My good friend and colleague S.W. Underwood and myself wrote a piece in response to Dr. Jordan Peterson’s recent comments at the University of Toronto, regarding his refusal to use the pronouns individuals identify with. Please see here for the article!
Archive for the ‘Popular Culture’ Category
The irony of this piece of writing isn’t lost on me. But as possibly the most visible and discussed transgender person ever, it’s practically impossible to be engaged with transgender scholarship and activism without acknowledging that she has influenced the conversations that are being had.
When I wrote about Caitlyn’s coming out last year, there were two points about the future I was keen to see pan out. The first was that her reality TV foothold gave her a valuable platform despite not becoming a well-informed activist overnight. The second was hoping that she inspired more and better quality allyship. The latter point is unquantifiable, and I remain hopeful that this is the case (although this is the direct the world is slowly moving in anyway). The former… well, it’s time to review.
It’s timely, as the premier of the second season of I am Cait, and it’s fair to say that Jenner is clearly willing to engage with members of the trans community beyond her political position as a conservative Republican. The inclusion of Kate Bornstein is a delight for many, as her books Gender Outlaw and Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation among others have embraced and supported a diverse cross-section of the trans community.
As Jenny Boylan put it “The Ingenious, Subversive thing is, @IAmCait is not actually about her”. Productive dialogue between left and right wing people is incredibly hard to foster, because no-one wants to change their mind. Everyone holds their views because they feel they are right, or better, or most useful. Stepping out of the echo chamber is hard. I can definitely imagine commenting more on this show, because there seems to be an emphasis on growth through conversation.
Jenner’s own position however – she’s quite recently declared extremist right wing presidential candidate Ted Cruz as “very nice”, and wants to be his ‘trans ambassador’. This is despite the fact that Ted Cruz views the support of trans students as “lunacy”, and that a trans student using a space “inflicts” them on others using that space. Cruz also has associations with Kevin Swanson, an extremist pastor advocating that gay people be put to death, and has associated himself with the support of extremist anti-abortionists who are associated with murder and attempted bombing.
Brynne Tannehill has given an excellent reasoning for Jenner’s seeming ability to doublethink away Cruz’s bigotry. She articulates how conservative trans people such as Jenner:
don’t have skin in the game. They were ultra-conservative before transition, and remained so after transition because a Cruz presidency doesn’t endanger them personally. They live in safe places, with a safe income.
escape cognitive dissonance in a lot of ways. They don’t believe that Ted Cruz would do all the horrible things he and the FRC have promised to do. They believe that the most important thing to transgender people is “a good economy” that gives us more job opportunities. They claim to be “looking at the bigger picture,” or say that “I’m not a single issue voter,” with an implication of moral and intellectual superiority.
Tannehill explains how polemical anti-left understandings of Democrat policy lead them to the conclusion that they would be better off under Cruz. For those who are literal millionaires, in terms of taxation, they may well be right. But even if we ignore the tired discussion that illustrates how right wing economic policies favour businesses and the wealthy, Jenner fails to recognise how:
Ted Cruz has promised to force the world’s largest employer of transgender people (the DoD) to hunt down and fire all of its transgender employees. Never mind that if the FRC’s plan is implemented, transgender people would not have access to correct government ID. Nor would they have legal recourse when discriminated against in employment. Nor when refused service, nor when tormented by religiously motivated co-workers, nor when school administrators can legally refuse to provide an education to transgender students.
This would obviously hit poorer trans people, trans people of colour, disabled trans people the hardest. Caitlyn has wealth, glamour, and a platform – but her lived experience doesn’t bring much to the table. She doesn’t have experiences of marginalisation that have sharpened her consideration of social issues, nor is she a scholar. She has said how she would have “all my girls to advise him” – she might be able to wield the social capital to protect those near and dear to her, but what about everyone else? In my article last year, I quoted S. Bear Bergman postulating “wondering who else should get 2 hrs on prime time TV?” Innumerable trans people with a spectacular range of stories and expertise to share come to mind, some have appeared on TV, some have not. I would find it alarming if anyone with the platform of Jenner were to normalise a radical, hateful extremist such as Cruz, despite the potential laudability of what she might be trying to do through her show.
