A queer exploration of all things gender

Archive for the ‘Socialisation’ Category

Have you heard of this Trans riot that pre-dates Stonewall?

In the spirit of the international Transgender Day of Remembrance (20th November), I’ll be looking at one of the earliest 20th century events which helped to nucleate the organisation of LGBTQ movements and rights as we know them today.


The occurrence I’m referring to was the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966. A full three years before the much more famous Stonewall riots, this riot occurred in August but the exact date is lost to history. The cafeteria was located in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, known in part as a rough patch – so unsurprisingly, had large populations of drag queens, prostitutes, and other marginalised members of society. The cafe was open 24 hours a day, which made it a popular spot for the queer underworld to frequent in the small hours. This didn’t mean the management were sympathetic to their queer customers however. The management is said to have called the police to remove a group of queens from the premises, under the pretext of noisiness, and hanging around too long without spending very much. At this time, it was extremely common practice for the police to stop people visually judged as gender variant, as it would be most likely such individuals wouldn’t match the name or appearance of any ID they might have, allowing for easy arrests. There had previously been a history of laws in the US prohibiting cross-dressing, and whilst struck down in Chicago there was still a strong association culturally with perceived cross-dressing as being associated with fraud and ‘anti-social conduct’ – so-called nuisance crimes that were often used to arrest queer people.

So, the police were called, and they were used to dealing with ‘people like that’. But when trying to arrest the queens, one of them threw her cup of coffee in the officer’s face. This sparked full scale resistance – everyone started throwing everything they could get their hands on, and so the police called for backup. Chairs and tables started being thrown. The plate glass windows of the cafeteria were smashed. The fear and rage that the queer community had experienced a build-up of in response to long term, systematic abuses at the hands of the police finally overflowed. A police car was vandalised. A news stand was burned to the ground.

One would think that fighting of this scale would be easy to date when it’s still within living memory. However police recording isn’t archived that far back, and more tellingly there was no newspaper coverage of the riot. One of the earliest references to the riot was 6 years later, in the program of the first San Francisco gay pride parade, in 1972.

The night after the riot, the cafeteria would not allow anyone judged to be transgender (or a queen, or ‘people like that’) in to be served. This resulted in the new plate windows installed in the daytime to be smashed again.

So what was the impact (beyond chairs into windows)? The queers who rose up weren’t actually completely disorganised when this riot took place. Only a couple of months earlier an organisation called Vanguard had been founded by activist ministers of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, a very liberal church (for the time in particular) who tried to help all marginalised members of the community. Vanguard was ‘an organisation of, by, and for the kids on the streets’ – a detailed revisit of Vanguard can be found here. Vanguard’s meetings were held at Compton’s, and many of the rioters were most certainly Vanguard members. The networking and sense of urgency that the riot engendered (pardon the pun) amongst the community took activism forward. 1966 was an important year in transgender history because of the publication of the book The Transsexual Phenomenon by Harry Benjamin, which argued from a medical position that transsexuality wasn’t something that could be ‘cured’, and that doctors had a responsibility to help trans people feel happy with the gender they identified with. Such post-riot networking and in the context of this publication led to the set-up of the National Transsexual Counselling Unit by 1968, which was peer-run.

Much of the work that exists on Compton’s was put together by Susan Stryker, author of the book Transgender History (an important reference for this article) and director of the 2005 film Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria. In these works a great deal more social and political context is provided. However it is crucial to remember the impact of past struggles for basic rights and respect, along with the victims and warriors who have fallen on the path towards transgender liberation.

The Inequality of Civil Partnerships and Marriage Persists

In the UK that is. I want to talk about that.

So let’s start by going back to 2004, when the Civil Partnership Act was brought about (well, gained Royal Assent anyway. The first actual UK civil partnership happened on 5th December 2005). I’m not going to talk about why it was a bad thing for there to be nothing in place for LGBTQ people before this (and all the rights it gave), but I will outline why it still wasn’t good enough. This isn’t necessarily all that obvious for a lot of people and deserves making clear. I’ll then move on to what the problems are that STILL remain with the new marriage set up! This is one of those rare instances when I hope that the contents of this post don’t age all that well. I hope I’ll be able to look back on this and think about how things have changed for the better. There’s all sorts of finickity angles this article could’ve taken, and a lot more to say. But it’s long enough as it is. I’ve tried to stick to what I see as core issues.

Many of the problems with the old Civil Partnership Act and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 are due to their inability to account for transgender people, but we’ll get to that.

One of the most obvious ways in which the ‘separate but equal’ claim regarding civil partnerships vs. marriage is the disservice done to any LGBTQ person who might be religious. It was prohibited for civil partnerships to contain religious readings, music (such as hymns) or symbols. This is still the case actually, which is interesting given that not every organised religious practice (or even every organised Christian practice) opposes ‘same sex’ marriage – just certain major ones such as the Catholic Church, and the Church of England. Reformed Judaism and (some) churches following Quakerism for example were supportive of same-sex unions, but the government still deemed it a matter of law to decide how a civil partnership could be conducted in terms of religious content.

Okay, okay. So the government (eventually) recognised this was bad, so in 2011 after the Equality Act of the previous year, civil partnerships could now take place in religious venues – though in accordance with the protection of (homophobic) religious freedom, places of worship could not be compelled to conduct civil partnerships. However, the costs and administration created large and unequal barriers for willing places of worship to be positioned to legally conduct civil partnerships, even when they already did marriages, which makes… no sense.


Credit to: https://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/ (under creative commons)

Arguably more serious though was the financial inequality that civil partnerships allowed. This video explains this very eruditely – how a widow or widower of a marriage was able to get significantly larger pensions as a result of their deceased partner, in comparison to survivors of a civil partnership ended by death. It also highlights that civil partnerships may not be recognised abroad in some countries, regardless of whether they have gay marriage or their own civil partnership equivalence, or not. Andrea Woelke (the chap in the video) also makes the valuable point that being in a civil partnership could put people in a position where they have to ‘out’ themselves when required to declare their marital status, which carries the potential to experience fear, or harm.

Whilst there are other bits and bobs that made marriage and civil partnerships fundamentally different experiences under the law, (such as the potential criteria for ending each type of union), the ugly problem of the gender binary within law is starkly revealed when looking at how the government chose to deal with marriage and civil partnerships in relation to trans people. Christine Burns talks about this, and also gives attention to the context of and interplay with the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 as well.

Up until the Gender Recognition Act (so pre-2004), trans women were still legally classified as men, and trans men were legally classified as women. The fact that people still are until dealing with the gauntlet of the Gender Recognition Certificate is not a discussion for here. What I mean to say is simply that until this time, there was no possibility of a trans person’s gender identity to be recognised under the law. This meant that a trans woman could legally marry a cis woman, because it was technically an ‘opposite sex’ marriage (and vice versa, with a trans man marrying a cis man). Many transgender people also would remain married after transitioning – rendering them legally married, yet for all visible social and personal purposes, a same-sex couple. However, the Gender Recognition Act coming in gave the government a problem – if these married transgender people could have their genders legally recognised (and therefore changed), marriages would start to exist between two men, or two women. Therefore it was made law that before a transgender person could receive a Gender Recognition Certificate, they had to divorce their partner. They could then get the GRC as a single person, and then get a civil partnership again afterwards.

It’s not like this is an immense hassle in terms of logistics? Or that it is deeply insulting or upsetting to have to do this to attain legal rights? Or that both individuals have to put the legal safety nets that marriage grants at risk in order to do this process? Except they do. And I say ‘do’ because this is still the legal status quo. Unlikely though it might be, if one partner died during the period of not being married or civilly partnered, it could quite obviously screw just about everything up. Especially if children, a co-owned or shared residence, life insurance, and pensions are involved. Whilst in theory that conversion process can happen within a day, this depends upon, as Burns puts it: “Lengthy meetings on the logistics of such a tortuous process indicated that if everyone had read the instructions and followed them to the letter, it would be possible”. But that’s a fairly sizeable ‘if’.

This is all also true the other way around. If say, you have a trans woman (legally considered male), who is straight (attracted to men), she could legally be civilly partnered. But in order to gain legal gender recognition, that would have to be dissolved first because heterosexual civil partnerships are still banned in the UK. As for how easy it might be for a trans person to have a religious marriage (rather than a civil one), within the Church of England this is apparently okay – though clergy do have the right to refuse to conduct such marriages as long as their church is still made available.

So this has brought us to where things are now. Yes, they introduced civil marriage, so now same-sex couples can get around the above stuff. Unless you’re trans where you still have to do that ridiculous get-divorced-to-get-recognised-and-get-remarried-again thing. HOWEVER. They have introduced a way for a member of a married couple to get their gender recognised without separating first. The same provision allows a civilly partnered couple involving a transgender person to simply ‘convert’ that civil partnerships into a marriage without separating first. This comes into effect on 10th December 2014. The big problems are first: if you are civilly partnered, you HAVE to change it to a civil marriage or split before anyone can get a Gender Recognition Certificate. Because no heterosexual civil partnerships, remember? Second: before a married trans person can have their gender legally recognised, their spouse has the right to veto this. Sarah Brown says:

So basically, if your spouse can’t, or won’t sign the consent form, you have to divorce them to get your rights. This creates what is possibly the most passive-aggressive legally sanctioned way to initiate a divorce ever, i.e. “I don’t want to divorce you, but I’m going to veto your human rights until you divorce me”.

