Thursday, June 14, 2012

Gender: we don't know what it is but we know we have it

Last month I was involved in a rather enjoyable online discussion on the subject of "Is gender socially constructed and what does that mean for trans people?" (I meant to blog about it sooner, but I've been busy and I had to finish the Baldwin piece and get the book back to the library.) This question gets discussed a lot in feminist/gender studies circles. We know that our society has fairly strict gender roles, and that many people find them oppressive and want to change them. Often this gets confused with the problem of transgender: if you're not happy being a man, or a woman, then do you really need to change your gender, or do you just need to modify your gender role? Or, as the person who started the thread phrased it:
Is it that beyond the body parts, we built gender roles so rigidly that to live the way one wants to live ... one needs to identify as a different gender instead of just ... being?
To which I replied:
I want to tell you that trans* people hear this all the time. "Why can't you just loosen up a little? Why do you have to go the whole nine yards and decide you're not the gender that everyone thinks you are?" It doesn't work that way. I don't know how to explain why it doesn't work, but it doesn't.
She answered:
This is basically the genesis of my question.  The way I have thought about gender, as an absolute construction, suggests it should work this way. Yet the lives of people who live this stuff says it doesn't. Ergo, the way I have thought about gender goes wrong somewhere.

What worries me about not knowing where the errors are is that that stuff can get into the work you do, the way we make policy. If I reject the idea of gender essentialism ... and use the notion that it is socially constructed in my work, but that is incorrect, what damage could the work do on the levels that I don't notice?
And my reply was:
Part of the reason might be, even if you stretch your own personal definition of gender, as long as you call yourself "male" (for example), enough people will treat you as male in ways you don't want to be treated that it's just not worth it.

In any case, when it gets right down to it, I think it's more important to uphold everyone's right to express their gender identity than it is to decide where gender comes from. I mean, even if it is socially constructed, is that any reason why people can't choose their gender presentation and/or reject their socially assigned gender?
For me, the final paragraph was what made the discussion worthwhile. I had never realized that before. But it's so true. Moreover, I find it hard to believe that feminism really supports the notion that we're stuck with our socially assigned gender. And yet many feminists keep trying to lock trans people (especially trans women) into their socially assigned gender. Anyway, it was fun.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

James Baldwin: the price of the ticket

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an African-American writer. I had not read anything by him until recently, when I picked up his 700-page collection of essays, entitled The Price of the Ticket. It's quite a read. Baldwin expresses himself with a directness and passion that seemingly few writers have. He cuts to the heart of the matter - and then he does it over and over again. In forty years and seven hundred pages one can't help but repeat oneself occasionally, especially when it seems that one's readers still aren't getting it. Nonetheless, I never found this book boring, although there was one thing about it that really troubled me.

Rather, there was one thing which troubled me a little and one thing which troubled me a lot. The little thing is that Baldwin often says "Americans" when he means "white Americans," and he says "we" and "us" when, again, he seems to mean white Americans. As far as I can recall, the only piece where he consistently refers to "black Americans" and "white Americans" was written for Ebony. If he felt that all of his other essays were written for a white audience, that's rather disheartening. Personally I would hate to spend my career explaining my people to foreigners.

In one essay, "Strangers in the Village," he asserts that Negroes are Americans ("Negro" is the term he uses for almost all of this book) and then on the very next page returns to saying:
Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world--which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white--owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us--very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will--that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality.
That essay was written in 1953. I have the impression that these days black people are allowed to speak for themselves. Anyway, it struck me as strange.

Here is the thing which troubled me a lot: I was aware before reading this book that James Baldwin was homosexual, and I naturally wondered what he would say about that. The short answer is: very little, and none of it good.