To be clear, I applaud attempts by Jenner to engage outside of a conservative echo chamber. So why don’t I want to talk about her anymore? Because she’s not who we should be listening to. Some of her friends, and her critics, and the community she wants to represent, are.
Yesterday, I came across an article written by Noah Michelson provocatively titled ‘If You Think ‘Straight Acting’ Is An Acceptable Term, You’re An A**hole’. I would say the article is well worth reading, as it evocatively considers some of the concerns with Roland Emmerich’s new film ‘Stonewall’ – namely the accusations of historical inaccuracy, whitewashing, and homonormativity¹ in order to try and bring the film to a wider audience.
Michelson makes the point that:
Being “straight-acting,” for a gay man at least, is directly related to how convincingly he is able to present traditionally masculine mannerisms. The term is so markedly offensive because its very existence insists that there is a particular, instantly identifiable manner of being gay (defined by effeminacy). And what’s more, those qualities are seen as patently unattractive, undesirable and wildly dangerous.
He discusses his own experiences of policing his forms of self expression to articulate a more normative masculinity, in order to protect himself from queer bashing. He remarks how he regrets this, but poignantly asks whether he’d even be here to regret it if he hadn’t – emphasising increasingly how ‘same-sex’ attraction in and of itself doesn’t render one a victim, but the expression of transgressive masculinities and femininities amongst women and men respectively (and those who cross over or identify as neither in particular) puts one at risk. Now, there are those queers who, in the interests of their own safety, or their own ability to socially navigate the world they’re in with the least possible hassle will engaging in ‘straight acting’ actively. Then there are those who simply find that their default state of being is to articulate themselves in an unremarkable, normative manner. There is of course nothing wrong with that. I would however encourage those who have identified or do identify with the term ‘straight acting’ to ask – why do you? How is this identification situated within a larger social narrative and context which shapes who each of us are and how we feel? If you are concerned with how others perceive your masculinity in relation to your sexuality, why is that? Given that masculinity and femininity have large, complex narratives, can you see that when you say you’re ‘straight acting’, what people take from this will never be as simple as pure, value-neutral description (whether they realise it or not)? This can be articulated by different people in different ways to serve very similar ends. A common example being dating app profiles with caveats such as ‘not as camp as I look’, pre-empting judgement from a gay audience which has a clear hierarchy of value.
Emmerich inserts the fictional protagonist Danny into the narrative of the film in order to “provide a very easy in” for a straight audience. One can understand the desire to want your film about an incredibly important civil rights event to reach and educate as many people as possible. There’s two important problems with this however. 1 – It didn’t remotely happen that way, and 2 – It throws the non-normative queers who were there doing what they did under the bus in order to pander to those potential viewers whose acceptance comes with terms and conditions of palatability. It also raises the very important question – have queer people moved so far away from the scary, dangerous activism of the past that is now spoken of reverently, these brave heroes, that we daren’t tell the story how it was for fear of making less headway with creating queer acceptance than we could?
I would say that if LGBTQ support is *dependent* on whiteness, normative masculinity, middle-class status, conventionally attractive embodiment – all the checkboxes of Danny that make him the least marginalised of the marginalised – then it is worth very little. Further, it’s 2015. Shows and films with casts not centred on whiteness, cisness, etc. have demonstrated their ability to be both commercially and critically successful – one needs look no further than Orange is the New Black. I believe that the film would actually have had a better impact on queer rights and empathy for oppressions faced in terms of sexuality and gender if Emmerich had dared to be more accurate, rather than worrying about the most socially conservative end of the spectrum. The comparatively slow limp of transgender rights and protections demonstrates exactly what happens when we try to gain acceptance by sweeping the more difficult queers under the rug. The irony that the charity ‘Stonewall’ only added trans to its remit this year is ridiculously long overdue, but not surprising due to this homonormative precedent. The very fact that Emmerich has been so heavily criticised is evidence that a mainstream audience could handle the more complex intersections of marginality the real historical figures experienced.
