Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Radical Feminism, Feminists who are Radical, and Trans folks. (pt 1]

I understand that part of the risk of being on the internet is that many people who are also on the internet are so very wrong. In fact, the Internet has the tendency of bringing out the most vicious, least informed side of peoples personalities. At least, that is what it seems like to me. And of course, in the spirit of this blog, I am going to be energized to write something because I am indignant about a conversation that I recently had. And yes, I will just act like I the fact that I did not post for like a year and a half didnt happen. (NB. My keyboard is all sorts of messed up, so things like apostrophes and colons and question marks dont work. Also the end parenthesis].

So I have seen a couple of instances where someone says something about Radical Feminists, and a chorus of cis people, predominately but not exclusively women, appear to contend that no True Radical Feminist would be transphobic. And in one conversation, someone was trying to make the point that the SCUM Manifesto, is in fact trans positive. Or at the very least, not cissexist.

I think that there are a couple of things to tease out here before going straight to whether the SCUM Manifesto is trans positive or not (or whether a feminism informed by it can be]. The first thing that was very noticeable to me as a person who has spent too much time reading Radical Feminist work (and particularly, radical feminist opinions on trans people], is that a lot of people were thinking that any feminist that was not a liberal reformist was or is a Radical Feminist. So in this case, folks were saying that Judith Butler was a Radical Feminist, even though that is the first time that Ive ever heard of her being called that. And thats how terms like `third Wave Radical Feminism` got introduced into the conversation, another phrase that I find rather confusing.

So what I want to bring up is the fact that Radical Feminism, in the minds of many folks on the ground and even academic circles, is talking about a specific philosophy that started in the 70s and 80s, and continues to this day. A lot of times, we divide feminism into waves, and a lot of folks tend to equivocate what is called `second wave` with Radical Feminism, but I think thats actually a mistake. Radical Feminists were reacting against the early 70s feminists such as NOW and Gloria Steinem, while also differentiating themselves from the more Marxist influenced Socialist Feminists. Obviously there was less boundaries between these groups than I am saying, but for the most part they remain somewhat separate schools of thought.

Radical Feminists therefore, are a segment of feminists who are radical (that is, further left than liberal and reformist feminists] but are not in fact the same thing. Lets take another example from another scenario. The term `Evangelical Christian` is made up by many Christians who evangelize to other people. But then again, so do many, and perhaps even most Christian sects. So if someone is saying `Evangelical Christians are protestant` and someone says `No, because Catholics evangelize, and arent protestant`, they are missing the idea that `Evangelical Christianity` is a title to a philosophy or movement, even though it is also descriptive (and in the cases of Evangelical Christian, and Radical Feminist, frequently self applied].

Not all feminists who are leftward of liberals are not Radical Feminists in the sense of belonging to that philosophy and movement. That might raise the question of what Radical Feminism as a movement is, and what distinguishes it from feminists who are otherwise radical. Ellen Willis has a Chapter on such things called `Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism`, if one is interested.

Radical Feminism is based upon a couple of key ideas, in my estimation.

  1. The primary form of oppression is patriarchy or male domination of women. 
  2. Women can be constituted as a transhistorical, transcultural class because of this oppression.
  3. Some form of gender separatism is necessary, since spaces that include men will necessarily be toxic to women. This is either because of some essentially male quality, or because men cannot escape their socialization to dominate women.
So the sort of feminists who I would see as this segment of feminism would be folks like Susan Brownmiller, Robin Morgan, Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin, and Janice Raymond. At least, those are the women who were the historical sources of it. As I said earlier, Radical Feminism as a movement has continued on until this day. This is because with a couple of exceptions, most of these women are still alive and active in doing work. To take an example, Janice Raymond is now active in anti trafficking (read, anti sex worker] activism. But even if you dont count those older voices, there are a crop of new Radical Feminists, such as Sheila Jeffreys, Julie Bindel, Cathy Brennan, Julie Burchill, and Roseanne Barr who ascribe to the same, if not very similar philosophies.

So when someone says `3rd wave Radical Feminism`, I get confused. Because Radical Feminism is still around, unencumbered by wave distinction, but also that the loose constellation of movements we lump together as `3rd wave feminism` (here Im thinking things like sex positive feminism, queer theory, trans feminism, transnational feminisms] were in direct reaction against the political and philosophical ideas of Radical Feminism. It seems contradictory to me. Sure, there are 3rd wave feminists who are Radical, but Radical Feminism as a movement doesnt really fit with the movements that are called 3rd wave.

