Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Reframing the Argument: Feminism in a Post LGBT Civil Rights World

In my earlier essay I discussed why I considered myself a feminist, and in describing the current climate of feminism I found it impossible not to talk about LGBT rights. First I should note that when I say “post LGBT civil rights” I don’t mean that we have reached any point of resolution on the issue. It is and continues to be an ongoing struggle. I only mean that, like the black civil rights movement in the 60s, the LGBT civil rights movement has reached a point where it can no longer be ignored by the general population. Significantly, with the inclusion of transgender into the popular discussion of lesbian, gay, and bisexual advocacy, the broader issue of gender identity must become an integral part of that argument.  The issue of feminism has always been, more broadly, the issue of gender. In a civil rights context gender identity means gender freedom--not only the right to be recognized as the gender with which you identify, but the acknowledgement of the notion that gender is a cultural distinction as much as a genetic one. By acknowledging gender as a cultural distinction in the popular conversation in so significant a way, we reframe the discussion of feminism completely.

The transgender model suggests that gender identity is a discrete concept from gender role: I may identify as female, but as a result of my socialization, I live my life in the role of a man. This suggests just how mutable the concept of gender role is, how so much of what we assume is inherent about gender is in fact, cultural. This is not to say that gender identity is a choice, only that the cultural institutions of gender are constantly evolving, and that there is little about gender that we should consider a given.

What it means to be a woman in the 21st century has changed significantly since the 19th.With the growth of the women’s civil rights movement, women have taken on roles that have been traditionally masculine in the culture and in the workplace, roles that before were considered the exclusive domain of men. There are multiple examples of women who have dressed as men to become soldiers during wartime, not necessarily because they identified as male, but simply for the right to participate. It’s only recently that female soldiers in the U.S. have been permitted to enter into combat. Not insignificantly, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"  preceded this. This only further illustrates to me how sexual identity and gender identity are linked as civil rights issues.

Union cavalryman Jack Williams (left) fought in 18 battles and was wounded three times and taken prisoner once. He was later revealed to be Frances Clalin a mother-of-three from Illinois

GLBT Rights, and Assimilation

First march on Washington by the Mattachine Society

The strategy of the LGBT civil rights movement from the beginning has been public acceptance. The easiest way to gain acceptance is to look as much as possible like the group you want to be accepted by. The earliest gay civil rights marches were done by women in formal dresses, and men in shirts and ties. By the 70s all of that changed.

With the advent of the sexual revolution we saw much more experimentation with gender roles, particularly in the gay and lesbian community in urban centers. Cross-dressing was both a deliberate co-option and defiance of the heterosexual institutions that were represented by traditional gender roles. These experiments took an even broader turn with the introduction of the concept of genderfuck.(I apologize if the term gives offense--if there was another name for it, I’d use it, but this is the term that has the most historical precedent for the concept--what later evolved into "genderqueer"). Genderfuck was  the conflagration of male and female dress, a deliberate parody and subversion of gender role identity. Men would wear women’s clothing and make-up along with beards and mustaches, making no effort to conform to the feminine or masculine ideal.

"Genderfuck:" Hibiscus of the theater troupe, The Cockettes

The post AIDs Reagan era saw the evolution of a gay culture that was a kind of parallel to straight culture. Once again, the emphasis was on acceptance and assimilation. The kind of gender experimentation of the 70s is embraced more reluctantly—it’s the kind of thing you might see in gay pride parades, but the public face of the gay and lesbian community is one of assimilated normality. So while now we live in a culture where gays and lesbians are increasingly able to marry and transgender men and women are increasingly accepted, it’s been at the sacrifice of other gender freedoms.

 We still like our gender identities to be unambiguous. Even bi-sexuality is looked upon with suspicion in the gay community, and on a certain level, understandably—we may not be able to choose who we love, but bisexuals have more choices. If you are gay or lesbian, 100% of the time the person you love is not going to exist within the accepted mainstream heterosexual model. Pursuing a romantic relationship, by default, becomes a political act. It’s understandable why someone who is gay or lesbian would look upon someone who is bisexual as potentially slumming.

In my earlier essay, I discussed how traditionally feminine behavior in men and masculine behavior in women is often associated with homosexuality, and, particularly for men, has been a traditional signifier for homosexuality. I similarly discussed how, for this reason, the demonstrative exhibition of behavior of the opposite gender by a heterosexual, again, particularly a man, can be perceived--whether true or not--as a deliberate deception in this regard. Effeminate men can similarly be seen as slumming.