It’s a fair question to ask what the problem with Danny’s role in the narrative is. Stonewall is famous for being a turning point, the explosive tipping point for LGBT (but let’s be honest, mainly G) rights. Therefore it’s easy to assume that the ‘mainstream gays’ who are visible and in many Western contexts doing relatively okay were also there. Not so. Those men and women with same-sex attraction in the 1960s who could hide it, often did. The straight actors were only to peer out of their closets after the radical queers had fought for some space for them. Emmerich would’ve done well to realise this, and recognise that his film had a duty to the queers still most marginalised today who fought *because* they had no other choice. Stonewall is a story for all queers, for all people to be inspired by, but not at the expense of de-centring the real, brave people who fought.
It’s very important then, to recognise the difference between what being ‘straight acting’ can mean in the world, and what it means when it’s inserted into this film which will be taken by many people as a representation of what happened. This may explain then, why when a historian of Stonewall, the only surviving member of the Stonewall Street Youth, and other queer writers and experts were asked what they thought of the premier – the results were overwhelmingly damning. Emmerich has also said “as a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay”. Maybe, just maybe, this film wasn’t about you, Roland. Maybe it also wasn’t about potential audience members who would deem The Stonewall Riots unacceptable if they saw them led by (as Michelson says) “non-white transgender people, genderqueer individuals, drag queens, butch dykes and sissy men”. Maybe that’s why Miss Major Griffen-Gracy, one of the few survivors of the Riot itself, said “How dare they do this again” of the film.
Miss Major – Photograph credit to Annalese Ophelian.
It’s ironic that the historian David Carter explains that whilst he liked the characterisation of Ray, in reality Raymond Castro was “a very masculine guy, a generous guy – and very conservative-looking. He wasn’t effeminate – he never went in drag. He didn’t prostitute himself, either”. Emmerich had an opportunity to include a character who embodied a normative masculinity, whilst retaining historical accuracy – a bit of a godsend given that was important to him in this historical sea of queers that were more difficult to market. Why that wasn’t done is open to speculation. But if telling the story of Stonewall was important to Emmerich, as he says it was, but positioning the trans women of colour who were absolutely central to the events (Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Riviera, Stormé DeLarverie, and the aforementioned Miss Major) as the *main* characters, the central narrative, was too difficult… then maybe he shouldn’t have been the person to make this film.
1 – Whilst this term has been used in different ways in different contexts, the most common, and how I use it here, was popularised by Lisa Duggan in unpacking how heteronormativity can be assimilated into LGBT culture, practices, and identities. Heteronormativity is (often insidious or unconsciously manifested) practice that positions straightness, cisness, and normative gender and sexual roles as ‘normal’. That isn’t to say there is necessarily an explicit articulation of homophobia etc., but that in positioning particular qualities as normal (rather than common, or relatively frequent) one includes a moral dimension to the description – that positions particular others as ‘not normal’. Heteronormativity can manifest in such simple interactions many non-straight people will have experienced – an acquaintance say, asking a guy ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ or a girl ‘do you have a boyfriend?’ – the assumption of heterosexuality. In a sense then, homonormativity is exemplified by, for example, gay white men who have a distaste for campness, drag, gender-bending, and other aspects of queer culture that are distinctly un-normative. Plus of course, it’s never as simple as saying that a person *is* or *is not* hetero/homonormative – people articulate multiple and complex views, and may comfortably celebrate radical queerness in some contexts whilst wishing to distance themselves or tactically ‘tone it down’ in others. What this means for how queerness is considered by the wider population is an interesting point to consider.
There’s been a fair bit going on recently. Transgender Day of Visibility was on 31st March, and the UK has seen the leader’s debates in the fretful warm-up to the general election. Therefore I wanted to write about something a little less serious, whilst still shedding some light on something not touched on much in mainstream outlets – LGBTQ comic book characters, which for me, shouts capes and spandex first and foremost. There’s been quite a few lists of favourite GSM (gender and sexuality minority) lists compiled by more expert comic book fans – but I’ll try and mix some slightly obscure and interesting examples with some well known classic heroes (and villains) who you might now see in a new light. So in no particular order then…
And pretty genderfluid too, but not in the way that normally means.
