An excellent article by DJ activist Mia Mingus.
I’ve noticed that there is still a lot of confusion about the existence of bisexual folks.
Before getting too far in, I just wanna reiterate that I’m of the opinion (as I’ve expressed ad nauseam on this blog) that there is little evidence to support the validity of a male/female (and thus hetero/homo) dichotomy, scientific or social, and so the idea of ‘bisexuality’ as ‘liking both’ is also off the mark. But if you—or I, rather—go around telling people “I’m pan!” they probably don’t know what you mean, or do and are annoyed by the distinction. Fair enough. For the purpose of this post, I’m just gonna say “bi” and you can assume I mean a complicated version of “bi” that might be synonymous with “pansexual”. All right, here we go…
The etymology of ‘bi’ and ‘pan’ would seem to differentiate these two sexualities in that ‘bi’ refers to “two” or “double”, while ‘pan’ refers to “all”, “every” or “whole”. But as is often the case, we can miss the much more complex meanings of words if we take their origins at face value. It is overly simplistic to define ‘bisexual’ as “being attracted to or having desire for both genders” and ‘pansexual’ as “being attracted to or having desire for all genders”. Although bisexuality and pansexuality can and perhaps should be described as separate sexualities, let’s use bisexual and genderqueer activist Shiri Eisner’s tendency in Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution (2013) to use them together (not synonymously). Using bi/pan together suggests their (sub)cultural and political connectedness. While different in many ways, both have subversive political, activist, and community-building potential. So, when I use the term ‘bisexuality’, this is not to say that it assimilates pansexuality in a way which erases its importance or uniqueness, but rather that ‘bisexuality’ is a kind of umbrella term for non-binary and “bi-spectrum” identities and sexualities (Eisner 2013, 28-29). What are non-binary sexualities? They are outside the realm of heterosexual/homosexual, which assume that there are only two sexes (male/female) and so there can only be three possible combinations for thinking about sexuality (male/male, male/female, female/female). We’ll talk more about those and bi-spectrum sexualities later. One other idea to mention upfront is ‘monosexuality’, which is the idea that an individual only likes/is sexually attracted to one other gender—for most people, the “opposite” or “same” gender. When contrasted with monosexuality, bisexuality can then mean that a person is attracted to more than one gender (their own, not their own).
Ways to Think about Bisexuality
Eisner gives us some useful ways to think about and define bisexuality. She argues that bisexuality shouldn’t simply be thought of in terms of sexual attraction. It could also be thought of in terms of romantic attraction (about love and not just about sex), companionship, and friendship. She also says that sexualities, including bisexuality, can be thought about temporally. Sure, you didn’t think you were gay when you were ten, but now you are. But then in your mid-twenties you met that girl and definitely felt something. So which is it, gay or straight? Hmmm… Eisner says that we can think about bisexual identities as extending over time and manifesting seemingly as other sexualities (ex: gay, straight, asexual).
But these ideas are quite recent. What does a history of bisexuality look like?
Some Really Interesting Dull History
For early psychiatrists and neurologists of the 19th century, bisexuality was thought to be an immature, predecessor-form that would develop into either ‘healthy’ sexuality (heterosexuality), or ‘unhealthy’, ‘mal-developed’ sexuality (homosexuality) (Eisner 2013, 15-16) (Angelides 2001, 61). All humans begin their sexual existence in this variable, ‘primordial’ state, according to this view of sexuality, but inevitably develop ‘full’ sexualities, even if it is an unhealthy form (ie homosexuality). If bisexuality persisted into adulthood, or the ‘present’, this would threaten the stability of the notion of sexuality as binary (hetero/homo, healthy/sick). Because sexuality and gender were intrinsically tied together in this framework, binary gender would also be under threat. Gender and sexuality studies scholar Steven Angelides argues that “‘full bisexuality’ had to be erased from the present tense in order to avert the crisis of meaning for binary categories of man, woman, heterosexual, and homosexual” (Angelides 2001, 191). In other words, ‘primordial’ bisexuality could not be viewed as carrying over into adulthood lest it threaten the legitimate and developed hegemonic hetero/homo binary, which in turn might threaten the male/female binary to which sexuality is innately linked.
TLDR: Bisexuality was practically erased as a human sexuality back in the day, and that probably has some influence on how we feel about bisexuality today (ex: bisexuals are sick, bisexuals don’t exist, etc).
Recent research on bisexuality by sexuality and gender theorists and scholars has produced different, and differently stigmatizing, results. Anthropologist April Scarlette Callis describes three prominent themes in research on bisexuality: invisibility, illegitimacy, and (often negative) stereotyping (Callis 2014, 67). In the first theme, mainstream assumptions of monosexuality lead to non-binary erasure. In the second, the very existence of bisexuality is questioned; bisexuality is “a ‘transitional’ phase between straight and gay”; or bisexuals are cowardly lesbians or gay men who cling to the label ‘bisexual’ because they are afraid of “losing their ‘heterosexual privilege’”. Finally, bisexuals are stereotyped variously as hypersexual, deviant, nonmonogamous, vectors of STIs, promiscuous, flaky, and treacherous.
