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pie for breakfast
April 14th, 2014
10:07 pm


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we're not trying to recruit, but maybe we should be
so, one feature i've noticed in a number of critiques of the Classic Trans NarrativeTM is that there seem to be a lot of people who identify as trans women who thought it was bullshit when they first heard it, and whose failure to identify with it was a stumbling block in their progress towards self-identifying as trans*.

i'm going at this point to throw in a snarky comment about how ‘if it sounded like bullshit to you the first time you heard it, why on earth would you think repeating it is a good pedagogical strategy?’ but i don't want to stop there.

so, i think the fundamental issue is with the basic way that all Queer 101s conceive of their audience: the audience is presumptively composed entirely of cisstraight people who need to be trained to not make a mess of things, with little or no consideration for the possibility that it might contain under-informed queer folks who might need navigational tools to help them self-identify.

the old homophobic line is that even basic education in queer issues is covert recruitment into queer ways of life, but in fact, it's virtually anti-recruitment - structured to instil in audience members who might be well-served by queer labels and ways of life the sense that this is all about somebody else.

nowhere is this clearer than in the ubiquitous piece of queer mythology that if you're not one of the mundanes, you've known you were Very DifferentTM for as long as you can remember.

this of course erases the experiences of queer people who don't feel that their queer characteristics make them all that different, who didn't start feeling different until some point of sexual awakening, who knew they were different in some way but didn't connect it with sexuality or gender, whose sense of sexuality or gender identity has evolved over their lives so that they only started feeling different at some later point, or who never realized they were different because it never occurred to them that their distinctive thoughts and feelings were non-universal.

if it were just an issue of erasure, this might be tolerable. there's not time to mention everybody in the Queer 101, so some of us just have to accept that we'll be tossed into some wastebasket category, with the details left for a more advanced course. (only, please, can they at least include such a wastebasket category in the 101? it feels like a lot of the time they forget.)

but it's not just an issue of erasure here. it's an issue of confusing and marginalizing people with incompletely articulated queer identities when they are at their most psychologically vulnerable. it's not just that all those people who didn't feel Very DifferentTM from early childhood are going to be mad because their experiences are being erased. it's that the ones in the audience, some of whom haven't figured out how to label themselves - some of whom may not even have previously been aware of the existence of a well-fitted label. are implicitly being told that the labels you mentioned in your Queer 101 are not for them.

think about that for a second? think about every 17- or 18- or 19-year-old undergrad who is just beginning to take the most tentative first steps towards exploring their sexuality and gender identity. who went through their childhood and much of their adolescence without it ever seriously occurring to them that they might be Very DifferentTM in the relevant respects. think about how, by perpetuating the ‘always knew’ mythology you are writing them out of their identity before they even have a chance to understand and embrace it.

this is much, much worse than garden-variety erasure.

as i already hinted, there's a similar effect with the practice of paring lists of queer identities down to a manageable size for pedagogical purposes. in this kind of pedagogical setting, unless the existence of other possibilities is explicitly mentioned, there is inevitably a strong implication that the list is more-or-less exhaustive. again, this means that still-looking-for-a-label queer audience members who aren't good fits for any of the labels that made your list are, again, implicitly being told that they must be mundanes.

so why do Queer 101s keep working like this?

because of an approach to the presumptively cisstraight audience that is at once incredibly condescending and of depressingly limited ambition.

in particular, it seems to me that both of the phenomena mentioned above are rooted in the idea of maximizing the impression that queer identities are a fundamental part of the structure of reality. there are some number of innate, unwavering, immutable, solidly defined, psychological types, membership in which is immediately perceptible to the members. lest we be accused of merely perpetuating a deviant lifestyle or subculture, we must do everything we can to repeat the dogma that queer identities are part of the natural order of things, and not in any way cultural artifacts (even though all available social science seems to support the view that the details of how sexual and gender identities are individuated and realized is to some extent culture-specific). lest we face talk of a ‘cure’, we must preserve at all cost the myth that such identities are unchanging throughout the life of an individual (even if this is contradicted by the actual life experiences of numerous queer people). the ‘born this way’ myth has become a dogma because in a particular time and place it was politically useful, but in the Queer 101 context it is a dogma that must be preserved at all costs, and nothing - nothing - can be allowed to cast doubt on it in any way.