If (like me) your main familiarity with the X men was the film adaptations, or possibly the animated series of early ’90s morning kids TV – you’ve missed out on some seriously different character development. Amongst the most critical being the erasure of Mystique’s bisexuality. Besides originally being mother to the mutant Nightcrawler (that blue skin wasn’t coincidence) but also foster mother to Rogue (whaaat?), she was also over 80 years old by the millennium, with her shape-changing powers meaning her ageing is atypical also. As this article details, “Mystique’s character was not revealed as bisexual until The Uncanny X-Men #265, almost thirteen years after she originally debuted. This was due largely to the mandate by then Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief that there would be no GLBT characters in the Marvel Universe.” Mystique’s début was in 1978 by the way, so not exactly the pre-legal days of Batman and Superman. Progress is slow though, and slower for letters other than G and L.
Delicious irony, in that she was originally introduced as a ‘no homo!’ love interest device, because it didn’t look very hetero when Batman and Robin shared a bedroom, even in the 1950s.
Whilst like many of the big names there have been various incarnations, parallel universes, and all-round confusing re-inventions, Batwoman was rejuvenated as a Jewish lesbian in a slightly obvious move of clunky tokenism in 2006.
Important due to being the first openly gay Marvel superhero – though again, due to the policy of the then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter preventing any openly gay characters (along with the Comic Code Authority), despite debuting in 1979, he was only allowed to be explicitly stated as gay in 1992. With the ability to travel at near light-speed (and the associated resilience and strength), Northstar also got married in Astonishing X-Men in 2012.
An early DC queer example premièring in 1988, Extraño, meaning ‘strange’ in Spanish, was painfully stereotypical, though more explicitly ‘out’ before Northstar. Referring to himself often as ‘auntie’, he was confirmed to be HIV positive – possibly from doing battle with an adversary called Hemo-Goblin, who, I kid you not, was “a vampire created by a white supremacist group to eliminate anyone who was not white by infecting them with HIV”. In their own way, the comic book industry tried to engage with important political issues new to the world in the 1980s.
A powerful member of the young avengers, Wiccan predictably has powerful magical abilities. With a backdrop that involved standing up to homophobic bullying, and a romance with fellow hero Hulking, this meant the character was particularly well received.
6. Alysia Yeoh
Although not a superhero per se, Alysia is important as the first major transgender character in a mainstream comic (in 2013), as the roommate of Batgirl. Whilst there has been a few aliens who can morph gender around, psychics inhabiting bodies of different genders, and shapeshifters, this is the first time a transgender person (of colour no less, she’s Singaporean) had been naturalised and involved realistically.
Another huge character in no small part because of film franchises, and also with a complex, multi-incarnate history, Loki has a history of bisexuality and gender fluidity that has been promised to be explored more.
8. Sailor Uranus
Although more well recognised from anime than from manga (comic book style serialisation in Japan), the Sailor Moon franchise was chock full of lesbianism, with Sailor Uranus having a relationship with Sailor Neptune. This was quite obvious in the originals through their flirtations – but in typical LGBT erasure/censorship, when translated for a US audience, the characters were positioned as cousins. Due to failing to remove all of the flirting however (either through sloppiness or a wish to actually be somewhat faithful to the original), it was accidentally implied not only that they were lesbians, but incestuous lesbians. Great job, conservative America.
Whilst we’ve already looked at Alysia as a sensitive and important example of transgender in comics, Xavin is something else. Quite literally, being a non-human known as a skrull who don’t experience gender in the same way. Xavin assumes male, female, and skrull forms. The character raised interesting interpretations of gender as for Xavin, this could be changed as easily and with no more personal significance than an outfit choice.
BONUS: The Young Protectors
Now this is something special. With an interesting, diverse cast of characters and a compelling plot, this young-superhero based comic has a gay-driven storyline, without reading like any kind of seedy knock-off. There’s a great balance between character development and action, and I only find it a shame there isn’t a more extensive serialisation to get one’s teeth into. And I’m not alone either. The creator’s Patreon backing is pretty huge. Well deserved, given the entire story is free to access.