Lesbian and Gay Participation in Bisexual Exclusion (Thanks a lot, guys.)
Rejection, erasure, and stigmatization of bisexuals by gays and lesbians further highlights the problematizing effect of non-binary sexualities upon the hetero/homo binary as well as the monosexual spectrum. In his article, “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure”, legal scholar and researcher Kenji Yoshino outlines three “strategies of erasure” employed by both heterosexual and homosexual contingents: class erasure, individual erasure, and delegitimation (Yoshino 2000, 397-399). These strategies manifest as the elision of bisexual as a category or class, which includes ‘lumping in’ bisexuals with lesbians and gays; subsuming bisexual individuals within the categories lesbian or gay; dismissing bisexuals as “protohomosexuals”; and denigrating and stigmatizing bisexuals as “‘fence-sitters, traitors, cop-outs, closet cases’” and any of the other stereotypes mentioned in the above paragraph.
Why Bisexuals Make Everybody Nervous
Bisexuality has what feminists like to call “subversive potential”. The existence of bisexuality, along with other non-binary sexualities, suggests that binary sex, gender, and sexuality might not be fixed or even real. While this may feel threatening to the heteronormative[*] paradigm, and even to self-identifying homosexual individuals who have struggled for acceptance within this paradigm, the existence of non-binary sexualities open up possibilities for all sexualities—including those whose existences have not yet been recognized.
April Scarlette Callis talks about one of my favourite writers in her research: Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldúa. Anzaldúa wrote this amazing book of theory and poetry called Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, and everybody should read it because it’s awesome. Anyway, I digress… Callis uses Anzaldúa’s ideas about ‘borderlands’ to talk about non-binary gender identities and sexualities. Callis says that these sexualities exist within, or even create, a “sexual borderlands” (Callis 2014). Just as queer theorists have discussed the idea of ‘queer’ without defining it or by defining around it, Callis describes “borderland sexualities” like bisexuality as “almost impossible to read” (Callis 2014, 74). In short, she talks about borderland sexualities as lying between heterosexuality and homosexuality. I don’t really agree with this, because it reinforces the idea of bisexuality as potential transitional, and it keeps it stuck inside the hetero/homo binary, even if it’s a binary spectrum. Well, no thanks, I’ll pass. But she says other stuff that is potential useful.
For Callis, borderland sexualities are embodied; they can be located in physical places and times. Her ethnographic research with queer and nonmonosexual communities describe borderland spaces and moments in which non-binary and nonmonosexual individuals are interpellated variously as straight, gay, masculine, feminine, trans*, and so on, depending on place and time. The notion that borderland sexualities are embodied has been problematic for bisexual individuals with intimate partners who make them ‘look gay’, or ‘look straight’; bisexuality, unlike heterosexuality or homosexuality, is forever invisible because we can only think about sex and sexuality in terms of male/female, hetero/homo.
However, Callis also describes borderland sexualities as ‘cracking’ and complicating this hegemony. While there may be distinctive ‘borderland sexualities’, in reality all sexualities are affected by the presence of the borderlands:
Though the sexual borderlands can be viewed as containing only non-binary sexualities such as bisexual and queer, in reality they touch on every sexual identity. Individuals of all sexualities react to the sexual borderlands, by crossing them, inhabiting them, fortifying against them, or denying them. In these actions the sexual borderland becomes an integral way of defining the sexual binary, just as the sexual binary provides the boundaries of the borderland. (77)
Now if that’s true, it becomes easier to see why bisexuals make people nervous. They feel less secure in their own sexuality (hetero or homo) thanks to the presence of bisexuals. Whims, feelings, longings, passing thoughts, fantasies, even dreams about sexual stuff involving people we’re not supposed to be attracted to (whether we’re gay or straight) suddenly take on potential meaning, or we feel threatened enough that we work to suppress those ideas and emotions.
What Bisexuality Threatens
Nonmonosexual, non-binary, and nonmonogamous identities continue to be marginalized and stigmatized even within LGBTQ communities, and yet at the same time it is not unreasonable to suggest that the existence of sexual borderlands is threatening to hegemonic genders and sexualities—that is, man/woman, hetero/homo. What is it, exactly, that bisexuality and other borderland sexualities is threatening? Elisabeth Däumer’s “Queer Ethics” indirectly responds to this question as it attempts to “[devise] alternative, non-oppressive ways of responding to alterity” (Däumer 1992). In her article, Däumer recounts a conversation she held with a lesbian-identified friend about the possibilities of lesbian-identified, male-assigned individuals having relationships with lesbian women, potentially in which neither individual self-identifies as ‘woman’ or ‘man’. Would this not be considered ‘lesbian’ “in the utopian feminist sense of the term” (ibid, 95)? Däumer’s friend responded that individuals claiming such identities would “efface her own identity as a lesbian, and, by stretching the term beyond any intelligible, useful boundaries perpetuate lesbian invisibility in new and dangerous ways” (ibid, 95-96).
