Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘history’

Some thoughts on the intersections of class, femininity, and transgender

In preparing for class, I read a chapter of the book Formations of Class and Gender by Beverley Skeggs (chapter 6, ‘Ambivalent Femininities’). In it, she begins by giving some historical background where she argues that signs of femininity are always classed.

By this, Skeggs is referring to history. Being ‘feminine’ was, and is, constructed to be fragile, delicate, dainty, pretty, small, thin, submissive, and charming. Of course, this has been challenged, resisted and re-negotiated through feminism, but bear with me.

This traditional notion of femininity was and is “a projection of male fantasy”. It is assigned to those women who have ‘proved themselves’ through the way they interact with people and present themselves in the world. Such attribution has been tied not just to presentation and interaction, but also to work – think of the ‘respectable housewife’ image, the epitome of a 1950’s femininity.

Skeggs explains how “working class women were coded as inherently healthy, hardy, and robust (whilst also paradoxically as a source of infection and disease) against the physical frailty of middle-class women. They were also involved in forms of labour that prevented femininity from ever being a possibility.”

Let’s consider the experiences of transgender women. Trans women can experience pressure to ‘pass’ as female (that is, be socially read as if assigned female at birth through appearance, mannerisms, and behaviour). We can see how the same set of problematic norms that dictate what femininity traditionally is in relation to class can be used to exclude transgender womanhood. In this context, femininity is conflated and confused with ‘femaleness’. That is, in order to be viewed as a ‘real’ woman, one has to successfully perform a very constrained and normative interpretation of femininity. Again, this is quite fortunately being challenged, but those trans women who reject traditional/stereotypical femininity and gender roles can and do experience stigma because of it.

What about the intersection – what about working class transgender women? Cisgender working class women can, arguably, struggle to be recognised as feminine due to femininity’s class construction. Trans working class women thus can experience a double bind – exclusion from femininity for working class norms and practices instilled through environment and interaction throughout life, and a likely more difficult battle to perform a middle class femininity adequately in order to be taken seriously as a woman.

Also, putting in ‘too much effort’ can also lead to stigmatisation and be seen as a sign of deviancy! Think of the prevalent and toxic ideas policing women who ‘wear too much make-up’ or ‘try too hard’ – these narratives become connected to the notion of ‘deception’, which then strikes doubly hard for transgender women whose authenticity as women is already under question due to biologically essentialist transphobia (the idea that ‘being female’ is rooted in genitals, chromosomes, etc.)

This one particular example is, I would argue, representative of a systemic problem, whereby class dynamics and economic inequality undermine the fight for LGBTQ rights and gender equality. This also emphasises that any attempts to position feminism and transgender rights as somehow at odds with each other are at best, an erroneous relic. Trying to separate them out will only create an under-nuanced model of the society we desperately need to improve.

 

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Non-binary genders have Thousands of Years of Precedent

The enormous extent to which the binary gender system has been enforced – which claims everyone can only be male or female –  has left many people unaware of the existence of anything (or anyone) else. A lot of this has to do with a phenomenon that sociologists understand as the ‘medicalisation’ of sex. Differences in gendered behaviour (whether that be a man doing ‘women’s things’ or vice versa), sexual attraction, or clothing choice became understood as sicknesses, best left to the expertise of a doctor -when before you would’ve called for a priest, or even more likely, not actually been all that bothered. Anthropologists in the 19th century gave fantastical reports of ‘exotic’, ‘alien’ cultures. These social models regarding gender and sexuality were unintelligible to people bound by the western model: that you could be a man (who was attracted to women), or a woman (who was attracted to men). And that’s that. Such ancient and enduring social systems which involve a third gender (or more!) and other ways for understanding sexuality that aren’t readily analogous to ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or ‘bisexual’ can be found all over the world, but it isn’t even these that I’m referring to in the title of this article. One doesn’t need to travel far to find hugely mainstream historical precedent for the concept of a third gender. How about one of the most important and influential civilisations in the western world? Ancient Greece.

