Autostraddle is running a multipart series about perspectives on queer feminism, so I figured it would be a good time to present mine. I'm also going to throw my hat in the ring to join in for the next part if they're interested in adding a trans perspective to the mix.
Looking back on it now with my spiffy hindsight goggles, I think I was being steered towards becoming a feminist since around the time I was born. Stretched out along a timeline it really feels like part a long and difficult process that went from taking women as a whole off of a lofty pedestal to figuring out just what a woman- especially a strong one- really was and finally realizing that she is what I’d been striving my whole life to become despite that pesky penis of mine. Because of that it feels a little bit wrong to place the emphasis on the tipping point that pushed me into taking up the mantle of feminism, but I’ll get over it because I’m sure that as I continue to sort through the tangle of my identity as a transwoman and my feminist ideology I’ll get around to writing about all those little fits and starts at some point.
Growing up, my impression of feminism as an institution was split very decisively between past and present. What I didn’t understand until later was that it’s the line between first and second wave feminism. Women who fought for the vote and put lead weights in their parasols to defend themselves against the vile minions of the patriarchy were the epitome of cool because they didn’t take shit from anyone. They were never in short supply either because Canadian broadcasting has this really weird fetish for producing period dramas that take place in the Maritimes between the turn of the century and the Great Depression. They also produced “Heritage Minutes” that lionized pioneering feminists in Canadian history like the first female doctors and educators, which lead me to the naive conclusion that oppressing women went out with chamber pots and the bubonic plague.
My mother graduated from UVM and moved up to Canada to pursue a career as a dental hygienist. She enjoys her work and went back to it once my sister and I were school age and could be left with a babysitter for a couple hours a day. What I didn’t know until years later was that my mother had strongly considered joining the airforce, but changed her mind based on the terrifyingly high incidences of rape that women were subjected to by their fellow airmen.
I was raised to respect women, use a condom, and understand that abortion is not a difficult issue at all; it’s the woman’s body so it’s ultimately her decision. It was pretty much just baseline behaviors with no real stance one way or another on proactive feminism. Contemporary feminism had a really bad rep where I’m from- Calgary- at the time somewhat owing to none other than K.D. Lang, the barefoot vegan lesbian who kind of looked like a dude and was harshing the local cattle industry. I was mostly bewildered and vaguely hostile to the idea of her at the time because it seemed to be the prevailing attitude at the time and I wasn’t old enough yet to really understand. Somewhere around a decade later I’m kind of out as a transgendered vegetarian, so it turned out okay.
I was very geeky and ostracized as a teen, so every chance I got was spent escaping into comics and video games where more often than not I was following or controlling the exploits of a badass chick with big guns both real and metaphorical. There was always a definite sexual attraction there in the case of someone like Lara Croft, but I’m convinced now that I was also acting out my fantasies of leaving my boring awkward male body behind for a curvy and far superior female vessel. I drew reams of fan art of Lara back then, posting what I thought were the best bits in my locker and protesting vehemently when my classmates called it out as fap material. “It’s not that! Lara’s more than just hot, she’s awesome!” I would shout down the halls at them.
But it all came crashing down one night in 2004 when the curtain was pulled back and I finally understood the horrible truth. My gun toting heroines were a humbug, and a cruel one at that. I was directed to Gail Simone’s notorious Women in the Refrigerator polemic by a wise friend who understood very well that my notions of equal opportunity Nazi bashing were a far cry from an accurate indicator of female progress inside or outside of comics and the like.
The site, and the well known trope by the same name gets it’s name from an incident in Green Lantern where the eponymous hero- civilian name Kyle Rayner- came home from heroing to find a note from an enemy saying “I left you something in the fridge.” That something was the dismembered corpse of his girlfriend. A true fridging in the parlance of the scene occurs when a female character- usually a love interest- is maimed or killed solely to advance or add pathos to a male protagonist. It’s a widely used plot device in all manner of other media, but the combination of it’s startling ubiquity and Gail’s passion have for better or worse tied it to comics.
I thought I had done well by steering clear of the testosterone overloaded 90s antiheroes that made me dry heave at the sight of their inexplicably glowing eyes and proliferation of useless pouches and yet I was almost worse off. But despondency soon turned to hope as I discovered that female and queer comic fans- almost as a consequence of their marginalization- seem to have the best taste. Or at least the tight circle who took me in and rehabilitated me with a steady diet of provocative and intelligent material, did. Those comics in turn awakened a growing curiosity and passion for feminist and queer theory that exploded out of comics and into my entire worldview with the power of a thousand exploding suns. It was either that or the time that I was at the drug store as a kid trying to reach a copy of Mad Magazine and was bitten by the radioactive copy of Bitch that was lying in wait behind it.
Autostraddle is running a multipart series about perspectives on queer feminism, so I figured it would be a good time to present mine. I'm also going to throw my hat in the ring to join in for the next part if they're interested in adding a trans perspective to the mix.
I used to hate doing these things, getting up here and giving the last compulsory speech to kids like you about to experience real freedom for the first time in your lives. It always seemed a little insane and condescending for someone like me who came up breaking all the rules and doing everything I could to exploit my position of privilege to lecture to kids who fought tooth and nail just to get the chance to tug at the collar of a hideous robe in sweltering heat with a flask of vodka strapped to your chest that you just cannot wait to break open. I never used to write these speeches either because I never had a single honest thing to tell kids like you before today. I had Cornell grads for that.