It seems that the threat of bisexuality lies in its subversion of identity categories—a problem which, interestingly enough, might be resolved if homosexual “allies” of bisexuals would simply make room for a ‘bisexual identity’. And some self-identified bisexuals would no doubt seize the opportunity for in-group acceptance and recognition. However, to do so would be a denial of the potentiality of borderland sexualities.
I agree with Callis’ idea that sexual borderlands, and bisexuality, will not necessarily destroy the hetero/homo paradigm. The outward pressure which the borderlands are exerting serves to make room for new identities while not necessarily collapsing the binaries within and between which they exist. Even so, it seems inevitable that binaries under pressure (like hetero/homo) eventually fracture, rarely in straight lines, and always in unpredictable ways. Perhaps the fissures which borderland sexualities like bisexuality create will split open into new and unforeseen queer sexualities and identities.
For the sake of simplicity, when I’m asked I just tell people I’m bisexual. If it seems likely they know what it means, I prefer to say that I’m pansexual. But these are both inaccurate. There is hardly a human being who feels sexual attracted to all or most of any gender; hardly any self-identified man is attracted to all women, and hardly any self-identified woman is attracted to all men, and this is also true for gay folks. And I’m willing to bet that there is nary a bisexual who is attracted to everybody. Give me a break. But at least for me, gender/sex is not an accurate predictor of who I like, find attractive, am aroused by, want to be in a relationship with, want to be physically or spiritually or emotionally close to, etc etc. It gets even more complicated and interesting when you think about how the individuals that we’re attracted to think of themselves—has society identified them as male, but they perceive themselves as female? Or as both? Or as having no gender at all? Rather than thinking about bisexuality as confusing, it seems better to think of it as…interesting.
My sources, which are stuff you might find useful if you are interested in this kind of thing:
- Angelides, Steven. 2001. A History of Bisexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Bedecarré, Corrinne. 1997. “Swear by the Moon.” Hypatia 12 (3): 189-197.
- Callis, April Scarlette. 2014. “Bisexual, pansexual, queer: Non-binary identities and the sexual borderlands.” Sexualities 17 (1): 66-67.
- Däumer, Elisabeth. 1992. “Queer Ethics: Or, The Challenge of Bisexuality to Lesbian Ethics.” Hypatia 91-105.
- Eisner, Shiri. 2013. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. Berkley, CA: Seal Press.
- Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press.
- Sullivan, Nikki. 2003. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: New York University Press.
- Yoshino, Kenji. 2000. “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure.” Stanford Law Review 353-461.
Footnotes and Endnotes
 It is also important to point out that, of the research which has been done, bisexuality is by far the most extensively researched of the non-binary sexualities (Callis 2014, 66-67).
 Alienist and neurologist James Kiernan called this the “ancestral type”, claiming that “the lowest animals” are bisexual and/or hermaphroditic (Angelides 2001, 23). The physician Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) similarly attributed bisexuality to “the lower animals” (Angelides 2001, 44).
 Steven Angelides discusses the ‘present’ in terms of the human species (evolutionary ‘present’) as well as the human individual (individual lifetime ‘present’) (Angelides 2001, 48).
 To clarify, I am not connecting ‘hetero’ to ‘male’ or ‘homo’ to ‘female’, but rather I wish to make clear that the ‘scientific’ consensus among early psychologists (psychologists who ‘invented’ bisexuality) was that healthy sexuality was predetermined by sex—healthy men have an inborn desire for women, and vice versa.
 For more on stigmatization and delegitimation of bisexuality, see Yoshino 2000, 395-429.
 See also: Yoshino 2000.
 See also: Bedecarré 1997.
 This may be one of the dangers of acronyms like ‘LGBT’, which on the one hand has become emblematic of queer community, yet on the other simultaneously hierarchizes identities (queer monosexualities/bisexualities/trans* identities) and merges them in a way which centers certain identities (gay, lesbian) while obscuring the others.
 Examples of non-binary sexualities include people who identify as bisexual, pansexual, heteroflexible, trisexual, panromantic, polysexual, omnisexual, anthrosexual, and so on (Eisner 2013, 29).
 In A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (2003), Nikki Sullivan quotes definitions provided by Chris Berry and Annamarie Jagose: “‘Queer is an ongoing and necessarily unfixed site of engagement and contestation’” (43). She also quotes David Halperin’s “definition”: “‘[Queer] describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance’” (43).