Getting a GRC is a heavily involved process, and requires that a person has lived as their identified gender for at least two years. Pretty hard to do that in most marital arrangements without working out what the future holds for the relationship. As this article highlights, some partners are not supportive of their partner’s transitions, and may throw up roadblocks to try and prevent this from happening. Selfishly and delusionally hoping that by making transition considerably more torturous, their partner might decide ‘it’s not worth it’. This misunderstands transition in the same way that the government clearly has. It isn’t a choice like going on holiday, whereby not doing so makes you disappointed. Not being able to transition can cause enormous harm, or cost lives. The partner should not have any legal right to block this. Any relationship with healthy communication going on would either have already ensured that it’s fine and they’re staying together, or have already separated or begun separations. Or made a decision one way or another. This simply creates the possibility for spiteful, transition blocking action on the part of estranged partners.

Another thing there is to understand is that in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, marriage is a devolved issue. This means that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland get to make up their own minds on what they want to be allowed. The first same sex marriages will be able to occur in Scotland on 31st December 2014, for instance. Northern Ireland however has decided not to allow same-sex marriages, and will treat same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions as civil partnerships… hopefully from having read the above, you can see obvious problems with this. Public opinion is almost a dead even split, but this shouldn’t really matter. Human rights shouldn’t be put up for a vote, especially when the ones voting aren’t the ones affected.

For as long as the unions between two (or more…?) people are bound up in legal and religious anxieties about the genders of the people involved, we will never have true equality. Don’t forget that as regards non-binary people, there isn’t a single official word on what they can or can’t have.

For any FtM readers in the UK in particular…

Below is my PhD proposal, which has been accepted to start later this year. I am going to be looking into problems that exist within medical policy and the medical establishment that unfairly hinder transition.

I am a cis (queer, but cis) white male, and I want you to believe that I recognise how problematic it could be, me trying to do this kind of work without having directly experienced the relevant issues myself. This is why it is going to be of utmost importance to me for this project to be lead by trans* voices. Not to just go around begging for interviews and treating people like data and stats. I intend to earn and keep the trust of anyone and everyone who agrees to work with me in the course of my work over the next few years.

What’s my motivation? Other than the obvious anger anyone who knows even a little bit about systematic cissexism should experience with regards to legistlative and policy structures, my best friend was an incredible trans man who I was very close to, but tragically he took his own life. Also I have been privileged in supporting my (now ex) long term partner through his own transition some time after this.

Bottom line is: please be in touch if you have anything to say about this project. I will take all criticism/encouragement/suggestions very seriously, as my cis-privilege means I should. Do feel free to pass this on to anyone you may feel would be interested, and follow this blog for further updates on this project – most of which won’t take off until October or afterwards, but yeah. So below is my proposal, as it was accepted:

Female to Male Transgender Transitions through the NHS – Addressing Policy Problems

There is no reason why psychiatrists and other mental health professionals cannot be charged with the responsibility of recognizing gender-identity issues without the necessity of labelling them as disorders.

Gianna E. Israel and Donald E. Tarver in Transgender Care: Recommended Guidelines, Practical Information and Personal Accounts

Research Context

Transgender people often experience an urgent need for medical treatment in order to facilitate a transition in gender presentation. Whilst data is lacking, it has been estimated that suicide risk in post-operative trans people is potentially seventy times higher than the risk for the overall US population (Haas et al. 2011), and suicide risk has been estimated at 19-25% for those seeking surgical gender reassignment (Dixen, Maddever, van Maasdam, Edwards, 1984). Whilst distress for trans individuals may result from the dissonance experienced between the mental and physical self (characterised as gender dysphoria), lack of support, as with any serious personal issue, may have an extremely detrimental effect on the individual’s ability to cope with their situation. This research will address medical (and legal) policy in the UK regarding transgender transition for AFAB (assigned female at birth) individuals. The reason for this particular focus is that treatment routes and transition difficulties are extremely different depending upon the direction of transition, and this focus will allow for both a wider consideration of AFAB experiences and greater depth of analysis. This research is particularly timely due to the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) being due for release in May 2013, which should have some ramifications for how gender identity dissonance is addressed clinically.

Currently there exists no specific gender and sexuality minority training as part of UK medical degrees or clinical training. This leads to primary care physicians often being ill-equipped to deal with the needs of trans patients – and in some cases directly doubting or dismissing the patient’s needs, resulting in risk of harm. Of the knowledge of transgender issues amongst the primary care medical population, much is extensively pathologising. This is due to the historical status quo of the power dynamic between doctor and patient, whereby medical ‘expertise’ trumps lived experience and identity (Cohen-Kettenis and Friedemann, 2010). Similarities can be seen with the discourse generated by the reversal of knowledge/power relations between the medical establishment and HIV positive gay men in the 1980s, who also often had a more detailed grasp of their options and needs than their physicians did (Weeks, 1990). However, a key difference is the grassroots push towards recognition by the medical establishment that trans* identities are not inherently pathological – as reflected partially by the upcoming revisions to theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-V). ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ will henceforth be understood as ‘Gender Dysphoria’, and ‘Transvestic Fetishism’ as ‘Transvestic Disorder’.

Relating to the Literature

Whilst the crux of this project will be the analysis of qualitative data generated by interview schema (as detailed in the methodology section), it will be important to further contextualise individual’s experiences in terms of queer theory. This will provide evidence of the extent of cissexist positions and behaviour within gatekeepers and other positions of social authority, and the social context of how this has come to be the case. Cissexism (the belief and treatment of transgender people as inferior to non-trans people) within society has already been considered by such important authors as Julia Serano and Riki Wilchins. It is also important to consider that in the formation of policy concerning gender and health, a binary model of gender is likely to be utilised, which may not provide recognition of the identities of all individuals who wish to transition (Bilodeau, 2005). The way in which any individual’s behaviour patterns (such as a doctor to a patient) are externally effected will depend upon the local cultures, geographies and other individuals they find to be their environment (Stevens 2004). A nuanced understanding of this may be aided by consideration of Social Identity Theory (Tajfel, 1981) and concepts such as dramaturgy – The idea that human actions are dependent upon where, when, and with whom they occur (Goffman, 1959).

Feminist epistemology will be used to address the intersection of patriarchal oppression (particularly when presenting as female) and trans identities, such as with the ‘border wars’ of butch lesbian, transmasculine and trans male identities (Halberstam 1998), transition from one group to another and how this can impact upon support networks and involvement in (for example) female-only spaces.

Research Questions

A key question of the thesis will be how and why did undesirable scenarios experienced by trans men happen? It is recognised that demand is greater than supply regarding appointments with NHS gender identity clinics, with 22% of users in October 2006 of the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic waiting over a year for a first appointment (Reed, Rhodes, Schofield and Wylie, 2009). Patients are required to have two meetings at such a clinic before being granted access to hormonal treatment, and the desperation and loss of morale that can accumulate in this time can result in risky self-medication using the internet to purchase hormones, self-harm, and suicide. The research will explore the space that exists between medical claims that may exist for the importance of the current framework that governs these appointments and the demands for improvement and change vocalised by the trans male population.

Other questions include asking to what extent may dissatisfaction with the medical establishment be a lack of detailed understanding of well founded (as opposed to well-intentioned but ultimately flawed) commitment to the well-being of patients? To what extent is the current medical establishment policy built on subtle cissexist assumptions and responses? A common argument for example, for the extent of hoops that need to be jumped through is that treatment with testosterone has certain irreversible physiological changes, and that protection must be offered to those who may ‘change their minds’, and be later caused distress and dysphoria by the retrospective treatments. The cisgender (to hold the same gender identity as was assigned at birth) perspective of how traumatic it would be to have one’s physiological gender markers (voice, fat distribution, breast tissue, musculature, etc.) altered in an undesirable way is arguably given a greater sense of importance than the provision to the treatment of trans people is (Taylor, 2010). It is considerably easier for a cis person to empathise with the former hypothetical scenario than it is with a trans person’s lived experience. The negative impact of undesirable physical traits is not at issue, but the insidious way in which what one is born with (or without) can be afforded a privileged position over the need for change.



This project will have a multi-faceted and interdisciplinary approach, utilising both empirical data and queer theory to synergistically explore the reality of trans experiences and the political and social frameworks within which these exist and are shaped. The precedent for transgender activism leading to a revision of policy is the framework upon which I will build this thesis. Through qualitative methodologies such as semi-structured interviews and surveying, I will collect and analyse accounts of trans men’s experiences with both NHS and private medical establishments, paying particular attention to delays and dissatisfactions with prescription to testosterone and approval for surgical procedures.

Whilst the focus of this project would be the experiences of self-defined male experiences, I believe it is also important to cross-examine such data with the experiences and knowledge (or lack thereof) of both primary and secondary care medical practitioners regarding their practice and knowledge of both transgender treatment provisions and what may be termed political considerations, such as pronoun usage and the phrasing of questions, and their necessity and appropriateness. Collecting qualitative data from staff who are involved with any of the administrative processes which dictates a trans person’s trajectory through medical systems may also prove valuable, though whether this direction is taken or not may be informed by information gathered from trans reports. Recognition and treatment of those AFAB individuals with non-binary gender identities is also to be involved. Whilst medical transition processes and lived experiences do vary in a clear and divisible way based on assignation at birth (before consideration of intersexed individuals at any rate), the social model of binary genders is being increasingly recognised as a dissatisfactory lens through which to view the wide spectra of queer identities which have gained visibility over the last fifty years (Hubbard, 1996). It is a common conception by many trans people that in order to achieve the (variable) desired end-goals of engagement with the medical establishment, a favourable narrative may need to be constructed in order to be considered ‘right’ (Rubin, 2003).

