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.

A snippet from an upcoming piece…

The falling out of friendships, the always temporal and sometimes temporary nature of activist communities spoke to my own experiences of friendship break-ups, activist relationships forged and broken, miscommunications, flawed politics, exile and exclusion that characterizes my life and work within queer communities in London, Berlin, Montreal and Toronto.

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.”

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

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.)

Should trans men be allowed into women’s colleges?

It would be an understatement to say I was pretty bothered by some of the views expressed in The New York Times Magazine’s article “When Women Become Men at Wellesley”. Despite the sensationalist title, the article was a well-rounded read, discussing diverse attitudes towards the inclusion of trans men at women-only college Wellesley in the US. I’m not going to descontruct some of the opinions expressed by the trans men in the article, because that has been done so brilliantly elsewhere. However, I do want to examine why we, as women and/or queers, welcome trans men into women-only spaces. And why don’t we welcome trans women?

My knee jerk reaction to the article’s implied question ‘Should trans men be allowed to attend women’s only colleges’ is ‘no.’ I don’t think a women-only space should be coopted by men, no matter whether trans or cis. I have always found the common inclusion of trans men in women-only spaces highly problematic. In the left-wing dyke queer scene, this inclusion usually simultaneously excludes trans women, whether explicitly or by sheer numbers. I feel this dynamic is offensive to both trans men and trans women.

When we say trans men are welcome in women-only/dyke-only spaces, aren’t we effectively saying that we don’t see them as men? That their female-assigned-at-birth status trumps their identification as men? When trans men participate in this inclusion, I also wonder why. Maybe they don’t want to give up a space they were formerly a member of. Maybe they simply haven’t examined the problematic dynamic of men taking up women’s space.

I just didn't want the first pic to be Cathy Puke Brennan
I just didn’t want the first pic to be Cathy Brennan

Although it may be bittersweet, transitioning means you do have to give up some things. For a trans man, he may have to give up the openness of women around those they perceive as other women. He may have to give up access to a dyke club, to a sisterhood. But, this is part of being a man. Sad as it is, the sexism inherent in our world means that women are mistrustful of men. Whether or not it is sad, women-only spaces are necessary and demanding to inhabit that space, as a man, is ignorant at best and misogynist at worse. It is clear that having been female assigned at birth does not give trans men ‘special insight woman powers,’ otherwise trans men might realize how women are routinely pushed out of physical, financial, institutional space. They then might realize how they are participating in that exclusion and cede the space to women.

It is also tragic that the inclusion of trans men in many women-only spaces often goes hand-in-hand with the exclusion of trans women. It’s weird to me that trans men would want to participate in this dynamic because it so obviously stems from seeing trans men and women as the gender they were assigned at birth, rather than the gender they actually are. Trans men are allowed in women’s spaces because they are perceived to not really be men, and trans women aren’t allowed in because they are perceived to be men. That feminist spaces perpetuate this transphobic dynamic saddens me.

Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women's spaces?
Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women’s spaces?

However, the exclusion of trans men from women’s colleges isn’t as clear cut as we might like to think. Although trans men shouldn’t attend a women’s college, what about students who as FAB (female-assigned-at-birth) and gender queer? If gender is a spectrum, where should the cut off line be drawn? Although a butch woman should undeniably be allowed to attend a women’s college, what about a FAB trans gender queer person who takes testosterone but doesn’t identify as a trans man? As the New York Times article posits, you could say that, by challenging gender norms, gender queer folk and masculine women are being true to the spirit of women-only colleges.

I don’t have the answer to this last question, so I would appreciate any of your insights. What do you think about this debate? Should any lines be drawn?

Here’s some food for thought by the great thinker, Julia Serano:

Let’s just start…

Is June too late for a new year’s resolution?

I am tired. Tired of not writing, tired of being blocked. Tired of flagellating myself and living up to an imaginary standard. Tired of imposing writing rules on myself about length, genre and content of my writing. So, fuck it. You know what’s worse than writing something bad?

Not writing anything at all.

