Bisexuality: An Introduction

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…

Defining Bisexuality

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[1]. 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[2] 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’[3], 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[4].

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).

Nowadays

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[5] variously as hypersexual, deviant, nonmonogamous, vectors of STIs[6], promiscuous, flaky, and treacherous[7].

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[8]; 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[9], 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[10], 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

[1] 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).

[2] 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).

[3] 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).

[4] 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.

[5] For more on stigmatization and delegitimation of bisexuality, see Yoshino 2000, 395-429.

[6] See also: Yoshino 2000.

[7] See also: Bedecarré 1997.

[8] 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.

[9] Examples of non-binary sexualities include people who identify as bisexual, pansexual, heteroflexible, trisexual, panromantic, polysexual, omnisexual, anthrosexual, and so on (Eisner 2013, 29).

[10] 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.

1 is 2 Many: A Step in the Right Direction

In the early 1990s, then-senator Joe Biden and a grassroots coalition of anti-rape advocates scripted the original Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was signed by Clinton in 1994. Despite significant Republican opposition (nothing changes, eh?), VAWA was reauthorized in 2013.

VAWA is significant in terms of the protection it offers sexual assault survivors. That’s right, our legal system is so messed up that sexual assault survivors need extra protection from it. :D The 2013 reauthorization also made special effort to extend protection to the queer community, Native Americans on reservations, and undocumented immigrants. This kind of legislation is essential to protecting survivors, but ultimately we also need to be working towards the prevention of sexual assault, as well.

The White House’s new PSA, 1 is 2 Many, is a step in the right direction in terms of prevention. Featuring Benecio Del Toro, Dulé Hill, Daniel Craig, Steve Carell, Seth Meyers, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama, the PSA discusses consent, victim blaming, and supporting survivors. They even daringly use the word ‘rape’. Pretty cool stuff, right?

Okay, you knew I was gonna be a downer… So here it is. The glaring issue with this PSA is the “if I saw it happening” part. This language makes sexual assault seem like something that we see others doing, not something that we do, ourselves. This has always been the problem with defining consent and talking about rape. It is not a surprise that people– men– are uncomfortable analyzing their behavior. They do not want to see themselves as rapists. They do not see their behavior as rape. Therefore, they do not want to define consent in a way that potentially frames them as rapists.

I can see a lot of people, a lot of boys and men, watching this PSA and pumping their fists and chest-bumping and being like “Yeah! I’m part of the solution!” and not stopping to think about what it means to hear a partner tell them no, or not be able to tell them no due to drug or alcohol consumption. Being told no is not often something for which we prepare men and boys, yet is an important part of consent in sexual relationships.

Also. Obviously a high proportion of rapes are committed by men, against women, but this does not exclude girls and women from taking responsibility in their own sexual relationships. Everyone needs to get consent from their partners. It should go without saying. The more I listen to girls and women talk about sex, the more I realize that a lot of them do not know what consent is or how to get it, either. Keep in mind that VAWA protects male survivors just as it does LGBTQ and female-identifying survivors.

All that being said, this PSA is still pretty bad-a and definitely a huge step in the right direction. Way to go, Joe Biden.

p.s. Tim Walberg and your fellow Republicans, you do not represent me and you do not deserve to hold your office!

 

Fresh Bites

Olympic archery is cool!

Kawanaka received a bronze model for her part on the women’s team in archery.

The commentators…not so much. One of them (a Brit whose name I haven’t been able to lay my hands on) kept referring to Kaori Kawanaka of Japan as “the Japanese girl”, while her Russian competitor was simply “the Russian”; yet all of the male archers were referred to by their, er, names (such as Marco Galiazzo, Michele Frangilli and Mauro Nespoli of the Italian team, whom he called by their last names).

I thought commentators received training about that sort of thing? Not that it’s needed; most people probably don’t notice it as it’s so taken for granted.

From ESPN, a great article on the hypercompetitiveness of kids’ sports. Since ESPN is kinda an authority on these things, I appreciate their position: kids should be having a least as much fun as they are focused on winning.