Policy Implications

“I just want a therapist who ‘gets’ me. I don’t want to have to explain gender, sex, and all that other stuff. I have been to so many therapists where I have to educate them. I have to tell them first that I am not a ‘freak’. Then, I have to make sure they feel comfortable. And then we get down to my real issues.” – Luke, 21 year old transgender man

Handbook of Multicultural Counselling Competencies, Erickson Cornish J. A. et al.

The ultimate goal of the project is to offer a rigorous academic approach to both assessment of the efficacy of systems designed to alleviate suffering, whilst also exploring important questions of identities and power. The ramifications of such work would hopefully lead to policy review such that trans voices and experiences are better heard by medical establishments. Systems for recognising cissexism in policy (or where it could be enacted by free agents in positions of authority) can be created and used in protection from and prevention of cissexism, for transgender populations. This work will provide a rigorous, empirical approach to policy formation that will help provide a greater voice for an often poorly understood minority, undeniably improving lives.


Biloeau, B. (2005) ‘Beyond the Gender Binary: A Case Study of Two Transgender Students at a Midwestern Research University’, Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education, Vol. 3, Issue 1

Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., Friedemann, P., (2012) ‘The DSM Diagnostic Criteria for Gender Identity Disorder in Adolescents and Adults’. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 39:499-513.

Erickson Cornish J. A. et al. (2010), Handbook of Multicultural Counselling Competencies, John Wiley & Sons.

Dixen, J. M., Maddever, H., van Maasdam, J., Edwards, P. W., (1984). Psychosocial characteristics of applicants evaluated for surgical gender reassignment. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 13(3), 269-276.

Goffman, E. (1959), ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. Anchor books.

Haas, A. P. et al. (2011), Suicide and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Populations: Review and Recommendations. Journal of Homosexuality, 58:10-51.

Halberstam, J. (1998) Female Masculinity, Duke University Press.

Hubbard, R. (1996) Gender and Genitals: Constructs of Sex and Gender, No. 46/47, Science Wars, pp. 157-165.

Reed, B., Rhodes, S., Schofield, P., and Wylie, K. (2009) Gender Variance in the UK: Prevalence, incidence, growth and geographic distribution, GIRES.

Rubin, H. (2003) Self-Made Men – Identity and Embodiment Among Transsexual Men, Vanderbilt University Press.

Serano, J. (2007) Whipping Girl – A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press.

Stevens, R. A. (2004), ‘Understanding Gay Identity Development Within the College Environment’, Journal of College Student Development, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 185-206.

Tajfel, H. (1981), ‘Human Groups and Social Categories: Studies in Social Psychology’, Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, E. (2010) ‘Cisgender privilege: on the privileges of performing normative gender’, in Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation by Bornstein, K. and Bergman, S. B., Seal Press.

Weeks, J. (1990) Coming Out, Quartet Publishing.

Wilchins, R. (2004), ‘Queer Theory, Gender Theory’. Alyson books, Los Angeles.

What is the Relevance of one’s Legal Gender?

Hey all – sorry for the large hiatus. Due to personal family reasons there isn’t likely to be much activity for the immediate future, but I will be back to writing regularly eventually. In particular there are lots of new book reviews lined up.


Whilst I haven’t written anything *new* per se, for those who have an interest in gender through an academic lens, I am posting one of my essays from my Master’s Degree in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies. Sorry about the lack of pictures, I don’t think the examining panel would’ve approved. This was written in May 2011.


What is the relevance of one’s legal gender?

When asking about the relevance of one’s legal gender, one must address various questions that immediately lead from this. Some of these questions are legal in nature and others examine the social context within which the laws are made and executed. The most obvious place to start when asking about the relevance of one’s legal gender is to ask how does the law define one’s gender, and how does it distinguish this (if indeed it does at all) from one’s ‘sex’? One then needs to ask both how and when it is relevant for an individual to be placed in one legal category or another. How does the law deal with individuals whose categorisation is unobvious or contested for the purposes of making a decision for which the outcome varies based on the gender category of the individual in question? How are people who have changed legal category then treated by the law? And finally, is legal gender always relevant when scrutinised in legal proceedings, or indeed is legal gender ever ignored when it should not be? By addressing each of these questions in turn, not only are the factual ‘word of the law’ and the subjective way in which it is interpreted addressed, but the bigger picture of how legal, social and medical hegemony affect each other and come to shape what is accepted and therefore what is legislated is understood.

So how are sex and gender defined under the law? Under present UK law, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are recognised, and are indicated on UK birth certificates under the heading of ‘sex’ as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. This is used to define a person’s legal sex and gender. Whilst it is a legal requirement that births are registered within forty two days in England and Wales (Directgov, 2011) and that a child’s ‘sex’ is given, it is assumed rather than explicitly outlined that ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are the acceptable possible responses. It is worth nothing that whilst it is common for the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ to be used interchangeably in any given context, it is also common particularly in scholarly parlance for ‘sex’ to be used to refer to a person’s categorisation based on biology (broadly understood to refer to a composite understanding based on genital, gonadal and chromosomal sex, which has been increasingly recognised as problematic when considering intersex individuals in particular) and ‘gender’ to refer to a person’s social categorisation, which may rest more on self-definition and social visibility, that which is presented for others to see.

An important legal precedent was established by the case Corbett vs. Corbett heard in 1970. In this case, the husband of the male-to-female (MTF) transsexual April Ashley petitioned for nullity upon the breakdown of their marriage on the basis that as April was legally male the marriage was void (Whittle, 1999). Whilst at the time it was held for the purposes of matrimonial law that hormone treatment and surgery did not result in a legal change of sex, which was then cited in many forthcoming legal cases, this changed with the advent of the Gender Recognition Act 2004.Interestingly, whilst the entirety of this act is written in terms of gender, the terms gender and sex are not formally defined as part of the Act. However, it is specified that “Where a full gender recognition certificate is issued to a person, the person’s gender becomes for all purposes the acquired gender (so that, if the acquired gender is the male gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a man and, if it is the female gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a woman)” (Gender Recognition Act 2004). One might think therefore that once an individual has received a gender recognition certificate, they would be legally indistinguishable from members of the same sex who were born as such. However there are exceptions to this which means that some individuals can problematically find themselves with a currently legal and previously legal gender that are both still legally relevant. Specific examples of where this may occur will be discussed later.

The law then, in its current form rests upon a binary understanding of sex and gender. There are a wide range of different scenarios where membership of a particular category results in different treatment under the law, thus demonstrating legal relevance. Before discussing these scenarios it is important to establish the difference between legal and social relevance. It is well established that the treatment of men and women is socially unequal, as can be evidenced from observing pay gaps that endure between men and women by occupational group (Browne, 2006). These inequalities exist as a result of how individuals are observed, socially categorised and treated by others rather than by a word present on their birth certificate which affects their treatment under particular legal circumstances. Individuals who are observed as ‘woman’ are treated differently to those who are observed as ‘man’, but may or may not be treated in the same way under the law. For instance a male-to-female transsexual who ‘passes’ is likely to have on average ‘a woman’s’ social experiences (the precise meaning of which could receive detailed treatment but is not the focus here), which must therefore be independent of their legal gender – if they remain technically, legally, a man.

Therefore, legal gender is not particularly relevant when considering many questions of women’s rights and women’s treatment under the law. This rather is the relevance of one’s social gender in legal contexts. An example of this would be the treatment of women as flight attendants during the late 1960s and 1970s. Female employees were restricted in ways that male employees were not, which could include not wearing glasses, being unmarried, physical attractiveness, and being under the age of thirty-two (Rhode, 1989). The age and marriage rules resulted in many women leaving their jobs each year, preventing a fair proportion of women from reaching senior positions, thus being unable to reach higher pay brackets and senior staff pension schemes. This discrimination is clearly based on female aesthetic rather than legal gender, and whilst clearly unacceptable under modern legal frameworks, if legally challenged would not need to consider legal gender in successfully arguing illegal sexism. Women are considerably more likely to be the victims of domestic violence, sexual assaults and rape (Walker, A., Kershaw, C., and Nicholas, S., 2006), but this is crime against individuals that is a product of their social rather than legal category as demonstrable by the successful socialisation within the desired gender by transsexuals (who successfully ‘pass’, and are not criminally targeted as a result of their trans status). If a female plaintiff makes a legal case of sexual harassment, it would not be usual practice to scrutinise her legal gender in order to ascertain whether the case was valid. It is chiefly where social and legal genders are not the same, or were once not the same (in the case of transsexual and transgendered people) and where sex does not readily fit into the binary (intersex people) that scrutiny of legal gender becomes most relevant.

There are still many important ways in which legal decisions vary based on a person’s legal gender, and a case with many relevant examples is that of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom, at the European Court of Human Rights in 2002. Whilst this case occurred before the major change seen by the instigation of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, the case still highlights the relevance of legal gender in several key ways than can be related to current law and to social theory.

