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Book review: Gender Outlaws – The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is a collection of essays submitted from a wide range of people with very different experiences of gender, and very different things to say.

This book is brilliantly original. Never before have I read a book that blurs the boundaries between academic discussion, activists talking about their causes, artists talking about their passions, and humans talking about their pain, love, and needs. This coupled with things like comics, recipes, and poetry mixed in, and the introduction formed entirely of an online conversation between Bornstein and Bergman themselves. The tone struck is witty, thoughtful, relaxed, and (certainly in my case) draws the reader in.

Obviously in a work with contributions from…*counts*…52 different authors, some styles and content will speak more to any individual than others. Despite this large heterogeneity, I found the ‘tone’ of the book remarkably cohesive. Not because what the different writers say is necessarily over-similar, but virtually all inspire a wonderful state of thoughtfulness.

Each submitted piece stands alone, and all are short (2-7 pages each). This makes it extremely easy to dip in and out of, but the organisation of the essays is such that one can read straight through and stay gripped. Even accounts that may be very abstract for some readers – for example, the negotiation of gendered experience whilst being in an all-women Roller Derby league – contain powerful insights into the treatment of other people, and I would suggest offer at least a wonderful set of alternate perspectives and empathy-inducing thought patterns.

Some of the writers speak to me more than others, and I mean this to mean how much I enjoy and respect what they’re saying and their style and clarity – rather than necessarily a direct resonance with personal experience. Indeed, many of the articles are so interesting because they can cause you to think about experiences you may never have considered – but this can then shape how you consider gender in your own life. I didn’t find terminology confusing despite much specific ‘gender language’ being used by lots of different people, but this could reflect my academic privilege. I imagine this is a book that will speak most loudly to people with either an active interest in gender or those who have experience of being a gender or sexuality minority – rather than as a present for grandma. Though I would love to be wrong about this. I would imagine that not that many straight and cis readers would pick this book up of their own accord, but that the world would be a better and cooler place if more did.

The wide range of topics covered does involve a range of areas that may be distressing for some readers. As one might expect, the submissions from writers often discuss some of the post poignant (and difficult) occurances in their own lives, which may be triggering for some readers – and unfortunately each chapter does not come with trigger warnings or particularly indicative titles. Eating disorders, gendered violence, experience of chronic illness, and racism are all themes that are touched on. Though despite this, the book didn’t leave me with a sense of heaviness. Many of the writers imbue their pieces with valuable humour.

A point that may cause some controversy and disagreement very early on in the book (which is a point raised by Bergman in the introduction) is their use of the word/slur ‘tranny’. I think they produce some valuable discourse around this important and sensitive topic, but at the same time you may not like it. If the following quote gets your brain fired up, then you will probably find the book stimulating.

S. Bear Bergman: I can see the argument for outlawing “it’s so gay” better. They’re trying to outlaw bullying, but “don’t be mean” isn’t – evidently – an enforceable school rule, so they list particular meannesses the young people are not permitted to engage in.

Kate Bornstein: But look at what happened a generation after people were damning the word queer. Now it’s something you can major in, in college.

SBB: The think I just thought is: people are who are super-protective to police the word tranny have no real confidence in the cultural power of transpeople. They police it because they fear that if not-trans-identified people get hold of it, their power will make it always and forever a bad word. And I, we, feel find about it because we have a lot of faith in the cultural power of transfolks Рof trannies Рto make and be change.

If this tickles your imagination, then bearing in mind some of the other essays are about:

  • The insights being trans gave one writer into corporate politics
  • A love affair with a non-binary bathroom
  • Christian anti-gay and anti-trans actions in Singapore and activism against this
  • The experience of being a Drag Queen having being Female Assigned at Birth
  • Queer sex as performance art

I would hazard you’ll be very stimulated indeed if you pick this book up.

Why trigger warnings are essential…

Tumblr is fun. I’m still rather new to it all, but one aspect I’ve enjoyed is the ability to search by topic, using tags – and then scrolling through a whole bunch of often relevant and interesting subject matter.

I did this for ‘LGBT’ and one of the things that came up (*trigger warning* – attempted rape) was this.

In case you were not comfortable reading this but would like some context, behind the link is a short, personal account of a sixteen year old gay guy and his visceral description of nearly being raped but being rescued by some drag queens. The tone sets up a horrific situation whilst then expressing gratitude for the awesome ‘guardian angel’ ladies.

I had no problem with this story being posted. But I did and do have a problem with the fact that it went up with no trigger warning at all.

Here is a good explanation of what a trigger warning is.

