The Politics of Visibility

Last week’s Trans Day of Visibility saw a surge of critiques of the phrase’s dubious politics on my Facebook wall. Created in 2010 by the transgender Michigan activist Rachel Crandall, Trans Day of Visibility was meant to be a positive twin to the Trans Day of Remembrance. A celebration of the living, as a counterpart to the remembrance of the dead. However, the articles on my Facebook newsfeed also reminded me that visibility often puts trans people in harm’s way. One’s visible trans status, especially in the case of trans women and trans women of colour, often leaves trans people vulnerable to transphobic and transmisogynist violence.

In this article, I’m not trying to restate what others have so eloquently said. I want to ask a question about the origins of the politics behind TDOV’s name.

When I reposted a picture (below) celebrating TDOV, I paused at the word ‘visibility.’ It seemed an odd choice of word to me. For me, it seemed a word that might be more commonly used, or useful, in the case of celebrating lesbian, gay or bisexual identities, than trans identities.

trans day of visibility
Trans Day of Visibility

Identity politics requires the coherence of the group in question. When the identity of the group might not be visible, as is potentially in the case of some sexual minorities, members need to ‘come out’ as belonging to that group. To come out is to claim belonging. For kickass academic theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, this “epistemology of the closet” has come to structure gay identity as we know it today. It is by coming out that lesbian, gay and bisexual subjects come into being.

When I was studying at McGill University, I was a member of a group called Allies Montreal. We would visit local high schools in groups of three and facilitate workshops on homophobia at school. Our workshops would always start the same way: with our coming-out story. By telling our coming-out story we were situating ourselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual subjects. The story told the students we were the ‘real gays,’ come to educate them on gay stuff. We were legitimized as authorities on gay things. It allowed us, in a way, to speak.

Transgender Day of Visibility relies on a similar language of visibility politics. This may reflect trans’ status as an addendum to the pre-existing LGB. Although now commonplace, T was only a recent addition. And for many trans activists, piggybacking on gay acceptance isn’t that beneficial to trans rights. After all, does a group who advocates for sexual minorities and a group who advocates for gender minorities have much in common? This joining of causes may have been encouraged by the prevalence of trans people in many lesbian and gay communities and our political unification under the umbrella ‘queer.’

We are bound to talk about our identities in certain ways. LGBT activism has asked for identity recognition as access to power. In this sense, TDOV is asking that trans people be recognized as trans in order to access the language of equal rights that identity politics provides. Identity politics necessitates engaging in visibility politics –if one’s identity gives one access to power, then you need to be seen as that identity, you need to be recognized, in order to access power.

All this is to say, perhaps visibility isn’t the terms on which trans people should be fighting for their rights. It looks like we need to develop new languages and new ways of acknowledging trans people’s rights. I’m sure many others are far ahead of me.

Fat Activism: A History By and For Fat People

New post over at rabble.ca! I wrote a review of Charlotte Cooper’s Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement. Go read the review and then buy the book!

This review has been up for a few days. I’ve been sick the past while and dragged my coughing, spluttering self to the desk in order to link it for y’all. Enjoy!

Fat Activism cover
Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement jacket

You’re doing a PhD? Let me tell you how stupid that is!

In the past week, as I have wrapped up my nine-to-five job in Communications, I have had a lot of discussions about my next adventure. Namely, my embarcation on a PhD in Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies at York University here in Toronto.

Now, as a feminist and queer woman who blogs about the troubles with the world and has generally engaged in queer activism, I am used to people saying stupid shit to me. However, I have been floored by the level of disrespect and pure ignorance I have met with this past week as I discuss this transition with former colleagues, neighbours and general acquaintances.

But why must you do this? But why musts you do this? Photo Credit: jmatthew3 via Compfight cc

Firstly, no one seems to know what a PhD is. “How long will that take, a year?” has been quite a common reaction. Most people have been insistent that having a PhD is just the same as having a Master’s degree (actually, no. It’s really, really not.), “and we all know Masters are worthless these days.” No one seems to understand this is vocational training, similar to training to be a lawyer or doctor, and certainly of a similar length to the latter.

People also seem to have selective amnesia about my decision. After a company-wide email congratulating me on my acceptance into a PhD program, plus several discussions in the kitchen, people at work still wanted to know more about my Masters program. In a culture that devalues being a student, women and especially – duh – feminism, I interpreted this as a semi-conscious attempt to undermine me and my achievements.

People also found the name of my program confusing. In fact, as soon as I started the phrase “Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies” I could see their eyes begin to glaze over. The word that seemed to stick out from that title was, obviously, “feminist” and, instead of respectfully asking me what I was going to work on, most people took this word as an opportunity to rant about feminism. Whether they were telling me feminism is unnecessary, asking me if I believed in gender equality (what do you think?), or saying something surprisingly sensible about our obsession with masculinity as a culture, nobody actually wanted to engage with me about the topic. People were using my statement as an opportunity to sound off about whatever random opinion they had about feminism. Nobody was listening to me or wanted to hear what I had to say.

