Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘Sexuality’

On being an ex-gay queer

Identities are tricky things. They can be used as a shorthand to tell people something about you (from the gender of your partner/s, to what sort of music you like), and they can be grappled with in coming to understand ourselves better as we grow and move through our lives. I’d like to try and use some of my own process and movement to talk about tensions and limitations of (sexual) identity, and how this can also be okay. This is a bit of a thought-dump, so I hope it’s navigable.

I came out to my friends and parents as gay when I was 18, and that was completely fine (a privilege that is informed by my position as middle class, white, and English). It was only later as I accrued more life experience (in both intimate relationships and intellectual ideas) that I was to turn attention to how I conceived of myself again.

Much of this experience relates to gender. Sexuality is both entwined with and separate from gender identity – who you go to bed with is not the same as who you go to bed as, yet if you’re attracted to say, exclusively girls, your gender is what is then used to position you as straight, or a lesbian. My experiences have forced me to confront often unspoken assumptions about what sexuality means for an individual. There’s an assumption that when we say ‘gay men’ we’re talking about cis gay men (because of cissexism), and thus whoever a gay man is interested in/sexual with is also cis. Far from it. By experiencing and acknowledging intimacy with trans gay people, gayness is decoupled from dominant assumptions that this means two people with the ‘same’ genitals.

Also, through deconstructing and questioning my own gender identity and attempting to negotiate feelings around the rejection of masculinity and manhood, identification with and as non-binary has become something I’ve increasingly positioned myself with. It’s important that we don’t assume that identification is as simple as putting oneself inside or outside of particular boxes – particularly when the labels on the boxes can have radically different meanings for different people. Therein lies something that attracts me to both non-binary and queer as identity categories – they position one within an umbrella LGBTQ+ discourse, without any rigid over-simplification of personal experience. They can tell people what you want them to know without having to have an existential crisis over the details of selfhood every time one outs oneself.

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An important point though is how I found gay didn’t really work without erasing the complexities around my feelings of my gender. It also (for me) would potential disenfranchise the gender of my partner, who identified as male when we met, but does not now. Whilst there may (must?) be trans women out there with AMAB gay identified partners who don’t have a problem with the language their partner feels a resonance with to describe their sexuality, some will feel that this positions them as not ‘real’ women. As I don’t identify particularly as male, does that mean I would feel erased if I were to be involved with a guy who identified as gay? I don’t think so. Maybe this speaks to some internalised stuff about ‘not being non-binary enough’, but it would be far more important to me that they didn’t internalise essentialised notions of gender in articulating their sexuality (that ‘attraction to men’ makes assumptions about what a ‘male body’ is, or what gender expression ‘should’ be, etc.).

Further, if telling someone ‘I’m gay’ as someone read as male, this will result in people making an assumption about my partner’s gender, whether she’s there or not. Plus, we’re still together. I’m with a woman. So whether conceiving sexuality of who you’re sexual with, attracted to, in a relationship with, and then your own corresponding gender identity, I’ve royally muddied the waters on all of these fronts. In addition to all of that, over time I’ve felt a significant alienation from notions of a gay community – a social phenomenon that my experiences of have been very white (and racist), very male (and misogynistic), very cis (and transphobic), and very apolitical. Something I think is very important to acknowledge is that gay community is NOT homogeneous. In so far as my experiences have given me those associations, this is something that is obviously not inevitably symptomatic of all individual white cis gay men, or necessarily communities. If tensions with other individuals who share your identity label were all it took to result in disidentification, then identity would fragment apart into nothingness. Identity categories are inherently limited in grouping together people, when people comprise difference.

So if I was gay, but I no longer identify as such, that makes me an ‘ex-gay’ right? I say this very tongue in cheek, fully aware of the evangelical Christian undertones that the label ‘ex-gay’ is associated with, and how such a reading assumes both the possibility and success of conceptually repugnant and psychologically damaging ‘reparation therapy’. It’s slightly telling all on its own about how erasing society is in general that if not gay, we thus immediately leap to straight. Which I can at least confidently say I am not. I am queer – I cannot easily categorise the bodies, identities, appearances, or personalities of those I find attractive romantically or sexually. I can identify patterns, but such details don’t lend themselves well to identity labels. I’ve learnt not to worry about it any more.

