QUEERS READ THIS

It’s nearly pride month, and the (usually cishet) leadership of organisations will allow rainbows to appear and polite expressions of queer rights to be published on the company blog. But don’t forget: pride is protest. Protest against the homophobia and transphobia perpetuated by straights. “No pride for some of us without liberation for ALL of us” (Marsha P. Johnson).

QUEERS READ THIS was a leaflet distributed at the New York pride march, published anonymously by Queers (June, 1990), and captures the spirt of pride.

“[…] You as an alive and functioning queer are a revolutionary. There is nothing on this planet that validates, protects or encourages your existence. It is a miracle you are standing here reading these words. You should by all rights be dead. Don’t be fooled, straight people own the world and the only reason you have been spared is you’re smart, lucky or a fighter.

“Straight people have a privilege that allows them to do whatever they please and fuck without fear. But not only do they live a life free of fear; they flaunt their freedom in my face. Their images are on my TV, in the magazine I bought, in the restaurant I want to eat in, and on the street where I live. I want there to be a moratorium on straight marriage, on babies, on public displays of affection among the opposite sex and media images that promote heterosexuality. Until I can enjoy the same freedom of movement and sexuality, as straights, their privilege must stop and it must be given over to me and my queer sisters and brothers. […]”

On “circlusion”

‘I wish to propose to you a new term, one that has been missing for a long time: “circlusion.” It denotes the antonym of penetration. It refers to the same physical process, but from the opposite perspective. Penetration means pushing something – a shaft or a nipple – into something else – a ring or a tube. Circlusion means pushing something – a ring or a tube – onto something else – a nipple or a shaft. The ring and the tube are rendered active. That’s all there is to it.’

– Bini Adamczak, On “circlusion”

Queer – the open mesh of possibilities

‘… what’s striking is the number and difference of the dimensions that “sexual identity” is supposed to organize into a seamless and univocal whole.

‘And if it doesn’t?

‘That’s one of the things that “queer” can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically. The experimental linguistic, epistemological, representational, political adventures attaching to the very many of us who may at times be moved to describe ourselves as (among many other possibilities) pushy femmes, radical faeries, fantasists, drags, clones, leatherfolk, ladies in tuxedoes, feminist women or feminist men, masturbators, bulldaggers, divas, Snap! queens, butch bottoms, storytellers, transsexuals, aunties, wannabes, lesbian-identified men or lesbians who sleep with men, or… people able to relish, learn from, or identify with such.’

– Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. (1994, pp. 7-8)

‘Anyone’s use of “queer” about themselves means differently from their use of it about someone else. This is true (as it might also be true of “lesbian” or “gay”) because of the violently different connotative evaluations that seem to cluster around the category. But “gay” and “lesbian” still present themselves (however delusively) as objective, empirical categories governed by empirical rules of evidence (however contested). “Queer” seems to hinge much more radically and explicitly on a person’s undertaking particular, performative acts of experimental self-perception and filiation. A hypothesis worth making explicit: that there are important senses in which “queer” can signify only when attached to the first person. One possible corollary: that what it takes —all it takes—to make the description “queer” a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person.’

– Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. (1994, p. 8)

References

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. (1994). Tendencies. Routledge.

Genderqueer as Critical Gender Kind

“There’s something incredibly powerful – revolutionary, even – about challenging someone’s understanding of gender with your very existence.”
Emily Brehob

According to dominant ideas in “the West”, your gender ultimately reduces to whether you have XX or XY chromosomes, as inferred by inspecting your genitals at birth, and there are only two possibilities: woman or man. Yes, you will hear how sex is biological and gender is social, but under the dominant norms, (specifically chromosomal) sex and gender categories are defined to align.

The existence of transgender (trans) people challenges this chromosomal definition, since their gender differs from male/female sex category assigned at birth. People whose gender is under the non-binary umbrella challenge the man/woman binary since they are neither, both, or fluctuate between the two.

It is tempting for researchers to ignore these complexities since most people are cisgender (cis for short), that is, their gender aligns with their sex category at birth, and they are either a woman or a man. As the male/female demographic tickboxes illustrate, many do ignore the complexity.

A few years ago, analytic philosophers, having for centuries pondered questions such as “what can be known?” and “is reality real?”, discovered that theorising gender offered intellectual challenges too and could be used to support human rights activism. Although plenty of writers have pondered gender, this corner of philosophy offers clear definitions, so is perhaps easier to understand and critique than other approaches. I think it is also more compatible with applied social research.

One of the politically-aware analytical philosophers who caught my eye, Robin Dembroff, recently published a paper analysing what it means to be genderqueer. Let’s sketch out how the analysis goes.

“… the gendeRevolution has begun, and we’re going to win.”

Genderqueer originally referred to all gender outliers – whether cis, trans, or other. Its meaning has shifted to overlap with non-binary gender and trans identities as per the Venn flags below.

