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.

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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:

Butch Eye Candy!

OK, so I am so wrapped up in job and house hunting in my new abode of Toronto that I have completely neglected to provide you guys with a post. But never fear, butch eye candy is here! Here’s an awesome video courtesy of Time about a female model who models exclusively in men’s fashion. Although women modelling men’s clothes is not new, a woman signed exclusively to a modelling agency for men is. Without further ado, I present to you Thursday Butch Eye Candy!

(Disclaimer – this person may not actually identify as butch. But they’re hot, nonetheless.)

courtesy thegloss.com

What kind of man are you going to be?

At first I was going to address this piece only to the trans guys in our community, but then I realised that I experience this kind of sexism at the hands/eyes/unconscious of many queers. I don’t think sexism is 100% determined by your gender, and I feel just as excluded/alienated/stared-at-in-queer-parties by other women, gender queers, dykes and lesbians for the way I present. I feel just as unsupported by them, and also question how much they really would be there for me, a feminine woman, when I need them.

What kind of man are you going to be? Are you going to support me when I am harassed, or are you just going to stand idly by and let it happen? These were the questions yelled out by a friend into the late Summer night. We were sitting by the fountain at Alexanderplatz, bitching loudly about the femmephobia of the Berlin queer scene. A couple of wandering men approached us, seeing us as easy targets. We got rid of them quickly, loudly, aggressively. They seemed surprised.

My friend had just finished telling me about an incident in which she was harassed in a Berlin squat bar, and then blamed by other guests of the queer feminist party for ‘causing a fuss’ when forcibly evicting the harasser. Both of us were deeply frustrated with the failure of our fellow queers to support us when we are threatened. We felt that there was a hierarchy in the queer scene, which placed transmasculinities at the top, forcing transfemininities to the bottom.

Another friend of mine said that the queer trans men in Australia are much better at questioning the privilege their masculinity gives them in this sexist world. I know, of course, there are tonnes of lovely feminist men, trans and cis, out there who question male privilege. But, in general, Berlin doesn’t seem to be doing too well on that point. When queer masculinities are celebrated as the epitome of queer eroticism, when transmasculine queers takes up so much space in our bars and parties and forget to step aside for me, making me squeeze around the edges, then there is a problem.

(Why should they step aside, you ask? Because this world is really sexist. Because in every space I move in, on the street, in bars, in shops, discussion groups I am expected to step aside and make space for men. To give them priority, first word, right of passage. To automatically put them first and myself second. And I fucking refuse to do this in our queer spaces too.)

There is a tendency to self-satisfaction in this small community. We seem to think sexism doesn’t happen here. We are queer feminists, dude, we are so radical! But of course the patriarchy gets in here. It gets in everywhere. And even among self-declared feminists, masculinity is being celebrated at femininities’ cost.

I don’t think misogyny is inherent to masculinity. I don’t think that being a man or a masculine person makes you automatically more sexist than, say, a feminine woman. But I do think men are socialised to believe in their superiority. There is a lot of power that comes with taking up male space. And with that power comes responsibility. How are you going to use your agency? Are you going to help carve out a space in which femininities can also be respected? Or are you going to take advantage of your power, which always comes at femininities’ cost, and perpetuate the sexist status quo?

I think I have said this, like, a million times. Hell, I’ve written a whole thesis on it. Masculinity and femininity don’t have to be played off each other, like cheap adversaries; femininity the Tybalt to our lovely queer Romeo. In order to celebrate transmasculinity, you don’t have to reject me. You can celebrate muscles and ties and sexy bois at the same time as loving colourful feathers and cleavages and feminine flirtation.

Man, I get all into my queer utopias when I start imagining alternative definitions of masculinity and femininity, maleness and femaleness, ones that don’t involve us saying one is bad in order to make the other seem good. Eat your heart out José Muñoz! Will masculinity and femininity, men and women still exist in this non-sexist utopia? Or will these identities automatically be destroyed when we break down sexist boundaries? Man, I hope not, or my whole erotic identity will be buggered. God, I love that play on gender!

