A queer exploration of all things gender

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Why trigger warnings are essential…

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GenderBen is now on Tumblr!

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

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


Because this sort of thing is all kinds of awesome.

Book Review: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can a man be a feminist?

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute” – Rebecca West

I have never really been able to find out precisely what feminism is either. I’m inclined to think this is because it isn’t ‘one thing’, any more than being a woman is. Personally, I like to think of feminism in its most simple terms – that people defining as women should experience the same rights as people defining as men. Thus I can sometimes find it difficult to understand why anyone would not define as a feminist. Yet, it would be at the very least inflammatory for many to suggest that the antonym of ‘feminism’ is ‘sexism’. Of course it’s pretty obvious why the majority of feminists are women, but it’s interesting to consider why many men do not identify as feminists (other than simple lack of awareness, or sad, persistent misogyny) and indeed, whether they can.

Bill Bailey

Photograph credit: Fawcett society

It has been argued that being a feminist is more than an intellectual agreement with a set of principles that then influence a person’s behaviour. It has been argued that having not lived a woman’s experiences, and/or the fact that men possess an inescapable degree of social privilege makes it impossible for men to truly identify with female struggles. Some also consider that for a man to take the label of feminist allows for the co-opting of a feminist identity, potentially resulting in less power for women themselves and the silencing of female voices. This has led to some men taking on the moniker of ‘profeminist’- agreement with feminist goals and politics, without claiming inclusion within the group of ‘feminist’ themselves.

Problems with this arise in several ways. Firstly, this understanding rests entirely on a binary model of gender with no obvious way to resolve the inclusion or exclusion of those who exist outside of this framework, or have moved transitioned from one group to another. Trans men have often lacked male privilege and have experienced a ‘female’ narrative based on how they have been treated before transition, yet do not identify as female. Likewise trans women will be experiencing a female narrative after transition, but have also arguably been privy to male privilege at some point in their lives. This reduces acceptability into the group of ‘feminist’ based on both bodies and on how gender is expressed (that is, whether one appears adequately ‘male’ or ‘female’ to ‘pass’) which is clearly problematic as infertile women, ‘masculine’ women, and indeed any other variation one cares to mention does not in any way invalidate their membership of the identity category.

One can call into question whether this argument of needing to have direct experience of ‘a woman’s narrative’ is indeed valid, as what is a woman’s narrative? As the feminist writer bell hooks (deliberately not capitalised) points out that “the insistence on a “women only” feminist movement and a virulent anti-male stance reflected the race and class background of participants”, that whilst bourgeoisie white women experience sexism, they still retain more social privilege and particularly in historical contexts would be less likely to be exploited than poor, uneducated non-white men. To attempt to simplify narratives such that the intersectionality of race, class, and sexuality aren’t considered to shape the idiosyncrasies of identity experience may only serve to alienate various (poor, non-white, etc.) women from such a feminist movement. A blanket-exclusion of men also implies that experience of male privilege by men is a homogeneous thing, as is enforcement of patriarchal systems, both of which are (hopefully) patently untrue. Men (and sometimes, women) can repress and marginalise men, too. Power is sourced in more than sex.

An interesting historical perspective can be considered when examining the quest for women’s rights and recognition before feminism was established as a term or identity. The philosopher John Stuart Mill co-published the paper ‘The Subjection of Women’ with his wife in 1869. His empathy, intentions, and actions were not invalidated by his gendered position. Likewise the acts of the male abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Lenox Remond, Nathanial P. Rogers, and Henry Stanton to sit silently with the women (who were forbidden to speak) at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1849 was a clear refusal to accept this element of male privilege, challenging the patriarchy in a way that is not dependent on gendered identities or bodies of the social actors.

Parker Pillsbury, 1809-1898. Pillsbury was another important early male feminist, who co-edited the women’s rights newsletter ‘The Revolution’, founded in 1868 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

There also exists the problem that the exclusion of men from the group ‘feminist’ places the tasks of this movement as an exclusively feminine task, arguably a hypocritically sexist circumstance. This argument clearly cannot be extended to the occupation of women-only spaces by men, as marginalised and oppressed groups have a requirement of, and a right to safe spaces. However, men certainly have at least as much responsibility in battling sexism and patriarchal structures as women, and to attempt to do this in a political environment with an extremely dubious (as race relations have taught us) ‘separate but equal’ policy, does not best serve either group.

The distinction then, between profeminism (or pro-feminism) and feminism is a construct that arguably echoes an inflexibility regarding the nebulous nature of gendered identities, as well as the interplay that exists between different facets of an individual’s personal, social identity. The complexities that exist in then grappling with the differences in stance that various interpretations of feminism can hold are another question entirely. However, I am proud to call myself a feminist, and accept with the use of that label the social reactions and judgements that follow.

The story of Agnes – Gender recognition and surgery in the 1950s

This post is based off a chapter of a book. It’s a rather obscure book called ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’, which may be among the least catchy possible titles for a book, even given that the chapter was originally published as a paper in 1967. Bear in mind that much of the way in which this story is discussed will be reflecting on attitudes held widely on gender in the 1950s and 1960s.