This is a pretty disrespectful attitude. Although I do imagine that many professionals are subjected to people’s rambling associations when discussing their vocation with people outside the field, I do think that the fact I mentioned the words “feminism” and “studying” spoke to a double-whammy of disrespect that we have as a culture, both for women and women’s rights (e.g. feminism), and for students. Please, do take my vocation as an excuse to tell me why you think what I’m doing is worthless. Please do. I can’t wait to hear all about it.

All this has left me wondering how to react. Although pursuing a PhD is very different to an undergraduate degree, I am loathe to try and distance myself from undergraduates in order to get more respect. Students should be respected no matter their level of study, and I don’t want to get into an ‘I’m-not-one-of-them’ structure of proving my worth.

Right now, I don’t know how I am going to deal with the bullshit people will say to me over the next six years. Maybe I need to come up with a few stock witty repartees, or work on developing a thick skin. How about you, dear readers? How would you prove the worth of your life choices in one simple sentence, or would you not bother and leave these idiots to fester in their own stupidity?

Is men and masculinity studies really radical?

Men and masculinity studies is old hat, so why is The New York Times pretending it’s new?

My initial response to last week’s article in The New York Times about a new men and masculinities program being offered at Stonybrook University in New York State was outrage. I wasn’t outraged that such a program exists, but I was outraged that The New York Times was framing it as something new.

According to The New York Times, men and masculinity studies is a brand spanking new field of study and we should all be shocked. A Master’s Degree in…Masculinity? presents Stonybrook professor Michael Kimmel as a pioneer in masculinity studies and insists (against our supposed disbelief) that “yes, that’s a real [thing].” But most feminist academics will know that masculinity studies already exists. And it’s called gender studies.

Yes, gender does include masculinity, people.

Sheet music cover picture for the song
Sheet music cover picture for the song “We Men Must Grow A Mustache.” 1922 Inset photo of bandleader Abe Lyman.

The New York Times article seems predicated on the tired belief that feminists – in this case, feminist scholars – don’t give a shit about men. It assumes that feminist scholars don’t write, think and talk about men. Well, I’ve got news for you – we do.

Let’s be clear: studying men and masculinity has been a part of women’s studies since women’s studies inception in the late sixties. In fact, it’s impossible to interrogate what ‘woman’ means without interrogating what ‘man’ means. The two are irrevocably linked.

Any self-respecting student in the humanities or social sciences should and will be made to interrogate what masculinity means in the context of their discipline. Not only is any investigation into these disciplines an exercise in what men have been creating, thinking and writing about for the last 2,000 years, but students are also encouraged to think about what it means that men get to decide what history is, what art is, and who is sane and who is crazy. Humanities and the social sciences are always a critical investigation of men and masculinities.

My anger here is not that men and masculinity Studies exists (it should), but that it’s being framed as separate from women’ studies. All of the macho behaviours associated with the pressure to prove your masculinity – violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, speeding – are performed against and in response to the existence of femininity in the world. Without a cultural understanding of women as feminine and femininity as weak, we wouldn’t have macho masculinities. It’s disingenuous to separate men and masculinity studies from feminism in this way, especially by implying that masculinity studies is a new and independent field.

Michael Kimmel’s work recognizes that he is writing in a tradition of critical interrogation of what gender means. But The New York Times article makes it sound all new and crazy that people are studying masculinity. Erm, this has always been one of the premises of feminism. That masculinity is just as much of a construct as femininity, and both need to be interrogated.

Of course, it does Michael Kimmel’s career a whole lot of good to be complicit in this framing of men and masculinity studies as a new thing. It makes him look like a vanguard in this area. But, the truth is, he’s not.

Although I think that studying men and masculinities is a good thing, and will help advance our understanding of gender so that we can all embody our genders in ways that are less violent and harmful to everyone, I am also ambivalent about the formation of a Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Masculinity and men cannot be studied without studying femininity and women. The genders are completely reliant on each other for their existence as apparently real things in the world.

In all, the framing of Michael Kimmel’s exploration of masculinity as a new frontier in academia is utterly bogus. My suggestion to the The New York Times is, go and do your research. And stop relying on tropes of feminist scholarship as man-hating in order to boost your web traffic. The end.

Cycling in Toronto: why it sucks

In advance of the Toronto premiere of Bikes vs. Cars this Friday, I thought I would share this article I wrote about cycling in the city.

As I was cycling to work the other morning, a garbage collector threw an empty can in front of me. I pulled an emergency brake and managed not to fall off. “Oh my God!” said my friends on social media. “That’s really extreme, what did you do about it? Did you take their license plate?” Nope, said I, calmly. I just cycled on. The thing is, this kind of occurrence is not extreme to me. It’s extremely horrible, but I don’t consider it extreme behavior because it happens on a fairly regular basis.

In fact, every day biking in Toronto is a mini adventure. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of adventure where you get to do exciting things; it’s more of an adventure in commuter stress and aggression.

