Thursday, June 03, 2010

Love It/Shove It?: Dan Savage Can Shove It

So earlier today Cara pointed me to the newest edition of Bitch, to a specific portion of a regular feature; "Love It/Shove It." This particular piece would be put in the "love" portion. It is a "love/open letter" to Dan Savage. One which seeks to educate him on gender, a subject on which he had professed he is lacking in a recent column. The author signs this piece "Gender Wiz (Bree Kessler)."

To sum up my reaction earlier in the day is quite easy, it went like this: WHAT.

And as I walked away from my computer to read a book, something that during my summer break I have been trying to make sure I take time to do every day, I just could not get this article out of my head. This post kept trying to write itself and wouldn't let me concentrate. And so, though I don't really feel that I can entitle myself a "gender wiz" and given my cis-privilege I will probably miss pieces of what makes this thing so, well, awful, I am going to take a stab at it anyway and I hope if I utterly fuck it up that you, dear readers, will be there to tell me so.

As Cara so eloquently put it in her Tumblr post, "my head exploded about twelve times" reading this, but I am going to try and hone in on just the worst bits.

For instance,
I give the students in my Human Sexuality course a handy way to remember the difference between ["sex" and "gender"]: "gender" is pink and blue; "sex" is penis and vagina.

Do you see what is going on here?

Here is what I see, and it centers around that last part: "'sex' is penis and vagina." First, I would agree that this is the common construction of sex, the assumption that it is a label for which secondary sexual characteristics you are born with. The problem is, Kessler is, quite clearly, not setting up that assumption to be challenged, but accepting it as fact. And let's be absolutely clear here: that is not fact.

Sex is something that is assigned to us by doctors and/or our parents when we are born, usually based on a visual examination of our genitals. If we have something that looks like what these people think of as a vagina, we're labeled "female," if we have something that looks like what these people think of as a penis, we are labeled "male."

And then there are those whose "sex characteristics" do not look like either of those things.

So, quite literally, right off the bat Kessler utterly erases intersex people for her discussion (and for her students...from understanding that they exist at all).

Secondly, what I see going on here slightly more subtly (or at least it would be subtle to anyone who has absorbed the ideas of cis-normativity, which most people, especially cis people, have) is that Kessler is also equating penis with maleness and vagina with femaleness. There are, apparently, no females with penises and no males with vaginas. They, like intersex folks, don't exist in Kessler's world.

This constant conflation of sexual organs with sex identity and gender identity is one of the major obstacles, in my experience, with acceptance of and real respect towards trans people's identities. The idea that penis=man and vagina=woman is so entrenched that (cis) people just do NOT question it, even when contradictions of that assumption are staring them in the face. Oh, you look like a woman, talk like a woman, etc. but if I find out you have a penis under that skirt you are clearly "really" a man, or, at the most generous, "were a man once."  That you could have been a woman ALL ALONG is not even up for consideration.

And that dynamic is being reinforced here.

I am editing the original post to insert a paragraph here because in comments it was pointed out that the "pink/blue" dynamic is just as problematic as the "penis/vagina" dynamic. Originally, I sacrificed this piece for the sake of "honing in," but on reflection I don't think that's really appropriate, so let me say here that this binary construction leaves yet another group of people erased: people who are genderqueer.  Specifically, those who don't identify with gender at all.  If "gender is pink and blue," where does that leave them?

Let's go on to another part (and I think it's worth pointing out that this section is the "pull quote" for the article, so apparently someone in the layout or editing department of Bitch thought it was noteworthy, presumably in a good way),
So back to that caller's question: Can you raise a child with a different gender than the one assigned at birth? Yes, you can.
And before going on let me just say that, since she recognizes (or at least uses the rhetoric of) "assigned at birth" what she goes on to say I find even more baffling:
According to gender schema theory, kids don't even identify their own gender until they are about two or three years old. If you have a boy who wears dresses, and no one tells the boy that this clothing is not "appropriate" for boys, then indeed you have changed this boy's gender.

I'm going to let that section sink in for a minute.