[*] Heteronormative means that we assume everybody is or should be heterosexual and that society should be based around this idea. In America, that means our culture is centered around one relationship idea: a man and a woman who are (ideally) married, who have kids, and who are the core of the nuclear household. And we should all be striving to achieve this ideal relationship. Obviously, relationships take on many more forms than just this (ex: people who don’t get married but live together or have children together, queer relationships, non-monogamous relationships, even childless couplings fall short of this ideal), but they don’t tend to fly in our culture—because we’re heteronormative.
Reblogged from Ph(D)isabled.
I’ve been wanting to write on here about neoliberalism for while. This post should most likely be preceded by a post devoted solely to neoliberalism, as a concept: where it comes from, what it entails, how it shapes our lives and worldviews.
But this particular post feels more pressing. Maybe it will even help clarify things for me later when I try to write other posts about neoliberalism.
I want to talk about mental health. It needs to be talked about in a different way than the mainstream tends to talk about it, and I want to attempt that, aided by against-the-stream or on-the-edges-of-the-stream perspectives from those I’ve read, those I know personally, those who have spoken to me and others about it.
Mental health is something that most people would rather put on the backburner as far as topics of conversation go. Mental illness is one that most people would rather avoid altogether. It is, admittedly, uncomfortable for speakers and listeners, those who have been diagnosed or treated for it, those who haven’t but feel or fear that they should be, and those who never have and never wish to be.
I wonder what this says, if anything, about the sorts of people who end up in fields and disciplines connected to the study and treatment of mental illness. Are they more compassionate, maybe? Trying to do people and society a favor? Are they ‘atypical’, themselves, perhaps trying to understand their own behavior or suffering? Are they just morbidly curious? (Friends and relations of mine who work in such fields, know that whatever we agree or disagree upon, I am not passing a judgment, but rather posing some earnest questions about the nature of these fields– if anything from a cultural, not moral, position of questioning.)
Whatever their motivations, there is frequently a common thread running through mainstream study, prevention, and treatment of mental illness. This might be hinted at by the very term ‘mental illness’. If it is an illness, it arises within a single person; it is an individual, not collective phenomenon. The same ‘illness’– schizophrenia, OCD, or manic depression, for instance– can present in many individuals, but it is nevertheless an affliction of individuals, not of society. As such, it must be studied, treated, and prevented at the level of the individual.
I recently discovered that there is a thing called dermatillomania— a ‘condition’, I suppose, also called Skin-Picking Disorder (SPD)**. People ‘afflicted’ with this condition pick at their skin: face, arms, legs, backs, scalp. Lips. Cuticles. It is cataloged in the DSM-V under Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Those with a related condition, trichotillomania***, pull out their hair, strand by strand. Eyelashes. Eyebrows. These disorders are also considered to be Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs), and is sometimes seen as a symptom or manifestation of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).
If you followed any of the above links, you may have been struck by a commonality among several of the treatments offered: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Habit-Reversal Training (HRT), and Mindfulness training and practices are by and large focused entirely on the individual. They encourage patients to think about what they can do to change their environments, their routines, themselves in order to change their ‘habits’. Habits which, while they may be harmful in various ways to that individual, are most like to disturb, embarrass or repulse others– that is, society.
I want to preface the rest of this by saying that I do not believe that we as individuals should not in some way be responsible for our own mental health, treatment or improvement of well-being. To the contrary, I think that such participation can be an empowering and transformative experience. However, we should note a few disturbing observations about this schema.
To begin with, such treatments begin from the presumption that illness like dermatillomania are problems of the individual: that is, they are disorders of single and separate minds. For instance, we might acknowledge that two different people who are each suffering from schizophrenia are experiencing a similar phenomenon, but we wouldn’t suggest that the experiences of those two individuals are in any way correlated– this person is not suffering from schizophrenia because of that person. They might be suffering from schizophrenia due to similar psychologies or circumstances, but this person’s illness is not the direct cause of that person’s illness. As such, being an illness of an individual person, it is up to that individual, or up to us on behalf of that individual, to take some measures to treat it. In any case, it’s the individual that requires treatment.
Now, in all fairness, many people who work on treatments for mental illness acknowledge that it is often the product of exterior factors or circumstances. A person close to you dying might cause severe depression, intimate partner violence might produce anxiety attacks, wartime violence and near-death experiences can cause PTSD. There is also a recognition that many circumstances cannot be changed: we can’t reverse the loss of a loved one, domestic violence can be difficult or impossible to escape, the violence of war may reside in the mind long after the war ends. Keeping this in mind, let’s look again at illnesses like schizophrenia, manic depression, OCD, borderline personality disorder.
Is it possible that the majority of responsibility for mental illness should rest on our sociocultural surroundings? What if, instead of beginning with the individual, we began with society as the place from where illness arises? What if we assumed that it is possible that society– the sociocultural structures by which we are all bound, though in different ways– needs to change in order to ‘cure’ mental illness, not the individual? I’m not suggesting that all mental illness could be solved merely by finding the most ideal sociocultural circumstances, but it isn’t a coincidence that some societies have higher rates of certain types of mental illness and suicide than others; varying societal factors must have a major impact on definition, prevention, and treatment of mental illness. I’m quite ignorant here, and many posts could be devoted solely to this topic, but among ‘modern’, ‘industrialized’, and ‘developed’ countries, there has come to be a very particular way of approaching mental illness, and that is by focusing on the level of the individual.