Don’t give up on me just yet, as the contents are rather unexpectedly fascinating.

The paper was written by one Dr. Garfinkel and his experience treating a patient called Agnes, whom he first met in November of 1958. Agnes had sought medical attention in her home town, been referred to a doctor in Los Angeles, who referred her to a colleague of Dr. Garfinkel who saw her with him.

The nineteen year old Agnes was the youngest of four children, supported by her mother who worked in an aircraft plant. Her father died when Agnes was a child. She was raised Catholic, but no longer believed in God.

These particular sisters may not have put Agnes back on the path to righteousness…

She also had a penis, and testes.

Agnes was presenting with what nowadays would be referred to as an intersex condition – in that she possessed physiology typically associated with the social categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ at the same time. To quote from Dr. Garfinkel’s account directly:

Agnes’ appearance was convincingly female. She was tall, slim, with a very female shape. Her measurements were 38-25-38. She had long, fine dark-blonde hair, a young face with pretty features, a peaches-and-cream complexion, no facial hair, subtly plucked eyebrows, and no makeup except for lipstick. At the time of her first appearance she was dressed in a tight sweater which marked off her thin shoulders, ample breasts, and narrow waist. Her feet and hands, though somewhat larger than usual for a woman, were in no way remarkable in this respect. Her usual manner of dress did not distinguish her from a typical girl of her age and class. There was nothing garish or exhibitionistic in her attire, nor was there any hint of poor taste or that she was ill at ease in her clothing, as is seen so frequently in transvestites and in women with disturbances in sexual identification. Her voice, pitched at an alto level, was soft, and her delivery had the occasional lisp similar to that affected by feminine appearing male homosexuals. her manner was appropriately feminine with a slight awkwardness that is typical of middle adolescence.

As tempting as it is to pick apart the frankly amazing number of problems there are with anyone, let alone a doctor scrutinising someone in such terms, this isn’t actually the focus of where this is going. Please feel free to pick it apart in your own delicious, juicy minds.

This is a fairly common intersex (and more generally, trans) pride symbol. To think that being intersex is to be a ‘mix’ of male and female (rather than its own state of being, not framed in terms of a binary) as the stereotypical pink-purple-blue colour scheme suggests may be a bit simple.

Agnes wanted to get treatment for what she regarded as a very problematic condition. She thought of her penis and scrotum as being nothing more than a tumour that she wished to have removed so she could get on with living a ‘normal female life’. The fact that she had been born with a penis had meant that for the first 17 years of her life she had been treated and socialised as a boy by her family others who knew her. When she was around 12 years old, she was delighted when she noticed breasts beginning to develop, and other female secondary sex characteristics associated with the onset of puberty.

After much medical scrutiny, it was decided Agnes had a rare disorder known as ‘testicular feminisation syndrome’ , where the testicles, rather than producing testosterone, instead produce lots of oestrogens, causing an XY fetus to develop female genitalia and female traits at puberty. Agnes was seen to be a unique variation on this, in that she had a penis and scrotum and no vagina, and also no ovaries or womb. The doctors were a bit confused by this, but it was the best they could come up with – particularly given how ‘obviously female’ Agnes was to them in all other respects.

Agnes considered herself to be entirely apart from feminine homosexuals, “transvestites” (n.b. I put this in inverted commas because this was the term Dr. Garfinkel and Agnes herself were using at the time to refer to cross-dressers. The term ‘transvestite’ may be considered offensive, and it’s important that this be borne in mind), or any other gender variant individuals, considering them to be “freaks”, and nothing like her whatsoever. She went to an incredible amount of trouble to ensure that she was never scrutinised as being anything other than a ‘normal female’. To again quote directly from Garfinkel’s account:

“I’m not like them” she would continually insist. “In high school I steer clear of boys that acted like sissies … anyone with an abnormal problem … I would completely shy away from them and go to the point of being insulting just enough to get around them … I didn’t want to feel noticed talking to them because somebody might relate them to me. I didn’t want to be classified with them.”

Just as normals frequently will be at a loss to understand “why a person would do that, i.e. engage in homosexual activities or dress as a member of the opposite sex, so did Agnes display the same lack of “understanding” for such behavior, although her accounts characteristically were delivered with flattened affect and never with indignation. When she was invited by me to compare herself with homosexuals and transvestites she found the comparison repulsive.

Agnes was also very anxious about how her situation may affect her relationship with her boyfriend, Bill. Agnes met bill in April of 1958, seven months before she received medical scrutiny. Her refusal to let him allow his hands to wonder below her waist was met with much frustration by him, only temporarily alleviated by claims of her modesty and virginity. Agnes disclosed her situation to him in June, and whilst Bill accepted that it was “like an abnormal growth”, he found it difficult to understand why Agnes attended sessions every Saturday to discuss the condition with the doctors (over 70 hours of interviews were recorded and analysed). This was because Bill did not know that Agnes had been raised as a boy, and she sure as hell wasn’t intending for him to find out. She was also somewhat scared about the fact that Bill might himself be ‘abnormal’ (i.e. homosexual…) due to staying with her after disclosure – though she put this worry to rest after remembering that he took interest in her before he ever knew.

