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?

I have a Tumblr!

Hello all. I wanted to let you know that I have decided to officially incorporate my Tumblr blog into my Lipstick Terrorist empire. It’s called Mini Lipstick Terrorist and I want to use it as a space to share other people’s ideas, develop my own and have conversations with other femmes, queers, raging feminists and the like. I love how Tumblr lets you form and interact with communities. Expect to find quotes and reblogs from others I admire, my own theories in progress, fragmented thoughts and random geeky fandom gifs. It’s not very pretty yet, but it does have a lot of thought-provoking/hilarious content. Please follow me and I will be delighted to follow you! Head on over now to lipstickterrorist.tumblr.com.

Also, here is something funny I found the other day on Tumblr for all you GoT and cat fans:

Game of Sits
Samwell is the cutest

The shitty things we do to each other in the queer community

How call-out culture verges on the abusive and how the language we use around conflict enables us to push out members of our activist communities at will.

When I moved to Toronto two years ago, I immediately fell into a friendship group of femmes and other queers, largely thanks to the welcoming persona of one of the group. I was invited to parties and had femme friends I felt comfortable around for this first time in my life. I had a pretty good social life, pretty fast.

And then, about three months later, it all fell apart. I started dating someone who would later become my partner. This person had gone on a date with one of my new friends two days prior to meeting me. Later my friend asked me to stop seeing them, and I refused.

A week later, I found myself blocked on Facebook by another friend who would turn her back to me whenever I walked into the room. I was pushed out of my new friendship group with no explanation. As these individuals attended a lot of the queer parties of this particular scene, I no longer felt welcome or comfortable at these events. Having gained and lost close friends in the space of a few months after moving to a new country and city, I felt alienated, lonely and angry.

This this wasn’t the first time I had been pushed out of a queer community. When I was organizing a zine in Berlin, a bunch of co-organizers met behind my back and wrote a letter stating they no longer wanted to participate in the project. They, too, refused to speak about the issue (I am still unclear what it was) and cut me off from all communication with that group.

I have been accused of being anti-Semitic by non-Jewish queers and told my white, middle-class, British mannerisms were oppressing a white, middle-class Canadian. I have been implicitly excluded from community because of my feminine and middle-class dress sense, my preference for monogamous relationships, and my fatness.

Of course, it is possible that I am an anti-Semitic, classist, racist, sexist, unattractive person who is unable to see beyond her own oppression and accept her natural polyamorous and genderqueer nature. And a bad friend. Even though I am undoubtedly invested in not being all of these things, I am also pretty sure I am not all of them. I mean, I at least have good dress sense.

Now, two years after the time when I lost all my new friends and was bullied out of the Toronto queer dance scene, I am wondering why we, in the queer community, do this to each other.

I know I am not the only one who has been pushed out of the queer scene. I am not the only one who doesn’t go to events because they don’t want to bump into a particular person, and who therefore stays at home feeling lonely. I am not the only one who has been told my politics are wrong, who has been scapegoated, cold shouldered, and looked down on in order to make someone else feel better. I am sick of this. I know we can do better.

My ten years of living in various queer communities has taught me that this kind of behaviour is pandemic. Recently, there has been much discussion about call-out culture and its effectiveness.

cat finger point
A lighthearted illustration of call-out culture

My take on call-out culture is that it’s very effective if what we want to achieve is the exclusion of anyone who behaves in a problematic manner or pisses us off. However, it is not very effective if we want to create a community that nurtures and educates each other. I, personally, would prefer a community that is able to deal with confrontation. That, like a good friend, tells you when you’re being a douchebag but still loves you anyway.

Call-out culture is a particularly self-serving way of dealing with confrontation. It enables the person doing the calling out to name someone else oppressive, and to do so in very black and white language. It allows what Asam Ahmad of the It Gets Fatter! project has called “a particularly armchair and academic brand of activism.” Calling-out doesn’t require any action on the part of the person doing the calling-out. It enables a person to name another person racist, homophobic, sexist, etc., and to put the onus of that label wholly on the other person. The accused then becomes outcast from the activist community, and no attempt at restoration is made.

The problem with this kind of public outcry is that it is taken up by the community as a whole who seem to enjoy participating in public humiliation more than engaging in an educative dialogue. Everyone enjoys having someone to point at and say how much better a person they are than the other.

To have a whole community turn against you is a horrifying feeling. To feel first that, as a queer, you finally have a place and then to lose that place is sickening. Of course, the question of the largeness of the crime is a pertinent one here. There are some actions that are worse than others. But, in general, a lot of this alienation happens for reasons that speak more to the toxic nature of the way we reinforce our collective political identities than to the personality or politics of the individual who is being called-out. Frankly, a lot of this alienation happens owing to a simple interpersonal disagreement, as in my case, rather than a concrete case of wrongdoing.