I want to suggest that this a symptom of the neoliberal worldview. Neoliberalism focuses almost entirely on the level of the individual, even when talking about phenomena like globalization and transnationalism. States, corporations, and organizations are compartmentalized and atomized into individual units: citizens, consumers, employees, members. As members of a neoliberal culture, we see ourselves as part of organizations and states, but at the same time as self-contained, discreet Selves, part of and yet apart. Those who feel their identity to be part of a common or collective consciousness, who ‘lose’ their individuality, must have joined some sort of cult.
Mental illness is often talked about in terms of individual shortcoming, weakness, or failure. Those who kill themselves or attempt to are considered selfish, short-sighted, making excuses and lacking accountability or self-control. Solutions for individuals include being mindful, focused more the present, utilizing coping skills, and so forth. All of these are individual behavior and attitude changes; society is not required to change its behaviors or attitudes. Basically, by trying harder, individuals can work towards greater self-reliance, independence, responsibility and strength. The idea is, after all, that healthy individuals do not or should not have need of a therapist and do not excessively burden those close to them with the side effects of their mental illness or mental health needs. Well, and the therapist exists for that very purpose: to unburden those around us, which contributes to the notion that mental illness is a private and shameful matter. Yet the person who kills themselves for the very purpose of permanently unburdening those around them (and they are likely thinking of the individuals whom they love, not their school or company or country) is considered selfish. We need to have personal accountability to ourselves and others regarding our mental well-being– society is not accountable to us. As such, society should be right to fear, berate and institutionalize the mentally ill individual. Music, TV shows and movies often reflect neoliberal ideals, perhaps unconsciously and unselfcritically.
Briefly returning to dermatillomania: the websites referenced above readily admit that researchers are unsure of the causes of dermatillomania. In spite of this, treatments are still focused upon the individual. Why should this be, if we can’t even be sure the individual is necessarily able to stop these behaviors?
I want us to thing about new and different ways of looking at the treatment of individuals with mental illness. Is it so outrageous to imagine accommodating certain aspects of mental illness? Or better yet, to change sociocultural structures that might be catalyzing mental illness in the first place?
More thoughts to come… In the meantime, what are yours?
**I am wary of any group (bureaucratic agencies, NGOs, academic disciplines, whoever) who are overly fond of acronyms. Fuck, acronyms are annoying.
***How interesting, the insertion of “non-cosmetic” into their definition.
Reblogged from Bully Bloggers.
Thoughts on this, but to come later.
by Jack Halberstam
I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, The Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”
Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity “you can…
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Most of my choice to not self-identify as trans* has resulted from what I now know to be clinically-derived and perhaps unfairly “psychological” conditions (or, according to psychology, “symptoms”), primarily gender dysmorphia, which by most people’s definition usually includes body dysmorphia. I will not claim to never experience ‘dysmorphia’: I have, at various times, been uncomfortable with and even resentful of aspects of my gendered self, particularly my physical self, including my breasts and much more frequently my hips, butt and thighs. No, male-identifying friends, your comments that my figure is womanly, that I have a nice butt, that it is only natural for a woman to have hips [like mine?], that certain clothes are flattering in a feminine way, etc. do not improve my self-image or make me feel better about my body. Feel me? Female-identifying friends who assure me I’m not fat, I know you mean well, but we are trapped in this constant-body-analysis thing together, the thing where we worry about our bodies more for how they translate in the eyes of others than for our own Selves. And it’s because we are trapped in this together that leads me to my next reason for not self-identifying as trans*.
By being myself but also associating my Self with that category Woman, I think I (and others like me) are consciously doing two things: 1) we are decisively stating that Woman is not something to fear, resent, or despise. ‘Woman’, whatever that is (and I’ll get to that) deserves recognition, deserves to be loved and embodied. Woman is not Lesser Than, Woman should not be shied away from. Woman should be confronted, thought about, challenged, forwarded. 2) We are demonstrating, with our bodies, minds and spirits, that there are many ways to do Woman, many ways to be It. There are so many ways to do and be It that one must wonder what the necessity is of having the category Man, at all. All of those things which can be done, embodied in Man can be also be done in Woman. Maybe Woman/Man are too essentialist, universalist, generalized, specified to be useful anymore. Maybe we need a different way of understanding, thinking about, talking about and being human. These categories feel spent, outdated and inaccurate.
Yet. They still shape our realities in unwelcome and harmful ways. So while we are working towards a new conceptualization of Human, I will choose to associate my Self with Woman. This is not to say that I do not value trans*; I consider Trans* extremely important. Trans* is transcendent. But let me clarify my feelings about Woman.