Also, people really really do not know what rape is. Really. Men who rape, women who rape, the people who are raped, and a large number of bystanders– people are very confused about how to define rape. (That’s why I’m glad I have such a simple, straightforward definition, though admittedly rape is much more than a physical phenomenon.)

Pussy Rioters get jailed in Russia for blaspheming god Putin and being feminist (which really are the same thing, in fact).

A fun post on English language idioms.

Michiganians compete in the London 2012 Games!

An interesting blogger with a knack for limericks.

The Guardian has this cool chart which shows LGBT equality/lack thereof in the States.

And queers are going Alice Paul on MI politics in metro-Detroit.

(I know nobody cares except CELTA trainees and applied linguistics nerds, but this phonemic chart “keyboard” is so neat! And it’s saving my life, since MS Word is stupid and doesn’t have all the necessary symbols for writing in phonemic script, unless you know all the magic key combinations.)

The Greatest Games

I am a hopeless Romantic, and as such I love the Olympics. I could care less who gets the gold, which countries cart off the most medals and all that jazz. As I watched the Opening Ceremony, I was reminded that the true value (and true Romanticism) of the Olympics/Paralympics lies elsewhere: thousands of athletes from all over the world and from all walks of life coming together for, well, games. Being a good sport is more important than winning or trampling others for glory, in spite of the competitive nature of the Games. And countries who are “in real life” at war with each other might send athletes who compete peaceably with each other: so terribly romantic!

From the cover of Vogue Magazine.

These Games in London are especially exciting for a number of reasons. This will be the first time that women have the chance to compete in boxing, and they are predicted to steal the limelight. Women have been boxing for a seriously long time now, but only recently have people started taking it seriously. And they should, ’cause boxers like Marlen Esparza are seriously good! (She’s on the American team, by the way.) She was recently featured on the cover of Vogue— simultaneously powerful and sexualized, because of course we can’t fathom a female athlete of any sport wearing anything but a dress, yeah? >_< Cool photography, but seriously…the Queen’s shoes must always match her dress? Scoff if you must, but the sexualization of women has a powerful impact on female athletes– it might make or break their career, even for the best of the best. Take female weightlifters, who find it nearly impossible to find sponsors because they “can’t” be feature in a sexy red dress like Esparza here– despite phenomenal talent.

From Vogue Magazine

The London 2012 Games are also the first to design the Olympics and Paralympics simultaneously and in a fully integrated way, rather than independently as they typically have been in the past. Both games have also been created with PWD (Persons With Disabilities) in mind from the beginning, and the Committees of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games have decided to extend that cooperation through at least the 2020 Games, holding both Games in the same city. Their torch relay begins the 24 of August, and the Opening Ceremonies for the Paralympic Games will be held on the 29th; the Games will feature 21 sports, including shooting, powerlifting, wheelchair tennis, and sitting volleyball.

Both games have…bizarre, Cyclops-esque mascots. Whatever, they’re cute.

Credit to blogger Nincompoopery; Sorn in red.

Shout-out to my boys and girls in Kampuchea, whose team had a female flag-bearer for the Opening Ceremony for the first time ever, Taekwondo champ Sorn Davin! Six athletes will compete from Cambodia.

Here are some other cool “firsts” facts about the London 2012 Olympics/Paralympics.

It’s been speculated that LGBTQ athletes were responsible for the crash of a major dating application, Grindr, even though only a couple dozen of them are out. Hmm… Also, here is a list of all the lgbtq out athletes ever to have competed in the Games. If you are straight and/or cisgender and you think lgbtq issues don’t have much implication for “normal” peeps or the broader population, think again: the Olympics has been another stage where the sociocultural battles of sex/gender are taking place– going so far as to define who is “truly female” or “truly male”. Some have called this gender policing, and it has serious implications for straight/cisgender athletes who self-identify as one sex but “fail” Olympic sex test standards. Perhaps the issue has been louder and more noticeable in recent times, but it has a long history underlying the Games. Tell me again that sex is as clear as black and white. “Ability” is not quite so black and white anymore, either: the creator of Oscar Pistorius’ Cheetah blades has said himself that, if not Pistorius, then some other “disabled” athlete in the future may in fact be able to run faster on blades than any pair of human legs could ever run. Perhaps now it is fair for Pistorius to compete in both Olympics, but there may well come a day when Paralympic athletes competing on blades will actually be in a league of their own.

