Thursday, July 31, 2014

One One One: Severability

There was an article in New Yorker this week--- Michelle Goldberg's "What Is A Woman? The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism" in the 4 August 14 issue ---that's drawn fire in the gender wars.  My friend Ms. Flox at posted a harsh attack on the Goldberg article ("A Pity Party for the Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists", 28 July 14), and there are other attacks at, say, Autostraddle.

I can't have any sympathy for radfem types. I'm a mere Person of Penis, and as a straight male I'm on their enemies list. I'd have no place in their world.  Yet I can't accept so many of the basic tenets of transgender theory. I'll only get in trouble over this, but I have a very hard time with the current efforts to decouple gender and sex and to downplay biology and anatomy. It's not difficult for me to accept trans-folk as a belonging to their own category, but I'm not sure that I'd accept the assertion that one can be a "real" man or "real" woman completely without regard to anatomy. When I read trans-folk (almost always MTF, for whatever reason) describe themselves as "neurologically female" but "anatomically male", there's the idea that the flesh means nothing. The claim that their brains are actually more like biologically female brains has the feel of an afterthought. There's only nebulous and uncertain evidence for that, and their appeals to neuroscience have a tacked-on air.  And I suppose it all seems so...unnecessary...outside of the cult of "authenticity" in any case, the obsession with being "real".

Ms. Flox and other critics of the New Yorker article went straight to a claim that the radfem assertion that trans-folk aren't "real" women or "real" men is somehow directly tied to the appalling statistics about violence against trans-folk. But those two issues are completely severable.  You can certainly argue that trans-folk should have full social and legal rights and be free of bigoted violence without accepting the idea that structural anatomy has no part in defining what's "real".  Whether or not "some women have penises" is true should have no effect on legal or social rights.  Those rights come as part of being human in society.  Being someone who wishes to live as another gender or present themselves with the markers of another gender doesn't--- shouldn't ---affect those rights. That's completely severable from the issue of what or who is "real".

I'll admit that I enjoy reading about the blood feud between radfems and Asterisk Thieves because it has that wonderfully insane, hermetic, ranting air that intra-Left feuds had in the 1930s or late 1960s. It reminds me as well of polemics during the early Reformation, and there's nothing as hilarious as watching fanatics rave and rant and attack one another over issues that no one from outside could possibly care less about. I'm certainly no fan of either group--- strident, righteous people always leave me cold.

It does seem to me that the people like my friend Ms. Flox who attacked the New Yorker article are fighting the wrong war. If the issue is violence against trans-folk, the fight over whether trans-folk are "real" men or women isn't especially relevant. The fight is against the people who commit the violence and against the unwillingness of police and prosecutors to punish the violence. It doesn't matter at all whether "some women have penises" or which pronouns someone prefers--- focus on stopping physical attacks, on securing job protections.

As for the rest of it...well...I'll just laugh at the polemics and throw up my hands over the self-righteousness. I don't grasp the cult of authenticity and being "real".  I don't grasp the part of the Asterisk Thieves' ideology that tries to make trans-ness not about sex or attack those who shape their own gender presentation because it's part of their sex lives.  I'm not sure why being a "real" whatever matters, since adopting a persona and playing it out seems just as good. If people agree to respond to the created persona, how is that not as good as being "real"? Why isn't being trans as a category something acceptable all on its own, as a third category? But, well...I'm Evil. And male and straight and older. Which is only another way of being Evil, no?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

One One Zero: Identities

I read last week that the Serbian model Andrej Pejic, who made his reputation doing androgynous looks and modeling women's fashion, has announced that he is in fact transgender and has re-emerged as Andreja Pejic after reassignment surgery. It's a complicated thing to write about, to put down in print. How exactly do you describe Pejic's announcement? Can you say "re-emergence" or "transformation" any more? Doesn't the trans* narrative these days insist that anyone trans* was always whatever gender they "really" are? What happens to the images of metamorphosis and becoming someone new? Is it now correct to use different pronouns even retrospectively, for someone's life before they made the announcement?