I want to talk about a particular text, written by Plato. Student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle, it’s fair to regard him as a founding father of philosophy. The text is a collection of speeches by different important Greek thinkers, written to reflect  each man delivering his speech to the others at a drinking party. This is Plato’s Symposium.

One of the speeches was given by Aristophanes, who was a comic playwright. He asks why is it that when in love, many people report feeling ‘whole’, as if previously incomplete? The explanation, he says, is due to how mankind used to be.

Humans were, according to Aristophanes, originally beings with two heads, four arms and legs, and two hearts, who were very powerful. Each head (and corresponding genitals) could be male or female – so there were three possible sexes! Male, where both were men, female, where both were women, and ‘androgynous’, where you had one male and one female. These powerful double-people decided to storm Mount Olympus, so to stop them Zeus smote them, tearing everyone in half. Each person then desperately tried to find their original pairing – which positions the male and female double-people as gay men and lesbian women, with the third gender representing what we would now label heterosexuality. This comic illustrates perfectly.

aristophanes

This importantly demonstrates how a two gender system hasn’t always had the total monopoly one might assume it has. Whilst this doesn’t say anything about the thoughts had about gender by the everyday ancient Greek, it simply shows there was recognition of a third gender through stories, and there wasn’t any strangeness or moral failure or sickness associated with it. The same culture gave us Hermaphroditus, the neither-male-nor-female divine child, and root of the word hermaphrodite, often historically used to describe intersex people.

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Whilst the identity labels are new (the word ‘homosexual’ only being created in the late 1860s for example), all evidence shows that the rich human variation of gender identity and sexuality have been around for as long as people have  thought about themselves and who they are.

 

Queer Biography: Brenda Howard, Creator of the Pride March

For all she did, Brenda Howard is relatively obscure as far as queer heroes go – an injustice, given what she achieved.

Brenda Howard

A qualified nurse, Howard was born in New York in 1946, and throughout the 1960s was an anti-Vietnam war activist. She became active in LGBT and feminist politics – and was a distinct minority in all of these spaces as a bisexual woman. After the Stonewall Riots of 1969, Howard organised the commemorative rally one month later, as part of her activities within the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). This helped inspire the 1 year celebrations, also arranged by her, known as the Christopher Street (where the Stonewall Inn was found) Liberation March. This is still celebrated annually across the world today. It was also her idea to expand the celebrations to a week-long series of different events, nucleating all future Pride celebrations. She also was one of those responsible for the popularisation of the name ‘Pride’ for these events.

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Showing enormous dedication to social justice, Howard was chair of the Gay Activist’s Alliance. She also wasn’t afraid to get her hand’s dirty, as proven by her multiple arrests in the name of defending those trampled by an unjust establishment. She protested on behalf of minority groups beyond her own experiences of marginalisation.

Howard was arrested in Chicago in 1988, while demonstrating for national health care and the fair treatment of women, people of color, and those living with HIV and AIDS. She was arrested in Georgia in 1991 for protesting the firing of a lesbian from the state attorney general’s office due to Georgia’s anti-sodomy law.

If this wasn’t impressive enough, Howard also founded the New York Area Bisexual Network in 1988, and the first chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous specifically for bisexual people. She is also credited with aiding Lani Ka’ahumanu in getting bi people included in the 1993 March on Washington – where roughly 1 million people attended.

Howard also identified as polyamorous, and as part of the BDSM community – both strikingly controversial things to be public and proud about during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. In recognising her world-changing work, PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays) created the Brenda Howard Award, presented for work done on behalf of the bisexual community.

Howard passed away from cancer on 28th June 2005 – by some small twist of fate, the date of the Stonewall Riots 36th anniversary. Her impact on a huge number of queer lives is important to remember.

The next time someone asks you why LGBT Pride marches exist or why Gay Pride Month is June tell them “A bisexual woman named Brenda Howard thought it should be”. – Tom Limoncelli

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Bisexual pride flag – image by Peter Salanki.

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.

Plaque_commemorating_Compton's_Cafeteria_riot

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.

Queer Biography – Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Chances are, you haven’t heard of this guy. He’s a bit of a historical badass though, and I shall explain why.