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What it means to ‘be gay’ is also undergoing social transmutation. Queer people (particularly in youth or internet subcultures) might use language such as ‘I’m hella gay’, in a way which resonates or communicates far more something queer than something rigidly, discretely homosexual. This echoes the historical phenomenon where before identities such as bisexual, pansexual, or even transgender were understood and demarcated, ‘gay’ itself was a catch-all term, but which erased people in a way that queer does not. The difference between this historical use of gay and of contemporary use of queer is how ideas of gender and sexuality have developed in the meantime and fed into community consciousnesses.

I do sometimes wish I had a simpler, easier experience of gender and sexuality, as it would make it easier to relate with certain parts of the world and to communicate. But I also think this is a trap. What I really wish is that I could tell anyone that I’m queer, and not worry about what they think that might mean, whether they’re okay with it, or whether I’m going to have to navigate various assumptions made about gender and orientation. Giving time to process the potential complexities of gender and sexuality can feel daunting, but it’s also incredibly important as it equips us all to be more respectful, and more understanding.

 

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A Response to the Idea ‘It’s Time to Take the T out of LGBT’

On Thursday 10th September 2015, Katie Glover (who is transgender) wrote an article for the Independent titled ‘Why it’s Time to take the ‘T’ out of LGBT’. I think that this article is misguided and unhelpful for different aspects of queer communities, and I will spell out why.

The article starts with discussion of the idea that people can get confused by LGBT, due to confusion and conflation between sexuality and gender identity (one simple, but useful one liner I’ve heard to explain this is “sexuality is who you go to bed with, gender identity is who you go to bed as” – later in the article, Glover misquotes this idea). This is a point dealt with by education, as the association between gender identity and sexuality has been around a lot longer than any kind of LGBT movement has. That association is in part because of how labels like ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ are understood with reference to an individuals gender, so as to understand whether they’re attracted to ‘the same or the opposite sex’ (imperfect though such language is). The article claims “being transgender is at the very least heavily associated with sexual orientation, when in fact it stands completely in isolation” – which is patently untrue. For example, if you are assigned male at birth, and you’re attracted to men, and are read socially as male, then you are going to be considered a gay or bisexual or otherwise non-straight man if you give off any social cues of involvement with a man. Even if you identify as a woman. If you are read socially as a woman, then you become read as heterosexual. Indeed, how an individual defines their sexuality may change with a gender transition even if who they’re actually attracted to does not. Also, to consider things historically, sexuality and gender identity were originally conflated under the idea of ‘inversion’, or a ‘woman’s soul in a man’s body’ as an explanation for same gender attraction – yet this narrative is now far more associated with trans.

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Glover moves to discuss how Caitlyn Jenner used to believe that marriage was defined as between one man and one woman, and suggests that because ‘gay issues aren’t trans’ people’s turf’ they won’t necessarily be supportive. I would argue that the vast majority of transgender people are supportive of sexuality minority rights (Glover keeps saying ‘gay marriage’, and even says “gay people… make up three quarters of the LGBT title”, such bisexual erasure is astonishing). The reason why is because trans people often have a first hand understanding of what it feels like to not be accepted, and face stigma and discrimination in various ways. There is a sense of empathy there, together with powerful historical context where the progress of LGB acceptance has moved faster than for transgender. This is ironic given the huge support that LGB folk have had from trans people. The Stonewall Riots are the best example of this, and have been much discussed given the critical response the upcoming film has received for its erasure of transgender women of colour. Reactions like Ellen’s – surprise that Caitlyn wouldn’t have a stronger voice supporting other marginalised people, given her relative privilege and platform – are to be encouraged.

Glover demonstrates a lack of nuanced understanding of queer politics or history in suggesting that the fracturing of the LGBT moniker is progress. The term obviously covers a very wide range of people, with views that can often directly contradict, and with wildly different views about how things ‘should’ be. It’s worth noting that being something, such as gay, bisexual, or trans – certainly does make you the authority on your own experience. It doesn’t make you an authority on the community. That tends to come with many years of work, involvement, reading, and listening. The vast majority of the time that comes from someone directly within a given demographic, but not necessarily. I know there are certainly straight trans people, indeed, trans academics, who have far more nuanced understandings of gay rights than the majority of gay people. Further, Glover makes the unsubstantiated claim that “In fact, it’s been estimated that the number of trans people who are gay is only about the same as in the wider population.” As an academic of gender and sexuality, getting numbers on this stuff is very difficult, and estimates can vary widely. However from my own fieldwork as well as the discussions from dozens of articles on transgender, it seems to me that flexibility and fluidity with sexuality amongst trans people is considerably more common than in the wider population (I can’t be sure that all references are accessible to everyone, but some material can be found here, here, here, and here). The potential reasons for this are beyond this article, though also we have to ask – does this even matter? If there were few non-straight trans people, would trans ignorance or ambivalence on issues of sexuality (which in reality is far less common than ignorance or ambivalence on trans issues from LGB people) not be something we should aim to challenge and rectify? As for all?