I wrote a small message to the person who posted the piece, and received a quick reply. Below is what was said:

Me:

Hey – saw your post about the 16 year old’s experience and the saviour drag queens. Any possibility of a trigger warning being put on it? Due to some of my own life experiences it was pretty distressing to read. Thanks ūüôā

Them:

I’m sorry it was distressing for you. I had considered putting a warning on it, but ultimately decided not to because I want people to read it and I’m afraid a warning will deter people from reading it, which ultimately defeats the purpose of me posting and now having re-posted it. Unfortunately, the very reasons that it’s likely distressing you are the same reasons it’s compelling to read.

So again, I‚Äôm sorry if you were offended, but I hope you understand my reasons for not going ahead with a warning. ūüôā (boldness added by GenderBen)

Okay… No. No no no no. Trigger warnings are there in order to protect the well-being of those people who need them. If a person is deterred from reading something because they have been informed of the content and see that it could be harmful to their well-being, this is a¬†good thing. Whilst personally my reaction was relatively small from being disturbed from the post, it is vital to think about someone who has perhaps survived a sexual assault may feel on reading such a piece. Distress, depression, self-harm, and even attempted suicide are all¬†very real possible outcomes from an individual being triggered. Such people are not the target audience. Wanting more people to read what one has posted ranks below people’s welfare in importance.

Also, for some people, whether a person feels like they are in an emotional place where they can comfortably read something or not be very time dependent. It may be the case that a survivor wishes to read something, but that ‘now is not a good time’. Trigger warnings act as a basic courtesy, which grants people agency. Often a clear title or subtitle can do this job, if an article is¬†entirely or has a large focus on a distressing issue (for those who didn’t follow the link to the original post, this particular instance had no title).

A good way to think about trigger warnings is like when on TV you might see ‘this program contains strobe effects’ – a warning required to prevent¬†triggering for people with types of epilepsy. Not having the warning there would be irresponsible, as the content can damage the individual’s health. The only difference here is the type of potential damage.

Unfortunately, the very reasons that it’s likely distressing you are the same reasons it’s compelling to read.

Hopefully without coming across as snarky, I think it’s fair to say that unless I take the time to personally discuss it with someone, they can’t know why something like this is distressing to me, or anyone else for that matter. Making assumptions is not so great.

It may sometimes be easy to think “I don’t see how this could¬†possibly be triggering” – you don’t need to. A little reading around and/or empathy shows the importance of trigger warnings on a wide range of issues for a wide range of people. In the grand scheme of things, not much of the huge amount of stuff that is created and posted every day needs trigger warnings, but if it’s to do with rape or sexual assault, medical conditions and description, eating disorders, racism, homophobia, transphobia/cissexism, and ableism – then it quite likely does. This list is by no means exhaustive.

Here is a whole community blog dedicated to education and awareness about trigger warnings!

The only other point I’d like to address in the response I received – I wasn’t offended, and I’m not really sure where this interpretation came from. The original post itself certainly isn’t offensive to me. This post/response is born from the importance of putting safeguards in place to avoid harm to people.

GenderBen is now on Tumblr!

So I’ve finally started exploring the wonderful queer and gender-y nooks and crannies and communities present on Tumblr. I’m currently in the process of posting links on there to older blog works on here, but I’ve also found there’s so much good stuff (particularly images) that I want to share, i’ll be reposting lots of things on there that won’t actually be found here.

So if you want more gender fun, beauty and thought in your life, then follow:

http://genderben.tumblr.com/

Because this sort of thing is all kinds of awesome.

Book Review: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

So at the top of the GenderBen homepage there has been a forlornly empty tab dedicated to book reviews. Today marks the day when this emptiness is no more! This tab will be where links to any book reviews I write can be easily looked up.

It’s probably not normal procedure to open a review with a huge endorsement, but I will be very (and delightfully) surprised if I read any book as thought provoking, clear, useful, and important as this one for quite some time. With the subtitle ‘A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity’, Serano utilises structural and stylistic devices in her book that make it a real breath of fresh air compared to many stodgy collections of gender essays and other works useful to scholars of gender.

An incredibly important element of the book which I thought was handled more masterfully than any other gender book I’ve seen was the clarity with which technical terms are used. Also the recognition of the different ways such can be used or understood by different people helps support not only her own robust arguments but also shine a revealing light on the assumptions, misconceptions and prejudices of others.

For example, very early in the book a distinction is made between¬†transphobia, defined by Serano as “an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against people whose gendered identities, appearances, or behaviors deviate from societal norms.” ¬†and¬†cissexism, defined as “the belief that transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals.” This allows for an analysis that recognises differences in experience based on whether individuals identify as or experience being¬†transsexual¬†as opposed to¬†transgender.