Wanna write about asexuality for the Shameless blog?

hey y’all – Shameless Mag in Toronto and I would like to create a piece about the validity of asexuality as an orientation. We think it’s important that youth learn that there are other, non-sexual ways to be fulfilled and form relationships. As a non-asexual person, I am hesitant to create this article by myself. Is there an awesome person out there who identifies as asexual who’d like this opportunity to set forth their point of view either by co-authoring the article or being interviewed? Ta! Contact me via commenting here or emailing pinklab@hotmail.com

Queer Feminism’s Closeted Sexism?

It’s my 30th birthday today! To celebrate the occasion I have decided to reproduce on my most controversial, and heartfelt, pieces from the year. My question to you, is: Have the assumptions of masculinity, hypersexualisation and polyamory in queer circles created a false hierarchy between the ideal queer and the everyday realities of lived queer lives?

I had never thought much about asexuality until a couple of years ago when, for the first time in my adult life, I lost my sex drive. I mean, I didn’t actually lose it. It wasn’t hiding under the bed or anything, gathering dust with old shoes and mouldy peanuts. It just went on a holiday, to give me the time and space to sort some stuff out. Thank you, sex drive. That was very considerate of you.

Up until that point I had what I considered a very active libido. You know that old myth that men think about sex every seven seconds? Well, as a teenager I thought about sex so much that I didn’t doubt this myth was true. I just assumed it must extend to women, because I thought about sex all the time. This pretty rampant sex drive has followed me throughout most of my adult life, until, as I said, 2 years ago when I became depressed.

Queer femininities at The Berlin Femme Show 2012
Queer femininities at The Berlin Femme Show 2012

As well as being horny, I am a pretty radical person. I am what Caitlin Moran calls a ‘stringent feminist.’ The kind of woman who will make any dinner party awkward by calling out the conservative dude in the tie on his ha-ha, light-hearted jokes about women or race or the working classes. Oh, so funny! I am the stuff nightmare dinner parties are made of.

I am also queer, femme, into BDSM, curious about dating cis men, and all sorts of other interesting things. I consider myself sex positive and pretty non-judgmental when it comes to other people’s sexual adventures. I do my best to live by my feminist code of ethics. My feminism means that I believe we are all a little transphobic, sexist, homophobic, classist and racist because we live in a patriarchal society that is founded on these hierarchies.

We give men the upper hand by putting down women; we use racist theories to justify white supremacy, classism to explain a world-order in which most people starve while a few thrive, etc etc etc. My feminism means that I recognise I have all of these prejudices inside me and that I think it is my job to diminish them. This doesn’t mean that I am constantly beating myself up about what a horrible person I am, it’s more that I recognise my own flawed position. This is a pretty difficult attitude to take. Seeing some people behave in the most horrible ways and understanding the fucked-up logic behind their actions is exhausting. Dismissal is easy. Empathy is complicated.

Alexander Alvina Chamberland ©Simson Petrol
Alexander Alvina Chamberland ©Simson Petrol

Queer feminism has allowed me to embrace my kinky side and learn much about non-cis gender identities and LGBT history. But I also find massive flaws in the dynamics of the queer communities I know. There are three assumptions commonly made in queer circles, each of which creates a false hierarchy between an ideal of queer and the reality of many lived queer lives. These three assumptions are: hypersexualisation, the idea that everyone wants to have sex all of the time (and if you don’t you’re repressed); that polyamory is a natural desire and wanting to form monogamous relationships means you have jealousy issues; that masculinity is the hottest thing ever and being feminine, especially as a woman, means you are brainwashed. So, as someone who currently doesn’t want to have sex; prefers monogamous relationships and – shock horror – loves wearing dresses, I’m not being a very good queer at all, am I?

I didn’t come to this realisation out of virtue – I had never thought much about asexuality or people who choose not to or don’t want to have sex before – I came to it following a profound personal crisis. Having always had a pretty raging sex drive, the queer assumption that we all want to have sex all the time made sense to me. But losing my sex drive cut me out of the queer community. It meant that I saw no more reason to socialise in it.  How’s that saying go? Oh yeah: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Sex positive feminism has done a lot of good. In a world which tells anyone assigned female at birth that all we want to do is find a heterosexual male partner and have babies, sex positivity has allowed us to carve the space in which to express our own sexual desires.