Both genderqueer and non-binary have become umbrella terms with similar meaning; however, genderqueer carries a more radical connotation- especially since it includes the reclaimed slur “queer” – whereas non-binary is more neutral and descriptive, even appearing in HR departments’ IT systems.

The data on how many people are genderqueer thus far is poor – hopefully the 2021 census in England and Wales will improve matters. In the meantime, a 2015 UK convenience sample survey of non-binary people (broadly defined) found that 63% identified as non-binary, 45% as genderqueer, and 65% considered themselves to be trans. The frequency of combinations was not reported.

This year’s international (and also convenience sample) survey of people who are neither men nor women “always, solely and completely” found a small age effect: people over 30 were eight percentage points more likely to identify as genderqueer than younger people.

Externalist versus internalist

Dembroff opens with a critique of two broad categories of theories of what gender is: externalist (or social position) theories and internalist (or psychological identity) theories.

Externalist theories define gender in terms of how someone is perceived by others and advantaged or disadvantaged as a result. So, someone would be genderqueer if they are perceived and treated as neither a man nor a woman. However, this doesn’t work for genderqueer people, Dembroff argues, since they tend to reject the idea that particular gender expressions are necessary to be genderqueer; “we don’t owe you androgyny” is a well-known slogan. Also, many cis people do not present neatly as male or female – that does not mean they are genderqueer.

One of the internalist accounts Dembroff considers, the norm-relevancy account by Katherine Jenkins, defines gender in terms of what gender norms someone feels are relevant to them – e.g., how they should dress, behave, what toilets they may use – regardless of whether they actually comply with (or actively resist) those norms. Norm relevancy requires that genderqueer people feel that neither male nor female norms are relevant. This is easiest to see with binary gendered toilets – neither the trouser nor skirt-logoed room is safe for a genderqueer person. However, it is unlikely that none of the norms for men or women would be felt as relevant. So the norm-relevancy account, Dembroff argues, would exclude many genderqueer people too.

Critical gender kinds

Dembroff’s proposed solution combines social and psychological understandings of gender. They introduce the idea of a critical gender kind and offer genderqueer as an example. A kind, in this sense, is roughly a collection of phenomena defined by one or more properties. (For a longer answer, try this on social kinds by Ásta.) Not to be confused with gender-critical feminism.

A gender is a critical gender kind, relative to a given society, if and only if people who are that gender “collectively destabilize one or more core elements of the dominant gender ideology in that society”. The genderqueer kind destabilises the binary assumption that there are only two genders. Dembroff emphasises the collective nature of genderqueer; as a kind it is not reducible to any individual’s characteristics and not every genderqueer person need successfully destabilise the binary norm. An uncritical gender kind is then one which perpetuates dominant norms such as the chromosomal and genital idea of gender outlined above.

Another key ingredient is the distinction between principled and existential destabilising – roughly, whether you are personally oppressed in a society with particular enforced norms. Someone who is happy to support and use all-gender toilets through (principled) solidarity with genderqueer people has a different experience to someone who is genderqueer and feels unsafe in a binary gendered toilet.

In summary, genderqueer people collectively and existentially destabilise the binary norm. Some of the many ways they do this include: using they/them or neopronouns, through gender expression that challenges dominant norms, asserting that they are genderqueer, challenging gender roles in sexual relationships, and switching between male and female coded spaces.

Although Dembroff challenges Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account, to me the general idea of tuning into gender norms is helpful for decoding your gender, and neatly complements Dembroff’s account. Maybe a trick is to add, and view as irrelevant, norms like “your genitals determine your gender” rather than only male and female norms. Additionally, adding probabilities rather than using binary true/false classical logic seems helpful to revise the account too. The externalist accounts are also relevant since they map out some ways that genderqueer people resist binary norms and dominant ways that (especially cis) people perceive and treat others.

References

Dembroff, R. (2020). Beyond Binary: Genderqueer as Critical Gender Kind. Philosophers’ Imprint, 20(9), 1–23.

Jenkins, K. (2018). Toward an Account of Gender Identity. Ergo, 5(27).

Bisexuality – a short note on the number two

The term bisexual is frequently misunderstood as meaning sexual attraction to men and women; see, for example, the dictionary definition Google provides.

This definition works for cis binary people. It includes trans binary people too, since trans men are men and trans women are women; however, it excludes non-binary people.

 

One response is to define bisexual as attraction to two or more genders. This is the approach taken by the Bisexual Index. But this can be confusing since the “bi” means two, e.g., as in binocular, biennial, biweekly. So where does the “or more” come in?

There is a simple non-binary inclusive definition, which has apparently been around forever (note to self: citation needed!) and is compatible with definitions of heterosexual and homosexual:

  • Homosexual means attraction to people who are a similar gender to you.
  • Heterosexual means attraction to people who are a different gender to you.
  • Bisexual means attraction to people who are a similar gender to you and to people who are a different gender to you.

So accepting that there are more than two genders, this is compatible with the definition that “bi” means two or more. Additionally, it spells out what the “bi” (two) refers to.