In March 1959, Agnes received a castration operation, where her penis and scrotum were removed, and a vagina constructed in their place. Before the surgery, she was scared that the doctors would make the decision that she was ‘actually’ male, and would amputate her breasts without telling her – but was reassured when told this definitely would not happen. With some time for healing and the use of a penis shaped mould, she was able to acclimatise her new genitals such that she was able to have vaginal sex.

After surgery, Agnes was well accepted by her immediate family and Bill. This was because the doctor’s treatment legitimised her claims of having been ‘female all along’, and that her being raised as male was simply an unhappy mistake due to a condition. The medical justification also meant that her “man-made vagina” was seen as ‘legitimately deserved’ by her, unlike individuals making claims of being women, whilst being ‘unambiguously’ physiologically and genetically ‘male’. Sorry for all the inverted commas, but I hope you see I’m illustrating the beliefs of Agnes and wider society at the time, rather than my own.

PRIDE SHARKTOPUS. I swear, coming up with images to break up the text of this post in a relevant way has been nearly impossible. But I could not resist this badass. For anyone wondering, they’re brandishing the (from bottom left going clockwise): the STRAIGHT ALLY flag, the ASEXUAL flag, the BISEXUAL flag, the PANSEXUAL flag, the GENDERQUEER flag, the INTERSEX flag, the TRANSGENDER flag, and the rather more common LGBT flag. This link is the best I could do towards crediting. 

Five years after her surgery and consultation sessions had finished, Agnes returned to catch up with the doctors who had helped her. Whilst she was no longer with Bill, none of the men she had been with sexually since him had ever given any reason to think they found her in any way out of the ordinary. She was still worried however, so Garfinkel arranged for her to see an expert urologist, who confirmed that “her genitalia were quite beyond suspicion”.

Agnes then dropped a massive bombshell.

During the hour following the welcome news given her by the urologist, after having kept it from me for either years, with the greatest casualness, in mid-sentence, and without giving the slightest warning it was coming, she revealed that she had never had a biological defect that had feminised her but that she had been taking estrogens since age 12. In earlier years when talking to me, she had not only said that she had always hoped and expected that when she grew up she would grow into a woman’s body but that starting in puberty this had spontaneously, gradually, but unwaveringly occurred. In contrast, she now revealed that just as puberty began, at the time her voice started to lower and she developed public hair, she began stealing Stilbestrol from her mother, who was taking it on prescription following a panhysterectomy. The child then began filling the prescription on her own, telling the pharmacist that she was picking up the hormone for her mother and paying for it with money taken from her mother’s purse. She did not know what the effects would be, only that this was a female substance, and she had no idea how much to take but more or less tried to follow the amounts her mother took. She kept this up continuously throughout adolescence, and because by chance she had picked just the right time to start taking the hormone, she was able to prevent the development of all secondary sex characteristics that might have been produced by androgens  and instead to substitute those produced by estrogens. Nonetheless, the androgens continued to be produced, enough that a normal-sized adult penis developed with capacity for erection and orgasm till sexual excitability was suppressed by age 15. Thus, she became a lovely looking young ‘woman’, though with a normal sized penis…

This 19 year old girl with no medical training, by sheer, unadulterated luck, and using a method that now would be essentially impossible, managed to achieve the treatment and recognition she desired in a time when any gender or sexuality variance was seen near-universally as sickness and/or criminal.

Try reading all that again, bearing in mind what you now know about Agnes. Do you find yourself thinking of her in any way differently? It’s quite amazing how even today, many people still consider legitimacy in gender identity to require the green light from the medical establishment. Agnes’ genius manipulation of the system gives a great big middle finger to anyone who would try and question or prevent her legitimacy. For her, being transgender wasn’t an identity she felt any connection with. She had no interest in waging a political fight, or in challenging any aspect of social norms. There’s no way to really comment on whether her disgust at gender and sexual minorities was an act or real. She got what she needed.


The original chapter can be read here (at least in part), through Google books.

The Beginning

Hello lovely readers. You are here because you find gender to be an interesting enough topic that you fancy having a bit of a read and seeing what this is about. Alternatively I, or someone else has prodded you into having a look.  For actually coming to this blog, you officially win at the internet. Please feel free to print off the image below and wear it at all times as a mark of your success.

The reason you win, oh worthy reader, is because gender is, like, important and stuff. The big amorphous field that is gender affects virtually any social issue you might care to name in some way or another. This means that it can be very multi-disciplinary which can make it hard to know where to start, and many authors who even when regarded as important or useful (if you’re already academically equipped to actually use them) are as dry and inaccessible as a quantum mechanics treatise in the Sahara*.

I hope to address this issue by talking about all kinds of things. Some topics will naturally strike more of a personal chord than others, but the aim is to pique interest. Both the abject ridiculousness and amazingness of people may perhaps then be a source of amusement, shock, disgust, arousal or wonder. Anyone reporting all of these sensations simultaneously will gain my respect.

*Unless you are a physicist, or camel, or both.

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