It is right to celebrate transmasculinity and recognising its right to be celebrated at a time when medically transitioning is only just becoming possible. But there is a fine line between celebrating and fetishising. And when the sexist behaviour of individuals and groups is ignored and allowed because trans men can do no wrong, they are the epitome of the oppressed, the superqueers, then fetishisation is happening. I think that a lot of the dynamics I see happening here in Berlin are unconscious. I don’t think people are deliberately trying to exclude femmes or trans women or make us feel unwelcome. But that is exactly what is happening because there is an unexamined idolisation of transmasculinity.

So, I would like to address this question to all transmasculine queers in our community. It’s not only what kind of man are you going to be, but also what kind of queer, dyke, butch, boi, genderqueer…? Are you going to question your masculine privilege in our queer society or are you going to embrace it and take advantage of it at feminine women’s expense?

Trolls Attack the Berlin Femme Show

Sometimes I get so angry at the sexism I see in the world that it makes me just want to scream. This is the feeling I got when I read the sexist comments on Berlin queer mag Siegessäule‘s review of The Berlin Femme Show. The night was such a success with over 600 guests and 25 amazing performers. It really made me hope, just a little bit, that things might be looking up for femmes here in Berlin. The review was very appreciative and I was so proud of the amazing range of feminist statements our performers made: from body image, to trans identities, queer homogeneity to sex work. But no, apparently when you get a bunch of mostly feminine women performing burlesque, all we are doing is taking our tits out and being pornographic. Of course.

I mean, there is nothing political about a woman desperately breaking her diet by eating her cosmetics and then celebrating her fatness by dancing to Fat Bottomed Girls. There is nothing political about seeing fat burlesque at all, in a world which tells us we only have sexual power as women when we starve ourselves into thinness. There is nothing political about taking the stereotype of the housewife and using it to bake dreams of a different queer world and to celebrate all the feminists who have gone before us. There is nothing political about showing the thoughts of a sex worker as she strips and comes for a client, or standing up on stage as a transsexual woman and talking about the exclusion of transfemininities in the queer community. There is nothing political about standing on stage in front of a community who has done everything in its power to ignore you, discount you and keep you out and demand to be seen as sexual and queer.

Of course, all we girls are doing is taking our tits out and disappointing our queer feminist sisters, who obviously know a lot more about what it means to be queer and feminist than we do. Boo hoo fucking hoo.

So, I encourage all of you to read my zine which is now fully translated and consists of 80 pages of art about why, exactly, these kinds of attitudes are bullshit.

Mommy is Coming…

…to Berlin. Europe’s ‘queer capital’ hosts a new film that is definitely not your average porno. Mommy is Coming is showing at Moviemiento Kino until Monday 26th March.

I know, I know, I’ve been a bit awol recently. I blame all the amazing femme organising I’ve been doing. But, not to worry, I am now back in cyber world with a review of an awesome new queer film. Plus, expect updates on the Berlin Femme Show and pics soon! Now, without further ado, let’s talk about porn…

Last week I went to see a new queer porn film at local Berlin cinema Moviemiento. First aired at the 62th Berlinale this February, last week saw its official German premiere.  Mommy is Coming isn’t your average porno. It feels more like a story-based film, which happens to have a lot of hot sex in it.

To be quite honest, my expectations of queer films aren’t that high. I watch them for the affirmation I get from seeing my way of life up there on the big screen. I watch them because, finally, I can enjoy sex scenes without the dissonance of having to imagine a hot butch in the role of the guy on the screen. I also enjoy spotting the queers I have met in real-life on the silver screen (Gaymous!). But it is a familiar complaint among dykes that I know that films about us are often not very good.

Our community is starved for attention and representation. It’s a long-running joke among lesbians that films about our lives are generally below standard. If they’re a mainstream film they generally feature slim, white, feminine lesbians exchanging chaste kisses and having oral, non-penetrative sex. Sometimes a finger or two works its way into the lover’s vagina, but God forbid that sex between women involve anything as exciting as a dildo or other sex toy! While, of course, lots of women do enjoy this dynamic, it’s certainly not the whole word in queer eroticism.

U.S. Comedienne Margaret Cho on her first time with a woman

Watching lesbian movies as a baby dyke I was seriously unimpressed. Is this what my sex life as a lesbian was going to be like? Was I supposed to roll around in not-very-excessive ecstasy while another girl went down on me to bad indie pop? Maybe it would be better to be straight after all? At least then I would get some motherfucking penetration!