I think that most people involved in feminist work who are not allied with Radical Feminist philosophy will see some of the limits of it. It is blind to race and class in a way that is very unhelpful (and has led to its critique by womanist scholars], and has a nasty streak of transphobia to it. In seeing the primary dividing line between men and women, with an insurmountable gulf between them, Radical Feminists are at a loss of how to understand transgender phenomena, except to disapprove of it. Futhermore, in such an `us vs. them` understanding of social relations, those who identify as genderqueer or nonbinary are either erased (in the best cases] or attacked as being delusional. Which, in the context of those three beliefs above, makes sense. The problem is that those three beliefs are simply not true. Race, class, sexuality, imperialism, ability, and many other factors are as equally at play in the world as patriarchy, and also make any argument for women as a transcultural class unbelievable.

The Radical Feminist arguments about trans people (and mostly regarding trans women] stem from the idea that trans women can never possibly be women, either because of their socialization, their anatomy, or their spiritual essence. I think that the latter can be set aside for other folks, but I do want to address the first two. To ascribe womanhood to anatomy (that is, whether one has a penis or not] goes against the entire basis of feminism, of not seeing women as only a set of vaginas and uteruses. It literally reduces women into genitals, which I feel is a shockingly antifeminist move. Why have a feminism that sees the most important aspect of womanhood as whether one can have children or not. And regarding socialization, it presupposes that all socializations of boys will be the same, and all girls. It ignores cultural context. Furthermore, for those trans girls who are young, they might absorb the things being said about girls and women, if they identify that way.

I think the best exemplary argument against anti transgender rhetoric from socialization comes from Julia Serano in Whipping Girl. She mentions that she tells a cisgender lesbian a hypothetical tale of a cisgender girl who is kidnapped and forced to live as a boy for her young life. What that girl escapes her kidnappers and lives on her own, she decides to live as a woman, even though she had been treated as a boy for her entire life. Most would agree that she should be, and Serrano points out that that is roughly analogous to what many trans women go through.

Whipping Girl makes the excellent point that trans women are not oppressed in a way that is completely separate from cisgender womens oppression, but as perhaps one particularly horrible extreme of it. The Denigration of femininity and womanhood is endemic in our whole society, and those who are seen as choosing feminity are seen as perverse. Even in queer and feminist communities (esp. Radical Feminist ones], femininity is seen as counter revolutionary. Trans women therefore bear just a particularly unfair burden because of generalized sexism.

Next, I am going to go into the SCUM Manifesto, and how it relates to the problems with Radical Feminism .

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Hawkeye Initiative and the Laughably Unnatural Feminine Man

How knowledgeable I am on comic books is the same sort of situation as my knowledge surrounding computers. If I'm around someone who knows nothing about comics (or computers), then they think that I am super well versed on the subject, some sort of technological (or nerd) genius. When I'm around someone who actually knows about the things, then I come off as a more realistic assessment: a decently learned amateur. With comic books in particular, I know the characters and some of the arcs, but I definitely don't think of myself as a comic book person.

I talk about comics because I have been reading the new tumblr du jourThe Hawkeye Initiative. The basic premise of the blog is to take the pictures that portray women in comics sexually and replace them with the masculine dude character Hawkeye. The obvious argument being forwarded is a basic one about the male gaze in comics: women are exclusively portrayed as sex objects in a way that the male characters aren't.  In particular, putting Hawkeye in the place of the "Strong Female Characters" (the tumblr references both in words and in style the ideas of Kate Beaton of Hark a Vagrant) shows how those poses are not empowerment. Not only that, but the women in comic books are frequently extreme examples not only of strange bodily contortion, but of an unhealthy body standard. The short io9 article summarizes the general feeling behind the project well: it has an argument (or rather, a vague yearning/reaction), but it is also a source of humor or fun.

When I was reading the blog though, it reminded me of something that I saw perhaps a year ago that shared not only the same critiques (although in a different context), but the same method. In "Men Ups", the photographer has collected a series of men and places them in the same poses and situations as those from Vargas style pin-up art. Like the Hawkeye Initiative, there is a feminist concern behind it, although it is perhaps more subtle in the Men Ups series. As the artist says in an interview, the concern is about how gender and physical appearance affects women, to see the "unnaturalness" of women's (feminine, rather) poses and expectations.