I'm using Pejic as an example here, but only because the Andrej/Andreja announcement is something I saw in the news. I wish Pejic the individual well, whatever the pronouns, and I'll say that Pejic's work has always been excellent--- striking looks, good poses. So this isn't about Pejic as an individual at all. Let's not think that.

The trans* issue is the Next Big Thing in the gender wars, and probably the Next Big Thing about legal and social rights as well. As much as I make fun of the "trans*" usage--- the trans folk have stolen the asterisk just as gay men took closets and lesbians annexed softball  ---I'm certainly a supporter of full social and legal rights for transpeople.  Take that as a given.

I will say, though, that I love reading about all the internecine feuding inside the world of the gender warriors over the trans issue. It's as much fun as reading about the Sex Wars and the Porn Wars inside feminism in the 1980s and 1990s--- as much fun as reading about feuds inside the Left in the 1930s, about factions and heresies, about demands for purity of thought. And the level of in-fighting here in the days of the "call-out culture" is even more wonderfully bitchy than amongst Trotskyites and Stalinists.

I'm only a flaneur here, of course--- wandering through websites as a tourist and reading articles and comments and laughing at the levels of bitchy (and tetchy) self-righteousness. I'm a mere vanilla straight boy in so many ways--- over thirty, white, middle class, over-educated, straight, "cis and cis-presenting". Am I even supposed to have opinions on things here?

I was an undergraduate when the first great flush of gay activism and gay dance clubs swept through university towns and big cities.  The issues of gay rights and gay culture were all around me, and I remember the university radio station having a half-hour LGB (no T yet) program on Sunday evenings with a mix of dance music, political discussions, and memoirs of coming out.  I remember those things, and I remember learning to negotiate social spaces with tribes that weren't my own.

The trans issue is harder to negotiate. That's worth bearing in mind. It raises the question of what real identity is and how it's marked. It raises the issues of whether the obvious markers for identity in others can be relied on at all. It's a legitimate political question whether being able to immediately and reliably identify someone as male or female should be so very important, and it's a legitimate political question as to whether someone trans is a "real woman" (or man) or whether trans is a separate category all on its own.  Trans disorients the usual identifiers. And its insistence that male or female isn't defined by possession of a penis or a vagina goes against what seems obviously, self-evidently true. It's easier for me to think about groups like the hijra in India and say that there's a distinct, third, trans group than it is to think of someone who still has a penis as "really" a woman.

It's interesting, too, to read articles and comments defining new lines of exclusion in the Trans Wars. I'm old enough to remember dance clubs with drag shows and club queens, a world where "tranny" was a role and not an insult. The lines of exclusion seem to be drawn these days to put people who cross-dress for purely sexual reasons into the camp of the enemy. Those people (and I'll be talking MTF here) who dress up at clubs as female to acquire (male, often straight) partners are treated as...traitors? Infiltrators? The enemy, in any case. They're not "really" trans, and they're on the bad side of the gender wars.  I'm assuming that straight men who cross-dress for reasons other than having sex get the same treatment. "Transvestite" is now taken as a bad thing, as referring to someone who hasn't read enough Judith Butler or who's a heretic and schismatic in the trans world, someone who isn't authentic or "real", someone in thrall to bad ideas...or who sees being trans as being about sex.

There's real anger reserved for those (almost inevitably portrayed as men) who want to have sex with MTF transfolk. They seem to be regarded as utterly evil--- "fetishizers". The description raises an eyebrow for me, since the people I know who really want to have sex with transwomen are female themselves. Their argument is simple enough--- they want the duality. They want to have sex with someone who has a gracile, feminine, female body and presentation but also has a  large, working penis.  They haven't gone to Bangkok looking for ladyboys yet, but I do know that two of them (one in Wellington NZ, one in Melbourne) have at least drawn up Craigslist ads looking for what I'm told are called "trans-lesbians", looking for "girlcock". The girl in NZ and the girl in Melbourne are both bi, and they both like the idea of experimentation for its own sake. They love the idea of  having a pretty girl with a cock.  I wonder if they'd be regarded as more or less evil than, say, men who went to ladyboy bars or went on sex tours to Thailand.

