Friday, November 13, 2009

From Erica: Gender neutrality, androgyny, and the invisible gender

NB: There are many academic articles that have been written on this subject, and I have copies of them all- in my parents' basement. Thus, many of the ideas from "some theorist" in this post are referencing a real author whose name I can't see to cite from.

When I was in my undergrad at McGill, a lot of my friends liked to play with gender. Many identified themselves as genderqueer or genderfuckers, some identified as trans, and a few identified as people who liked to play for the sake of performance. Some of them maintained their assigned pronouns, and some didn't. One thing struck me though: of all of the gender-queering folk I was friends with, only one of them queered in the direction of femininity. Everyone else- including the friends who chose to present as gender-neutral as possible- presented many characteristics that are very strongly associated with masculinity. Short hair, pants, "men's" work shirts, ties...the list goes on. And for many of these friends, their assigned gender identity had been feminine for most of their lives, so for them masculine traits were a new experience, a realm for exploration, and the complete opposite of what they'd been forced (in one way or another) to present and pretend to own for a very long time.

But for me it begs the question: what happened to gender neutrality? One of the theorists I read in my undergrad days pointed out once, in discussions of oppression, that the key to maintaining a hegemony, a dominant group, is to make the dominant group invisible. In this view, White/Caucasian isn't a race, male isn't a sex, heterosexuality isn't a real sexuality, and masculine isn't a gender presentation. Well, they are, but no one perceives them that way; race, sex, sexuality, gender are all things that belong to people in Other categories. Thus, People of Colour have race, females have a sex, queer folk have a sexuality, and femininity is a possessed gender presentation. Another way of phrasing this is to say that people who are members of the dominant categories are often completely unaware of these characteristics that they have that are used to marginalize the people who do not have them. Think about it: how many straight folk are aware of their straight-ness or are conscious of how they indicate it? Often, unless they've mistakenly wandered into a queer club, they're oblivious.

The thing is that masculinity has not only been coded as invisible, but it's been coded as androgynous. With the one exception, every genderqueer person I knew at McGill played with masculinity to express their gender neutrality; the only friend I had who used femininity to genderqueer got all kinds of flack from outsiders for "doing it wrong," in lay terms. Somehow, too, this wasn't just connected to the assigned genders and sexes of the people who were playing or identifying with genderqueer presentations. It wasn't a situation in which formerly cis women were playing with masculinity and formerly cis men were playing with femininity- and, to be honest, I don't know (and don't care to know) what everyone's assigned genders and sexes were. Some folks kept their assigned sex (including pronouns) while playing with gender, and enjoyed disclosing it, while others did not. But it seemed that the universal consensus was that femininity was only gender-neutral when done in certain ways- a shaggy "boy" cut, dark eyeliner and/or lipstick, breasts that weren't bound- and masculinity should be presented otherwise. In that community, the general idea was that androgyny looked like a Goth cis-boy.

This isn't something that's particular to my own favourite community, though. Even in other areas, where genderqueering isn't exactly the expected, trending towards masculinity has been a big thing. Another theorist I read had a field day with cis-women's fashions and bodies in the workforce. Her argument was that since the early 1970s, especially for White women, expectations of bodies and clothes have been getting progressively more masculine- especially in the workforce. Of course these clothes and ideals maintain SOME element of femininity- God forbid our culture should fail to distinguish between men and women!- but, overall, the expectations are shockingly non-neutral. Power suits, for example, have become coded for women as well, especially with pants. Women in the workforce shouldn't wear ties, but should buy blouses with ruffles at the neckline and down the bosom- the feminine version of a tie. Of course, too, women should be skinny, and while they should maintain a certain amount of their curves- a push-up bra is a must- they absolutely shouldn't have an obvious hourglass figure or "flaunt" those curves in any way. In short, they should look boyish and masculine-professional, but not so masculine or so professional as to destroy the male-dominated gender-binaric power structure we've got going on in the US. Can you imagine the ruckus that would go up if some cis-man on Wall Street wore a skirt to be professional? Pants have become universalized- and this isn't a bad thing, because they're so comfy and practical- but have been coded as neutral while feminine articles, such as skirts, have not.

In majority culture in the US, we continue to believe that many things are neutral that really aren't- as Emily pointed out a few days ago. And, to a certain extent, I understand why so many masculine traits have become absorbed into the realm of the neutral while many of the "higher" feminine traits have not: high heels, skirts, fitted shirts, highly stylized hair, jewelry, and "unnaturally natural" makeup are all inconvenient, expensive, and occasionally painful. At the same time though, they can be a lot of fun, and they can look great on people. As my femme-leaning genderqueer friend proved time and time again, feminine characteristics can be worn and manipulated in ways that are flattering, phenomenal, and still a big middle finger to the gender binary. So why can't we get over the assumption that gender-neutral necessarily means masculine?