Like almost everything, I feel a couple of different things about this. I mean, I enjoy both of these quite a bit, but I have to wonder whether I enjoy it in the same way as other people. That is to say, I enjoy it because I like seeing a kind of transgression of what we consider gender normative behavior. Having Men in pin up poses is both fun because hey, some of the guys are pretty cute. But also because there are so infrequently representations of male femininity, especially ones that could be interpreted as positive. Really when there isn't a whole lot to go on, you go with what you have. I don't think this interpretation is unique to me; really, I think that quite a few people I know (especially in the Bay area) might enjoy things like this for the same reasons.

However, there is another side of it that I can't quite put out of my mind. And the earlier way that I talked about, the naive appreciation of the pictures, is most assuredly not the intention of the artists. Much like the Jezebel article on the Men-ups states in the title, they are "So much more than just men posing as pin-ups," as if that is not in itself a critique of how gender is enforced in our society. The reason that these pictures are 'feminist' is not because men are shown transgressing gender boundaries, or at least that is not the primary reason. There is another felt reason behind what makes these pictures feminist or transgressive.

This is not the first time putting men in traditionally women's poses has been done. When I heard about either of these, what immediately came to mind was the work that John Stoltenberg did regarding pornography, called the Pose Workshop, as described in What Makes Pornography Sexy? To summarize, Stoltenberg would have workshops where he would have men take on the poses that women take in mainstream pornography. This would be the way that he would teach men about how pornography is inherently degrading to the person doing the posing. We see here the same basic premise as the Hawkeye Initiative, and perhaps the same as the Men-ups (however, the Men-ups is a much more ambivalent thing). Now, it isn't flesh and blood people, but the men and women are replaced by drawings.

I can definitely understand the idea behind all of these. Women in comic books shouldn't be exiled into only being sexual objects to be ogled. Even if there is a place for those representations (and I think there is, along with people of other genders), that shouldn't be the exclusive representation allotted to women, much the same with pornography. 

However, I think that the problem I have is that it seems that the method to achieve this aim is to put men in these poses to show how 'unnatural' or 'weird' that they are. Both of the recent incarnations are done for humor, described as 'hilarious' in the Jezebel article, and that has a distinct history of seeing men acting femininely as hilarious (but in an unsettling way). The argument is that it is obviously un-intuitive and laughable to think of men posing or acting femininely, why should women be portrayed in such a way? My problem here is that, although I like both of them, I have the distinct feeling of being laughed at. The combination of femininity and 'male' bodies is read as so disjointed that it is the cause for humor. These two artistic ventures seem to use this humor to make an argument, and exploit some people's reliance on gender norms without critiquing them, perhaps even furthering them.

I'm going to continue to enjoy them. After all, I can appropriate them for my own opinions and ends. But it's important not to confuse my ends with the ends of the other people who view and laugh.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Feel Good Theology

I guess this is the first post in a long time. That's kind of how that thing goes, I suppose. These are very scattered thoughts.

What I'm kind of interested in right now (at this very moment) is the theological surroundings that I'm finding myself in. I'm taking an actual theology class where it is harder to remain disconnected (/academic/historical) so I am having to confront the fact that I disagree with people more. I think that the main problem that I see (other than the blatant 'de-mythologizing' liberalism and un-divinization of Jesus) is that lots of these theologies are at their heart 'feel good' theologies.

I'm not necessarily saying that everyone should be filled with shame or be worried about going to Hell. But I'm having a hard time really connecting with a notion of God that is basically the mother figure writ large. In its own way, it is just as faulty as God-as-stern-dad-figure. What I mean to say is that God doesn't seem to be actually challenging or transformative or painful in this context.

I think some of the people that I am around are afraid of conceptualizing God or religion as having any sort of negative feelings associated with it because they are in their own ways wounded. Many are LGBT which means that religion is already associated with being dissociated from communities. Religion and the the 'word of God' have been used to inculcate shame in them. They are already in a way harmed by God (or at least, God's followers) and therefore don't want to associate those feelings with God any beyond the idea that God also suffers with them. So God becomes someone who simply co-experiences, an inert force or security blanket to help us feel better. They have a (justifiable) reaction against a limiting, commanding version of God. We aren't asked to experience anything negative or painful in our journey towards or with God (even if that pain is simply one of growing). In more sentimentalist theologies, God becomes the erotic, that is 'feeling good'.

But what does that leave us?

