This post is dedicated to the victims of the Orlando massacre. Always in our hearts, stand proud.
Put the kettle on, this is the big read!
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen”
Roughly two years ago, one lecturer at the LSE Gender Institute strode into a lecture signaling students that class had begun.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen” Most students quieted their conversations following protocol, a lot of them let out a few giggles. Ladies and gentlemen… what an odd thing to say to a cohort studying gender!
“How did you know to quiet down, to behave in class?” Said Claire Hemmings, professor at the LSE. “Ladies and Gentlemen carries meaning, I am expecting certain behaviour from you. How do we know what a lady should behave like? How do we know what a gentleman behaves like? And how do we know how ladies and gentlemen behave together?”
Both Adam and I attended the same course at the gender institute, and as we begin exploring his relationship to academia, and trans academia in particular, we are brought back to a gloomy morning in London. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” Before you continue reading, let’s put our heads together and think, who are the ladies and the gentlemen of the world? How do we want them to present themselves to us?
Much of what is talked in academia often goes unnoticed in what I want to call the mainstream world. However unimportant and theoretical books, thesis, and manifestos may seem, sometimes they give you the words you lack. They give you the options you so desperately crave, they clench your thirst for understanding and they satisfy your hunger for community, even if in the most virtual sense of the word.
Coming from a background in economics and sociology, Adam was inspired by gut feeling and supportive words of his mother and professor from Copenhagen Business School to pursue gender studies. Upon finishing his degree, it seemed clear that studying a master in gender would not only further his knowledge and academic career, but would also provide him with some tools to figure himself out.
Studying at the LSE, he read about the difference between sex and gender, where sex is explained as biological, and the latter as a social construction.
“That completely changed the game for me… Suddenly there was something bigger”
Sipping coffee on a roof in Clapham Junction shortly after a heated discussion on the laws and medical procedures trans individuals have to navigate, Adam reflects on how he feels about gender. “I don’t know”, he say. “Reading academia felt like I was getting an endless list of possibilities”.
In preparation for this article, I asked Adam to send me some of his favourite texts. Here are some of the lessons that stuck with him:
Monique Wittig – ‘The Straight Mind’
In a powerful essay which has come to be a classic reading in Gender and Feminism courses, Wittig discussed, analysed and criticised the excessive heteronormativity in society. Her main argument was that, in a heteronormative world, women and men only exist in relation to each other. As a result, lesbians should not be considered only women, because they exist outside the relationship to males.
Quote to remember: “[I]t would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for ‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women.”
Adam says: “This was the first time I saw myself in a text, it was like I was looking into a mirror. I knew I was not a woman, but I never realised I could be something else. I suddenly came to the realisation that maybe I wouldn’t be a mother. I was a lesbian only because I had been told that vagina + vagina = lesbian.”
Gayle Rubin – “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality”
In an almost historical account of how sexuality came to be as how we know it today, Rubin examines how different Western societies have outlawed and regulated sex, meaning both reproduction and lust. Pointing out that regulatory laws often run into loopholes, she challenges the need for society to police individual’s sex and sexual habits.
Quote to remember: “Sex is guilty until proven innocent.”
Adam says: “Before I started transitioning, I was always guilty except when I was with a boy.”
Gayle Rubin – “Of Catamites and Kings – Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries”
Rubin, in her provocative collection of essays, puts the reader in the position to reconsider their position in life, their environment and the consequences this has. In her analysis of Butch lesbians, she challenges and dissects the use of categories, and poses the question: do we need categories?
Quote to remember: “Our categories are important. We cannot organize a social life, a political movement, or our individual identities and desires without them. The fact that categories invariably leak and can never contain all the relevant “existing things” does not render them useless, only limited. Categories like “woman”, “butch”, “lesbian”, or “transsexual”; are all imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary. We use them, and they use us.”
Adam says: “Previously I hated all forms of boxes, and didn’t see the point in them. [This text showed me that] If you don’t have categories, how can you ever belong? The way we USE these categories is what is problematic.”