My friends in Wellington and Melbourne identify as...transgressive. Another kind of trans, though a kind that the trans* folk (the Asterisk Thieves, I've taken to saying) hate. Their own identity is tied to crossing boundaries and doing things that are exotic or forbidden.'s yet another issue in the gender wars: the idea that fetishes are incorrect and unacceptable, that the category of the exotic is unacceptable.

My friend in Wellington had a major crush on Andre Pejic, but is still undecided about Andreja.  She found--- finds ---the disjoint between presentation and biology to be alluring. She wants the things that aren't "real". I'll have to ask her whether she feels evil about that.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

One Zero Nine: Armour

I've been reading comments at various on-line articles about the mating dance and I must say that I find myself raising an eyebrow.

The issue seems to be about what signals indicate that a girl is open to being approached while out, and there are things here that I don't quite understand.

The argument seems to be that what a girl wears is never to be taken as a signal at a club or party that she's looking for potential partners or trying to attract attention. That line of argument is well enough when arguing that no one deserves to be the target of violence or harassment because of what she's wearing, but it's still difficult for me not to read how people dress without looking for signals. Commenters assert that women aren't dressing up for men when they go out, and that no male should ever believe that a girl is dressing up to signal that she's  part of the mating dance.  That strikes me as self-evidently wrong.

I know that when I go out at all, I go through a whole ritual, and I'm very aware of what I'm doing. In my own mind, I really am imagining rituals of garbing and armouring--- the matador before the corrida, the priest before High Mass, the knight before tournament or battle. If I'm standing in front of the mirror before going out, I'm very much trying to imagine myself as part of something very formal and formalized. I know that I'm trying to choose what I wear to send signals.

Some of that is about class. No question about that. When I leave my rooms to go out anywhere at night, whether to a bar or an event of any kind, I'm in costume--- in armour. I want what I wear to give off certain signals about class and education. The black blazer, the oxford-cloth button-down, the necktie in regimental stripes--- those are chosen to say things about me. A gentleman of a certain age, of a certain background.  Someone who can be a bit insouciant, but who's been taught how to dress and behave. Someone whose background can be read as good schools and a liberal arts background.

That presentation is always and ever carefully curated. Part of it is that I very much was taught to dress in certain ways, and I can't imagine being out in public after dark in anything that doesn't meet the standards I was trained to for what was proper.  I want the look to suggest something a bit old guard, but with a hint of the casual. The ties--- well, I like ties. And they're carefully curated--- regimental striped ties with the colours of British army regiments my character in a novel might have served in, regiments associated with long-ago campaigns I've enjoyed reading about. I'd never wear them in London--- be clear about that. Never in London. No one in this city is likely to identify them,  though, and they're my secret. They help me be the character here that I'd have been in a good novel. There in the mirror, I'm creating myself as someone who should be out in the night, as someone who's living inside the right kind of novel or film.

Why do I do it? I do it so I can live inside the novel or film in my head, so I can be that character.  But one of  that character's key qualities is that he's attractive to girls, or at least attractive to lovely girls who can read his presentation. Yes--- if I'm dressed to go out, it's always and ever so that that certain niche of potential young companions will read the signals and, if my luck holds, respond. If I'm out at all, I need to character. If I'm out at all, I want certain girls' eyes reading me. Whatever else I'm doing, I'm dressed for my imagined reader, for a very particular audience. If I'm out, I'm signaling to attractive, clever, bookish girls. I don't leave my rooms after dark  if I'm not in character to appeal to my niche audience.