I have a hard time understanding my life in that way of viewing God. When our experiences are given so much importance, I feel like we border on a Christian solipsism, where God is whatever makes us feel the best (in whatever way you want to imagine that). Talking about God is then just talking about ourselves, and I think that I already do enough talking about myself. God isn't a divine therapist, and treating God that way makes God all about us. We treat our desires as if they are sacrosanct, sometimes even calling them God. This all makes us feel better, and perhaps life would be easier if I could actually believe that.

God gave us desire, but God doesn't have to be omniscient to have understood that in giving us free will and desire, that that would necessarily lead to sin, and therefore suffering. Because if we were free to only do the right thing, then we aren't really free at all. At least while we are on this planet, there is no utopia where everyone will get what they want or need without the harm coming to some other person. I can not in right conscience act like desire is an inherently good thing when I see the desire for resources harm so many people, or the desire for power destroy lives. Desire is not good. Only God is good, everything else is instrumental.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Things Coming Soon

Hey all, I feel like it is probably better to not just drop off the face of the planet. Anyhow, I am in the middle of some serious paper writing right now (maybe I'll put up short synopses of them after I'm done), so I haven't been able to pay as much attention to a blog as I perhaps would wish to. Thanks if you've been coming back to see if I put things up though!

The final weeks of classes make me feel like the grandmother from the Flannery O'Conner short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." If only I had impending deadlines every week, I would be the most productive person on the planet!

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Response to Possibly the Most Frustrating Essay I've Ever Read

I commonly read things that I disagree with. I frequently read things that anger me with their poorly thought out arguments and hypocrisy. I sometimes get blamed for the problems that I have to deal with as a trans* person. But never have I read an essay that managed to seemingly exist solely to be the perfect mixture of smugness, "false consciousness" argument, lack of historical or anthropological understanding, uninformed ideas on the method and nature of religion, and victim blaming that this essay seems to exhibit. I am going to assume it is an argument in good faith, but if I were a more cynical person (I know, right?) I would chalk it up to being simply a computer generated, personally tailored collection of things that anger me in an essay.

There is a response from someone else at my school here, but I think i want to run through my own issues with this essay, because that is my Wealth given right/privilege as a person with internet access. I've discussed this somewhat with Anna, so I am also going to credit em with some of the formulations of the thoughts that come out in this response. This is probably going to be what might charitably called "Too Long," so I'll make subject headings, like a "real academic"

Lack of Religious Studies Knowledge/Deconstruction

I find that most of the people writing articles like this seem to think that they are either 'above' reading actual religious studies methodology/scholarship, or they think that it is "the Man" trying to keep them down. I'm just going to say that, unless you are going to pay attention to the last hundred or so years of people discussing what 'religion' means, and whether that is a tenable term for a conversation, then I feel like maybe you should re-examine what you are doing.

But, I will discuss how her definition of religion (or lack thereof, with merely an implication) is a problematic, racist, and imperialistic artifice later. What I really want to address are some of the ridiculous, and provably false things that the author has written.

Anyone who ever writes something like "all religions [x]" or "all atheists [y]" is not only in danger, but willfully setting themselves up to being proven wrong by actual facts. For a person who scoffs at people for thinking that they are absolutely right, she seems to have either not gained any sort of evidence to make her claims worth listening to, or has forgotten all of it in favor of making grandiose statements that are not only false but embarrassing. When you make statements with "all" in them, you are on the track to failure; your faith in your cause has blinded you to nuance. Let alone one that reifies a concept like religion into one mass (which is philosophically unjustifiable anyhow). Although the author assures us that she is very postmodern, apparently this does not apply to her understanding of religion. I had a teacher (Robert Minor) who began his book “When Religion Becomes and Addiction” with the Chapter Title “Religion doesn’t do anything,” which is true. Religion is not a thing, it has no essence, so to treat it like it does is a fallacy. The fact that she uncritically accepts the concept of religion as an essence, and takes the traditional view of what it is undermines her completely objective, rational self identification (which is already a specious concept in and of itself).

So when she says that religions are fundamentally in tension or contradiction with queerness, she first of all misunderstands how queerness functions in other societies, but also how 'faith' does, and how they interact with each other. In fact, saying that "queerness is always counter-intuitive" shows that she has not seemingly read very many books of how queer people function in different religious contexts. Did she know that some religions mandate queer relations? Even in America! I mean, say what you will about how incredibly cissexist some of them are, but I think the entire lesbian women’s/Goddess spirituality movement shows that queerness and religion can be the same thing. I mean, even the Ayatollah of Iran is alright with binary identified trans people. Hot Damn, it's almost like if you make statements like that, you are just asking for people to point out the ways that you are wrong.