In this case, Ms. Goodwin was successful in claiming breaches occurred of articles 8 and 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which are respectively the rights to respect for one’s private and family life, home and correspondence, and the right to marry and found a family. There were three key claims that were the basis of her case. Firstly,that the UK Government had not taken any steps to address the suffering experienced by post-operative transsexuals despite international court warnings to keep this under review. Secondly, rapid changes in regards to the social attitude towards transsexuals were taking place worldwide, and thirdly that discriminatory legislature regarding pension age and access to her NI number by her employee lead to significant distress and difficulty (Council of Europe, 2002). The European court’s response shows agreement that aspects of UK legislature were unsatisfactory by this time at dealing with social reality relative to trans people’s legal gender. By making the points that: “The stress and alienation arising from a discordance between the position in society assumed by a post-operative transsexual and the status imposed by law which refused to recognise the change of gender cannot, in the Court’s view, be regarded as a minor inconvenience arising from a formality”, “The Court is struck by the fact that nonetheless the gender re-assignment which is lawfully provided is not met with full recognition in the law” and “it appears illogical to refuse to recognise the legal implications of the result to which the treatment leads” (Council of Europe, 2002), demonstrates the necessity for legal gender to be harmonious with an individual’s (chosen and observed) social gender in all ways in order to avoid obvious inconsistencies leading to unequal treatment. Legal gender then, is highly relevant in the sense that there are many medical and professional contexts where one can be demanded to provide one’s legal gender. How necessary this is may be controversial, but due to being the reality which may impact heavily on an individual’s right to privacy, the relevance is undisputable. Yet, the requirements and responsibilities of individuals remain poorly defined. This point is well made by Whittle when he says: “If the trans man were born outside of Britain then his identity in each of these areas of the law would be dependent upon the nation state he was born in. yet the trans man would be classified on his driving licence (through the codification system) as a man. But what if the trans man is required to give his ‘sex’ to the court as he is facing a driving disqualification? Presumably the purpose of that disclosure is to ensure that the driving licence records of the correct person are marked up. Should he say he is a man or male, or should he say he is a woman or female? What is the requirement of the law, which would ensure that the correct person has his or her driving records amended? It is no defence to a criminal act to argue that you had no knowledge of the law or that you did not understand it” (Whittle, 1999). This also raises the question of how ‘relevant’ does legal gender have to be in order to justify a requirement for disclosure? There is no simple answer to this, but one could potentially argue that in the case of a driving offence, simpler alternative ‘non-gendered’ alternative records of identification could be used.

The Court also considered the potential significance of medical and scientific perspectives in the legal recognition of transsexuals. Whilst it was concluded that medical science did not offer any determining argument (Council of Europe, 2002) it highlights the fact that the law uses the medical and scientific perspective, and may offer this perspective a position of privilege in making judgements that then impact upon the social world. Certainly this method was used by Judge Ormrod in the creation of his sex determination text used in the Corbett vs. Corbett case, consisting of a consideration of the chromosomal, gonadal and genital features of an individual at birth (Whittle, 1999). This reflects the Foucaultian point made in The History of Sexuality that society regards minority issues of sexual orientation and identity through a medical lens (literally and figuratively), and that ‘knowledge’ of what ‘legal gender’ in this case is not set in terms of law and repression, but of power. The law does not look to sociologists for potential ‘truths’ to aid decisions which find legal gender to be relevant, but it is increasingly recognised that whilst hard science can present molecular fact about bodies, the social processing of such does not give a rational reason to infer decisive significance to that information. It can be argued therefore, that the Court in this case supported Ms. Goodwin’s claims of breaches of articles 8 and 12 due to her social experience as a trans-woman, and the behaviour of others as a result of this social experience resulting in the breaching of these articles, in spite of her legal gender at the time.

The difficulty that medical science can encounter when attempting to establish what an individual’s ‘real’ sex is for the purposes of treatment, law, and ultimately identity can be readily problematized. This is seen most clearly in the story of Agnes, whose treatment and narrative was published by Stoller and Garfinkel in the 1960s. Upon physical medical examination Agnes was seen to have female secondary sexual characteristics (hair pattern, breasts, fat distribution) but with male external genitalia, which resulted in her being identified as ‘male’ on her birth certificate, and treated and raised as male until late adolescence. She was found to have no uterus or ovaries, some atrophy of the testes, and moderately high female hormone activity.Agnes was also observed to present as a “120 per cent female” in terms of behaviour and identity, with a history suggesting not only typical but stereotypical female behaviours and attitudes such as passivity, coyness, avoidance of rough games, etc. (Garfinkel, 1967). It was concluded that Agnes was suffering from an unusual case of an already very rare condition, ‘testicular feminization syndrome’, whereby the testes produce oestrogen and ‘feminize’ the genetically male foetus – however in this case the possession of Agnes of a normal sized penis and testes remained present and relatively unexplained.

The fact that Agnes presented as she did convinced the medical establishment to allow and perform surgery in 1959 where: “the penis and scrotum were skinned, the penis and testes amputated, and the skin of the amputated penis used for a vagina where the labia was constructed from the skin of the scrotum”. This was incredibly unusual for the time given both social and legal contexts, and rested heavily upon Agnes’ ‘gendered performance’. It is interesting that in scrutinising whether Agnes was to be considered a ‘real’ woman and deserving of surgery, it was explicit that she must’ve experienced no sense of homosexual desire – that is, attraction to women, despite the irony that based on her legal gender, attraction to men would be homosexual, of course illegal at this time. It was still true once homosexuality was legalised that the medical establishment looked for “a distain or repugnance for homosexual behaviour” in trying to identify the ‘true transsexual’ (Billings and Urban, 1996). This attitude would be characterised by Butler as “the heterosexualisation of desire” (Butler, 1990). Individuals can be considered to be trapped by the social sex and sexuality chosen for, and required of them.It was also a matter of concern that it was unable to be ascertained that her penis was not used with erotic purpose (Garfinkel, 1967), as this would be seen as evidence with identifying with a ‘male’ sexuality. This is evidence that Agnes’ legal gender was not of huge relevance to the doctors, which makes sense given that it would be implicitly understood that given her unique physiology, this would provide a shallow understanding of her sex/gender that would not usefully allow them to ascertain a deeper ‘truth’. As said by Whittle: “A quick glance at birth determines whether a child has a penis of appropriate length. If it has, it is designated as a boy/man, if not, it is designated a girl/woman. Here in the UK, that cursory glance and the decision made as a consequence is transcribed onto the record of birth, and will remain with the child for ever more. The sighting at birth will be the ‘citing’ for the remainder of life” (Whittle 2002). It may be considered somewhat worrying that being labelled with a legal identity that may have very real and complex consequences for a significant minority can be routinely made in such a fleeting and inexpert manner. That said, this is assuming that the categories available are even satisfactory in the first place!

The most crucial element to Agnes’ narrative is that she was able to receive legitimisation of her gender identity and be granted privileged access to the treatment required to ‘match’ the category of female as she so wished – by the fact that she lied. Agnes later revealed to her doctors that she had been taking oestrogens since the age of 12 (Garfinkel, 1967). By withholding this information, Agnes was capable of manipulating the medical establishment into providing her with social legitimisation. Given social context, people ‘suffering’ from intersex conditions were treated (both with pity, and medically), whilst ‘transsexuals’ and ‘transvestites’, whilst also pathologised, were degraded, blamed, and considered perverse. Social legitimisation, gained through passing in the desired category (of man or woman, strictly) was the chief goal, and has been the holy grail for trans people for longer than the term trans has even existed. This was far more relevant to Agnes’ experiences than her legal gender, as highlighted by the report of the attitude of Agnes’ family regarding her performance of her gender as female before and after medical legitimisation: “The aunt, said Agnes, reflected the attitude of other family members. This attitude, said Agnes, was one of gender acceptance prior to the trip to Midwest city [when she had lived as a boy], consternation and severe disapproval after the return [she ran away to attempt to live as a girl], and relieved acceptance and treatment of her as a “real woman after all” (Agnes’ quotation of the aunt’s remark) following the operation” (Garfinkel, 1967).

It can be said then, that Agnes was (really) a transsexual who was able to be successfully accepted as having indeed ‘always’ been a girl as she so claimed, rather than a boy who ‘became’ a girl. To have the sex/gender of desire accepted as the individual’s only reality is a common desire of many trans people. It has been pointed out that for many trans people, ‘success’ in one’s gender is to become entirely removed from the ‘trans identity’ – one is not a man who feels they are a woman, one is not a trans woman, one is a woman (or vice versa)! The limitation of legal gender as strictly relevant (it wasn’t for Agnes, as despite her success it was legally impossible at the time for the sex on her birth certificate to be altered)is challenged by Roz Kaveny who asks: “how does changing our birth certificates and passing and disappearing into the wider community free us from discrimination and oppression? Some bigots, some of the time, will spot us, or think they spot us, and be able to discriminate against us, or anyone else they think is one of us, with impunity, arguing in self-defence that they were doing no such thing. If there is no document that states who we are, our right not to be discriminated against as TS disappears. The possibility, or even probability, that someone passes most of the time is no defence for them on the rare occasions when they do not. You are only as safe as your roughest day” (Kaveny, 1999).