Whilst these are terms that are often used interchangeably (as are cissexism and transphobia), Serano uses the word ‘transsexual’ to refer to individuals who specifically were assigned a given gender at birth, and wish to transition from this (most often referring to MtF and FtM transitions, though appreciation of non-binary identities is also given). Transgender is used as a more general term to allow discussion of issues in a broader sense that may impact upon individuals who may identify as a cross-dresser, as butch, effeminate, queer, or any number of other non-conforming gender identities. The point is made though that “The focus on “transgender” as a one-size-fits-all category for those who “transgress binary gender norms” has inadvertently erased the struggles faced by those of us who lie at the intersection of multiple forms of gender-based prejudice.” Lack of commonality between individuals who may be described by the same terms receives the important attention it deserves. Serano manages to carefully define a large number of gender terms to allow for construction of excellent arguments and observations based on this without simplifying or invisibilising individual experiences as caveats and clarifications are also abound in the text without becoming overwhelming.

The second chapter offers direct commentary on the portrayal of trans individuals in the media, both in fictional and non-fictional circumstances. With films and TV shows covered including¬†The Crying Game,¬†Ace Ventura Pet Detective, Jerry Springer¬†and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a perhaps controversially critical analysis is given yet it’s very difficult to fault. The only criticism I have of this section of the book is a small factual inaccuracy made when describing what happens in¬†Ace Ventura. It is claimed that a large group of police officers proceed to vomit after having it revealed to them that the film’s villain who is portrayed as female throughout the film ¬†possesses a penis and testicles. They actually all begin spitting – the ‘joke’ being that they have all kissed her at some point, in reference to her having kissed Ace at an earlier point in the film. This hardly makes a huge difference to the nature of the analysis in pointing out unambigous homophobia, and portrayal of a trans individual as ‘deceptive’, and ‘really a man’. The analysis of media output in this chapter rests on trans characters usually falling into one of two patterns, either ‘pathetic’ or ‘deceptive’. Whilst such a binary analysis may seem simplistic, its impressive (and alarming) point is disappointingly supported by a good range of sources cited.

The book repeatedly draws upon the author’s personal experiences, in terms of both how other individuals have responded to her gender identity and gender presentation, but also her direct experiences of dysphoria and ‘gender dissonance’, and the sensation of one’s hormonal profile changing. These accounts are not only very brave (and indeed an honour for the reader – it is a privilege to know the intimate details of an individual’s transition experience), but also tie in important discussion of biological difference to produce an argument that “socialization acts to exaggerate biological gender differences that already exist”. Serano is not only valuably situated as having experienced different gender identities in her life, but also possesses great familiarity with queer theory and the social sciences literature AND a PhD in biochemistry and a scientific career. Such multi-disciplinary scholarship coupled with vital personal experience packs a serious punch. In saying this I of course do not wish to imply that Serano’s PhD and scholarship makes her accounts and arguments on transgender politics and experience superior to the experiences recounted by other trans people. Serano however occupies an uncommon position in possessing such awareness of intersectionality, plus personal understanding of disparate academic and gendered experiences.

The largest chapter in the book is titled “Pathological Science: Debunking Sexological and Sociological Models of Transgenderism”, and gives not only an excellent historical overview but also challenges some methodological problems with scientific modes of inquiry (such as disconnection of the author from work done, or the assumption that some kind of true objective position is actually possible). Discourse on medicalisation, the cissexist declarations made by various feminists, and how masculinity and femininity are considered are tied together in an accessible manner. This leads into a chapter dealing with the dismantling of cissexual privilege which I found provided more clarity and focus than I had achieved through my own introspection, even given that I am actively engaged with trying to be the best ally I can be.

All of this, together with a most original chapter where the appropriation of intersex and transsexual identities in art and academia is critiqued makes up part one of two of this book. The sensation I had from reading each of these two parts was rather different. Part one contained a greater range of material, and had more of an ‘academic’ structure – unsurprising as this half of the book was subtitled ‘Trans/Gender Theory’ – whilst the second section (Trans Women, Femininity, and Feminism) is pithier and contains a greater sense of polemicism. Three of the ten chapters of this section contain only 4 pages each, but each has its place and each makes a point. I had a small sense that some material was repeated, giving me the sense that some chapters were written independently from consideration of the book as a whole, and I felt I gained more from Part 1 than Part 2. This is a book where each chapter stands alone quite well – not quite separate essays, but not a book that necessitates being read linearly from start to finish. Maybe it’s only because I did read it through from start to finish that made me wish for more of a sense of ‘wrapped up conclusion’, but these are ephemeral concerns. In writing this review it was difficult to not write condensed, reworded versions of every chapter, such was the importance of their contents that resonated with me. This book is too important to not be more widely read. One becomes a better human for reading this book.

GenderBen on the radio again!

No proper post for you today my lovelies, sorry about that. I was planning on it, but then fate threw me onto the lovely Cam FM local radio station with 7 hours notice today. I was invited to sit as a guest speaker on a talk show discussing mental health. Whilst I’ve not written about it specifically (yet, at least), mental health is a personal interest, is incredibly important, often overlooked, and certainly connects strongly to many issues of sexuality and gender.