That's not even to mention trans* or gender divergence in religious practice. I mean, she even really kind of admits this, but then just is like "WELP, NOT SCIENCE." I mean, do I have to point her to the multiple Indigenous traditions, some Dogon peoples, and the multiple cross dressing saints of the Christian tradition? Believe it or not, what we consider queer was (and is) not always considered 'counter-intuitive' in other cultures. Not only that, but it has not been damaging in ever society at every time. Making statements like that is just begging to look like you are uninformed .

Imperialism and and Western "Everywhere"

Despite her (promised but never delivered, perhaps invisible?) postmodernism, she reminds us for what seems like an uncomfortable amount of space that she is in fact, not being racist or imperialistic. I wish I could magically say I wasn't being racist, and then it be so! Moreover, the truth is that everyone who might make the argument that her essay is racist, are in fact racist themselves. That is a pretty wonderful logical trick that she has going on there, but it's based on a somewhat faulty premise already: she seems to be speaking only to white people.

If white people were the only people who were pointing out that the arguments that she was making were culturally imperialist, she might be onto something. The truth though, is that there have been plenty of queer  and trans* women of color who have brought this up. First. Apparently the author either thinks that the arguments that these women of color (also, the invisible trans* men of color [surprise, trans men are invisible!]) make are so far below her that she does not have to deign to answer to them, or that she doesn't have either the argument or the courage to disagree with them. Instead she speaks about people of color to the other white people in her intended audience. Great. Nothing wrong or paternalistic about that.

Anyhow, like I said a little earlier, how she conceptualizes religion is basically imperialistic. Why, you might ask? Well, the very use of the word religion to generalize onto all societies outside of the western is in itself not justifiable in any rational way. She uses what amounts to Sigmund Freud's usage in his seminal Future of An Illusion, where the important part of religion is the dogma (or faith). Of course, this in and of itself is an imperialist concept, and talking about religion as if it has an essence is a function of imperialism. The simple fact of the matter is that privileging beliefs over actions in understanding religion is a very Christian/Western way of doing that, which makes things like ritual invisible. I mean, the fact that the author wants to act like “religion” or “faith” are concepts that you can take and place on other cultures is basically itself not only a fallacy but an imperialist one: only cultures that come from the Greco-Roman tradition actually have the word ‘religion’ in them, or ‘faith’.

What the author seems to be saying is that she can take Western concepts, place them in contexts where they don’t fit, and then judge these other societies by her concept of what faith is. Wow, that doesn’t sound like cultural imperialism at all. Of course, the author then tells us that telling her something is culturally imperialistic is in and of itself culturally imperialistic (I think I see a pattern here). This is an embarrassing tactic which basically shows that she either 1) has no ability to distinguish between societies and people 2)has no argument, and is still speaking to white people only 3) thinks that people who say “you’re intolerant of intolerant people” is a great argument, or 4) all those three. I am going to go with number four.

However, to show how not imperialistic she is, she brings up Buddhism, because WHY NOT? Of course, she doesn’t really have any sort of argument for Buddhism being against trans* people, so she uses what seems to be a vaguely Nietzschean argument that it isn’t life affirming. Not only does she seem to be grasping in this situation, but she also fundamentally misunderstands Buddhism (which she apparently thinks is all one belief system). Of course, she decides that since she has addressed a single non-Abrahamic religion, that obviously her feelings can be extrapolated onto all of history in all societies, including the future. Of course, if she were to address religions that have no concept of anything happening after death, her argument falls apart, but obviously it was painful enough to address not white cultures even for a short paragraph, and she moves on.

Historical Lack of Awareness

Not only is everywhere the West according to the author, but also history never happened! This is understandable, because looking at history reveals that her arguments are specious at best; at the very least, we see that there is a great more deal of nuance going on than a person who says that all (western conceptualizations of) queers are counter-intuitive and religion is always terrible would care to admit.

The most interesting thing going on is that in any sort of realistic sense you could make the argument that much of the oppression of trans* people stems not from religious ideas, but from those of science. the Enlightenment need of categorization that were diametrically opposed led to the binary gender system that exists today, which is where a lot of the problems for trans* people exist. The medicalization of gender, and advent of psychoanlaysis and psychology have generally stood as the vanguard of status quo oppression, and to this day recognize trans* people as mentally ill. That seems much more reactionary than many religious groups that exist today (or historically), but I imagine that the author is probably not going to rush to claim that psychology is a moral intrinsic evil.