How relevant then is possession of a legal gender that does not accurately reflect one’s gendered life experience, especially when this problem is equally true for those who may indeed embrace their trans identity as more than transitional, and those who feel their intersexuality is not something that can be ‘vanished’ by ‘correction’ to one of the two available legal categories. This is concordant with the conclusions from the Goodwin case, in that it can be argued that to truly live without fear of judgement one needs a concurrency between legal and socially identified gender which can at best only be partially achieved within current legal categorisation.In her social discourse, Butler points out that “The binary regulation of sexuality suppresses the subversive multiplicity of a sexuality that disrupts heterosexual, reproductive, and medicojuridical hegemonies” (Butler, 1990). Indeed, as it is increasingly recognised that to be transgender and have one’s legal gender recognised as independent from one’s ‘birth biology’, the monopoly held by medical practitioners on what gender variance means is lessened. It is now no longer the case (in theory) that one under UK law must receive surgery to have one’s legal gender change recognised. However in practice a review board will take this into account when considering whether to approve an application for a gender recognition certificate particularly in the case of trans women (the surgery that may be undertaken by trans men is recognised as more complex with greater risk).The trans advocate group ‘Press for Change’ states that in regards to having reassignment surgery: “unless for reasons of health, it is not a good idea to simply say you do not want it. Better to state that you intend to have it in the future when the surgical waiting list has spaces” (Press for Change, 2011)

What is the relevance of one’s legal gender when possessing an intersex condition? Unless an individual can be placed into one legal gender category or another, one may encounter difficulties in receiving the rights of both or either categories. Within western culture, there has been a prevailing view that being ambiguous in sex is a dramatic problem, as highlighted by this quotation from a textbook on intersexual disorders published in 1969: “One can only attempt to imagine the anguish of the parents. That a newborn should have a deformity…[affecting] so fundamental an issue as the very sex of the child…it is a tragic event which immediately conjures up visions of a hopeless psychological misfit doomed to live always as a sexual freak in loneliness and frustration” (quoted in Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Given the incredibly dramatic language, it is somewhat surprising that this account does not directly justify its purple prose by mentioning that intersex disorders may be associated with some serious medical dysfunction. This is not always the case by any means, and it is worth saying that the term ‘intersex’ is used to refer to a wide range of conditions, many of which may remain undetected for an entire lifespan.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is quoted as having said “The reasoning behind this [early ‘corrective’] genital surgery is the need for a clear and unambiguous sex assignment to save intersex children from being ostracized and to enable parents to bond with their baby girl or boy” (quoted in Benatar, 2006). The assignment of intersex children to one legal gender category or another, and modifying surgery to better justify this regardless of whether or not there is a physiological need for this in terms of medical wellbeing is thus justified on social grounds, and reinforced by the legal requirement for a child’s sex to be declared.

The relevance of one’s legal gender can therefore be said to rest heavily on how social genders are viewed, because it is the view of society that is used to form legislature. Alison Shaw makes the point that “Sex and gender are not always either mutually exclusive or corresponding categories because ideas about the nature and significance of anatomical and physiological sex differences vary and can influence the rigidity or flexibility of gender categories and, conversely, the social significance of gender in any given context may in turn influence the ways in which biological differences are perceived” (Shaw, A., 2005). The fact that there is no straightforward biological test to show a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ that can’t be problematized through social discourse means that likewise a legal difference between ‘father’ and ‘mother’ is also problematic.

When it comes to parental status of trans people in the UK, there is no obvious or simple answer to the range of questions that may be asked. UK law maintains the categories of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ as distinct legal terms. Whilst both parents receive joint responsibility of a child that is born or adopted if the couple are married (or civilly partnered), should partners not have their relationship legally recognised parental responsibility is always given entirely to the ‘mother’. This presents the obvious problem of trans parents being registered as the ‘parent type’ that does not match their legal gender, and thus compromises their social treatment by the lack of the total recognition of their (new) legal gender as  their only legal gender. The argument that the mother is defined by ‘that parent which carries the child’ is rendered insufficient by the existence of both adoption and surrogacy. Parenthood is a scenario whereby legal gender is afforded more attention than can be justified – parental aptitude is not strictly sex/gender dependent nor would any court following equality frameworks claim such in the modern day. The legal categories of mother and father are arguably linguistic artefacts stemming from the social and psychological need of most individuals to categorise people by the binary gender system upon sight, or upon receiving information concerning a given individual.

Another example of where current legal gender and past legal gender may both be brought into question is in the context of military service. Whether a trans man would be called up on the basis of a new legal gender or a trans woman could be called on the basis of an old or unchanged one would depend upon the legal systems (and of course, social attitudes) of the country in question, but the most obvious problematisation would again be in a visible context. How would a barracks deal with an individual who appears and is judged to be female in every visible capacity, only contested actively by documentation? There is an interaction between the social and the legal in that, as we have seen, social categories lead to legislation, but the legislation leads to problematisation of the social, and vice versa. There will always be some level of problem with legislation on categories of sex and gender, due to the necessary black-and-white nature of the law. As Judith Butler puts it: “the notion that there might be a “truth” of sex, as Foucault ironically terms it, is produced precisely through the regulatory practices that generate coherent identities through the matrix of coherent gender norms…the cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of “identities” cannot “exist” – that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not “ follow” from either sex or gender” (Butler, 1990). Would the creation of further legal categories (trans, intersex, ‘other’, etc.) make legal gender more relevant to more individuals? Only in the sense that this logically goes hand in hand with social recognition. Legal recognition is quite separate from acceptance, as can be historically considered from the comments of Lord Arran at the third reading of the Sexual Offenses Bill in 1967 decriminalising homosexuality in the UK: “let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity. We shall always, I fear, resent the odd man out. That is their burden for all time” (Hansard, 1967). Whilst obviously discussing a different variation, Kaveny makes the related point that “It is less important to pass than to be accepted. If being transgendered is valued as a human variation, then many problems disappear. And it is more likely to be valued if we value it ourselves – being out and proud and prepared to defend ourselves is probably rather less risky than being in the closet, ashamed of our pasts and relying on a piece of paper” (Kaveny 1999). Legislation is an extension of social acceptance, affording people the rights afforded to others regardless of gender identity based on a liberal and rational society. This does not compromise the special protection and needs that individuals may require (for example, maternity leave for birth mothers who experience physical stress that requires remit and recovery time), as this may be provided in a manner that does not dictate and limit in a manner that restricts based on category but provides based on need.

To conclude then, what is the relevance of one’s legal gender? It is nothing if not dependent on a web of factors including location, personal identity, circumstances, and perhaps most importantly social context. Individuals are not ‘invisibled’ through lack of adequate legal category when there is no-one contesting those individuals legitimacy – often not merely to rights, but to existence, or at least visibility. An entirely positivist approach to answering questions of gender conclusively have been considered flawed as it has been “shown to be driven by the value-laden but unexamined presumptions of scientists themselves in numerous fields, especially medicine and human biology” (Carver 2007). As this medical justification was used for body policing in a thoroughly Foucaultian power-play, legal concession resulted in order for those outside of the gender hegemony to be silenced by inclusion in ‘normality’ and normativity. This ironically allowed a defence of gendered variance from within the normative system, which moves with social progression as further legal rights are demanded worldwide to solve questions of gender injustice. Legal gender will be relevant for as long as there are questions where legal (and therefore social) outcomes are contested by individuals based on personal rights and freedoms. It must be understood however that the impact of legal gender as a defence from social repression is limited, and does not have the impact on day to day existence as the willingness of the general public to accept difference.



Benatar, D., 2006, ‘Cutting to the Core: Exploring the Issues of Contested Surgeries’, p. 80

Billings, D. B. and Urban, T., 1996, ‘The socio-medical construction of transsexualism – an interpretation and critique’, in Ekins, R. and King, D., ‘Blending Genders – social aspects of cross-dressing and sex-changing’, p. 105

Browne, J. 2006, ‘Sex segregation and inequality in the modern labour market’, p. 11

Butler, J., 1990, ‘Gender Trouble’, p. 17

Butler, J., 1990, ‘Gender Trouble’, p. 19

Butler, J., 1990, ‘Gender Trouble’, p. 17

Carver, T., ‘‘Trans’ trouble – trans-sexuality and the end of gender’ in Browne, J., ‘The future of gender’, p. 129

Council of Europe, 2002, ‘Case of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom’, p. 17-18

Council of Europe, 2002, ‘Case of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom’, p. 22-23

Council of Europe, 2002, ‘Case of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom’, p. 24

Directgov website, legal information on registering and naming one’s baby: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Governmentcitizensandrights/Registeringlifeevents/Birthandadoptionrecords/Registeringorchangingabirthrecord/DG_175608

Fausto-Sterling, A., 2000, ‘Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality’, p. 47

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 3

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 24

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 36

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 7

Gender Recognition Act, 2004, section 9, subsection 1. Accessed at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/7/crossheading/consequences-of-issue-of-gender-recognition-certificate-etc

Hansard, The parliamentary debates, House of Lords official report, volume 285, p. 523

Kaveny, R., 1999, ‘Talking Transgender Politics’, in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 148-149


Press for Change website, accessed last on 2/5/11: http://transequality.co.uk/Legislation.aspx

Rhode, D., 1989, ‘Justice and Gender – Sex discrimination and the law’, p. 94

Shaw, A., 2005, ‘Changing Sex and Bending Gender: An Introduction’ in Shaw, A., and Ardener, S., ‘Changing Sex and Bending Gender’ – p. 3

Walker, A., Kershaw, C. and Nicholas, S. (2006) ‘Crime in England and Wales 2005-6’

Whittle, S., 1999, ‘The Becoming Man: The Law’s Ass Brays’ in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 18

Whittle, S., 1999, ‘The Becoming Man: The Law’s Ass Brays’ in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 19

Whittle, S., 2002, ‘Respect and Equality, Transsexual and Transgender Rights’, p. 5

Whittle, S., 1999, ‘The Becoming Man: The Law’s Ass Brays’ in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 28-9

Book Review: Scapegoat – Why we are failing disabled people by Katharine Quarmby

(Trigger warning: disability hate crime)

Whilst not explicitly about gender, I consider reviewing this book (and others that deal with issues of discrimination of various types) important due to the importance of intersectionality. How could I, as a writer who engages with a broad cross section of material claim (implicitly, by writing) to be in any way enlightened about, for instance, the experiences of a disabled queer person? Gendered analysis cannot exist in a vaccum, otherwise it rapidly and depressingly can lose its relevance for a great deal of people, and potentially erase their experiences in the process. I consider books addressing disability, class, race, and culture to be important parts of the educational diet of those developing their understanding of gender.