If you’d like to listen to me talking along with another guest (a professional councillor from the University Counselling Service here in Cambridge) about student mental health issues,¬†the link should appear on 2nd March, and remain up for about 6 weeks, which I make the 12th April.

The link to the page where the show can be found is here.

On the right hand side of the page, look for the ‘listen again‘ box. this show will be the 01/03/2012¬†link. (you can also still hear me speak about gender issues from the¬†08/02/2012 show).

Enjoy!

The furry fandom: an introductory exploration + fantastic fan art!

It’s pretty fair to say that there’s a huge range of gender identities and sexualities that are virtually invisible to the mainstream public, but there also exist many dimensions of human experience and identity that depending upon personal interpretation, can blur the boundaries of what is one’s identity, sexuality, and community involvement. One particular example will be discussed today. Introducing: the furries.

A furry is an individual who takes a particular interest in anthropomorphic animals. This refers to depictions of animals usually with humanesque personalities and traits. Generally speaking, people identifying as furries are able to embrace and explore their identity through online communities, though many conventions and get-togethers also exist. The term furry can almost be regarded as an umbrella, as the particular interests, and the nature of a given furry identity can vary hugely between individuals. It’s also important to recognise that whilst some individuals may fulfill this simple criterion, they may not choose to identify with this term. This is to be respected, in the same way that, in terms of identity politics, being a man who has sex with men does not mean one identifies as gay or bisexual – and can’t be said to mean ‘that is what one¬†really is’.

The range of anthropomorphic animals varies hugely. You might think of Mickey Mouse, or Simba from the Lion King, or animal headed ancient Egyptian deities. Whilst the term ‘furry’ seems to have originated from the first early community grouping via fanzines in the 1980s, the existence of ‘funny animals‘ – your quintessential cartoon critters – stems from the 1930s onwards, and precedent for cultural recognition of anthropomorphic animals in entertainment and culture can be found going back hundreds of years.

File:Grandville leLoup Et Le Chien.jpg

This is a drawing by the successful French artist J. J. Grandville, from 1828-1829.

So what does one do, if one is a furry, you might ask? Well, all sorts, depending on what interests you. Some people might simply talk to other furries through one of the popular available online forums, such as the website furaffinity. The production of literature and visual art are also popular pursuits, with many users producing such material. This can range from personal images representing a character or identity an individual may have within the fandom (also known as a ‘fursona’) to highly professional digital and fine art. Below are a range of examples.

An example of a fursona, used with kind permission by Rico –¬†http://www.rico-dawg.deviantart.com/

Image used with kind permission by Adam Wan Рhttp://www.furaffinity.net/user/zaush

Image used with kind permission by Adam Wan Рhttp://www.furaffinity.net/user/zaush

Image used with kind permission by Adam Wan Рhttp://www.furaffinity.net/user/zaush

Image used with kind permission by Adam Wan Рhttp://www.furaffinity.net/user/zaush

These two images are not publicly available, so I particularly thank Adam for sharing these images with me for use on GenderBen.

Images used with kind permission by Adam Wan Рhttp://www.furaffinity.net/user/zaush

The furry fandom has not received much press. When it has, it has often been rather disingenuous and misinforming about the breadth of identities and activities that occur. One particular lengthy article, published by Vanity Fair in 2001 is somewhat unsubtle in its implications that virtually all furries must be socially awkward males in their 30s and 40s, who are either sad, lonely freaks with stuffed toy collection obsessions, or engaging in sinister or illegal fetishistic sexual practices. There is a sense that reporting on this community is really an indulgence of a macabre, carnivalesque voyeurism Рmade all the worse by its fundamental inaccuracies.

It is of course unsurprising that¬†some people with a furry identity enjoy (different) elements of sexual roleplaying as part of their identity experience, or produce or consume erotic literature or pornography. I find it somewhat ironic that many of the individuals who would castigate such behaviour are mocking an ‘abnormal’ or ‘deviant’ expression of desire that causes zero harm or impact on others, and yet undoubtedly remain silent or indifferent to the countless examples of sexual, physical and emotional abuse that can be performed against women (and men) in much ‘mainstream’ pornography.

Oh, also, it might be nice to examine some figures about the interests and population of the online furry society, which rather challenges the idea that this is an e-club of drooling chronic masturbators who haven’t quite made it out of their parent’s basements.