Culture is not finished shaming and hating Woman. I think a huge difference between Woman and Trans* is that the latter is much more Self-aware, much more politically conscious, and much more active in terms of that consciousness. Their ball is picking up speed fast. Woman’s ball, however, will sometimes gain momentum and then be kicked in a different direction, hit walls, keep going, roll to a stop. Women who self-identify as such (as Woman) are still invested in hating and confining Woman. Woman hates ItSelf, and unlike Trans* does not understand why this does not need to be.
Thus it is a conscious decision for me to associate myself with Woman. Do I self-identify as female? Not particularly. Do I call myself cisgender? Absolutely not. But is an embrace of Woman necessary to end Its Self-hatred? I believe so.
I realized this at the same time I realized I do not clinically want to be seen as trans*; I do not want to feel shame and hatred towards my body, I do not want to look at my body and say it is Not Woman (because I will not look at it and say it is Man– or Not Man). This is the only body I’ve got; culture has attempted, as it will, to shape it in terms of its conception of binary sex/gender, but I have moved beyond this. Culture’s binary sex/gender construct is inadequate for describing me and other people I know (and others I don’t know). I do not need to alter my body to more closely align with this construct, or even to move away from it (eg towards Trans*).
The body is a terrific, awesome vessel for transversing this reality. It holds my Me-ness, in many ways it is my Me-ness. Without it, I couldn’t fathom my Self, and probably neither could anyone else. We are living in a very interesting and pivotal time in which binary sex is being confronted and it cannot withstand the pressure of this. Gender is all kinds of confused. Yet we’ve not thus far reached a point where we can even begin to dream of calling our culture ‘postgender’. Gender is still very relevant and meaningful. Can I do both: can I stand inside of Woman but also self-identify as not a woman (or as a man, or as trans*)?
I think we can, and in fact I think they compliment each other. We can simultaneously embody something that we feel is other-than-Woman, but we can also tell our Selves as Woman. If you self-identify as a man and have a penis and have never had a period, will you suddenly, by telling your Self as Woman, know what it feels like to shed the lining of your non-existent uterus every month? Will you suddenly know how it is to carry a baby to term, or to be fired from a job because you are pregnant? Standing within Woman is not the same as being Woman. I will never carry a baby to term and when I dress as a boy I am relieve of being sexually harassed on the street, but I can and do choose to stand within Woman. Many women do not have breasts or uteri or ‘typical’ levels of estrogen or even xx chromosomes, yet they self-identify as women and culturally ‘read’ as women. And I promise you, if you read as male but tell others you’re Woman (are Woman, as a distinction from ‘are a woman’), you will know not only know some of the feelings of being Woman, but also some of the feelings of being Trans*.
Why is this good, or useful? I believe empathy is a powerful tool, an element which is not just human but which shapes Human at its core. Maybe we are interesting, naked social hominids who we need empathy to survive within human culture, and to survive, at all. Let’s take empathy and extend it beyond survival, into cultural transformation.
Addendum: This ‘Statement‘ was recently brought to my attention, and it illumined another aspect of ‘standing inside of Woman’, for me. I take it as further evidence of the validity of Woman as a subversive, radical and activist identity in that trans* people are also firmly included inside this ‘category’. Self-identifying trans* women and men can both comfortably assume a place within Woman, should they choose to. I imagine there are those who are concerned with this conception of Woman: how generalized can it become before it loses all meaning? I would argue that I am not attempting to broaden or generalize Woman out of existence, in fact I am not broadening Woman in an unproductive way. The way in which Woman has traditionally been used within whitestream feminisms implies a unity and universality that is pure fiction, and (as pointed out in the aforementioned ‘Statement’) remains incredibly transphobic and queer-phobic. Such a category has long been discussed, forwarded and reconstructed always within the Binary and ever in opposition to Man. How subversive is it to critique, deconstruct, reconstruct inside the Binary? We are always operating on the Binary’s terms if we continue to determine eligibility for entrance into Woman based solely on a traditional, whitestream, or oppositional view of Woman. Thus, I am more interested in the capacity of Woman to turn the criteria for eligibility on its head, and through this, to expand our gendered consciousness beyond Binary thinking, (perhaps idealistically) gendered and otherwise. In the same vein of the Statement, I question the stability of the identity known as “woman”, and wondered what new paradigm awaits us as our consciousness transforms.
Humanity has reached an incredible and transformative period in its life, one in which those of us who question, reject or simply do not “qualify” for membership in the oppositional Binary (or even Binary spectrum) are feeling the pushback of those who are invested in its maintenance and propagation– or should I say survival? Some of this pushback has even come from my fellow feminists (“feminists”? [Feminism only serves to aid women?]*). Some feminists seem to be highly invested in Binary (e.g. sex binary, race binary, etc.) for its ability to distinguish between oppressed/oppressor, but as intersectional feminists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins have argued, identity is not simply black/white, literally or figuratively. If we really want to make progress on issues that matter before it’s too late, we are going to need to overcome the false sense of security and comfort we derive from the Binary, and one stepping stone along the many paths to accomplishing this is a rethink of Woman.