Lastly, a small complaint: if badminton and table tennis get to be Olympic sports, when is Ultimate going to be featured?! “In the distant future,” if at all, is some folks’ guess– in part due to a tendency of the Games in recent years to move away from team sports.

Good luck to all athletes throughout the Games; you represent more than you know.

Musings on Patriarchy

Most (all?) societies on this planet could be described as patriarchal and they many of the same elements in common, but it is likely that Patriarchy also manifests itself in unique ways from culture to culture. From my measly quotidian experience of two years in Cambodian, here are some things I’ve noticed can be said to constitute it as a patriarchally dominated culture, including ways that differentiate it from other patriarchal cultures. This is a brief, general list, just things that are rolling around in the ol’ noggin.

Work

It is apparent the world over that labor is almost always sexed. This means that some work is “women’s work” and some “men’s work”. This is often true of Cambodia, too, but another interesting, seemingly benign effect of the patriarchy on labor demographics has to do with age. In spite of all the “respect your elders” rhetoric one hears around the Kingdom, there is an awful lot of ageism going on. This means that, once you reach a certain age, you might find it very difficult to attain certain types of jobs– or even any job at all. People may expect you to retire. They may treat you like you’re slow-witted or fragile. It’s meant well, I’m sure, and of course some people really do slow down in their old age. But it’s quite mythological that old people are sought out for their wisdom and this and that; at some point, many old people here simply become spectators to the lives of the young. With the emphasis on families (especially having many children, in some instances), it’s not so surprising that the elderly are even expected to live vicariously through their children and grandchildren– even when they’re lively, even when they still have their own ambitions.

Ageism is frequently an intrinsic part of Patriarchy; only the young, fit, and virile may be successful, competitive. This is in part from where our drive to remain “forever young” is derived. To show one’s age is to show weakness, or even worse, uselessness and dependency. Yes, the words of your [male] elders may be respected, but probably not heeded. In a world of endless competition, one cannot afford to be cautious. The old may learn from life’s lessons and try to impart them to their successors, but it’s the young who “seize the day”. To this end, countless cosmetics, health foods, surgeries, and so forth have been created as a kind of fountain of youth, that we may put off “showing our age” for as long as humanly possible. Wrinkles and grey hair are repulsive and pathetic, not a sign of a life long lived.

Sexuality

Although both men and women in Cambodia have limited options in sexuality, women definitely get the short end of this stick. For while it is noted and even tolerated that men may be straight/cisgender or queer, women are “only” straight. I often find it odd that, for as homophobic mainstream Cambodian culture can be, female-to-male (FTM) transgender folk and gay guys get talked about with a certain frequency, whilst the subject of gay women is mysteriously absent. It’s sort of like the old Syrian proverb, “There are no gays here.” Well, no gay women anyway.

I’m told (by foreigners) that gay men in Cambodia are “acceptable” on some level, that Buddhism approaches them as souls who were put in the “wrong” body, and thus we should respect them, or at least feel sorry for them. However, I have encountered rampant homophobia, bordering on violence (or at least threats of violence), concerning gay men. It is the polite thing to do to pretend it doesn’t exist, and people start to get angry if they can’t do just that. Of course, there are plenty of people who simply don’t care one way or another, are willing to live and let live, as it were. LGBTQ allies, however, are few and far between Cambodia has a very quiet (mainly male, largely foreign) LGBTQ scene. I imagine that as this community grows more vocal and (hopefully) more accepted in the future, they will also gain more allies.

Also, women never have sex before marriage here. Unless they are broken.