Each year, a large scale online survey is performed, with the 2011 data containing responses from 4,365 self-identified furries. 71% of respondents are between the ages of 15-24, and 21.2% report a ‘female sex’ (kudos to the report for granting respondents the opportunity to distinguish between their ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Whilst imperfect, the existence of an ‘other’ option for sex and the recognition of some complexity on the one is a hell of a lot better than virtually any other data collection I’ve seen). One can hardly claim that the stereotype of the furry population being made up of ¬†‘heterosexual males perving on dehumanised female fantasy’ has fair basis either, with only 42% identifying as “completely or mostly heterosexual”. There has been a shift in that there now exists the stereotype that the furry fandom is composed instead of awkward gay adolescents with immature sexual fetishes. The obvious heterosexism aside (as if it would matter even if every single furry¬†did possess a minority sexuality), this idea of using the construction of stereotype to then ridicule is merely a marginalisation tool, as made obvious by the fact that different, contradictory offensive stereotypes exist to target the same heterogeneous group.

Most interesting possibly are the sections of this report that consider the importance of sex to respondents. On a scale of 1 to 10, participants were asked to rate how important sex is to them, how important they believe it is to other furries, and how important they believe it is to the public. The most popular answer for personal importance of sex was 1 – least important. However for other furries, the most common pick was 7, hinting that people may be perceived as considering sex as important, when really they care about other things much more. 37% believed that the public rank a 10 on sex importance. This is easy to see why when one just has to do a google image search for ‘furry’ to see the number of poor attempts at caption humour have been crafted with the basic theme of ‘furry = sexually wrong’. When one has experienced the public policing one’s identity, one becomes far more aware of how restrictive sexual hegemony really is.

Of course, explicit art isn’t always to be avoided.

6537379@400-1316603738

It can even be amusing. Credit for images –¬†http://www.furaffinity.net/user/coal/

The fluffy side of sexuality. *Warning, cuteness!*

Things have been a bit serious on GenderBen recently, so I thought, ‘hey, what do a lot of people enjoy looking at on the internet?’

After dismissing porn (because I’ve written about that already of course), I came up with cute fluffy animals.

But how about cute fluffy QUEER animals?

Okay, not really queer. and this has more to do with language and labels than anything else. Being gay, or queer, or any other label you care to mention that provides other people with information about one’s sexual habits says way more about the proclivities of our naughty parts, whether we like it or not. People categorise, and label, and simplify, and stereotype. With animals, all that can really be looked at is what we observe, rather than thoughts and relationships and all that complicated sociological interaction we have as humans. So really, in the realm of scientific study, common practice uses¬†homosexual behaviour to refer to copulation, genital stimulation, mating games, and sexual displays.

It’s also interesting to note that despite animal mating bahaviour obviously having been studied for centuries, it’s only been relatively recently that same-sex-stuff has actually been noticed. This could be due to observer bias – where a scientist’s expectations (“bah, homosexuality only exists in criminal perverts, what”) influence the results of study.

Some of the strategies and behaviours that have been observed are really quite amazing – if not due to cuteness, then due to amusement value.

1. Black Swans

File:Black Swans.jpg

“I told you we needed more than a dab of sunblock on our beaks, but would you listen, no.” “we will talk about it later Cyril, please don’t make a *scene*”

These bad-boy swans have had their sexual capers known about in detail for over 40 years. As gay critters go, they seem to be quite keen on kids. They have been observed to steal nests – or form threesomes with females only to scarper once she lays the eggs. These homo-raised cygnets are also more likely to survive to adulthood, maybe as two males can control a larger territory, or are better at defending their young.

“But mum, Jack’s dads Cyril and Brendon let *him* go swimming…” “I don’t care, you’ve just been blow-dried”

2.  Dolphins

I say ‘dolphins’ rather than a specific species because all sorts including the Amazon River dolphin and the Tucuxi, but mostly Bottlenose dolphins seem to enjoy the love that dare not chatter, squeak, or click its name. Not just penetrative sex either. Dolphins have been observed engaging in blowhole sex, the only nasal lovin’ so far seen in the animal kingdom. They’ll also have group sex with genital rubbing, which is thought to be simply for pleasure and bond formation. D’aww. It’s also been recorded that instead of combat, groups of Atlantic Spotted dolphins and Bottlenose dolphins will engage in cross-species romps. Make love, not war, indeed.

3. Bonobos

 

Speaking of making love not war, this is exactly how the Bonobo has been described by Frans de Waal in his book¬†Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape. It seems that over 75% of sexual acts in the species are non-reproductive, and about 60% are girl-on-girl action. Reasons for this include conflict resolution, post-conflict reconciliation, and simply as a greeting. Practices such as treetop penis-fencing and drop-it-like-it’s-hot rump-rubbing are common.

4. Giraffes

Credit to image: the talented deviant art user Rainbowshrimp.

Male giraffes engage in behaviour called ‘necking’. Unfortunately, this doesn’t involve cute giraffe-hickies. Often it’s combative, swinging their heads like clubs and bashing their necks into each other to establish dominance. It can also be gentle however, with rubbing and leaning. The male who can hold himself erect for longer, wins. The imagery isn’t lost on me. Same sex activity has been recorded at between 30-75%.