We can still see this today, and it is not pastors who hold the keys to the access of hormones, surgeries and other things like that. In fact, I have been more frequently attacked for my gender on the basis of science than of faith (perhaps that is from the circles I run in). What I mean to say is that trying to say “SCIENCE GOOD RELIGION BAD” is a position that not only insults those religious groups and people that are trans* affirming, but also ignoring those secularists that aren’t.

Serious Logical flaws And Oppression Reductionism

Of course, it is not only the lack of thinking that anything outside of the modern West has ever existed that makes this essay wrong. There are also ridiculously flawed arguments within it that, even granting that the author is not imperialistic, make this a sad work that insults our intelligence.

First, there is the simple fact that this is basically working as an oppression reductionism. This is similar (although not identical) to when people say that there really isn’t racism, but just prejudice towards poor people. What the author seems to be saying is that trans* oppression is relaly just a function of religious oppression (which is only a tenable position if you ignore vast amounts of reality), and therefore we should worry more about getting rid of the oppression of religion than trying to solve its symptoms (ie. cissexism). Of course, this could only be a tenable position if the only oppression of trans* people came from religious sources; this is in my experience not true. I have had too many people say that there are scientifically only two genders, and they are chromosomal, to even grant that as a realistic analysis of the problem of trans* oppression. It is transphobic in the same way that saying racial oppression is only class based is racist.

Unfortunately, that is not the only flaw worth speaking to. Of course, the main thrust of the argument basically says that trans* people participate in their own oppression because by saying God exists, you legitimate the position of people who are not trans* affirming. The fact that this argument is something that the author finds logical seriously undermines the idea that religious people are defined by their lack of rationality, and that atheists are always the most ardent followers of Reason (capitalized for reification purposes)

First of all, this argument reasonably leads to the only moral action being complete monastic withdrawal (which is ironic), or suicide. If ascribing to ideas legitimates the worst elements of that idea, then there is basically no way that one can not be constantly legitimating the worst horrors of the human race. That is basically akin to saying that if you think that using the scientific method can be used to better people’s lives, then you are legitimating the underlying ideologies of eugenics, scientific racism, ablebodied supremacy, anti-queer and gender binarist thinking, all of it. They all think/thought the same thing about science too. In fact, believing in an ethic at all supports the underlying idea of ethics, and therefore you are supporting every other single person who has ‘ethics’ no matter how horrific they are. This argument can be taken to such ridiculously absurd conclusions that it is worthless in any form. Are you an anarchist? Well, if you believe that the material world exists, it turns out you are supporting Stalin/Franco/every other authoritarian in the world since you legitimate the idea of an existent material reality that under-girds their authoritarian philosophy. And so on.

False Consciousness/Victim Blaming

But why oh why would trans* people be in religious practice if it obviously always hurts them in every place in every time (including the future)? Obviously there is nothing good that they can gain out of it, and we shouldn’t actually... I don’t know, listen to these actual trans* people. So what the author decides to do is use the particularly annoying tool of false consciousness. Basically saying, “I know you why you do that better than you do,” which is extremely condescending, and really has no response. If the person is legitimately no longer listening to the people that they are actually describing, it feels to me like she is basically doing the same thing Western anthropologists did in other cultures for years: act like they were the objective arbiters of everything as opposed to the people who were actually living it. It’s basically a very convenient way to say that in reality, if religious trans* people weren’t so goddamn stupid/naive/brainwashed, then they would agree with the author. I’m not saying that this is particular to her argument: you come across false consciousness attacks with an unfortunate frequency, really. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

So why could trans* people possibly be religious, since it validates the vague notions of the reified concept of religion? Well, the answer for the author is that trans* people who are religious are like battered spouses (the author implies a gendering of this, an abused woman. I’m unsure whether this is because when she says ‘trans people’ she only means ‘trans women’, as has been characteristic of her essay, or what). This is honestly insulting and condescending as hell, not only to trans* religious people, but also to abuse survivors/victims/whatever they identify as.

This metaphor is not only completely unsuitable, but also leads to a really unfortunate implication, when you take her argument into account. Not only does her “trans* religious people validate religion, which is always evil” sound basically like lesbian separatism (which has always been kind to trans* people,), insofar as one could say “being in a non abusive heterosexual relationship validates the heterosexuality of abusive relationships,” but it also ends up making what amounts to a victim blaming argument.