Another reason call-out culture seems more about affirming how cool we are in contrast to a demonized other is that we all have, to some extent, done something discriminatory. What white person has not had a racist thought or committed an unthinking racist action? What person, straight or queer, has not done something homophobic? Who hasn’t made an ableist comment?

Dog shaming
Puppy shame from http://www.dogshaming.com

We know patriarchal and capitalist values influence our value systems. In fact, I have found that it is often through a thorough examination of our own prejudices that we come to see how they work and to do our own bit to fight against oppression. So, to write another person off as a bad queer or activist and to participate in a public shaming that has hugely negative social and psychological consequences for that person does nothing to tackle the problem. It also creates a culture in which a person and community can use public shaming to bolster their own self-image.

I understand the sentiment that we just do not have the energy to educate every other person who offends us. But I do think we should treat members of our communities differently to a member of the public who has not been exposed to lefty political thought. We should take the time to have difficult conversations in our communities, rather than pushing out those who hurt us.

This is by no means an exhaustive article. Many have started writing/thinking about and practising calling-in – a one-on-one intervention with the person who did the thing – instead of calling-out. You can read more about that here. I don’t have a solution for this problem. What I would like for now is for us to recognize that we all, as human beings, make mistakes.

On being 32, queer, and not pregnant

Why being a grown-up is hard, being an older queer is harder, and my feelings on discovering my brother is pregnant

Happy Family Day Canadians in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan! Happy Viola Desmond day in Nova Scotia and also Louis Riel day in Manitoba! Phew. Why can’t all of Canada agree on the same bloody holiday? That’s what this girl from a island that fits into your country, like, 40 times over (I calculated it) wants to know. What better way to celebrate the (I feel, rather patriarchal sounding holiday) by oversharing my conflicted feelings about aging, babies, careers and being a queer lady who is not pregnant, nor has easy access to sperm.

My little brother, who used to be small enough for me to pick up in my arms before he grew into an oversized human, is going to be a Dad. He FaceTimes me on the way to a dinner party with the ‘Amy is pregnant and we’re engaged!’ bombshell. Cue slightly maniacal laughter from both of us about the prospect of him being a Dad, my predictable outburst “I’m going to be the coolest feminist auntie ever” and my also predictable sinking feeling that he will now definitely be my parents’ favourite child.

I immediately call my partner and discuss where we can get some gay sperm to knock me up. I can get very competitive.

Fuck that biological clock
Fuck that biological clock

I spent the whole of yesterday in a weird daze, having given myself some kind of half concussion by dropping a glass pot lid on my nose, and having found out that I am going to be an auntie. Within a couple of hours of my brother’s we’re-having-a-baby-and-we’re-getting-married,-surprise! bombshell, I found out a dear friend of mine is engaged. This follows on the heels of finding out my best friend is pregnant a couple of weeks ago and a literal baby explosion among my straight friends in the UK.

It seems like all of my friends are having babies and getting married.

I, on the other hand, had spent a good part of last week trying to convince my partner that we should move to the prairies for my PhD program and had finally resorted to the manipulative outburst “I’ll marry you if you do.” Well done, Laura, you win romantic proposal of the year award. No thoroughly planned replica of our original date for me, oh no, just a desperate attempt to have my cake and eat it too.

Apparently, now we’re pre-engaged, or whatever that is. I prefer betrothed, as it sounds more Jane Austen-y and less nineties romcom or whatever.

So, all this is to say, that I’m feeling a lot of pressure when it comes to the aging, queerness and career front. Having vacillated a lot on the babies question in my twenties, not least because it’s not so straightforward when you’re unlikely to be partnered with a cisgender dude, I am coming to the conclusion that I probably do want the babies. Problem is, I also want the career, am starting a PhD this year, have no money and, according to received opinion, my eggs will start drying up in a couple of years if they haven’t already started to do so.

Argh! I know, #middleclassproblems, right? I am also aware that getting to do a PhD is a huge privilege, I know that my parents will always bail me out financially if necessary and I can probably get the sperm from somewhere. As I get older, I realize more and more that a) time passes and b) there is no perfect time to do anything anyway.

Plus, I’m a feminist and sceptical of the ‘have babies now now now woman it is your job and your time is running out!’ patriarchal narrative, because, you know, the patriarchy has an agenda.

I’ve also been following queer femme Michelle Tea’s blog on getting pregnant and found it upsetting to read about her fertility problems as a 40-something-year-old. Luckily, those fertility problems were not insurmountable as she now has a cute gayby called Atticus.

So, I think I’m probably going to try to do babies and PhD at the same time. This will be a couple of years after getting my dog next year, because, I’m not completely crazy or anything!

Anyway, that’s my opinion on gaybys. Happy Family Day everyone! (Barf.)