Family

Cambodian families, like families anywhere, vary greatly. It would be unfair to say that all Cambodian men are heads of households or that all Cambodian women experience some sort of DV or discrimination by another family member. The statistics do point out some alarming commonalities, however, which can often be correlated with education levels. For instance, in families where women have low levels of literacy, those women are more likely to remain marginalized within their families and their communities (limited in resources, decision-making power, opportunities, etc.), and also to disadvantage their female children.

In general, there is a majority of male-headed households. There are many female-headed households, however, arising from many factors: during Khmer Rouge, many people lost their spouses, families broke up… Polygamy, though subtle and not prevalent, is still practiced in Cambodia, and often the man is only listed as HOH in one of his two families, thus skewing perception of actual HOHs. “Can women marry more than one man?” I have asked this, and been laughed at, whereas polygamy seems more normalized (dependent on the location). It’s technically illegal…but hell, a lot of things are “technically illegal” here.

School

In the city, school appears to be more egalitarian, at least on the surface. Nearly equal numbers of male and female children receive k-12 education, but the number of women enrolled in university is less than men in almost all fields, and is significantly less with each successive level. Thus, most people graduating from undergraduate are men (though female students are slowly gaining), and almost no women obtain Masters degrees, PhDs, etc.

In the countryside, though, girls remain noticeably disadvantaged. Large numbers of boys and girls seem to drop out in grades 4 and 9, but fewer girls ever begin school, and more girls than boys tend to drop out, so by the end, fewer girls are graduating from high school– in fact, many girls never complete even a single year of high school. There are lots of reasons why girls drop out of school. Some reasons of people I know personally are: a family member falls ill; getting married and starting a family; staying home to help with chores or business. Another reason that really gets me is that girls are often pulled from school (especially higher education) to fund their brothers’ schooling. Even if it’s a younger brother, male education often takes priority over female education. I don’t often hear that people believe women are not as intelligent as men, but that men can find jobs more easily, are able to travel more widely, and generally have more freedoms that would be enhanced by an education, versus women. Who should stay home. Yeah.

Those were just some things on my mind… Things I tend to ponder often. How does patriarchy manifest itself in your life?

Destroying the Ultimate Dichotomy

The Multeity Manifesto, pt.1

Under the influence of heteronormative and sex/gender binary-normative (largely Patriarchal) culture, the world’s progression towards a deeper understanding of gender has inched forward slowly, out of the assumptions of “natural gender roles” and related gender mythology and into a more complex analysis of gender that acknowledges the influence of social construction. While perhaps the majority of people still hold the view that gender traits and roles are inherent and immutable facts of Nature (e.g. “girls are naturally more talkative than boys”, “boys are naturally more gifted at math”, “girls are natural nurturers”, “women are nurturers”, “men have a higher proclivity to violence than women as dictated by their nature”, etc.), there is growing acceptance of the theory of gender as a social construction— in other words, as not natural.

But while we can tolerate theories of gender norms and roles as rooted in sociocultural construction, there is very little tolerance of theories that question the absolute validity of dividing all human beings into two categories of biological sex. The notion of biological sex seems infallible: at birth, a child is clearly determined to be either male or female, typically based on their genitalia (when possible). Broader definitions of biological sex consider hormonal and chromosomal makeup in addition to anatomy– which is where problems begin to arise, but doubts are quelled by labeling any individual body which resists sex binary classification as “deviant.” Indeed, “biological sex deviation” is seen as “abnormal” and, perhaps ironically, “unnatural”; this is reinforced by highlighting the adverse health affects of chromosomal or hormonal “syndromes“, depicting these “deviations” as clearly problematic.

Some biologists and scientists of the human body resolve such difficulties by redefining biological sex as a two-point spectrum, rather than an absolute binary. Such a spectrum, with “male” at one end and “female” at the other, allows us to consider variations of biological sex which fall “somewhere in between” these two absolutes. The problem with this spectrum is that it positions “male” and “female” as opposite, and further assumes that any deviations from “properly male” and “properly female” still land between them somewhere, thus being either “more male” or “more female”. The idea of “properly male” or “properly female” implies an unquestionable truth, thereby maintaining the correctness of binary categorization where possible.