I was excited to read this book, and purchased it based simply on its importance highlighted by the title. It’s undeniable that ableism (discrimination and prejudice against disabled people) is rife, as highlighted by some of the facts on the back cover of the book. Only two out of ten disabled people have non-disabled friends, and nearly 50% of disabled people have recently experienced or witnessed physical abuse? Seems like something the privileged, able bodied population should be asking themselves ‘why?’ about, and also offers some juicy insights into how prejudice can infiltrate society.

Overall, my feelings on this book were mixed. It is clear from the narrative that the author, Katharine Quarmby, has invested a great deal of time and effort in researching the topic of the book. Some very important and disturbing examples of disability hate crime are recounted in great detail, and used to illustrate problems with housing policy, police responses, and considerations (or lack thereof) of disability in court cases. The structure was clear, and points poignant. I felt however that each time a particularly heinous crime was described to prepare for these salient and enlightening points, it was done so in a frustrating way. Often the environment was painted like poor dramatic fiction – ideas like ‘you’d never have thought such a terrible thing could happen in such a peaceful neighbourhood’. It made me imagine a spun-out Daily Mail article, but without the offensive bits. Irrelevant details about the origins of a town where a particular hate crime happened didn’t serve to enrich; only to make me ask ‘is this filler’? I was also left with my eyebrows raised that the author included very questionable paragraphs concerning the murder of one man, Brent Martin:

Brenda knew that something was wrong. ‘When they came for me, at half past three in the morning, with me daughter Tracey7, I’d had me coat on, I was out of me mind.’ She had had two premonitions, she said, that something was going to happen to Brent. In bed, a few days earlier, her body had been twisted and pulled by invisible forces. […] Brenda feels Brent’s presence still, as well of that of her dead husband Alec. She talks to them downstairs, she told me, and tells them: ‘I know you’re waiting up for me, but it’ll be a few years yet!’

This bizarre nod of legitimization toward’s this poor woman’s supernatural beliefs only served to undermine the legitimacy of the useful discussion in the book. I believe the quality of the writing would have been vastly improved had the author distanced herself from the tabloid-esque style which I suspect she may employ quite successfully in her work, even as a Sunday Times, Telegraph, and Guardian writer. I also felt that elements of the book were under-referenced, with sentences such as:

Research shows that children and young people are overwhelmingly involved in antisocial behaviour around disabled peoples’ homes, on the buses and on the streets.

…then with no reference whatsoever. A very large number of the book’s references are URLs to BBC news stories. I have some sympathy regarding the fact that this author may be regarded as a pioneer in disability hate crime research (as an activist rather than an academic, at least) but some discussion of these limitations would have been well warranted.

Despite these problems, I am still glad to have read this book. The few chapters that provide some basic history on the treatment of disabled people through witch hunts and freak shows offers some intriguing historical context, and the progression from asylums to ‘care in the community’ is definitely an interesting journey that is examined in a manner that remains entirely accessible.

Quarmby also recognises the importance of intersectionality in her writing, which is certainly not to be undervalued. As well as giving some helpful discourse on the early origins of ‘hate crime’ within UK legal systems and social consciousness, gender, race, and religious intolerance also all feature in her discussions. Here is a powerful example concerning gender, also highlighting potential system flaws:

The council has confirmed that a team social worker who visited Steven Gale , after he jumped from a third-floor window to escape what was said to be a domestic row, found him ‘to be very capable, apparently happy, and he was adamant he didn’t want any help or services from us’. Further information I have obtained denies, however, that the council had decided not to intervene, saying instead, in double-speak: ‘No decision had therefore been made not to give Mr Gale any extra support.’ Steven Gale starved to death a few months after he threw himself from the window. He was described by a social worker as ‘reluctant to engage’. I suspect that if a woman had thrown herself out of a window after a domestic row, police and social workers would not describe her as ‘reluctant to engage’ but would conclude, instead, that she was living in fear of her life and was a ‘vulnerable and intimidated witness’.

Adequate space is given to allow the read to easily explore the ideas and social commentary that are presented. Whilst a powerful resource for those who may have little to no contact with the prejudices that disabled people face, it may be obvious or upsetting in many ways to the individuals who deal with physical or mental disability.

Despite its imperfections, this book has a great deal to give. It was somewhat surprising how little disability hate crime has been recognised, and the extent of social failure that still occurs by gatekeepers, caregivers, and the public. Maybe this book will be eventually overshadowed when this field of inquiry receives the attention it certainly deserves, but I don’t recommend you wait. This book deserves your time.

It’s okay because he loves me! – Why Twilight is damaging, and why it’s still popular

(Trigger warning: Some description of domestic abuse)

Spoilers: Twilight series, Angels in America)

That the Twilight series has been called ‘the new Harry Potter’ over its rise in public awareness I think is utterly depressing, even for those who weren’t that fussed about J. K. Rowling. The universal appeal of Rowling’s work and the skill with which they were crafted are insulted by being compared to the flimsy, clichéd, mewings of two-dimensional pseudo-romantic escapism that Stephanie Meyer has wasted trees on. Comparative multi-kajillion pound sales does not a comparative standard of literature indicate.

But why my harsh words, given I’m not a rabid potter-fanatic? Dear J. K. probably doesn’t need my support, writing from her home which is probably made of gold. It’s a point that has been made by others before me, but there is absolutely no ambiguity whatsoever that the relationship between Bella (often criticized as a Mary-Sue) and Edward is utterly abusive.

Surprisingly enough, I have a problem with literature (I’m being generous in using this word) which normalizes and excuses gendered violence to any audience, let alone the pulsating mass of hormones and peer pressure that are teens and tweens.

‘OMG Team Edward!’… ‘I want his sparkly babies!’… ‘My spine is being crushed…’

What is this violence you might ask? Well, in no particular order, how about:

  • Edward breaking into Bella’s home to watch her sleep is glorified as romantic, rather than pant-wettingly terrifyingly stalkerish.
  • The emotional manipulation and implicit blame placed on Bella by Edward through such choice (melodramatic) language such as “If I wasn’t so attracted to you, I wouldn’t have to break up with you.”
  • How about not only that after sex, Edward leaves Bella “decorated with patches of blue an purple” (because the word ‘decorated’ is hugely appropriate for describing the marks of violence, as if it were jewelry) but also that Bella tries to hide this because it would upset him to see. Such an empowering message for women right there.
  • When carrying their half-vampire baby (that was only conceived after marriage of course, Meyer being a good Mormon writer), the pregnancy causes Bella’s spine to break and so Edward tears open her uterus with his teeth to provide a supernatural caesarian.

Obviously (from the links) I’m not the first person to point these issues out either. Is Twilight a soft target then? I would say only in the way that George Bush was a soft target – yes a lot of jokes were made, but ultimately the man had (and has) a scary amount of support that ultimately got him into a position of huge influence. Spreading awareness of the critical inadequacies of large-scale yet damaging things is important.

A response often levied by fans in response to acidic criticism such as this:

‘Why do you have to be so analytical? That takes the fun out of it, it’s just a love story, and we enjoy it for what it is. Why can’t you just enjoy it?’

Okay. So without rhapsodizing too extensively on why normalizing harmful behaviour by accepting it as unproblematic is, well, problematic – this is a defense often used when one makes a criticism of something they like that has a millimetre more depth than simply saying what is immediately put in front of you. It certainly seems a little odd to me that the idea of putting a modicum of thought into something means you’re automatically stripping it of its ability to be enjoyed. To quote from a wonderfully useful article, this argument says nothing more than “I think people shouldn’t think so much and share their thoughts, that’s my thought that I have to share.” Nice work.

The problems with the book series don’t begin and end with the horrific but nonetheless simple ways in which Bella is harmed and manipulated. As far as I understand it, two themes that repeat throughout the work as justifications are that 1. What happens is justified by love, and 2. What happens is what Bella wants. It’s not that often in works of fiction that when one partner of a relationship does something horrible to another, the victim actually says ‘fuck it, I’m not standing for this’. It’s more ‘romantic’ for even extreme violence to be neutralized even through a literary tactic as banal as ‘well, he then felt really, really bad about it’. A great example I can think of that goes against the grain is Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, where the character Prior is abandoned by his boyfriend Louis, who can’t face the physical symptoms of Prior having AIDS. In the end, the two are shown to have a deep friendship, but not before the dialogue:

Louis: I really failed you.  But…this is hard.  Failing in love isn’t the same as not loving.  It doesn’t let you off the hook, it doesn’t mean…you’re free to not love.

Prior: I love you Louis.

L: Good.  I love you.

P: But you can’t come back.  Not ever.  I’m sorry.  But you can’t.

“You know you’ve hit rock bottom when even drag is a drag…”

Whilst this clearly isn’t written as the same sort of dreamy escapism that is the big hook of Twilight, it’s a nice illustration that these characters have more depth to them than life having zero meaning whatsoever except for their one true love. How is this an attitude that receives admiration, anyway…?