5. Sheep

“I’m sorry, I’m just not into ewe…”

From the perspective of husbandry, rams who’re exclusively into other dude-sheep are somewhat problematic, as they make up roughly 10% of the population, and so are no good for making lots of little profitable sheep-babies. A neuroanatomical difference has been found that gives some explanation for this. A chunk of brain called the oSDN is responsible for releasing a substance thought to be involved in the hetero-ram hornification process. This brain region seems to be smaller in homo-rams.

6.  Albatrosses

“Darling, I love you.” “I love you too.” “…would you get me a fish?”

Albatrosses are a near-monogamous species, usually pairing with the same bird every year for life (and they can live for up to 70 years). It was in the last 10 years that it was found approximately one-third of paired couples were actually both female, because male and female albatrosses are virtually identical. A detailed account of this discovery and the stir it caused amongst the public can be found here.

7. Bed Bugs

At first I tried to find an image of a real bed bug that also qualified as cute. This it turns out, cannot be done.

So bed bugs it seems will fancy just about any other bed bug, so long as they’ve recently fed, demonstrating good health. Unfortunately, bed bugs perform the violent practice of ‘traumatic insemination’ – where they stab their partner in the abdomen and inject sperm directly in. Females have evolved a structure called a ‘spermalege’, which is basically a ‘damage control’ organ for the rough bug-sex, reducing injury and immune response. Males don’t have this, so it’s not only mildly embarrassing for a dude bug when he accidentally shoves his bug-wang into another dude bug, but also, um, potentially fatal. To try and avoid being unwittingly pronged, males produce alarm hormones. Bed bugs chemically yell “I’M A DUDE, PLEASE DON’T STAB ME WITH YOUR PENIS”.

8. Penguins

Chinstrap penguins (pictured above) gained particular fame due to a pair of penguins called Roy and Silo in Central Park Zoo, who paired and tried to steal eggs from other penguins to rear. Instead they were given an egg, which successfully hatched into a female called Tango – inspiration of the children’s book And Tango Makes Three.¬†Tango herself has apparently paired with a female penguin, and various other same-sex pairings have also been seen. In China, visitors complained to zookeepers for separating a same-sex penguin couple from the other penguins for their egg-stealing attempts. They were given a surplus egg to raise, and were also successful.

So if there’s anything we can learn from this, I suggest it’s that you and me baby, ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the discovery channel.

The game isn’t so beautiful: homophobia and football

This is a topic that has received a reasonable amount of attention, particularly because of a documentary aired on BBC 3 on the 31st January.¬†Britain’s Gay Footballers was presented by a young lady called Amal Fashanu, who has clearly demonstrated herself as having great social conscience in examining the current culture of the game under a critical lens.

Fashanu’s passion is not without precedent – she is the niece of the¬†ONLY player to come out as gay in the history of professional football in the UK.

Oh wait. Not quite true. Quite amazingly, Lily Parr was openly lesbian during her football career that spanned 1919-1951. She was also reportedly uncommonly strong and certainly a match for male contemporaries of her day. Of course the lesbian female professional footballer is never talked about. But before I end up writing a post on that instead…

Justin Fashanu, 1961-1998. He was also the first black footballer to command a transfer fee of £1M. 

His name was Justin Fashanu, and he committed suicide in 1998. Shortly before his death he had been accused of sexual assault by a 17 year old in the United States. Circumstances appear to suggest that fear and guilt related to this accusation may have compounded the burden of vicious homophobia borne for years, as highlighted by this excerpt of conversation, taken from the manager Brian Clough’s autobiography:

“Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?”

“A baker’s.”

“Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?”

“A butcher’s.”

“So why do you keep going to that bloody poof’s club?”

Says it all really. One can imagine the entirely aggressive tone that exchange must’ve embodied. But yes, the homophobia present in football hasn’t only been seen in the reactions to the only gay player that there has been any chance for discrimination to occur against. As far as I’ve been able to find, there’s only one openly gay player in the world of professional football currently, and they are Anton Hys√©n,¬†found in the incredibly minor Swedish Fourth Division. Unfortunately he hasn’t made any particular point of coming out in order to act as a role model or provide support. Rather anti-climatically his father simply mentioned it in passing to some journalists.¬†Whilst Hys√©n doesn’t express much of a problem in the environment he plays in, plenty of straight, high level players have received abuse because of how they’re perceived.

This is Freddie Ljungberg. He was the captain of the Swedish national team. Rumours flew wildly around that he was gay because of the fact that he apparently dressed too well, and also openly ‘admitted’ that he enjoys musical theatre. The fact that one has to experience extensive rumour and gossip simply for not fitting the cookie-cutter ‘lad’s lad’ image in every conceivable way is rather depressing. Good on him for shrugging such questions off as a compliment reflecting the stereotypical fashionable grooming of gay men. Interesting to think how many individuals would react defensively or angrily at such a question.