if i might speculate further, i think another part of it is this sense that we will get a bad reaction out of cisstraight audiences if we do anything that might suggest that they do well to interrogate their own identities. i guess we don't want to make them insecure, which we worry would make them adversarial?

the whole thing just smacks of insulting the intelligence of the audience. we know we're telling convenient lies. we know we're dumbing things down. but we expect them not to see through the lies and come to mistrust us. we expect them not to feel insulted by the degree to which we are shamelessly talking down to them. we expect those in the audience who notice that a lot of what we're saying cannot possibly be right to magically reconstruct the more nuanced correct version, instead of doing the natural thing and assuming that we believe what we say, and then concluding that, given the obvious flaws in what we're saying, we clearly haven't thought this through.

but what matters most isn't why Queer 101 so often works this way. what matters most is that it's destructive and it needs to stop.

Queer 101 needs to stop being about them or about us on stage and start being about us in this room. really, it needs to stop being Queer 101 and start being Gender & Sexuality 101. it needs to be about explaining, in respectful, non-stereotyped, at least moderately nuanced terms not only what queer experiences of gender and sexuality are like, but also what typical kinds of cisstraight experiences of gender and sexuality are like. the message needs to be neither ‘here's a checklist of options - if you're not any of them you're a mundane’ nor ‘here's a list of weird things that need explaining, as distinct from the normal experience which needs no introduction’. it needs to be ‘here are some landmarks which can help you to orient yourself and to understand how your experiences may be like and unlike the experiences of others’.

explaining what cisstraight experiences are is really important here. they're one of those things that's just assumed to be known, but which is never explained, so that people often in fact have radically divergent ideas of what they are. since almost everything is explained relative to the cisstraight experience as a point of reference, the possibility of different conversational participants having vastly different ideas of what the cisstraight experience is like is sort of a huge problem for successfully communicating much of anything. more specifically, if questioning audience members are going to be comparing themselves against different myths to see which one fits best, they damn well ought to be presented with the myths for all the labels on equal footing, instead of just wastebasketing themselves into the cisstraight label when none of the other myths fit quite right.

and we need to be less afraid of making the cisstraight majority in the audience uncomfortable. forcing them to confront the fundamental diversity and heterogeneity of cisstraight experiences of gender, romance, and sexuality may make the interaction more awkward in the short term, but, done right, it has the potential do drive home that we are all different from each other, and to set up a mythology that puts everybody on an equal footing instead of leaving queer identities as strictly more complicated others - and even if that part doesn't work out, the awkwardness is a small price to pay if it helps us meet our recruitment quota by connecting queer audience members with labels, identities, and communities that work for them.

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(8 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:April 15th, 2014 02:31 am (UTC)
I wonder to what extent Topics In Human Sexuality, at Swat, succeeds or fails at this. I took it as a frosh way back in 1988, so it's presumably changed at least a little since then. (And I don't entirely remember what it was like then -- I have some specific memories from it, but not an overall sense of how it handled queer or trans topics.)
[User Picture]
Date:April 15th, 2014 02:39 am (UTC)
An editorial (authorial? whatever) comment on a recent Leftover Soup strip also resonated with me: "The very idea of a sexual orientation is a strange one. The concept of identifying as heterosexual or homosexual - a description of something you are, rather than what you do or what you like - is a relatively new one." This seems in line with your idea (which I very much agree with) that sexuality and gender and so on are, if not for everyone then at least for very many people, quite fluid, and dislike of the idea of sharp lines between People Who ARE One Thing, and People Who ARE Another TOTALLY DIFFERENT Thing.