My theory, at least in part, is that the feminine traits we're foregoing in our cultural attempts to achieve neutrality- or, as in the case of the business world, to achieve some sort of reasonable "anyone can do it" professional standard- are not only traits that don't belong to the Golden Standard of masculinity, but are traits that belong to a group of people that have historically been marginalized, abused, and oppressed. Wearing a skirt and high heels isn't only occasionally uncomfortable; it's also a signifier of a particular power position in majority US culture. It's as though our fashion choices are revealing our decision: to be powerful, to be in control of our lives and identities, we have to be masculine. And- as a card-carrying cis-woman who enjoys her heels and skirts from time to time- I don't intend to deplore femme presentations, but these are historically the signifiers of victimhood. Of subordination. Of powerlessness. Heels make it harder to walk or run. Skirts limit the length of your stride. If you're worried about your makeup or your hair, you're not likely to do anything to get you messy.

The thing is, they don't have to be. While most of the cultural examples of kick-ass personalities in high femme getup are still sex objects intended for heterosexual male desire- fictional and real, and here Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes to mind- they're still kick-ass. They're not being victimized- except in a broader cultural sense, as I just mentioned- and they've earned themselves high amounts of respect. Who would call Michelle Obama a victim at this point in her life? Aside from the fashion magazines that are constantly picking on her for having arm muscles or wearing a sleeveless blouse or whatever fashion faux pas they're accusing her of now, she is influential and highly respected- and wearing heels and skirts.

I'd love to see that sort of dynamic be extended into the realm of gender neutrality or gender universality. Where it doesn't have to come from masculinity in order to be neutral or universal. Because as long as we're saying it does, or acting as though it does, we're implicitly saying that, in our gender-binaric culture, any cis-man who wears a skirt is giving up his right to social power and control. Femininity is only okay as long as it's performed by cis-women, and only as long as they understand that they're second-rate. I'd love to overturn that.

Monday, November 9, 2009

From Emily: Facebook, how could you?

I was a little perplexed when this showed up as one of my facebook updates:

Deb Clark wants to put your birthday on his calender [- Accept -] 4 hours ago

I couldn't figure out who this man could possibly be. I really didn't think I knew a man named Deb. So I clicked on the name, and up popped a picture of Deb, a lady who happens to be my first cousin once removed. Now, I remember how awkward it was when facebook first started trying to add in pronouns for people who hadn't specified a gender or sex. "John is enjoying its classes," and "Carly is excited about its birthday" are problematic for obvious reason. But I thought we'd progressed past assuming that male pronouns are gender neutral.

I'm doing some research for a paper on gender in the classroom, and one very interesting thing I encountered was a discussion of some studies that had been done with terms that don't mention gender at all, and terms that were based in masculine words but that were argued to have historically been gender-neutral. How the study worked, is they gave half the subjects gender-free terms such as ancient people, or humanity and asked them to draw a picture. They then asked the other half to draw a picture of supposedly gender neutral terms like ancient man, and mankind. The findings? The terms that were linked to men but that were supposed to be gender neutral in fact drastically increased the number of subjects who drew male-only drawings.

So the next time you think gender-free pronouns, or more inclusive pronouns (such as "he or she," "s/he" or "ze") are pointless, remember the drawings.

Friday, November 6, 2009

From Emily: Brigham Young University closes the Women's Research Institute

Dear Readers,

It's difficult to express how heartbroken I am over BYU's recent decision to shut down the Women's Research Institute and move the women's studies minor to the college of Family, Home, and Social Sciences. I love the social sciences, but I see no way that an interdisciplinary field can be successfully housed within a single discipline. As an alumnus of the women's studies minor who graduated with a BA in English, I am grateful that the minor was interdisciplinary while I took part in it, and I am anxious over the loss of the interdisciplinary collaboration that is so essential to work in the field of women's studies and gender studies.

If you're unfamiliar with the history of this decision, let me explain what I do know. According to a press release BYU put out last week, the WRI will be shut down in just six short weeks, at the end of this very semester. The press release so cheerily glosses over important details that some have compared it to George Orwell's Animal Farm. While the press release refers to the closing of the WRI as a mere reorganiztion of the program and claims that dispersing the 85+ scholars involved with the WRI will "streamline and strengthen" the program, the press release provides no explanation as to how this dispersion will not tear apart a field that is by nature collaborative and interdisciplinary.

A group of faculty affiliated with the WRI have posted an impressively diplomatic eulogy for the WRI on, detailing its history and some of the spectacular accomplishments it has produced in the 31 years since its birth. I highly recommend clicking on the above link, and I'd particularly like to draw your attention to the post's statement that only about a third of the WRI's funding came directly from BYU, and that the funding from BYU "amounted to the average salary of a full-time professor." What's even sadder, is that BYU's press release proudly claims BYU will increase funding into women's research. How? By putting a mere $25,000 into a fund for faculty grants. But how on earth does such a small fraction of the funds the WRI put towards research increase funding? Whatever the press release says, logic dictates otherwise.

Initially BYU tried to keep this matter hush hush, as evidenced by their delay in announcing this decision. The WRI will close at the end of this very semester, the instant students leave campus in December, and yet the decision was only made public on October 29th. Since the public outcry occasioned by this announcement and through the work of a vibrant facebook group however, the Utah press has begun paying attention, with notable articles published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, and BYU's newspaper, The Daily Universe. Online commenting on these articles has gone through the roof, and a facebook group in support of saving the WRI has gained over one thousand members in just a few days.