This construction of biological sex as dichotomous or oppositional is extremely limited and inadequate. The diversity of human biological sex simply cannot be described or conceptualized by attempting to position “deviations” between two “true” or “real” points. It certainly can’t be done so without marginalizing those persons who defy the “reality” of sex binary or two-sex spectrum.

This reveals a very deep-seated problem, which is the fundamental assertion that there are correct sexes (namely, xx with socially-defined “female” anatomy and hormones, and xy with socially-defined “male” anatomy and hormones), and any sex (or a-sex) which cannot be described in these terms is deviant, abnormal, wrong.

Human investment in this conception is so deep that we go to great lengths to reinforce and protect it, even so far as “correcting” individuals who pose a threat to its stability and infallibility: there are standards by which we determine the correctness of the sizes of penises and clitorises, standards against which we measure the correctness of male and female hormones, standards which dictate the correctness of one’s chromosomes, standards which dictate the correctness of one’s reproductive tissues, et cetera.

At birth, doctors and medical staff examine the infant’s genitalia to determine its sex. Sometimes this is very difficult to do, as many infants are not born with what is obviously a penis or obviously a clitoris. Sometimes a penis is “too small” (less than an inch long) and needs correction. A common way to “correct” an “abnormal” penis is to cut it off and remake the infant as female. Similarly, infants may present with a clitoris that is “too large”. An “abnormally large clitoris” is usually shortened (sometimes called female circumcision or female cutting). Normality and abnormality defined by what Martha Coventry calls “the tyranny of the esthetic”, or more broadly what I will term the Sex Binary Construct.

The Sex Binary Construct identifies only two “real” or “true” categories of sexual distinction. To account for all individuals who do not fit neatly into this paradigm, the SBC labels them “deviant”.

The idea of “remaking” or “assigning” an infant into one sex or another is evidence of the elastic and abstract nature of sex. Indeed, the very notion of “reassigning”, “remaking”, or “defining” a newly born human as either male or female seems to discredit the SBC, even as these are the methods used to uphold its infallibility.

Many other challenges have been posed to the concreteness of SBC. Apart from “intersex” persons (individuals whose sex cannot be established as “typical”), persons self-identifying as transgender, Third Gender, asexual, or otherwise genderqueer contradict the fundamental tenets of the supposedly infallible SBC.

The power and authority of the Sex Binary Construct appear to be absolute. Its tenets are supported by reputable and highly-respected scientific institutions such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, which call the intersex birth a “social emergency”. As a social emergency, the concerns of society are placed above the welfare and human rights of the individual. These institutions have control over decision-making processes about intersex bodies. Some have tried to argue that when children and infants fall prey to such decision-making processes, it is in violation of their human rights. This argument could also be made on behalf of queer persons who are declared mentally ill when their behavior and/or attitudes fails to conform to the SBC.

There are countless examples of the harm done to individuals and overall human rights by the Sex Binary Construct, which are not even remotely limited to intersex, transgender, or genderqueer persons. But what is the solution? Simply banishing “gender” and “sex” to the dustbins of history would not truly resolves these problems– not to mention the notion is unrealistic.

I cannot purport to have a definitive solution; I do wish to join my voice to those seeking alternatives to the current reality. If in seeking to dismantle the SBC we have no adequate (and accurate) conceptualization to take its place, the old tenets will continue to shape sociocultural consciousness. Thus the first thing to go should be our cognition of gender as a dichotomy, and even as a two-point spectrum. In place of it I suggest a radial spectrum, upon which any “point” is not more or less “true” than any other, and which can describe an infinite number of sex possibilities. A radial spectrum would also solve the problem of oppositional categories, for “points” may be unfixed and mobile. The symbolism of the circle also invokes images of fluidity and changingness, which more accurately embody the lived human experience of gender/sex and sexuality. Does this disrupt the “scientific ideal”? Is it imperfect? Probably so. But our current science is hardly ideal, and very much imperfect. All communities with an interest in seeing the SBC on its way out should be coming together for dialogue, idea exchange, and redefinition of gender/sex. In that vein, I welcome comments and criticisms on these subjects.