*One might also argue that investment in the Binary has long appeared in a seemingly unlikely place: parts of the trans* community.
Today at work, while I was running the register, a girl of about 6 or 7 wondered aloud to her mother, “Is that a boy or a girrrrrl…?” Since this has happened to me about a million times (to be fair, Cambodia about tripled my score in this count), I was neither offended nor caught off guard, but I did do something a bit different than I have usually done. Before her mother could scold/shush her, before she could apologize to me, I smiled slyly and said, “What do you think?”
“Ummm…” said the girl.
“It’s okay, you can take a guess.”
“Ummmm…. A girrrrrrl?” posed the girl.
“Close enough,” I said, “It’s not that important, really.”
The girl, whose named turned out to be Moon (it wasn’t actually, but to protect her identity I’ve swapped it out for something equally celestial), seemed quite delighted and gratified. What surprised me, though, was her mother’s reaction. She was neither embarrassed nor angry, not awkward, not anxious. She seemed perhaps relieved, or even glad. She said, only mildly apologetically, “When she wants to know something, she just asks!”
I praised Moon for her bravery in asking questions, and encouraged her not to be afraid to be curious. They went off to have their breakfast.
Later on, while making coffee, I got to have another short conversation with Moon and her mom. I said I liked her name, it was quite unique, and mentioned that I coincidentally had a friend named Sky, which really got her excited. She confided loudly that there was a boy at her school named Creek (also not his real name, but similarly earthy), and that he liked her and wrote her love letters. But she didn’t like these love letters, she exclaimed! She always threw them away, but he wrote her persistently, anyway.
“You don’t have to put up with that, Moon,” I assured her. She assured me that she could stand up for herself. I believe she can. Remarkably, through most of the conversation, Moon’s mother let her talk for herself, occasionally contributing but never overriding or trumping Moon’s voice.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t mind ambiguity; in many ways, I despise it. But in reading the works of feminists like Gloria Anzaldúa, Donna Haraway, and Riki Wilchins, I am more and more interested in the power of ambiguity to disrupt and confuse our cultural tendency towards binary thinking, dichotomous worldviews. Dichotomies relieve the frequently awkward, at-times painful tension of ambiguity; much of our modern-day logic wouldn’t function without what Patricia Hill Collins calls “either/or thinking”. Everything in our world should generally be called one thing, or another, but it must be one or the other and it certainly cannot be both.
Every human being must be male, or female, but they cannot be both and of course cannot be something else entirely. Why are we so utterly disturbed by this notion? Why is any transcendence of the binary sex construct considered heretical, perverse, unnatural?
Why are children more easily able to cope with this ambiguity? I didn’t give Moon an answer; I let her think what she wanted to think, which could have included not making up her mind, or not caring. For most adults, not making up our minds or not caring are quite implausible in regards to sex/gender: we need to know, we need certainty. A lack thereof, the presence of ambiguity is weird, disconcerting, frightening, even angering.
I’m not going to suggest that ambiguity in all situations is positive or appropriate, but I will say that most cultures could do with a higher tolerance for it. After all, the notion of the ‘false dichotomy’ is sort of redundant in the sense that most dichotomies are false, perhaps the most pervasive of those being ‘male/female’ and ‘black/white’. For Moon, I fell into enough of a grey area that it prompted her curiosity; her reaction was neutral, or maybe even positive by some views, but unusual, regardless. What if more of us were curious about the grey area? What if more of us embraced living in the grey area? How might that begin to affect the currently [harmful] dichotomous worldview we insist on passing down to future generations?
C.J. Hunt, creator and host of the ‘documentary’ The Perfect Human Diet, claims to have “rediscovered” what human beings are intended to eat: meat. The documentary describes how he arrived at this conclusion after “a ten year global journey”, and the documentary website calls this conclusion the “solution to the number one killer in America”, meaning heart disease.
Hunt says that diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other nutritionally-derived health issues could be completely resolved by adopting a primarily meat-based diet. Before you protest that most Americans already have a meat-based diet, in fact we don’t: like most human beings around the world, we have a largely cereals-based diet. We get most of our calories from the carbohydrates in grains, be it bread in America or rice in Cambodia. I will agree with Hunt’s point that carbohydrates are bad for humans. We are simply not designed to efficiently process those kinds of nutrients. Aside from the health implications for individuals, further evidence for the detrimental impacts of agriculture can be found in abundance in Ishmael. But I digress…
According to Hunt, the “paleolithic diet” was composed primarily of meat. He calls anatomically modern humans (AMH) “carnivorous”. While it is absolutely true that many hunter-gatherer societies ate primarily meat, it is certainly not a prerequisite for being AMH, and meat made up half (or less than half) of many other societies’ diets, who focused more on seed, nuts, etc. What they all had in common was that they were omnivorous; it is unlikely that humans would have survived long if they’d depended solely on meat (or solely on any one thing), and the diversity of the early human diet is confirmed even by one of the anthropologists whom Hunt interviews. This is another fact of our modern diet: it seriously lacks diversity.