Did you pull the pieces of your brain back together?

Ok. So, most bluntly, NO. Just, NO. Allowing a little cisgender boy to wear dresses if he wants to does not change his gender. It changes nothing about his gender. All it does is mean that this little boy does not hold the now common belief (in the U.S.) that dresses are "girl's clothes." If anything, what has happened here is that the clothing of a dress is DE-GENDERED. But that has nothing to do with this little presumably cis boy and his gender identity.

I mean I'm pretty sure all those Scottish men who wear kilts aren't changing their genders, I'm pretty sure they just have a cultural tradition/understanding of men wearing what are heavily considered "skirts" (aka female clothing) in the U.S.

Gender identity is not something you can just outright change, in the way being suggested here. I mean, I would argue that gender identity is somewhat changeable, in that each person kind of has their own, unique, spectrum of "masculine" and "feminine" behaviors and appearance etc. that they are comfortable with, and that those understandings of self can change over time. But this hypothetical little boy who wears dresses isn't going to think himself a girl just being he wears dresses! That is, unless she really is a little girl, and the assignment of her sex was (as it sometimes is) just outright wrong.

As with the more "subtle" portion of the "sex" definition, what we have here are cis-normative-meets-gender-constructivist assumptions about what gender is. And those assumptions utterly undermine the credibility of trans and genderqueer people's gender identities.  Because if gender can be taken on and off as easily as the clothes you wear, what possible motive do cis-supremacist people have to take trans people's identities seriously?  And if sex and gender are always binary, how can cisgender people take genderqueer people's identities serious?

This works perfectly in tangent with the point before, that man=penis and woman=vagina; THAT is the understanding people will fall back on when in doubt!

And as we see time and again, that understanding leads to violence when those poor cis people are "tricked" by some "man in a dress."

Also, somehow, I have a hard time believing that this presumably cis woman who authored this piece would agree that her womanhood is as malleable as she is suggesting "gender" is. Somehow, I don't think she believes she has changed genders when she wears pants.

If there were any doubts about the comfort which Kessler has in undermining the gender identities of trans people they were silenced for me in her final paragraph. She has earlier stated that, unlike with gender, you can't "change a gay man and make him straight" and not long after says,
Even Oprah, goddess of advice, as evinced confusion on this issue, when (in discussion of her book-club pick Middlesex) she wondered aloud if being transgendered was the same as being homosexual.
This states loud and clear that Kessler does not actually believe trans people when they say they were "born this way." Gay cis men, apparently, are believable when they claim the same for their sexuality, but not trans women or trans men (or, presumably, genderqueer people) for their gender identity.

Now, look, I AM a gender constructionist. I DO think we are socialized to look and behave a certain way, based on our assigned sex and that, that socialization shapes how we think about and present ourselves, etc. But, CLEARLY, there is more to it than that, as well.

I am a cis woman; being a woman is part of my identity. Often "woman" to me does not mean what it means to cis-supremacist society, and I sometimes defy expectations. But fundamentally, under all that, there is some core understanding of myself, in this body, as a female person. You can't change that fundamental piece of self, whatever exactly it is.   And to openly invalidate that piece of self for trans and genderqueer people is just...absolutely horrific.  It is violent.

And to do so in the name of being an "expert" on "gender" and "educating" a man who has time, and time, and time again been lambasted for his transphobia (among all his other race fails, bi-fails and just general douchiness), and specifically transmisognyny, is AT BEST extraordinarily irresponsible.

So let me just say this, I am no expert on gender, I think I know a thing or two about it, but if you REALLY want to understand gender, Dan Savage, (and I think there's a lot more it would be good for you to understand too, btw...) then here ARE some experts (and this is just a brief list) (and do read the comments on this post):
bird of paradox
Combat Queer Online
Life Journeys to a T
nueva voz
The Second Awakening

My last thought on this now rather long post is that, you know what, Bitch? I'm appalled that this piece got by your editors.

ETA: Thoughts from the author of the piece can be found in comments. Feel free to join the continuing conversation.