To address the second point, what Bella wants is used as a justification for much of what happens in the stories that feminists have taken issue with. A main character who other than fawning over her undead boyfriend has no obvious hobbies beyond cooking and cleaning for her father? It’s okay, that’s what she likes doing. Meyer has claimed in interviews that because feminism is about choice, Twilight is a feminist book. But not one of the female characters in twilight work, or engage particularly with independent activity. An honest choice is not what is being made appealing here. The same idea is true when it comes to the issue of abortion. As a Ms. Magazine blog post states:

Edward, Jacob, Alice, Carlisle and the Quileute wolves are all against Bella’s choice to carry out the pregnancy–and understandably so, given she looks like a living skeleton. The fetus, as Carlisle tells her, “isn’t compatible with your body–it’s too strong, too fast-growing.” Yet Bella never considers not carrying out the pregnancy, even though her life is clearly at risk—something that would no doubt make those who propose “egg as person” laws and “let women die” acts quite happy. The life of the fetus is framed as more important than Bella’s, a sentiment that colors these pieces of anti-abortion legislation. And Bella is portrayed as a heroic martyr, the ultimate mother-to-be, rather than as a delusional lovestruck teen with a seeming death wish.

There are plenty of readers who are quite astute enough to realise all this for themselves. There’s no shortage of feminists who enjoy Meyer’s works. This seeming paradox is pretty common – there are plenty of film, TV and literature examples which we might enjoy, whilst also experiencing the nagging doubt in our minds that to be consistent with our politics, we really shouldn’t. Enjoying Twilight doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a bad Feminist, any more than enjoying a MacDonalds necessarily makes someone a bad fitness trainer. Just be aware about what you’re enjoying.

A Feminists Guide to Curing Yourself of Twilight-Mania offers some amusing resources, including recommending the fiction of Anne Rice and Laurel K. Hamilton. If vampires and love are your thing, these are definitely worth a try.

Book review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender is an excellent book. From a neuroscientific perspective, Cordelia Fine meticulously unpicks prevalent gender stereotypes we’re all very familiar with, and lays out a detailed and well researched critique of the (often shoddy) research and writings that have propped these beliefs up.

The book is divided into three sections – ‘half changed world, half changed minds’, ‘neurosexism’, and ‘recycling gender’. Whilst I didn’t feel this sectioning was strictly necessary due to how all of the subject material and arguments are interlinked and related, they do help maintain a sense of ‘detailed introduction’, ‘analysis of scientific claims’, ‘detailed conclusion’, which is helpful. I felt that Fine draws the reader in from the start – with pithy, acerbically satirical (but importantly, inoffensive) humour on the very first page of the introduction. By page 9 of the first chapter, one is drawn in by proclamations such as the familiar ‘male/female’ check-boxes at the start of many forms in fact ‘priming gender’ and influencing how one then answers the form. Fine expertly achieves what is necessary for any popular science book – getting people interested in the questions, without scaring them off with the technical aspects. No biological background is needed to appreciate the critiques that Fine structures throughout the book.

I feel the concept of ‘neurosexism’ is a valuable one, which Fine has coined in this work. All too often, the prejudices of researchers can leak into supposedly objective work, because there is a prevalent attitude that scientific methodologies allows researchers to successfully remove themselves from influencing their results, even when undertaking interpretations – rather than recognising the difficulty (and ultimate futility) of this. Little to no acknowledgement of this happens inside or outside of the field, and so one can hopefully see how in combination with the simplistic (but again, virtually ubiquitous) attitude that ‘science = facts’ can cause a lot of problematic stuff to be taken for granted. It is a mighty claim for anyone to say something behavioural is ‘hardwired’, though this is a term I would hazard we are all familiar with through popular culture. Fine uses a great quotation from Anne Fausto-Sterling in the introduction which sums up her claim nicely:

[d]espite the many recent insights of brain research, this organ remains a vast unknown, a perfect medium on which to project, even unwittingly, assumptions about gender.

Throughout the book, an impressively thorough number of references are given (the bibliography is 39 pages long), though in the text there is a recurring focus on the work of a small handful of particular authors. In no particular order, ones that stuck out to me were:

  • Louan Brizendine – The Female Brain
  • Leonard Sax – Why Gender Matters
  • Simon Baron-Cohen – The Essential Difference (and other works)
  • Allan and Barbara Pease – Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps

These works were quoted and dissected, used as examples of poor methodology, untenable claims, and problematic stereotype support. What Ben Goldacre might term ‘Bad Science’ (another fabulous book, that you should read if you haven’t, incidentally). The reason I bring this up is because some might claim that the revisiting of these sources may imply there isn’t that much out there to criticise, that Fine may be picking on only a few examples to make her arguments easier to maintain, or to make strawmen of the cases presented.

I do not believe these potential criticisms to stand up, however. Brizendine, Sax, and Baron-Cohen are all respected neurologists, psychologists and doctors (With Allan Pease being the exception, his background being in sales before writing best-sellers on body language and communication with his wife), commanding a great deal of academic clout – making it all the more impressive that Fine’s meticulous research creates serious criticism that also remains accessible. There are a large number of differently sourced examples through the book that highlight how ingrained and accepted much insidious gender stereotyping there is throughout societal consciousness. None of the quotations chosen by Fine of works she casts a critical eye over appear unfairly cherry-picked, and indeed having also read The Essential Difference at least, I can confirm no misrepresentation or simplification of Baron-Cohen’s work, which is almost disappointing as one would not expect a Cambridge Professor to propagate such underdetermined claims that buy into a chronically anti-feminist state of affairs.

Delusions of Gender doesn’t restrict itself to an insular critique of those within the niche of neurobiology. By broadening discussion to how work in this field has influenced (or been influenced by) how people view personal relationships, single/mix sexed schooling, how people raise their children, advertising and media, and work on gendered behaviour in animals, Fine managed to create a work that covers so many important questions as to keep the non-scientist engaged from beginning to end, but without attempting an analysis in terms that are outside her area of familiarity. You won’t find any Judith Butler or Michael Foucault in the references. Nor will you find any meaty discussion of how trans* or non-binary gender experiences are related to the narrative of the science of sex differences. Fine obviously can’t be held responsible for the ubiquity of the sex binary within scientific discourse, though I feel exploration of this could have been a valuable and fascinating addition to the book. It is a delusion of gender to imagine that there are only two genders.

This is tame criticism however for a book that clearly sets out its area of investigation, and does so with precision and originality. I feel it would be a very small number of people who could read this book and honestly say they hadn’t learnt a lot. Make time for this book, even if you think it sounds too brainy.

Smearing of feminism – a history through illustrations

Cartoons have been sources of entertainment, political point-making, and propaganda for centuries. When I think of the subjugation of women in this medium, it is often through sexualisation. Betty Boop, Jessica Rabbit, Wonder Woman, the list goes on.

This little comparison has been doing the rounds on the internet lately, and it illustrates the point nicely.

The poster for the film ‘The Avengers’, as is.

Pose styles reversed. Iron Man – buns of steel, anyone?

Feminists however, for longer than the word has been in common parlance, have been the targets of predictable, oppositional lampooning. What is a little more interesting is how the styles and commentary used in the pictures have changed very little. I’ll be organising cartoons chronologically, or making the best guesses I can where I don’t know dates. To my knowledge, all images originate from the UK or the US.

A little background history first, though. Feminism is often said to have its early beginnings in the second half of the 19th century, when a fair amount of social and political reform was going on. Important earlier writers and politicians have been retrospectively labelled the forebears of the feminist movement (though to call feminism a single movement was even then, let alone now, rather inaccurate). Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill are important examples – for their works A Vindication of the Rights of Women and The Subjection of Women respectively, written in 1792 and 1869. In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded (from the merger of pre-existing groups), and its members termed Suffragists. This group was non-militant and utilised pamphlet distribution, talks, and appeals to MPs, without using violence. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) split off in support of more radical action due to the lack of suffragist success. This group is more famous for its founder Emmeline Pankhurst  (and her daughters), and their groups members’ label by the Daily Mail as the Suffragettes.

So, this first picture is from 1906, and was showing ‘women of the past’ contrasted against ‘what women are becoming’. Smoking? Legs apart? Ties? Such an angry, unappealing expression on the face of the woman on the far right of the bottom panel? Obviously a bit tame by standards 106 years later, but the key themes are clearly that traditional women are more attractive, and more productive. All members of the top panel are embroidering or knitting, rather than daydreaming or scowling. The author is hardly ambiguous about what he (it’s got to be a he, really) considers the ‘better type’ of woman.

From 1910. Real anger from the woman in this comic, or at least, misanthropic nagging. The poor man is uncomfortable and forced to do everything by his overbearing, unfair wife. The look on his face harbours resentment. Clearly asking for the right to vote leads to domestic catastrophe, and unhappiness in the home. Whatsmore, this silly woman apparently doesn’t even know what she wants! Oh, when will she learn? Those wacky suffragists.


Millitant Suffragette – “I have smacked policemen, broken windows, assaulted Ministers, broken up meetings, done ‘time’, shouted myself hoarse – to prove myself a fit mate for you! Will you have me?”

J. B. – “No, thank you!”

1912. J.B. Refers to ‘John Bull’ – a personification of Britain, much the equivalent of Uncle Sam for the US. The violence of the image was reflected in the current climate, with Suffragettes smashing shop windows, burning, and even bombing buildings (though avoiding human targets). The feminist militant effort is lampooned as futile, because who would want to listen to angry, unpleasant women? The laundry list of offences likewise stimulates indignation and anger towards the movement.