Although biking is touted by enthusiasts as a way to beat the stress of the public transit system (TTC for Torontonians) or driving, biking in the city also leaves you exposed to the frustration and idiocy of others. It is an unusual bike ride when I don’t get beeped at or narrowly avoid a car doing an abrupt maneuver or a pedestrian stepping into the road. It is also normal for someone to yell at me at least once a week.

Women on Bicycles --- Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS
Women on Bicycles — Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS

I remember years ago, before I moved to Toronto, a friend telling me the media had created a ‘war’ between cyclists and drivers and that Toronto was a very aggressive city to cycle in. I thought, how can any city be worse than London (the UK one) where cycling to work means you join the daily influx of eight million people and have to contend with gridlocked roads, plus hoards of pedestrians? (As an aside, the streets of London make Toronto look like an abandoned post-apocalyptic landscape by comparison.)

Now, having lived here for two years, I still think London is a more dangerous place to cycle than Toronto, but I also feel that the animosity towards cyclists is next level in Toronto. Sure, when I biked downtown from my house in London I was taking my life into my hands. I knew that the busy London roads resulted in the frequent deaths of cyclists. But I never worried so much about aggression from the people behind the wheel. I never thought the drivers themselves were out to get me.

The three recent cyclist deaths in Toronto become even more chilling when you think that fatal bikes accidents are the logical extension of car drivers who don’t want bikers to exist. Bikers are losing their lives in Toronto and no one seems to care.

It’s not just that the streets are unsafe for cyclists in Toronto. It’s not just that weaving in and out of traffic on streets where there are no bike lanes (or the ‘bike lanes’ are actually car parks — I’m looking at you, College Street) makes behavior unpredictable and collisions more likely. It’s also that the rank animosity and violence directed towards cyclists makes Toronto a horrible city to cycle in.

As a female cyclist I have no doubt I experience more aggression from car drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists than I would if I were a man. I also think that, because I am exposed to more vitriol from fellow travellers, I get a glimpse into the city’s attitude towards cyclists that I wouldn’t necessarily get if I moved through the streets unchallenged, as some men seem to. (Either that, or cycling itself exposes you to the jerks of all walks, or rides, of life, as Scott Colby argues in his article for the Toronto Star.)

There could be many reasons for this animosity. Is it because Canada is an oil-reliant nation, and its laws have been primarily focused on cars? Is it because the city’s travel infrastructure is so shitty that the roads are becoming more and more clogged? I certainly think that the level of stress and misery at rush hour commute time contributes to the fights that happen.

Perhaps it is also that Canada’s obsession with oil and cars results in a gendered national pride invested in being able to drive. Men, especially, have some weird macho pride resting on their ability to buy a 400 horsepower SUV that can smash a cyclist to pieces. I remember reading the comments in an article about the danger of cycling in Toronto (never read the comments, people), in which a few vocal trolls seemed to relish the damage their powerful cars could do to the human body.

For now, I have no solution to the apparent war other than to quote Aline Calvacante from Bikes vs. Cars and say “it’s not a war, it’s a city.”

When two become one…NOT

I have long written about the hierarchies of relationship status within Western society and how fucked up they are. When single, I fought against the idea that I needed a partner (preferably a man, if not then a woman would do) to ‘complete’ me. As a fiercely intelligent, grumpy and ambitious woman I didn’t think I needed anyone by my side to prove to others how awesome I am. At the same time that I actually did want to be in a relationship, I also didn’t think I needed a partner to validate my awesomeness. I knew I was enough by myself, and I wanted to be in a relationship for other reasons.

Now that I am in a relationship, I am still frustrated by this dynamic. I benefit A LOT from having a partner. I now have someone to bring to the work dinner, someone to go on vacation with and someone to ward off unwanted male attention. I have someone to talk about when new acquaintance is trying to get to know me better by asking the socially prescribed questions, and I no longer have to deal with awkward silences or pitying expressions when I say I am single. Even better, my partner goes by male pronouns, hiding my queerness and making me sound like I fit right in with straight society. (And, yes, in case you didn’t realize, most of this preceding paragraph should be read in a sarcastic tone.

two become one
When a couple literally melds into one person…

So, given the above, it really pisses me off that I am treated differently now I have a partner. Even by my feminist friends. People have stopped inviting me out as much, assuming I want to spend every second of my spare time staring into my beau’s eyes. They’ve even stopped inviting me out directly, and starting asking my partner to do things, assuming that I will just accompany him like a passive dog at his heels. And this behaviour, from self-professed queer feminists, I find unacceptable.

I have tried to avoid making these assumptions in my own life. I try not to ask one half of a couple, assuming the other half will trot along beside them, but ask each person separately as if they are, shock horror, individual people with distinct social lives. Given that, I know I’m not perfect and, despite my righteous indignation, I know I’ve committed the old ask-one-expect-two invitation style.

However, enough is enough and I think we should all, as self-respecting feminist men, women and queers, get over our linguistic laziness and send an invitation to each person we want to come to our events. After all, isn’t this just an extension of the formal Mr. & Mrs. L. Brightwell. Who needs a name, right, when you’ve got a husband?