Transcendence

I’ve known a few people who transitioned; all three of them I met in college or just shortly thereafter, and all were about my age.

One of them I met when he was still female-identified. Let’s call him Taylor. Within a few weeks of becoming friends, Taylor started hormones. I discerned little change in his behavior or personality, even as his voice pitch altered and he started growing facial hair. Some months down the road, he said he was having surgery. Taylor was one of the most gregarious storytellers I had ever met, and I felt I knew his family intimately just from his anecdotes of them. So I was very concerned how his conservative father would take the news that soon he would no long have a daughter, as I couldn’t fathom the father of Taylor’s stories being very pleased to hear as much.

He took the news very badly, indeed. Taylor remained surprisingly upbeat; he was just rolling with the punches, seeming to accept the rejection and hurtful words from his father because he simply couldn’t go back now. It was my impression that he had reconciled himself to transitioning for the sake of his happiness: he felt his life as a woman was a lie, as he often reasserted through telling me, “You know I’m xy, anyway.” I was in awe of how positive he managed to remain.

Unlike many other transgendered folks I’ve met, Taylor kept his birth name– it was technically a unisex name, anyhow. During the hormones but before the surgery, Taylor told me and his other friends to start calling him “he”. I was surprised, but then I was surprised that I was surprised; of course, that made sense, I supposed. I messed it up the first couple of weeks, but eventually it became naturally to me to refer to Taylor with male pronouns, even as the Essential Taylor stayed the same: upbeat, hilarious, bawdy, energetic, curious, adventuresome.

Eventually Taylor’s father came around, and accepted him back into the family– as his son. He seemed to figure out that Taylor wasn’t actually “different”, persay; in fact, he told Taylor that things “made more sense now”. “You were never into dresses or dolls,” he told his son. I also finally got to meet Taylor’s family in person, and they were exactly as I imagined them to be, as illustrated in Taylor’s stories. We shared a meal together and Taylor’s brother, sister-in-law, and father confirmed to me that Taylor’s “tall tales” were in fact true– life was just that crazy (and humorous) in their family sometimes. It was also obvious to me as I observed their interactions that Taylor’s father was really quite proud of him. I felt such elation for Taylor that he could live the life he wanted to, even if society tried to label such a life perverse, and still have his loving, crazy, funny family.

Another transgendered person I befriended during their transition was male when we first met and now lives as a self-identified female. Let’s call her Lisa. Lisa was a very polite, quiet, nice guy when I met her, the roommate of one of my good friends. Said good friend actually set us up on a date one time. Lisa was “the perfect gentleman”, but seemed immensely unhappy. She tried to describe to meet the root cause of her unhappiness, but was either unable to do so for fear of stigmatization on my part, or at that time couldn’t directly identify the source, herself. It saddened me to see such an intelligent, kind, interesting person spending their days in helpless melancholy, but at that time I had no idea what I could do to help, other than to listen.

Lisa and I fell out of touch after our mutual friend moved away, but we would see each other around from time to time. Almost two years later we ran into each after a particularly long dry spell, and I was surprised at the apparent changes in her. She seemed very guarded and anxious, which I only aggravated when I asked why she had painted her toenails black (a socially “abnormal” thing for a young man to do in America). She was very distant, and I let it go.

The next time I saw Lisa, it was in a picture on facebook. She was a woman, and finally it sunk in for me, her helplessness and hurt and anxiety over the years, and how my reaction was probably harmful in this regard. In the picture she looked joyful, and as if she had gotten her voice back. Because we were never very close friends, I didn’t come to hear about how Lisa’s family had taken her transition, but for herself it seemed to have lifted something off of her, or possibly restored something. It warmed me to see how well she was doing.