Hundreds of students are writing letters and emails, and calling and visiting the Academic VP, John Tanner, to ask him how cutting funding and closing this important location for interdisciplinary collaboration will in fact "streamline and strengthen" the program. And how does dispersing the many faculty members affiliated with the WRI streamline the program? Dispersing and complicating a program does anything but simplify it. Today John Tanner emailed a link with his response to the many emails he has received on this subject, but as you can see this response leaves these important questions unanswered and provides no clear reason behind why the WRI is being shut down.

I sought Dr. Tanner out in person today after receiving his email link and told him I still had questions. He told me he had too many appointments to talk to me, but that it was nice to meet me and shook my hand. He seemed like a nice man, and I'm sure he had the best of intentions in approving this decision. But the decision is nevertheless a horrifying and thus far unjustified mistake. When so many people outside the LDS church mistakenly think that the LDS gospel (and Christianity in general) oppresses women, we need organizations like the WRI to demonstrate to the world that that simply is not true.

If you aren't affiliated with BYU, maybe you're wondering what any of this has to do with you. Why should you care? Well, according to the squaretwo article, "Within the last twenty years of record-keeping, no other university in the country has eliminated its center of research concerning women." Just think about that for a moment: this is the first documented case of a university shutting down its center of research concerning women in the last twenty years. Though the BYU press release claims this move does not stem from an effort to conserve university funds, I am terrified that other universities will follow their lead for financial reasons.

Times of economic trouble have a history of further marginalizing and breeding antagonism toward minorities. Already I've heard reports that African American Studies programs are being slashed across the nation. As Erica and I are constantly saying on the blog, we need collaboration and healthy discussion between all groups of people, but especially between minority groups. Though I am positive that BYU decided to close the WRI with good intentions, this decision will shut down discussion of issues that concern women and gender and may perhaps provide a springboard for individuals hoping to derail years of progress in de-marginalizing minority groups in the United States.

My plea to all of you, whether you have any direct connection to BYU or not, is to write letters and make phone calls to the administration at BYU. Respectfully and articulately explain how this decision will negatively impact you and many others. The BYU administration needs to know the truth of how much damage this decision will cause if it runs its course unchecked.

Here are some links to other blogs that express sadness and dismay over the dissolution of the WRI:

A response by a former WRI employee

Hidden Domestic

Feminist Mormon Housewives

"BYU is out to get me" by Sarah, who has been a power house in organizing everything.

"BYU does it again"

Third-Wave Mormon

the bee in your bonnet: "streamline and strengthen"

Is BYU all about parity?

By Common Consent: "Goodbye Women's Research Institute

Dissenting in Part: "Another BYU snafu"

A wannabe malingerer: The WRI

Schrodinger's Cat: Closing the WRI = Bad Idea

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

From Erica: in the gay news

So, readers, in the last week we've had some interesting things crop up in the news, especially as they pertain to LGBTQI folk and their civil rights. I thought I'd link a couple of them here.

First, after his talk to an LGBQ pride group- during which he was criticized for not making good on his campaign promises for our civil rights- Congress passed and Obama signed the revised Hate Crimes Bill, which now identifies sexual orientation and gender identity as categories under which someone can be targeted for a hate crime. This has been a long time coming, folks.

Second, the Ryan White Care Act, which provides a lot of funding for HIV- and AIDS-based programs throughout the country, including treatment for about 500,000 folks who can't afford treatment on their own, was reauthorized in the House last week and should be headed to Obama's desk soon. Is the bill perfect? No. It doesn't provide a lot of the medical subsidies until a person's immune system qualifies them for AIDS, at which point treatment becomes a lot more expensive and complicated. By way of contrast, Canada's medical support system starts treating those with HIV much earlier in the diagnosis, which significantly slows the virus's progress through the body and reduces costs in the long term. At least the law in the US will increase funding somewhat, rather than cutting it back as has been happening for the past several years.

Finally, the sad news I woke up to this morning: Maine voters turned out against gay marriage yesterday, overturning the bill that had been passed earlier in the year. I can't even begin to tell you all how sad this makes me. In the LGBTQI camp, there's a lot of discussion about whether marriage is something "we" even want- it perpetuates discrimination against polyamoury, it's a system set up by a heterocentric society, it expects us to buy into the "one perfect person for everyone" line- but beyond these arguments, I think, is the most important fact that underlies the whole debate: whether or not we "need" our relationships validated by the state, having so many people turn out against us is disheartening because that's representative of how many people think our relationships are wrong, are worthless, aren't good enough. That's the number of people who believe it's okay- or, in some cases, morally right- to deny us access to legal rights and parental rights that should be ours as people and as citizens. I'm confident that the Supreme Court will eventually overturn the laws that bar us from getting married, but I'm getting tired of waiting for that day.

That's all I have to say for now.