In 2009, Ian Trow and a 14 year old boy were convicted of shouting homophobic abuse at Sol Campbell, and yet this case was regarded as a legal first, despite piles of evidence of abuse being hurled with depressing frequency. Evidence for this can be found in a report written by the charity Stonewall, titled ‘Leagues Behind – football’s failure to tackle anti-gay abuse’, which can be found here.

Whilst the survey’s usefulness is limited due to being a collection of simple statistics of football fan’s answers to a survey, some of the quotations found in the survey reveal attitudes and behaviour that are really rather shocking.

“If I found out one of my players was gay, I would throw him off the team”

Luiz Felipe Scolari, 2002, manager of Palmeiras, one of the most successful Brazilian football clubs

“The homophobic taunting and bullying left me close to walking away from football. I went through times that were like depression. I did not know where I was going. I would get up in the morning and would not feel good and by the time I got into training I would be so nervous that I felt sick. I dreaded going in. I was like a bullied kid on his way to school to face his tormentors”

Graham Le Saux, retired professional player who experienced homophobic abuse due to how he was perceived

“Sol, Sol, wherever you may be; you’re on the verge of lunacy; we don’t care if you’re hanging from a tree; ‘cos you’re a Judas c*** with HIV”

Chant used against Sol Campbell at the Tottenham Hotspur vs. Portsmouth game on 28th September 2008.

I feel this beautiful Husky sums up my feelings with adequate eloquence.

As far as I see it, the biggest barrier and problem regarding this sort of abuse lies with the supporters. I can’t think of any other sport where thousands of supporters chant ‘banter’ directly at players or teams during play, often with massively abusive overtones. Peddling the excuses of ‘it’s not meant with malice’ or ‘such chanting is part of the tradition and people shouldn’t take it to heart’ ¬†are tiresome, and certainly don’t hold any weight with regards to racial slurs any more. yet another quotation that sums this up rather neatly states:

“It’s not about thinking the player actually is gay but about finding something abusive to say that’s still legal. The fact that “gay” is used as an all-purpose epithet by Chris Moyles and the like doesn’t help. Most people have been socialised out of racial comments; many still use “gay”.”

Graham, 62, Charleston Athletic supporter

That’s not to say that attitudes of other players and managers aren’t important. Of course, they’re crucial. Just as the reactions of friends and colleagues are important when any gay person comes out. What is more, they set a huge precedent. Fortunately, official action is being taken in recognition of this as a continuing, real, serious problem. Unfortunately, when comparing this issue to that of endemic racism in the world of football decades ago, someone stepping up to say they condemned racism didn’t and doesn’t result in whispers and accusations that the individual is black.

Classical music and gender – instruments, orchestras, and stereotypes

There are fricking loads of stereotypes everywhere you look in society related to gender and sexuality. The most basic things like the choice of colour of an object can cause people to make all sorts of judgements on things such as ‘how you act’, or who you like to take to bed.

It fascinates me how some straight males behave as if they’re all magnets of the same polarity. Also that more than 6 square inches of physical contact with another man will irreversibly lead to sodomy. Just call it queersteria.

Arguably, one of the stranger realms into which these stereotypes penetrate is that of music. I want to focus today on looking at two sides to this – sexism encountered in professional classical music, and gendered associations with instrument choices.

When I talked to a few musicians (professionals and students) about this, on at least three separate occasions I was asked “you’ve looked at the Vienna Philharmonic then?”. Seeing as I was just vaguely musing on that it was an interesting thing to consider at that point I had not, but I now have. With a reputation as one of the finest orchestras in the world, they had¬†a¬†policy of women not being members until 1997. Today, they have progressed to have a depressing 6 women…out of 138 members.

It amuses me that the Google search ‘sexist orchestra’ gives the Vienna Philharmonic Wikipedia page as the first hit.

It’s a Vienna sausagefest.

The reluctance that this orchestra, and many others have exhibited in their hiring of women players ¬†has been pathetically defended in terms of fluffy claims about the ‘soul’ of the music, and importance of a ‘unified, masculine aesthetic’. In 1996, a radio interview was held in Germany that included 3 members of the Vienna Philharmonic along with a Viennese sociolgist, who were defending “the priority of musical results over all other concerns” (The full article on this, and other issues discussed in this post, may be found here). Some of the gems they stated included:

“So if one thinks that the world should function by quota regulations, then it is naturally irritating that we are a group of white skinned male musicians, that perform exclusively the music of white skinned male composers.¬†¬†It is a racist and sexist irritation.¬†¬†I believe one must put it that way.¬†¬†If one establishes superficial egalitarianism, one will lose something very significant.¬†¬†Therefore, I am convinced that it is worthwhile to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produced by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards.”