The celebration of polyamory, too, isn’t in itself a bad thing. The problem comes when polyamory is glorified as the ‘natural’ state of relationships, and if you’re monogamous you have jealousy issues and have been brainwashed. Erm, hasn’t gender theory taught us feminists anything? Since when did we start embracing words like ‘natural’ to describe our identities? Surely we have learnt to be hesitant about the monolithic meanings of such a word. As deconstructionists don’t we find claims that things are this way for everyone a little bit sketchy? No? Oh, OK. Moving on.

© Sara Svärtan Persson http://blacklikeink.tumblr.com/
© Sara Svärtan Persson http://blacklikeink.tumblr.com/

Now comes the moment for the trump card in this loving critique of queer feminism. Now it’s time to get the big skeleton out of the queer community’s closet. And that skeleton is -, sexism! What? Sexism? I hear you cry? How can queer feminism possibly be sexist? I mean, we queers have deconstructed the male/female binary and concluded that gender behaviours don’t go hand in hand with vague ideas about biology and evolution. How dare you accuse us of such a thing?

‘I can’t be sexist because I’m queer’.  We hear this quite often. Don’t we?

Well, my friends, sad as it may be, it’s time to face up to the facts. Walk into a queer space and what do you see? A uniform of plain black hoodies, asymmetrical hair and caps. There’s not a dress to be seen. Not a hint of colour, lipstick, of long hair.

Despite all our lip service to multifarious gender identities, there is only one gender that we really celebrate in this queer community, and that is masculinity.

The boyish woman, the gender queer and the trans man are the epitomes of hotness in queer scenes. If you’re a feminine woman, cis or trans, then you are just not cool. Transmasculinities are at the top of the queer pile, pushing transfemininities down to the bottom.

Personally, I think this prejudice is unintentional. Talk to any good-meaning queer and they’ll be shocked when you mention things like sexism and femmephobia. But despite individual professions of innocence, we are all guilty. Any time I ignore a feminine woman in a queer bar because I assume she is straight, I am being just as sexist as the people who exclude me.

As Flavia Dzodan suggests in her recent article on sex positivism and race, the assumption that our desires are innate and not learnt, is worth questioning. How asocial and apolitical can our desires be? If no one professes to fancy femininity doesn’t that reflect our internalised misogyny? If we truly were free lovers, if we did express our natural desire and identities, then surely there would be a proliferation of varying desires and genders in our queer spaces. There wouldn’t be a uniform of jeans and t-shirts and strictly boi-on-boi action.

It’s true that not wanting to have sex or a lover has led me to feel alienated from the queer scene. Combine this feeling with my realisation that I prefer to date monogamously and have a very strong femme identity and I no longer feel included or appreciated in the community I have made my worldwide home for the past 6 years. And I am not the only one who feels this way. As responses to my first article on hypersexualisation prove, many people feel alienated from the queer community because their sexual desires don’t fit the queer bill. I’m not poly enough, not kinky enough, not thin enough, and not boyish enough. Not queer enough. As a friend said upon reading zines about being queer, it seems that we think of queer as something up here – she raised her palm above her head – and of ourselves as being down here – she pushed her palm towards the floor.

Berlin Drag Queen Kay P.Rinha at The Femme Show
Berlin Drag Queen Kay P.Rinha at The Femme Show © Sara Svärtan Persson http://blacklikeink.tumblr.com/

This notion of queer as an unattainable ideal is really messed up. What happened to queer as an umbrella term? What happened to the ever-expanding joyful list of people we love: LGBTTSIQQA (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Transsexual / Two-Spirited Intersex Queer Questioning Asexual)? Unlike slightly mad UK feminist Julie Bindel, I love the idyllic aspirations of queer. The way it wants to join all us freaks together. So it made me really sad, upon moving to Berlin, to realise just how much queer doesn’t want me.

What I want to see from queer communities worldwide, what I think would be truly queer, is a celebration of difference that leads to diversity in our relationships, our beds and on our dance floors. Maybe it is human nature to form group norms (safety in numbers) but I am a political optimist. I think we can do better. Let’s start to really celebrate differences, the freaks and the outcasts. It takes a lot of courage, but I think we can do it. Surely individuality is what is queer.