Hunt takes as evidence for humans’ naturally carnivorous nature the hunter-gatherer humans and Neanderthals of Stone Age Europe. There appears to be good evidence* that these people consumed a lot of meat; for much of the year, vegetation would have been scarce, so their very survival would have probably meant a dependency on animals. (The Neanderthal diet of that time seems to be more understood than the AMH diet of that time. For instance, there is confusion about what other sources of food AMHs were getting during the cold winter months if they could not store food.) However, remember that data derived from isotopic analysis can’t tell us precisely how much of their diet was meat, just that most of their dietary protein was coming from animals: “Isotopic analysis provides information about the sources of dietary protein over a number of years, even though it does not measure the caloric contributions of different foods.”
Taking the diet of AMHs of Stone Age Europe as our baseline of what the “paleolithic diet” of hunter-gatherers was like is not only racist but probably inaccurate. Hunter-gatherer societies around the world vary greatly in terms of the types and quantity of animal protein they consume(d), but Hunt chooses to universalize these particular AMH and Neanderthal diets (which also were not identical, by any means) as “normal” paleolithic diets. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that Privileged White Man Claims to Embark on Global Journey, Goes Only to North America, Europe and Australia. *facepalm*
It might also be interesting to note that most early human ancestors ate almost nothing but plant matter. This is several millions of years, as opposed to the 1.5 million years that we have (we think) definitely been eating meat in any quantity.
One more issue with Hunt’s assumption that the European AMH diet is some kind of “gold standard” for paleolithic diets: Hunt takes the comments of various anthropologists and archaeologists out of context to support his image of the Perfect Human Diet as one centered primarily (or even entirely) around meat. Vegetation, fruits, and nuts are thrown in as an afterthought, and aren’t really discussed by Hunt, at all. Part of this seems to be a reaction to the “low-carb” fad of weight-loss diets. For Hunt, protein is what should replace carbohydrates. Why does “low-carb” equate to “high protein”? (I suspect there is an argument to be made here regarding animal protein consumption and masculinity, but I’m not going to go there.)
Despite some of the obvious holes and inconsistencies in Hunt’s argument, I tried to entertain the thought of everyone assuming such a diet. After all, many people think avoiding meat altogether is equally (or even more) wacky. However, it doesn’t take much consideration to decide that more humans eating more meat is a bad idea, if not for the individual then most definitely for humans as a species as well as for the planet.
As things stand, livestock-related emissions contribute 14.5% to GHG emissions each year, which is only going to continue to increase as countries like China (sorry China, you always get blamed– I’m not blaming you, you just have a lot of people, but we’re still friends!) continue to consume more meat. Consider this: per capita, only Luxembourg eats more meat than the United States (figures courtesy of The Economist). So even though China on the whole eats twice the amount of meat as the U.S., the average American citizen still eats more than twice the amount of meat as the average Chinese citizen.
Consider how things will change as China and the rest of the world eat ever more meat (for which we will have only ourselves to blame as we promote a capitalist American lifestyle throughout the world). Consider how things might look if Americans decided to focus their diet even more on meat, and if the rest of the world began to follow suit. I have a feeling that greenhouse gas emissions from livestock would suddenly come to the forefront of the discussion on climate change.
Finally, in response to the paleolithic diet fad, I appreciate this comment from Scientific American: “Ultimately—regardless of one’s intentions—the Paleo diet is founded more on privilege than on logic. Hunter–gatherers in the Paleolithic hunted and gathered because they had to. Paleo dieters attempt to eat like hunter–gatherers because they want to.” Given that this documentary was created by a man at the top his “foodchain”, it makes sense that privilege is a central factor in this “logic”.
Thoughts on this??
*This book is downloadable for free! Pretty cool! Also, one of the co-authors of this book appears to be the same Michael Richards interviewed by Hunt for his documentary. But, if you wanted to explore that source more deeply for yourself, here it is.
Reblogged from the Belle Jar.
Trigger warning for rape
When my grandmother was eighteen and freshly out of high school, she got a job doing clerical work at Pier 21 in Halifax. Pier 21 was the landing spot and first point of contact for those immigrating to Canada across the Atlantic ocean, and my grandmother helped process paperwork. She loved her job. She especially loved learning people’s stories, poring over their forms and finding out where they came from, what their children’s names were, and what possessions they’d chosen to bring with them all the way to this strange new country. You can tell a lot about a person and their priorities, apparently, based on what stuff they believe is worth hauling across the cold, grey Atlantic.
My grandmother was only able to work at Pier 21 for a few months, though, because it was just too exhausting for her father. Why? Well, because her shift ended…
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