When I think of the mainstream, accepted representation of lesbian sex it makes me pretty mad. I am convinced that the cutesie, ‘oh look they’re really just kittens’ (it’s all that rubbing) sex scenes serve to ease cultural anxiety that women might not need a guy to fulfil their erotic needs. If there’s no cock involved, then it’s OK. Because we all know that what a woman really needs is a good fucking. I remember one of my friends saying to me that she would be a lesbian if she wouldn’t miss cock too much. And you know what, at the time I thought she had a point! Who wants to be a dyke when it means all you get is some light kissing and frottage?

I know it’s been said to death, but 2010’s The Kids Are All Right is a perfect example of ‘it ain’t sex unless there’s a – biological – cock’. This romantic comedy about a lesbian couple’s relationship to the sperm-donor father of their children was portrayed in mainstream media as the pro-gay film of the year. At last, a positive portrayal of ‘normal’ lesbian love. Erm, no! The only hot sex scenes in the film are when Julianne Moore cheats on her partner with the sexy, irresponsible sperm donor. I mean, who wouldn’t choose Mark Ruffalo on a motorcycle over neurotic Annette Benning in a sweatshirt? Juli gets to do it doggy style several times with Mark, but the only time her and Annette even vaguely get jiggy with it, it’s a fumble under the covers with a vibrator while watching gay porn. Even this ‘happy’ couple need to spice up their boring sex life with some good old cock. The fact that the lesbians in this apparently pro-lesbo film need to watch gay porn in order to get off says everything you need to know about what we think of lesbians and sex.

But maybe there’s another way of looking at The Kids Are All Right.  It’s no coincidence that Mark Ruffalo on his vintage BMW bike looks like more of a dyke than businesswoman Annette Benning. Annette portrays your mainstream, trouser suit-wearing lesbian who can’t really get her girl off in bed, while Mark emanates the raw sexuality of James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. And what does James Dean look like? Why, of course, a butch dyke!

Dykes on Bikes: James Dean vs. Mark Ruffalo

I remember watching a film about butch masculinity a few years ago which made a pretty convincing argument that famous Hollywood stars like Dean and Marlon Brando have the same kind of masculinity as butch dykes. Unfortunately I can’t remember its name, but its message (and the homoeroticism of Elvis in Jailhouse Rock) really stuck with me. As a teenager I was obsessed with the young Leonardo DiCaprio and I have since noticed that a lot of our Hollywood heartthrobs look like boyish girls. Think of the babyfaced beauty of Robert Pattinson in Twilight with his pouty red lips and smooth skin. It’s exactly the kind of beauty I see in butch women.

So maybe virile Mark Ruffalo with his cheeky charm and motorcycle is some kind of unconscious representation of butch cock? Without wanting to get too queer film theory on you, this idea leads me back to Mommy is Coming. Mommy is Coming is definitely not your average queer film. Its actors are ‘real-life’ queers and have pretty varied genders. Not only do I, lucky girl, get to see some butch-femme sex, but there’s also a pretty hot butch/transmasculine threesome and the whole film is permeated with the kinky dynamics of BDSM. This queer porno definitely doesn’t buy into mainstream ideas about lesbian sex, thank God, and manages to combine romance, hotness and sexual exploration in one fiction film/porno bundle.

It’s true that Mommy is Coming is made for a relatively small audience. I can’t imagine it getting the relatively mainstream distribution of romantic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein or the ‘lesbians are psychopaths’ Hollywood hit Monster. And maybe the fact that it is aimed at a specifically queer audience gives it more freedom. It’s not trying to appease cultural anxiety about queers, in fact, it’s probably trying to do the opposite. But it is a relief to walk into a cinema and see some sexy queer sex on the big screen for a change.

So, maybe we should make Mommy is Coming required viewing for all the closeted teenagers out there. We can show them that being a lesbian, or trans, or queer, isn’t always about gentle patting between floral sheets, but can involve some pretty mind-blowing sexual adventures. I know that I would have appreciated someone telling teenage me that there was more than one way of having queer sex. It would have saved me a lot of anxiety about my future sex life and maybe I would have jumped into my new queer life with more sexual abandon. Seriously, someone needs to destroy these stereotypes and Mommy is Coming is a step in the right direction.

Mommy is Coming is showing in Berlin for one more week only. Go see it at Moviemiento, Kottbusser Damm 22, Berlin-Kreuzberg. You won’t be sorry!

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Stills from the film