“Pregnancy brings problems.¬†¬†It brings disorder.¬†¬†Another important argument against women is that they can bring the solidarity of the men in question.¬†¬†You find that in all men¬īs groups … And the women can also contribute to creating competition among the men.¬†¬†They distract men.¬†¬†Not the older women.¬†¬†No one gives a damn about the older ones.¬†¬†It is the younger ones.¬†¬†The older women are already clever, they run to you!¬†¬†But the 20 or 25 year olds…¬†¬†They would be the problem. These are the considerations.¬†¬†In a monastery it is the same.¬†¬†The alter is a holy area, and the other gender may not enter it, because it would cause disorder.¬†¬†Such are the opinions.”

Men are musicians because they don’t get emotionally worked up about silly little things, like women being musi- oh wait.

So they argue that women shouldn’t be allowed because either men get too distracted by their wicked feminine wiles, or basically that women don’t play with the same emotional control as men do.

I would say this was bullshit, except that they do a pretty good of this themselves through their actions. Let’s see how.

  • The Vienna Philharmonic, like many orchestras, has a female harpist. She wasn’t recognised as a ‘member’, but played with them for 20 years. It was okay though, because she sits *near the edge*.
  • More and more, and since as early as the 1940s and 1950s, various orchestras have been using ‘blind auditions’ in order to remove racism and sexism from the auditioning process. The lead to a 50% increase in female audition success rate.¬†This rather blows the claim that women ‘naturally’ produce an inferior sound out of the water.
The painstakingly slow entry of female musicians into these old-school bastions of white male tradition have predictably not been easy. When the Berlin Philharmonic allowed entrance to its first woman (Sebine Meyer, a clarinetist), she was rejected after her probation period, with a vote of 73-4. This was apparently due to her ‘musical tone’ not being a woman. Funny how at rehearsals she was made to feel as welcome as ¬†flatulence in a lift, as other members would literally move their chairs away from her, as if she’d give them music-cooties.
I can be quite a simple creature. I was amused that these three options fit with what happens in an orchestra.
To give a bit of comparison with UK orchestras, this neat little piece from 2003 gives an illustration:
A random sample of five British symphony orchestras suggests that gender ratios vary wildly: the Hall√© and the BBC Symphony may not do badly (the Hall√© has 45 men and 38 women; the BBCSO 55 men, 37 women), but orchestras such as the London Philharmonic and Bournemouth Symphony trail, splitting at 52-23 and 45-26 respectively. And the London Symphony Orchestra, widely regarded as being the country’s most successful, has 77 male members to 22 female.
In relation to gender division between instrument choices, she adds:

And, if you sweep your eye over any orchestra on stage, you will notice a particular phenomenon: women players are concentrated among the string sections, with fewer appearances in the woodwind. They are almost absent from the brass sections, traditionally orchestras’ laddy, hard-drinking outposts. Meanwhile, you will rarely see a male harpist.

To be fair, this reflects a cultural fact that parents are more likely to give their daughters a nice, “girly” instrument such as a violin or a flute than the galumphing, “unfeminine” trombone or tuba. And to suggest that your boy plays a harp might seem akin to some parents to encouraging an encyclopaedic knowledge of show tunes and a taste for interior decoration.

And yet despite this social stereotyping (which I found echoed when snooping on a classical music forum), virtually all professional/soloist/famous flautists are men. It seems like whilst on the one hand a lack of women playing particular kinds of instruments such as those in the brass section will be due to the social encouragement that high-pitched, soft, delicate sounds are more appropriate/desirable/’feminine’, on the other hand there’s still a worrying smattering of old-school sexists smattered around this particular industry.

In that much of the musical professional world is connected through who has played with who, who has been taught by who, who went to what conservatoires and met who, etc. This network-oriented system reinforces similarity. It was politicians that caused the much needed change in the Vienna Philharmonic’s policy rather than musicians.

Shameless little mini-plug, but it involves a lot of my voice, so.

Last night by a string of happy coincidences, I was invited to be part of a panel answering questions on issues of welfare and gender in Cambridge! It was super enjoyable, so thanks to the lovely people who got me involved.

For those who also may know her, the other guest speaker on the show was the wonderful Ruth Graham, feminist extraordinaire and currently Women’s Officer for Cambridge University Student Union.

The show can be heard by clicking here.

The link should be active for the next six weeks or so, I guess until 22/03/2012.

Scroll down a little bit, and look on the right for the box labelled ‘Listen again’. Click the link that reads ’20:00 08/02/2012′ and there you go!

The show also features a really brilliant interview with Sarah Brown, Cambridge City Councillor and the only openly Trans politician in the country. Another small interview with Sarah can be read in Diva magazine from last year, here.

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