“Mr. Wilson is lucky he is not a candidate twelve or sixteen years from now”

Also 1912, but from the US this time, during the campaign that would lead to Woodrow Wilson’s first term as President. This cartoon is a little unusual in showing hypothetical women with the vote, but – they’re considering whether to vote for Mr. Wilson off the most irrelevant of traits and topics! One can read women inquiring “I wonder if he is brave?”, “Do you help your wife with the dishes?”, “Do you adore Browning?” (EDIT: which most likely refers to the poet Robert Browning or possibly Elizabeth Barrett Browning – rather than the judge or firearms inventor as first sprung to my mind. Thanks  to Amelia in the comments section for this) and the inane comments “he has large feet” and “I never vote for brunettes”. The supposed frivolity and lack of awareness of politics in women is played off, in a similar way to the UK 1910 cartoon above. The supposed ignorance of women makes them unworthy.


I put these two together due to being so similar. We’ve seen these themes before. Harangued husbands, demeaned and debased in being made responsible for all domestic chores, causing strife in the home. I also can’t decide whether the wife in the image on the left looks more like an ogress or the terrifying girl from the film The Ring. But it’s comic, you see! Ugly, domineering women demanding they get their way about all things. Not equality, but selfishness. This may sound eerily familiar, if you’ve ever been exposed to contemporary criticisms of feminism, usually by men. See Rush Limbaugh’s comments, for instance. His term ‘Feminazi’ has even inspired right-wing T-shirts. 

This one’s quite famous. Maybe you’ve seen it in a school history lesson? Not much to it. Ugly women don’t get love from men, so they get angry and lash out at society about it. Of course.

It never seems to matter much in these smear campaigns that many of the arguments rest on painting the demonized with directly oppositional stereotypes. Suffragettes are simultaneously unmarried and unloved and angry, as well as bringing disaster to their husbands and children through their selfish refusal to do home chores. I actually have no idea if there was an official suffragette line when it came to household labour, though it wouldn’t surprise me if the ‘women who want the vote = women who won’t do anything at home’ idea was entirely fabricated for leverage.

Ah. But now a rapid leap, to 1995. This cartoon was published by the Utah County Journal in response to Voice, the Feminist group of Brigham Young University, staging an event highlighting violence perpetrated against women. The range of labels in the picture (Eng dept activism, R movies, anti-honour code, and Sunstone magazine) represent a range of organisations considered damaging by the conservative journal, and how together they’re causing trouble. Notice the disgusting mockery of violence/rape survival in the form of the armband on the muscular, unattractive Viking representation. In 100 years nothing more sophisticated than ‘women are ugly and don’t make sense’ has really been levied.

2012. You have have seen some of the news earlier this year, where after a young lady named Sandra Fluke gave a speech in support of mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives (citing a friend with a health condition that would be controlled by the contraceptive pill). Rush Limbaugh (yeah, him again) went on to say:

What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.

So this cartoon makes a (left wing) Feminist unattractive, stupid, angry, irrational, and morally dubious through slut-shaming. The shitty satire of Feminism hasn’t moved on for several reasons. Firstly, sadly, it’s effective. A blend of reductio ad absurdum combined with an audience ignorant of the issue being twisted and/or fabricated, and with some basic aesthetic demonisation is a recipe for most propaganda. Secondly, with a definition as simple as “a belief in equal rights for women”, feminism has become increasingly legitimised amongst anyone with half a brain cell of reason – even if different individuals and schools of feminism would enact this in very different ways. The fact that many more people find the label ‘Feminist’ problematic than actually consider its core principle unreasonable in parts reflects the success and ubiquity of this smearing.

Oh, and some of this stuff isn’t even to try and attack a political movement particularly. Some is a pathetically vomitous attempt at humour, such as the UK magazine ‘Viz’. It was seeing the character ‘Millie Tant‘ on the front cover of this cow pat of a publication whilst doing my shopping that made me think to write about this post. Here’s a picture of Millie.

Need I say more?

Well…actually, yes. When I was searching for an interesting spread of images, I found one that I felt was deserving of being saved until last. Much of Feminism (particularly second-wave Feminism of the ’70s-’90s) has been criticised for exclusively serving the needs of white, upper middle class women, reducing the experience of ‘woman’ down to a narrow narrative not experienced by many individuals, particularly economically disadvantaged women of colour. That said, the criticism of some part of woman’s suffrage in the image below seems quite ahead of its time, in commenting on the hypocrasy seen in white feminists exercising their power over black feminists through racism. Food for thought.


top: JUST LIKE THE MEN! bottom: Votes for WHITE women.

Camp in Culture – One man’s fabulous is another man’s poison

This article appeared in the Cambridge University Student’s Union (CUSU) LGBT magazine, No Definition, Easter 2012 edition. Enjoy!


If there’s a single trait that causes the biggest divergence in opinion in gay circles, it’s arguably campery. Whilst it may not be obvious in generally none-too-extrovert Cambridge communities, historically there has been an overwhelming amount of hyper-masculine expressionism and performance associated with gay scenes and bodies. These ideas have been captured (and exaggerated to an eyebrow-raising degree) by the artist Tom of Finland, whose drawings encapsulate bodybuilder physiques, Village People attire, and absolutely no subtlety whatsoever.

Masculinity is enhanced if you can take an eye out on either of your nipples.

Whilst one obviously can’t say that such images are a reflection of our gay-to-day experiences (though who hasn’t seen more than a couple tank-top clad body worshippers at the local watering hole…), the more general idea of visible femininity being undesirable in gay men is all over the place. Whether people are declaring themselves ‘straight-acting’ or ‘only interested in men who are men’, I doubt I’m the only person to have heard the occasional queen declare how they cannot *stand* queens.

So I’ve been talking about masculinity and femininity, and whilst it has become pretty common for femininity expressed by men to be referred to as ‘camp’, this is very much a cultural shift the word has experienced. As with any essay, Wikipedia is our friend when it comes to historical backdrop. Originating from the French slang ‘se camper’ meaning ‘to pose in an exaggerated fashion’, campness is the creation of appeal and humour through an overstated ridiculousness. Think ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’. For an early example, think the fruit hats of Carmen Miranda from the 1940s. Camp is the kissing cousin of kitsch, but with reference to performance (naïve or deliberate) rather than objects. It’s certainly true that ‘camp’ was also used to refer to ‘gay behaviour’ – particularly in the pre-stonewall era when effeminate behaviour and sexuality were even more conflated than they are now.

The very old social stereotypes concerning gay men behaving more ‘like women’ certainly played a part in the hyper-masculine cultural backlash of the 1970s and 80s. In the days when the argument ‘we’re no different from you’ was a popular part of the rhetoric in the important struggle for rights and recognition, some saw it as damaging to the ‘gay cause’ to present anything other than homonormativity (where typical heterosexual gender norms are assimilated into LGBTQ cultures) to the rest of the world.

This may go some of the way to explain why some gay men may have a discomfort with ‘camp’ – worrying that people potentially associate what may be seen as a screaming, extroverted, kitsch performance with your identity may be very disheartening. Likewise others may just not care for the style, just as others don’t care for rap battles or musicals. But what about when the word ‘camp’ is used more to describe feminine tendencies or behaviour in men (as it so often is), without alluding to the absurd performance oriented nature that was originally intended? Without drowning in the gender politics of Judith Butler, one wouldn’t call man-bags, fake tan, foundation, and an adoration of pop divas a ‘performance’ in the traditional sense. Indeed, it may be quite sweeping and unfair to consider such behaviour ‘affected’ or ‘fake’ as some LGBTers levy as a criticism.

These sorts of behaviours are all things that 1. don’t receive special notice or consideration when done by women, and 2. result in assumptions being made about the sexuality of men who do engage with any such behaviours. Often this isn’t even questioned, with the rather poor justification of ‘but it’s true!’ – whilst masculinity in girls is also policed it generally doesn’t experience the same level of distain. In the fantastic book ‘Whipping Girl’ by Julia Serano, Serano points out (tongue in cheek) that femininity is in fact a weapon, when she points out how far the average straight man will hold a handbag away from his body if given it to hold for a minute.

Nowadays, it’s a huge thing for someone to be accused of being a misogynist. People will leap to deny this label as quickly as they will deny being homophobic or racist, even when engaging with obviously unacceptable behaviour or language. Whilst it would be shockingly naïve to make any claim that repression due to being female wasn’t still very much prevalent, judgement against femininity is arguably aired more casually.

Masculinity and femininity are often treated (simplistically, and erroneously) as oppositional, and such ‘men are from Mars women are from Venus’ attitudes are linked in large part to gender stereotyping. Whilst masculinity is ‘honest’, femininity is ‘affected’. Masculinity – strong, femininity – weak. Masculinity stoic, femininity – emotional, the list goes on. When considered in these terms, masculine behaviour by women makes more ‘social sense’ than feminine behaviour from men, due to patriarchal structures that reward such behaviour (in the ‘right’ contexts such a work – this is clearly a book’s worth of discussion all on its own). Campness has an undeniable tie to femininity both due to the historical judgement of gay men and from the indulgence and gendered challenges presented by drag performance. Whilst not really admitted, the evidence is plain to see that exhibition of femininity commands less respect and demands less social capital and power, generally speaking. Mainstream social acceptance of male femininity has only really been in terms of when done clearly for fun in a false way – such as music hall of the war era, or pantomime dames. Femininity from men presents a social challenge, even with no political intention.

What has been loved about camp could fill a book as easily as the reasons for its problematisation. The escapism, the ownership of one’s gender presentation and behaviour, some might even experience a fondness based in tradition or community kinship. Whether loved or loathed, there’s a lot ‘to’ camp, which makes it fabulous in an entirely different way.

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 – of trannies – to 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.

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