Wilchins highlights the absence of sexuality from a lot of (trans)gender discourse:

Most remarkable in gender's evolution as an issue has been the widely accepted separation of gender and sexual orientation, even among transgender activists. But is desire really distinct from gender? (...) [W]atch any butch with big biceps, tight jeans, and a lit Camel walk into the local gay bar. Or a butch queen at a gym spending hour upon hour pumping and primping so he's buff enough to catch the eye of that cute new number with the tight butt, long eyelashes, and rippled abs.

Riki's point is that sexuality itself is gendered and that it's a mistake to exclude it from discussions about gender. We tend to do this, I suppose, because we fear what other people will then assume: that our gender issues are really just about sex. Which they're not. My own gender issues may be very much intertwined with my sexuality, but that doesn't mean they're driven by it. I first wrote about this in one of my earliest posts; I might put things differently now (not being quite the same person I was five years ago), but the basic premise still holds for me.

That's the main reason I was drawn towards butch/femme as a (personal) theoretical paradigm: because of its inherent incorporation of sexuality – naturally so, because of its historical roots in (an aspect of) lesbian sexuality. Explaining how this works, on the other hand, can be quite difficult. Are there any femme lesbians (with butch partners) who have not been asked: “If masculinity is what you want, why don't you just date a man?”

[definition: side eye – a facial expression expressing one's criticism, disapproval, animosity, or scorn of varying levels of intensity towards another person.]

Then I remember the cake analogy:

Imagine a plate full of cakes: coffee cakes and chocolate cakes; some with coffee icing, some with chocolate icing. Most people like icing, but like the icing to match the cake: coffee cakes with coffee icing, chocolate cakes with chocolate icing. Whereas others of us prefer things a bit more mixed up, such as: chocolate cakes with coffee icing.

“Urrgh! How can you? Why would you want a chocolate cake with coffee icing? If you want coffee icing, why don't you just get a coffee cake?”

“I don't want a coffee cake. I want a chocolate cake with coffee icing. I don't want a coffee cake with coffee icing because there's no chocolate; and I don't want a chocolate cake with chocolate icing because there's no coffee. I want a chocolate cake with coffee icing. I want to bite through the bitter coffee and reach the rich chocolate underneath. And I want it that way round. Sometimes I want the icing with extra coffee, so much coffee that the flavour sinks deep into the chocolate. Mmmm, cake.”

“Yuk! Chocolate cake with coffee icing is just wrong!”

“Well, I like it, so there.”

“I guess there's no accounting for taste.”

“No need to get worked up about it either.”

“Not really, no – it's only cake.”

It's only sex.

As it happens some people prefer their cakes with no icing. (There's no accounting for taste.) But please note that a cake with no icing is different from an iced cake with the icing scraped off.

If you don't like the icing, don't buy the fucking cake.