That's probably why I can't ever accept those comments where the gender warriors rant that when they're out in something slinky or revealing that they don't do it for men or as a signal. Oh, fine, there's certainly something about announcing status--- they know that other women will read labels and designs and combinations and so they're staking out status claims. But anyone who insists that she's dressing to impress other women seems to me to leaving something out. If she's dressed to demonstrate that her tastes and styles are better than the next woman's, you have to ask better for what? That's  a proof-and-pudding kind of thing. Having clothes with the right labels or right fashion lines is all well and good, but the point of the clothes is to be stylish and sexy. The clothes work when  they convey that message. And the proof is in the response.  I can't get around that.

So much of this seems to me to be an attack on the whole idea of the mating dance, the idea that social interaction always has that subtext of sexual possibility. I've spent my life looking at the social world as a whole set of possibilities for seduction and romance. Whatever else you're doing, those possibilities are out there. And you come to the ritual armed and armoured. Going out at all puts you in places where the mating dance can happen. Going out at all is always and ever about the mating dance. And you remember that you're in costume, in uniform. Always in character, always ready for the dance to swoop you up.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

One Zero Eight: Eidolon

It's an awkward thing to be male and receive physical compliments.  Not a problem I have so very often, I should say. I've never been admired for any looks or physical graces. I can recall girls saying that I have good eyes, but I think that's been the extent of it. Nonetheless, there is a whole complicated set of things about physical compliments.

It's awkward enough these days to offer up physical compliments to girls, since there's a strain of thought out there that holds that any physical compliment, any sexualized compliment, necessarily diminishes the recipient--- that complimenting any girl on her physical beauty is a way of implying that she has no value outside of her body and looks.

It's more awkward, though, to be male and receive compliments. If you're male, you're not socialized to receive compliments about your looks or body. If you're male, you're not trained up to think of your body as something that can be desired for its own sake. You're trained to be useful, to think that your value lies in being useful--- whether that means skilled with tools or financially successful.  Even in the gay world, where there is a sense that male beauty exists, it's still an awkward thing, I understand, to tell someone he's beautiful. If you've been socialized to be male, it's disconcerting to receive that kind of compliment--- gay or straight.

Oh, be very clear. I don't get compliments from girls about my looks or body. My bookshelves draw compliments, and girls have sighed over my book collection the way I sigh over a girl's long, slender legs. In some abstract way, I"d love to get compliments, to be told I was handsome or had a body that provoked thoughts of sex and made girls soak through their skinny jeans. But that's something I can feel only in a very abstract, distanced way. I'm clear enough about my own looks and age to know that I'm not likely to ever have a girl offer up compliments about my body. But I'd like to receive a few; I'd like to believe that a lovely girl could look at me and feel desire. That's not likely ever to happen, and it is depressing enough.

Nonetheless, I'd have no idea what to think if a lovely girl did offer me that kind of compliment. In all honesty, it would ruin any romance. I wouldn't believe her, and I'd assume that there was some kind of nefarious motive behind her words. I'd instantly assume I was being set up for some kind of scam, some kind of ploy.

I know that male beauty exists in some abstract way,  but I can't imagine what that means in any concrete form.  It means nothing to me in terms of anything I'd look at, and I know the concept would never apply to me. I can't imagine how a girl can find a male body attractive even though at the same time I berate myself for not being something that inspires sexual desire. I'm not sure what I'd want a girl to say about my body, or what I'd ever be prepared to believe.

I've spent a large part of my life entranced by female beauty--- or at least by stylized, formalized female beauty. I've paid girls compliments about legs and eyes, about hipbones and cheekbones, about bare backs and shoulders.  I can't believe that a girl will ever pay me a compliment, and I wouldn't know how to accept one if it came.  Wanting something I can't believe I can ever have, wanting something I'd always think was a lie and a snare. I suppose that does say a great deal about my life.