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In articulating that LGB and T might be getting “too close for comfort”, Glover reveals one of the most problematic and damaging things within LGBTQ community – that is, ignorance and distaste from some for those different from themselves, when we might otherwise be brought together over a sense of solidarity in seeking respect and equality. Some of the greatest successes of LGBTQ liberation have been due to cooperation – for example, whilst not decimated in anything like the same way, lesbian activists of the 1980s shouldered an enormous amount of the struggle in fighting for the HIV/AIDS crisis experienced by non-straight men to be taken seriously. And of course, how trans activists at Stonewall put LGB rights on the map.

We do find people who exist within LGBT who exhibit a self-interested, tribalist approach. Those gay men with zero interest in misogyny, racism, ableism or transphobia spring to mind with a wince, because they’re not affected.  Small minded identity politics which try to scrape acceptance by distancing from any other marginalised groups, in effect trying to get a ticket to ‘mainstream’ society by propping up a status quo which tells everyone that being straight is ‘normal’. Being white is ‘normal’. Being cis is ‘normal’ – positioning everyone who isn’t, as not quite as good. None of this provides a compelling reason for distancing LGB from T, but gives good reason for there to be more dialogue within LGBTQ about our different issues in order to improve society for all.

Insider/Outsider – The Politics of Who to Listen to

As someone who works on non-binary gender identities without unequivocally being an in-group member (though as previously discussed, it’s a little bit complicated), this is an important issue for me. There’s a long and unpleasant history, and not just relating to gender, of people speaking over the voices of groups they are not members of. Of speaking for or about people in ways those people did (or do) not like. This article is not a debate about whether this is a problem or not: it is. Recognition of privilege is something that everyone has a moral imperative to engage with – in part to simply avoid being an ignorant arse who doesn’t recognise hardships others face that they don’t, but also because oppressions are intersectional, which is best illustrated by the comic below – originally posted by Miriam Dobson here.

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However, whilst it’s a good rule of thumb to listen to in-group members telling you things about their group, especially when you’re not a member of that group, there are additional complexities that are worth recognising.

People within marginalised groups disagree.

This should be pretty obvious. Any population big enough to be associated with a social oppression (be that people of colour, queer people, trans people, women, etc.) is going to contain vast swathes of differing opinion. This raises two important points, that may seem a bit contradictory. Firstly, marginalised people can be wrong about things that pertain to the group they’re a member of. Secondly, issues can easily become complex enough that claiming there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ becomes simplistic or troubling all on its own. It’s important to add that the *possibility* of error on the part of a marginalised person doesn’t mean it’s okay for someone to use this to conveniently dismiss claims they don’t like. Especially those claims that come from direct experience. Experiences of different people can contradict, and don’t respectively erase each other. It’s a complex world we live in.

People new to marginalised groups don’t magically become experts immediately. Some never do.

I heard one transgender activist put it this way: ‘coming out is like saying you want to do a GCSE in maths, but then people start asking you advanced calculus all the time and expecting you to know the answer’. Each person is the authority of their own life. But that’s different to being equipped with an arsenal of political, academic, or activist language and nuanced understandings of what things can mean to different people. It’s different to an awareness of historical or cultural contexts, politics, precedents, or social structures. In some cases, it’s vital to remember that a marginalised person doesn’t need any of those things for their voice to still carry a weight and value that a non-marginalised person’s cannot – such as voicing experience. It’s also a problem to expect everyone to be an expert, as not everyone is or wants to be a scholar or an activist.

Whilst I would suggest most people don’t believe you need to be a member of a demographic to study a particular demographic, it’s a good rule of thumb that lived experiences trump theoretical awareness. Experiencing something doesn’t make someone an expert, but there’s a reason why many people who do experience an oppression do become experts – because they have a particularly powerful motivation to do so. We could of course ‘what does ‘expert’ even mean anyway?’ but that’s a different discussion.

Marginalised people can’t speak for all members of the group they occupy, because no-one can. But…

If a marginalised person says ‘we want this’ or ‘we experience that’, it is more likely to be a slight simplification, or a political statement with a particular purpose rather than something hugely problematic. Their social positioning to the political meaning of the statement is changed and charged by their in-group status.