What I mean is that trans* religious people are “doing it to themselves” in this metaphor. She compares religious trans* people to abused people, yet also says that they perpetuate their own abuse and the abuse of others; the abuse is their fault, and that they are complicit. And what is her advice? “Just get out of the relationship,” basically, which I’m sure has never been said to a person in an abusive relationship. I hope I am not the only person who sees that argument/metaphor combination as completely messed up. Comparing people you disagree with to abuse victims takes away their agency almost as much as calling them barnyard animals (sheeple), but telling them that they are basically their own abusers is just the exact same victim blaming attitude that perpetuates sexism in our larger culture.


I don’t really have a conclusion, other than to say that I’m writing this conclusion long after I wrote the original piece. My friend asked me why I felt compelled to write it if I wasn’t personally hurt by it, which led me to ask myself what about this hurt me?

Part of it is that it really angers me when people talk about religion like they know what they are talking about, when in fact they are completely incorrect. The conservativism that was present in this essay angered me in the same way that other conservativism does: I felt like it is a step backward in trying to achieve respect and liberation for all people. I also feel upset that my identity is being used in order to attack other people’s cultures, along with my own. I’m not deluded enough to think that anything I said will change someone’s mind if they already believe that religion is/was/will always be evil: that is, in itself, a faith claim and moral judgment that is improvable. But don’t act like you are being a jerk
on my behalf, please.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Respecting identities: Are There Limits?

Something that I hear a lot from people in activist communities/internet activism is something that can be broadly generalized to "It's not anyone's place to question another person's identity." This can also filter to gender identification, pronouns, sexual orientations, and other things like that. I'm interested, because as of the past couple of months, there has been a sort of rise in activism from segments of the internet where these same people feel like one obviously cannot accept that person's identity, without accepting some rather unfortunate consequences too.

Of course, there have been people that identified in ways that the mainstream and perhaps even radical circles chose not to acknowledge as correct or worthy of respect in the past. They would probably still not be accepted within social justice movements today. What I am thinking of is the growth and subsequent marginalization of pro-pedophile groups like NAMBLA. Sure, you have the odd queer activist who will defend the right of NAMBLA to lobby for pederasty: you have Allen Ginsberg, or Harry Hay for instance. But the majority of queer activist groups, along with most of the other social justice groups, refuse to see pedophiles as an oppressed group, or as a legitimate identification that requires the level of respect that other sexual and gender minorities do.

But something that has come up more recently is taking the rhetoric and ideology surrounding transgender people (and their narrative) and affixing them to other identities. Perhaps the most "out there" version of this would be the Otherkin phenomenon. That is, people who feel like they secretly have the soul/essence of some sort of other species (or mythological creature). Describing themselves as having "species dysphoria" and use the societal understanding of trans* people as "X in a Y's body," they pattern their ideas on one specific type of transgender self-understanding. Sometimes they want to do surgery in order to realign themselves with what they feel they are on the inside. You get the picture. To most people, this seems ridiculous if harmless. Of course, intuitive "ridiculousness" by society is not really a good metric of whether something should be respected, in my opinion.

Feelings get a bit more heated, however, when it comes to people identifying as a group that they are not "Really" part of. Two examples that I have seen recently are those who identify as transabled and those who identify as transethnic/transracial. The basic rundown of these two groups is that transabled people see themselves as dysphoric due to their lack of a specific disability, whereas transethnic people generally see themselves as identifying as a race that they were not 'born as'; this also sometimes includes surgeries. It's hard for me to find a lot of stuff on transethnicity, but from what I've heard, it basically tracks that way.

I bring those up, because most of the people that say that a person should not question another's identity are very quick to judge whether these identities are 'appropriative' or 'correct' or other things like that. That seems to me, to be a bit hypocritical.

That might anger people, but I guess what I mean by that is that although those identities do seem to me to be intuitively different than transgender ideology, I have seen the concept of intuition used in ways that are transphobic before. What strikes me is that people who on one hand say that we should never criticize certain types of identities are generally the ones to think of these as completely untenable. For me, I think it is rather arbitrary to say "gender identities/sexual orientations are unquestionable" while ethnic or racial identities are. Both are socially constructed, and also have less division than is generally credited by society. In fact, race and ethnicity are much less binary than gender is in Western society.