The problem is that this only further discourages men from exhibiting behavior that is traditionally female without it becoming mired in questions of sexual identity or transgender issues. On a certain level this may only be a question of window dressing—men aren’t discouraged from taking on many of the practical roles traditionally associated with women such as child caregiving in contemporary middle class society, at least not in quite the same way. But heterosexual men are discouraged from being flamboyant in both behavior and dress, and cross-dressing in heterosexual men is considered a marginalized form of paraphilia.

For the most part I don’t see this is a great hardship considering all the other advantages straight men enjoy in our culture. Do we need to create yet another category for effeminate heterosexual men so that we can fit them in yet another discrete box to incorporate into the culture? Or should we see gender identity as a more fluid concept in general? And maybe after a while, all these discrete and acceptable categories for behavior will no longer need to be segregated from the broader concept of gender.


  1. I love the complexity you describe here. One of the things I really dislike about the emerging term "cis" (as in "cis-gendered" meaning NOT "transgendered") is how binary it makes gender.

    To me, the possibility trans identities offer is that gender itself be opened to multiple expressions and meanings for as many people as want some wiggle room from the binary constraints of culturally acceptable gender.

    Great images too. Love those old shots of the homophile activists. They were so brave!

  2. I'll get back to you soon Shannon, but thanks!

    For some reason, Glenn, your post wouldn't post, But I got it!

    Glenn Ingersoll has left a new comment on your post "Reframing the Argument: Feminism in a Post LGBT Ci...":

    "So while now we live in a culture where gays and lesbians are increasingly able to marry and transgender men and women are increasingly accepted, it’s been at the sacrifice of other gender freedoms."

    What "other gender freedoms" have been sacrificed?


    The freedom not to have to conform to specific gender roles. I think, Genderfuck and genderqueer are both responses to this on the more extreme end, but assimilation tends to leave a lot of folks on the margins who don't conform to what we as a culture have decided is gay, or straight, or male or female behavior.

  3. "cisgendered" is a new term to me. I think we've a lot yet to discover about not only gender but identity in general. One thing I'm really curious about is zoenthropy--people who identify as another species. Just like homosexuality once was, this is classified as a mental disorder, but I think it's as valid an identity as any.

    I know the world isn't going to become some big diversity friendly utopia, but I think we need to keep the door open as wide as possible.

  4. I don't agree with the premise. There was no happy world of generally celebrated genderfuck that the legalization of same sex marriage squashed. Genderfuck and same sex marriage will coexist now, whereas before same sex marriage was illegal and genderfuck was outrageous. Now same sex marriage has the prospect of achieving boringness and genderfuck has the prospect of continuing to be outrageous. Or boring.

    Ever since there was anything you could call a gay movement there's been an assimilationist/liberationist internal struggle over tactics and goals. "There's no difference between gays & straights except what we do in the bedroom." "Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer, and Other Outsiders, must show the way in creating a new healthier world, free from the disastrous conformity and unthinking strictures of hegemonic heterosexual, racist, misogynistic, and classist society."

    I'm charmed by the liberationist worldview, but, damn, is it a lot of work!

  5. The 70s is a mixed bag of goods all around, and I most certainly agree with you that there was no happy ideal where all was embraced. What I do think there was in the 70s was a kind of hopefulness not for change but for revolutionary change with kind of happened and kind of didn't.

    What assimilation has done has been to provide a parallel gay mainstream to the straight world. I think this is at the sacrifice not of what we had in the 70s but what we hoped to have. What has happened is that, though we've expanded the number of acceptable categories, we still live in a culture of categories..The whole point of genderfuck was to break down these categories altogether, or at least, it was one illustration of that idea. It's not about what it was, but what it was trying to say, and though it's still being said, it's not being heard anymore than it was then. Not essentially, anyway. It's still marginalized behavior, and a marginalized idea, despite the success of the assimilationists.

    Assimilation implies the suppression of that which can't be assimilated, and what can't be assimilated is anything that doesn't fit within the established categories.

    All I'm saying is that I think we could do better.

  6. We could always do better. It can always be worse.

    But it's not zero-sum. Winning the right to marry does not mean someone else/something else LOST.

    Gay kids are being elected prom queen, lesbians elected prom king. Maybe they'll decide they're transgender, but, I don't know, I still think that's sorta genderfuck.

  7. The changes in just the last ten years are fantastic! But there's always a little lost, and a little gained when it comes to assimilation. I'm not sure what you mean when you say you "still think that's genderfuck." Is that in reference to transgender? Because that's quite a different thing. But transgender youth are gaining a lot more acceptance, particularly in light of some recent lawsuits filed by parents of transgender kids for their freedom to be considered and treated as the gender for which they identify.

    Genderfuck is more of a statement against the rigidity of gender role. It says I don't have to be either of the two choices you're giving me and how you decide they're defined.