Experiencing one oppression doesn’t mean someone is sensitive to other forms of oppression, necessarily.

You find racist gay people. You find homophobic disabled people. You find transphobic women. This can often have troubling implications, as if they’re highly politically motivated to fight for the rights and well being of their group, they’re almost certainly leaving someone out in the cold.

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Often, if a scholar does work on a particular group of people, and many members of that group take issue with what they’re saying, it’s extremely pertinent to listen to the actual people, rather than the theorist. This is illustrated rather perfectly not just by history (it was the highly qualified, expert doctors who decided that homosexuality and transgender were mental illnesses, no?) but also by the continued work hate speech of scholars polemicists such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys.

Ultimately, knowing who to listen to can sometimes be a complex ethical process, dependent on collecting and processing lots of information. But if in doubt (or even if not, in fact), listening to voices of experience is your best bet. The devil can be in the detail where contradiction comes up, but this only heightens the importance of education.

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.

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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.

 

Racism in the World of Gay Apps – An Interview with Dang Nguyen

Dang is the creator of racistsofgrindr.tumblr.com – a site which allows submissions of screenshots of racially problematic encounters on the now infamous app, or similar. He offered me some of his time to talk about this issue.

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Click to enlarge. Montage credit: Dang Nguyen.

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Ben: Hi Dang, so tell me, where and how have you experienced racism in LGBTQ contexts?

Dang: Oh, well, it’s definitely most prevalent online and in hookup culture. I can’t speak for other orientations, but among MSM (men who have sex with men) you see it in people’s profiles as if it’s no big thing – “no Asians” or “no Indians” – or else in the way they see race first and a person second, whether or not they’re trying to be complimentary.

Ben: Do you think it’s more obvious as a digital phenomenon?

Dang: Definitely. It’s a cliché, but I do think it’s easier for people to be douchebags from behind a computer monitor. It gives us a sense of distance and helps us dehumanise the people we’re talking to, so we say and do shit we would never dream of doing in real life. So while a lot of people – I hope – would never verbalise their racism in the flesh, they feel perfectly comfortable doing it online because they can be reasonably confident they won’t get bottled for it.

Ben: What do you think of the defence ‘but it’s just a preference’, that can be used?

Dang: I think that the people who use it haven’t really examined its implications. Of course we all have our preferences, we’re all turned on by different things, but those things are informed by assumptions about those qualities to which we’re attracted. Some people like well-groomed men because of the assumption that they’re classy and genteel, while others like rugged men because of the assumption that they’re strong and masculine. I like well-read men who slow-dance because of the assumption that they’re intelligent and romantic. The same applies to race-pursuing, or dismissing someone based on their ethnicity. To do so is basically making an assumption about it, and in the case of Asian men, it’s assumed we’re effeminate and submissive. It’s even seen in those who are trying to turn it into a compliment. I’ve seen men describe Asians as being “smooth” and “cute” and “polite” – all terms denoting delicacy, infantilism and effeminacy.

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Dang: It’s also fucking stupid in that Asians literally come in every shape, size and colour, from dark Sri Lankans to the most moon-pale Korean, from a big-bellied paterfamilias in Mongolia to a lithe nymph in Vietnam. So it’s not an aversion to the way we look, it’s an aversion to Asianness and all the assumptions that go with it.

Ben: Do you think that most people who fetishise Asian men sexually have a broadly similar conflation of what it means to ‘be’ Asian in mind?

Dang: Oh, definitely! If they specify that they prefer Asian men, ask them why. What is it they like about Asian men? Nine times out of ten they’ll reply with some shit about how Asian boys – and it is almost always “boys”, never men – are smooth, or polite, or friendly, or humble, or some other absurd trope that continues the grand tradition of inscrutable, submissive, sexless Orientals who are never a threat to white masculinity.

Ben: So it’s tied up in a power dynamic, then.

Dang: Partly, although I don’t think it’s a conscious domination thing. I mean, I don’t think white men are sitting at home thinking up new ways to retake Hong Kong and conquer the Celestial Empire for its tea and porcelain, but there’s definitely a reason why so many relationships between Asian men and white men have a not insignificant age disparity, as well as the fact that the language white men tend to use about Asian men has pretty heavy connotations of, well, effeminacy (I keep using that word!) which in turn has connotations of weakness. So yes, I do think there’s a power dynamic there.

Ben: How about responses these guys give to rejection, or being called out?