This would seem to lead me to three solutions:

1) Racial and ability identities should not be questioned, much like gender identities should not be questioned.

2) They are somehow different.

3) Not all gender identities (or ways that gender is conceptualized in trans* ideology) deserve respect.

I am not sure where I fall on this. Accepting choice 1 seems to have a whole lot of unfortunate consequences: people in blackface, racial essentializing, all of that. While most activists would take number 2, I want to point out some flaws that I see with many of the arguments that are made on that point.

While the majority of people I see who reject the idea of transethnic identity claim that transethnicity and transgender identity have nothing in common, there is a level of irony in the statements that they make: since most of the people who identify as transethnic would be called "white people who want to become people of color," the arguments mostly take the form of appropriation: that is, privileged people taking the identity of those who are oppressed. But I feel like I have heard that argument before... where have I...

Oh wait! Here it is!

I mean, honestly. Part of the reason that I feel uncomfortable with the arguments against these people is because most of them track pretty easily onto the arguments that some lesbian feminists make against trans women. Even the argument that transethnic people grew up white/don't have the culture or history of non-white people has a sort of "womyn born womyn" stylizing behind it. Or that transethnic people make non-white peoples into a stereotype: also a Janice Raymond argument against trans women.

So that details my discomfort with most of the arguments being currently used against people who identify as these groups.  My own discomfort comes from essentialization of whiteness and different ethnicities; however, I recognize that that also reflects my discomfort with the transgender essentialist narratives. I also find the wholesale co-option of transgender rhetoric a bit unrealistic. While ethnicity (and perhaps disability) might function in similar ways to gender, I see that the rhetoric is being used without the theoretical grounding. By this, I mean that I would expect transethnic discourse to reflect postcolonial ideas more than queer theory, if it were trying to understand ethnicity and race in the context that they are understood in a theoretical sense today.

Although, like I said, I am still undecided.

Friday, March 2, 2012

On Original Sin

I'm not Catholic, and Episcopalians don't really need to believe in anything (This statement is really more of a joke than anything), but I've been thinking of the concept of original sin. I'm not exactly sure whether the concept of original sin is something that is around in Anglican thought very much: regardless, we never really talk about it, mainly because I imagine it is "kind of a downer." That's understandable, because it kind of is. I mean, it's not as bad as Calvin's idea of "total depravity" (although that would be a sweet band name). However, the Episcopal church has also kind of moved away from an Augustinian idea of how sin works, so we don't really see it as a necessary argument to have.

To be honest, Augustine doesn't really seem to me to have a cogent idea on sin throughout his work. That's not bad, because we all change our minds. But he makes the argument that evil doesn't really exist: saying that evil is a lot like cold or darkness. Evil is merely the absence of good. That sounds compelling, right? But at the same time, he somehow believes that Satan is around and is a manifestation of evil. That always seemed to me to be a contradictory position, and I want to argue in better faith than "Well, looks like he was still a Manichee." Not only that, but if evil is merely the absence of good, then how does there become a stain of evil that is passed down in a hereditary manner from the beginning of people? I just don't think that the concept of original sin was thought very well through in the light of his philosophy of evil.

However, by rejecting that notion of original sin, I don't want to follow a lot of newer theologians and say that sin has no real place in our worldview. I think that is a temptation, but it is very clear that people are doing sinful/bad things in the world, whether through negligence or through actual willful harming of other people. To say that that is not important in how the world works seems to basically be giving a free pass to people who have been benefiting off of harming others (ie. oppression). Ignoring the fact that people do bad things does not make those bad things go away, nor does it help the people harmed by those actions.

Karl Rahner has an interesting concept of original sin that I think is possibly the most cogent one in recent history. He said that it is impossible to live in the world without causing harm to others. Perhaps not on purpose, but it still happens. As more and more people willfully or ignorantly harm other people, we live in a world where it is impossible to exist and not cause harm or oppression to other people: that is original sin. I think that conception of it helps with certain things: first of all, it is realistic and not some sort of weird genetic metaphysical state (a la Augustine). Yet again, it also posits sin as something not completely individualistic, and therefore something that can be used to guilt people into paralysis, but as a reality of society. There is an amount of negative things that we do that are at least partially out of our control. I think it moves past the debt/guilt model of sin that seems to be the real problem those who dislike the notion of sin are getting at.

I'm not exactly sure that I have a full thought here, more along the lines of just a couple of thoughts collected. If you have anything that you want to say on the subject, then feel free to add to the discussion.