Simplifying the real story a little, so that it's easier to tell, is fine. Simplifying the story to to the point that the simple story completely contradicts the real story, is not so fine.
[User Picture]
Date:April 15th, 2014 08:25 pm (UTC)
you're not wrong here, but i just want to note that in principle fuzziness of category borders, and arbitrariness of category borders, and impermanence of personal characteristics that categories categorize are distinct issues, and i feel like they're all sort of being lumped together here.

and yeah, the contradicting the real story is where it gets messiest.
[User Picture]
Date:April 15th, 2014 12:24 pm (UTC)
Where I grew up (the South), the teaching I received was sort of a "one-drop theory" -- "if you do any sort of gay thing once, you are gay, and thank goodness you haven't done any sort of gay thing, because we cast out those who do, but thankfully such people are very, very rare and largely encountered in literature, so you probably don't have to worry too much". So, no distinction between "what you are" and "what you do".

Also, the received teaching was that "queer" consisted of two categories, which were just two differently-gendered versions of the same thing (gay and lesbian). "Bi" couldn't really exist -- the sense I had gained was that once you found yourself interested/involved with a same-gendered person, a line had been crossed (... or, a norm had been transgressed...) and that was that. "Trans" didn't even exist as a concept. Not that this was ever directly talked about -- one would never do that, especially in a formal pedagogical setting.

I came to Swarthmore having No Idea that gender might not be a clear-cut either-or thing; and I gained awarenes of "bi-ness" as a possibility over my years there. At eighteen I had no idea that both of these might explain some very basic things about myself that I'd been observing and very, very confused and ashamed by for a few years by that point.

I don't remember anything in Topics in Human Sexuality about the gender non-binary. Was it there at all? If it was, perhaps encountering THS during a culture-shock time meant I wasn't in a place to absorb that information or process it and consider what might apply to me. I sort of got "bi-ness" during college, but gender didn't really start to click until some years after.

In fewer words, yes, I think I agree with most of what's been said here.
[User Picture]
Date:April 15th, 2014 03:59 pm (UTC)
That's more or less the experience I had learning about queerness, growing up in LA (and being... I think 5 grades younger than you? which is enough to make for a big cultural difference itself on this topic), except that by the time I graduated high school I definitely knew what bi meant, because my senior year a friend mentioned to me that she had a cousin who was bi, and I didn't have to ask what that meant, so obviously I had already run across the concept somewhere. There was definitely a tension between the "one-drop theory" and the concept of bi-ness, though, and I wasn't really sure how to reconcile those. Right after graduation, a classmate was outed as "gay" by some bullies, and (since I was one of the rare kids openly advocating for gay rights and therefore safe) he confided to me he was really bi with a preference for boys, and actually explained to me what that meant, so arriving at college I did already have a reasonably consistent set of definitions of terms.

Oh, and also,whether it was rare or not, received wisdom was that it was something we had to worry about. Discussion of gay rights in social science class (which happened a lot because there was an anti gay marriage law on the ballot that year) usually devolved into an argument between the Christians who felt that if you met a gay person you should show them Christian kindness by non-violently shunning them, and the bigots who felt that if you met a gay person it was only natural to want to beat them up and no one should be blamed for giving in to that impulse.

I don't remember whether or not I'd ever heard the word "trans" before college, but it was basically a new concept to me in college.
[User Picture]
Date:April 15th, 2014 08:39 pm (UTC)
i have left a comment in my locked followup post about the analogous part of my history.
[User Picture]
Date:April 15th, 2014 11:40 pm (UTC)
That post isn't showing up in my feed. If you'd like to share it with me, I'd be glad of the opportunity to continue this discussion.
[User Picture]
Date:April 15th, 2014 11:51 pm (UTC)
you've been assigned to the appropriate filter. i apologize for the prior omission.
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