VK Namaste – “Genderbashing – Sexuality, Gender, and the Regulation of Public Space”
Sometimes you will meet someone who will take a look at a peer, or a fellow dancer in a club, or a friend of a friend, or you, and assume you identify with a certain sexuality. They may use this identification as a form of insult and demeanor. In this essay, Namaste discusses precisely how we often confuse sexuality with gender. When we, as a society, victimise an individual for whom they sleep with (allegedly), we are just really making an assumption based on how they present themselves and their gender.
Quote to remember: “The definition of public space is intimately linked to culturally sanctioned gender identities. This has profound implications for people who live outside normative sex/gender relations: “ordinary” public space […] are sites where the potential of being verbally abused, and/or physically assaulted, is remarkably high.”
Adam says: “People assume who I sleep with because of the way I look. [They] saw how I look and I got bashed for the way I presented myself. All along I thought they had an issue with my sexuality, but it was my gender! My gender was what people tried to regulate.”
J Halberstam – “An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity Without Men”
This is another Gender Studies 101 reading. In his/her eye opening work, Halberstam challenges the bare skeleton of masculinity. An attribute mostly associated with men, he/she argues that masculinity comes in plural, and that it only exists when non-males display themselves as masculine. When an individual presents himself outside of the society accepted gender presentations, he is met with suspicion and rejection to the point that he may be banned from public spaces. From this perspective, Halberstam sheds light on the Bathroom Issue, and how gender non-conforming people are forced out of the common areas of the world.
Quote to remember: “It is important when thinking about gender variations such as male femininity and female masculinity not simply to create another binary in which masculinity always signifies power; in alternative models of gender variation, female masculinity is not simply the opposite of female femininity, nor is it a version of male masculinity…”
Adam says: “Actually, this [being excluded from public spaces/bathrooms] happened to me, too. The text helped me realise that I’m NOT an imitation of men’s masculinity. I am simply masculine. I am my own original.”
In light of the bill recently passed in North Carolina, it has come to a point where it begs the question if we need more research from and on trans individuals. Adam believes promoting and funding trans individuals is crucial.
Academia may seem daunting for those who are unfamiliar with the jargon. Nonetheless we must acknowledge the importance of research, both social, psychological, medical and biological on trans issues. For someone like Adam, academia offered a wealth of vocabulary and tools to express and understand himself. We must take a step back and reconsider, what goes on behind closed doors? And how can we help? Fomenting research and theories of identity seems, to me, like a great way.
“There’s something missing [in academia]… We [transpersons] challenge the assumptions on gender initiated at birth. Even nowadays the intersections are still ignored, the core of the gender problem is ignored. On the one hand, biological determinism attempts to dictate who I am through biological terms – which reduces me and my agency to an unacceptable size. On the other hand – social constructivist academics imply that social constructs determine how I live and think. But if society [and gender] is just a social construct, why are we [transpersons] different from the rest? I am not just a rebel, I am completely outside being a woman. Trans academics can profoundly challenge the presumed correlation between sex and gender. We can bridge the gap. The more we deconstruct and reconstruct this correlation, the less it makes sense to regulate gendered binary spaces in such harmful ways. In other words, the more we can speculate, develop and understand how sex and gender is often an arbitrary factor causing irrational fear, regulation and punishment, the better life will become for all genders – cis, trans, non-binary. That’s why we need to explore trans issues further.” Adam Dall, 2016
References and further reading:
Monique Wittig (1980) ‘The Straight Mind’, in The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Beacon Press, 1992), pp. 21-32.
Gayle Rubin (1984) ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality’, in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds Abelove and Halperin (Routledge), pp. 3-44.
Gayle Rubin (1992) ‘Of Catamites and Kings – Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries’, in The Transgender Studies Reader, Stryker and Whittle eds (Routledge) pp.471-481.
K Namaste. (2006) ‘Genderbashing – Sexuality, Gender, and the Regulation of Public Space’ in The Transgender Studies Reader, Stryker and Whittle eds (Routledge) pp. 584-600.
J Halberstam (2001) ‘An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity Without Men’ in The masculinity studies reader, Adams and Savran (Blackwell) pp.355-374.