Dang: In both instances, I’ve found that white men tend to dismiss the people who reject or call them out. They can afford to – whiteness is normalised and reinforced everywhere as being not just the standard or the norm, but the ideal, while Asian men occupy a spot near the bottom of the totem pole of desirability. So if one Asian out of five calls out or rejects their racist bullshit, they can just block him and move on to the next Asian, because a lot of Asian men aren’t as picky. They feel like they can’t be.

Ben: Is it just blocking, or does it ever result in abuse? i’m imagining the potential for guys to be affronted, as if by giving their attention they’ve offered a compliment, positioning you as ‘ungrateful’, for instance. I’m imagining a parallel with when men who compliment women will say things like ‘yeah well you’re ugly anyway’ after a rejection.

Dang: It can. I mean, rejection always hurts, no matter how much of a pig-ignorant punk ass douchewaffle you are. Mostly I just get blocked because I tend to be pretty belligerent, but I’ve had a few men deliver parting blows at my bitchiness. One even called me “a yellow”. He used the particle and everything, it was so retro.

Ben: You say the totem pole – do you conceive of a fairly clear hierarchy then? who is situated where? Can you say a bit more about the idea that Asian men feel they can’t afford to be picky? where does that come from? Especially given how it implicitly positions rejecting racially problematic overtures as a ‘pickiness’!

Dang: There’s a very clear racialised hierarchy of gay attractiveness. White men are at the peak, of course. Beneath them are Latino men. Beneath them in turn are Middle Eastern and Black men, with Asians and Indians at the bottom. There are other hierarchies of attractiveness – body type, clique or “tribe”, scene or fetish – but I’m not sure I’d be qualified to pronounce on those.The fact is that white men are wanted by everyone, including each other. Those who will express interest in Asian men are in high demand but comparatively low supply. Asian men, however, are rarely wanted by anyone. Low demand and comparatively high supply. So when one of the sought-after white men is willing to fuck an Asian man, Asian men jockey for attention. It’s no secret that Asian men – just like men of every other colour – often prefer white men over other Asian men. So an Asian man who is willing to write off a potential white sexual partner is seen as picky, because he’s turning down a chance to have sex with one of the coveted Caucasians.

Ben: What do you think positions Latino men above Black and Middle Eastern men? or indeed those groups above Asian and Indian men?

Dang: The cynic in me wants to say that the racial totem pole is formatted according to proximity to white aesthetic values, but again, I think it’s based on certain assumptions about race. We have the Latin lover stereotype, in which both Hispanic men and women are stereotyped as being promiscuous and passionate. Middle Eastern men have the benefit of being more likely to appeal to Eurocentric aesthetic tastes while retaining a sense of exoticism and Otherness (both in a way that can be fetishised and rejected) while black male sexuality has a long and horrifying history of being stereotyped as threatening, but also wild and exciting. Asian and Indian men both suffer from being seen as intellectual, polite and dispassionate – whitefaced geisha and smiling grocery store owners and short but wealthy businessmen and computer technicians.

Ben: What do you say to people who would argue ‘if you don’t like it, don’t use the app!’ or ‘you can just ignore those people!’?

Dang: I think that I shouldn’t have to make room for the shitty behaviour of others. I shouldn’t have to avoid spaces I want to inhabit for fear of being casually dehumanised. Besides, if I just grin and bear it, I’m basically normalising it as an acceptable status quo.

Ben: Do you think there’s any room for men of colour to use racial profiling to their advantage? Playing up to a fantasy in order to procure sex with someone they like the look of, for instance.

Dang: Oh, definitely. If they’re willing to stomach it, they could have frequent and satisfying sex by playing the role set out for them. Many do. I did for a long time, because I was convinced I wouldn’t get a man any other way. There’s something in Sartre about that, isn’t there? Protect yourself from being objectified by pre-objectifying yourself. Make yourself an obscene object and people lose all their power to hurt you.

Ben: Finally, if you had to give any advice to queer men of colour who struggle with self-image due to racist standards of attractiveness, what would it be?

Dang: Don’t take it lying down. Don’t accept things the way they are. Shout, rant, get angry, spit venom, throw a molotov. Try to make it so that no one else ever has to feel the same way you did.

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Dang Nguyen is a knot of serpents masquerading as a boy. His divinity has spent twenty-two years in its current mortal vessel, which resides in the principality of Melbourne, Australia. His hobbies include embroidery, literary analysis and the pursuit of ageless immortality.

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.

 

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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