Badass except for the comb-over, perhaps. 

This gentleman is often considered to be the world’s first gay activist. We’re talking about activism that happened over 100 years before the Stonewall Riots, many decades before the word ‘gay’ came to have any connection with same sex attraction… and before the word ‘homosexual’ was coined.

Karl Ulrichs was born in 1825 in Hanover, what is now North-West Germany. Like many queer men, records show that Ulrichs engaged with ‘female’ toys, clothes, and had more girls as friends as a child. He graduated in law and theology when he was 21 from  Göttingen University. He then studied history in Berlin before becoming a legal advisor in 1848. He resigned in 1854 to avoid being dismissed or disciplined for his homosexuality – which was known about – and although not illegal at this time in Hanover, it was a problem because he was a civil servant.

Ulrichs was so self-aware, that despite the lack of words existing to describe his same-sex attractions, despite a total social invisibility beyond disapproval and punishment, he actually created new words to use to describe himself, and identities we now recognise today.

The word Ulrichs coined was ein Urning, which was adapted from German into English to be Uranian. This was in 1862, when he came out to his family and friends – and seven years before Homosexual was used in a published work, by Karl-Maria Kertbeny (a lot of pretty cool people by the name of Karl at this time, it seems). Ulrichs considered uranians like himself to be members of a ‘third sex’, people who had a ‘female soul trapped inside a male body’ – because Ulrichs made the assumption that love and attraction towards men was a somehow female quality. This conflation between what the ‘gender of your soul’ was and the nature of a person’s sexual attractions means that by today’s standards, discussion about people who would now be termed gay and discussion about people who would now be termed trans are rather difficult to disentangle, as neither groups of people had been really defined by anyone. This was the start!

‘Sodomite’, the only descriptor that really existed before this time, specifically only described men who committed the act of sodomy, so said nothing about any (shared) sense of identity. What’s more, Ulrichs, Kertbeny and a very small number of others were the first to put forward that same-sex attraction wasn’t ‘wickedness’, and was something people were born with. This idea connected sexuality with biology, unfortunately leading to consideration in medical terms – and the conception of homosexuality as a mental illness. One can be confident that Ulrichs would’ve been unlikely to conceive of himself or his fellow urnings as ‘sick’, but this was the homophobic social development that occurred as popular consensus shifted from a spiritual understanding to a ‘scientific’ one.

Furthermore, Ulrichs was brave enough to come out publicly – in front of the German Association of Jurists – in *1867*. This was only four years before Paragraph 175 was introduced in 1871 – the German legal provision that criminalised homosexual activity right up until 1994. Paragraph 175 came about throughout the new German Empire (German unification occuring in January 1871) because homosexuality was already criminalised in old Prussia. Ulrichs fought bravely to avoid the instigation of this paragraph, using arguments that homosexuality was an innate quality with a biological basis, which flew in the face of contemporary thought. He was also rational enough to modify his position over time as his thinking on sexuality developed. In 1870, Ulrichs published Araxes: a Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal Law – an essay that stated:

The Urning, too, is a person. He, too, therefore, has inalienable rights. His sexual orientation is a right established by nature. Legislators have no right to veto nature; no right to persecute nature in the course of its work; no right to torture living creatures who are subject to those drives nature gave them.

The Urning is also a citizen. He, too, has civil rights; and according to these rights, the state has certain duties to fulfill as well. The state does not have the right to act on whimsy or for the sheer love of persecution. The state is not authorized, as in the past, to treat Urnings as outside the pale of the law.

Demonstrating the powerful tone he was capable of striking. Throughout his life Ulrichs wrote prolifically, though found limited support. Generally funding and publishing his writings himself, he found his work banned throughout Saxony and Prussia pre-German unification. In 1879 he relocated to Italy, where he died in 1895. The spirit of this man is captured beautifully by this quotation:

Until my dying day I will look back with pride that I found the courage to come face to face in battle against the spectre which for time immemorial has been injecting poison into me and into men of my nature. Many have been driven to suicide because all their happiness in life was tainted. Indeed, I am proud that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.

 

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