The most recent friend I’ve made who is transgendered is one of the most fantastic people I’ve met, though she probably doesn’t even know I think that. “Sarah” had already transitioned to become a woman when I met her, but after several weeks of being friends she revealed to me that she had been born male. Her transition had happened some time before I’d come to know her. I think one of the reasons she was hesitant to tell me is because she is an outspoken feminist– and feared that I would degrade or deplore her feminist proclivities if I knew she was actually “the Enemy”. My feminism doesn’t view males as “the Enemy”, but I think her fear was legitimately founded, considering that all-women “feminist” conferences, retreats, and so forth often exclude anyone who has a penis or xy chromosomes, even if they are self-identified females. To the contrary, my impression was that Sarah’s feminism had nothing to do with her gender, and everything to do with her belief in freedom and true equality. The “fact” of her “gender” in no way shapes my opinion of her right to promote equality, feminist style, nor reduces the legitimacy of what she has to say. I also felt honored and grateful that she shared her story with me. I wanted to hear about her experiences as a transgendered person; she expanded my sphere of consciousness so that I am not the same person I was before I met her.

NPR posted a story about a transgendered mother whose family, in spite of many difficulties, stayed by her side and supported her throughout her transition. His husband made a remark which struck such a deep chord in me that I felt truly optimistic for the first time in…well, a long time. As his wife transitioned and became male, he stopped being publicly affectionate with him; then one day he had a profound understanding of himself and their relationship: “I realized that I didn’t fall in love with a couple of body pieces.”

When I came out to some of my friends my senior year of college as bisexual, most of them were unfazed or even expected it, but some wanted to know, well, why? My answer was that I had had the epiphany that I don’t love genders. I don’t love races. I don’t love socially constructed groups of people. I love individuals. Sometimes those individuals happen to be male, sometimes female, sometimes Muslim, Khmer, older than me, younger than me, etc. Admittedly, I was a long time in coming to this realization (for many, complex reasons both interior and exterior), but when I finally did it raised my understanding of love to a new level.

Reading the NPR article brought me close to tears (and I’m not even on my period!), I think because I felt a deep empathy for the mother, for her acceptance and support by her family. When things like this happen, I see them as miraculous, as transcendent. I think, “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

Everyone Wants a Piece of This

While the mulling over the concept of modeling is its own juggernaut that I don’t feel I know enough about to take on in this venue, I did want to take a look at an article that I’ve noticed circulating online lately.

It’s subject is Andrej Pejic, a Serbian model from Australia who happens to be transgender. Evidently his transgendered look has seized the fascination of the fashion world, which has become all the rage as he models both men’s and women’s fashion and model agencies have experienced an influx of transgendered hopefuls.

His success has been chalked up to the novelty of his “guys look like girls” look. Or as stylist Kyle Anderson puts it, “He’s just this beautiful thing that everyone wants a piece of.”

Which is where the novelty suddenly ends. Usually the objectification and commodification of a human body is not put so bluntly, but that basically sums the culture of the fashion world and all who freely partake of it: “beautiful things” available for mass consumption by a voyeuristic audience. And this is normal and acceptable, and people willingly subject themselves to it.

Yet Pejic’s uniqueness (which probably won’t last long if the “transgendered look” becomes all the rage– androgyny has long been cherished as beautiful in “high fashion”), as a fashion model, as a human being, is subjected to the same processes which turn all models into generic, harmless, accessible, and consumable “beauty fodder”. hook’s “pornographic gaze” (in this case both male and female) can partake of Pejic in the same way they partake of all other reduced, even formless, personalities in fashion.

Perhaps the only novelty here is the increasing normality of the hypersexualization of males (from what I could glean, Pejic self-identifies as male), including the cooption of male sexuality– though it is, in fairness, often portrayed as feminine/female and hetero- sexuality.

Even a glance at Pejic’s portfolio reveals to us that while this is the hypersexualization of male entities, it is not masculine hypersexualization. Rather it is the hypersexualization of feminine sexuality as portrayed by a male entity. Nothing new there, either.

According to the article, Pejic’s status and beauty have likewise been appropriated by the LGBT community, under the premise of celebrating the diversification and increasing tolerance of difference within the realm of fashion. I see this as misguided: must we settle for the exploitative commodification of our gendered (whatever that may be) selves to gain “acceptance” or tolerance?