That didn’t matter in the Clinton years either. I was here to smile, wave, and wish you well in a world that was eager to hand you money. I saw David Simon earlier, who’s here to talk to some journalism grads. I have no idea what he could possibly tell them. Ten years ago he would make them laugh and then get real serious and you know do something like make it clear that if they gave up a source or pulled a Stephen Glass, he would find them and murder a pet or family member. That was the extent of our concerns about journalism. Now, he has to get up there and explain to them how it could possibly have been worth it to do incredibly reckless things in the name of their GPAs like take amphetamines to cram before an exam when all they’re going to have tomorrow morning is a hangover, a piece of paper, and a crushing debt load in a world that is not only in steep decline, but has jettisoned journalism as an institution almost entirely.
You’re the spawn of the Clinton years, that great little era when we still thought we could sustain the hologram America for as long as we wanted. Move the jobs overseas, borrow heavily, and create entire industries around moving money that does not even exist yet. When you were coming up, engineering was being thrust on you as the next best thing based on the Segway. Dean Kamen is a great role model, educators thought. Well, I’m here to tell you that Dean Kamen is an asshole. I punched him at a party one time, but I’m fairly certain it had nothing to do with the Segway. He did some great things like invent the first insulin pump, but no one knows that. Mention the name Dean Kamen and the only thing you hear about is the Segway, the biggest blight on engineering the world has ever seen. Smart people like Steve Jobs once said that it would revolutionize society, and to this day I have no idea why anyone would think that.
Everyone who's seen Highlander 2 raise your hand. Right, okay, I'm getting old then. Now keep that hand raised if you can tell me how a Segway is of any use to anyone in that world. Just to be clear here since maybe fifty of you even raised your hands in the first place, Highlander 2 takes place in a so called future where the sky is completely black and it’s just basically a broken shit hole. There’s no sun light to speak of and it’s just a miserable place in general. Now how would a Segway improve your life in the slightest in that time and place?
It wouldn’t, and the reason for that is that the Segway is a solution desperately seeking a problem. We lived in a world that was so sure that it had all the problems licked that it had to start inventing solutions that didn’t have problems to solve. It’s the Bush Doctrine for engineering, I suppose. Look at where we are right now. Do we need Segways with the barbarians at the gates and Rome in flames? What I want to impress upon you here today is that the paradigm of engineering that you were raised on- making things just because you can- is dead.
Engineering- true engineering and not this phony business of creating things that nobody needs or coming up with pie in the sky let’s put a tinfoil dome over the North Pole nonsense- is the fine art of problem solving. Specifically it’s making things with your hands to solve the major problems of life. For much of my early life, I made things just because I could, and the world loved me for it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I had an epiphany that changed my outlook on engineering forever.
As I’m sure you know, I was was kidnapped a few years ago by terrorists and held in a cave for weeks. Myself and another captured colleague were presented with the first real engineering problem of our lives. There was a piece of shrapnel from a mine that detonated near me lodged deep in my chest and working it’s way towards my heart. Lacking the necessary tools to extract it surgically, we created a magnetic apparatus that repulsed it powered by a car battery. That’s when I stopped building things to destroy and started building things towards more productive goals.
Being reactive, solving problems as they come along is a fine thing, but it’s not what is going to see us through what is going to probably be an awful decade. It’s our ability to identify the problems we are going to face in the future and begin developing solutions for them now. We don’t have time to sit around drawing up plans for massive geo-engineering projects that require technology and money we don’t have. We need to learn to use what we have now to solve tomorrow’s problems by yesterday. We cannot rely on politicians to sustain us on a diet of hope and change. They will not deliver us because they are cheerleaders, people who are very good at delivering very bad news and not much else.
Only us, the engineers can save the world now. But we have to stop dicking around and act like real engineers to do it. Stop tinkering on some bullshit new take on the Segway that you think will make you more money than I could spend in ten years, because it won’t happen. Go outside and look at how people are living and what they’re saying. I do that a lot. I go out and I put on a bunch of ugly shit I bought at Eddie Bauer and I buy a bowl of soup at the kind of diner where you stand up to eat. It’s not civilized or particularly dignified, but it’s what you learn to live with when you live elbow to elbow and hand to mouth in New York.
That’s the kind of place you go to find the real problems that need solving, you go to where the real people, the end users, are and you listen. The minute we stop doing that, paying attention to what the world really needed and how a product would function in the real world is the minute we become redundant. I remember hearing this one story about a kid that built some kind of portable shelter for homeless people and a few media outlets made a big deal out of what kind of a genius he must be. What they didn’t cover was that the damn thing didn’t last a day because the kid failed to account for the assholes who kicked it down just to mess with the poor bastard trying to sleep in it.
We have this tendency as Americans to get addicted to grand narratives, as if we need to be given a role in some giant stage production in order to get anything of note done. If you feel like you really need one, I’ll give you all one for free here today because you are not going to be getting one anywhere else. Your grand narrative is that you need to start making things for a world that looks like Highlander 2. Sure, you’re being undercut now by cheap third world shit because people do not want to pay for quality, but as we circle closer and closer to the drain, it is going to become critical at an equally fast rate. You need to do more than just make America spend it’s money inside it’s own shores again, you need to make America believe in quality for the first time in fifty years. This is your moment. Go out and seize it because if you don’t, there probably won’t be anyone left to pick up the pieces.
Gender in the 21st century is a pretty contentious thing, which is one of the few things that most people can agree on when the topic comes up. Of course it gets even more contentious where transgender issues are concerned. If I say that gender is largely a social construction, then in some quarters it must mean that being transgendered is somehow irrelevant or counterproductive. Why would I say that I want to look and act like a woman? Isn't that supporting the idea of women and men having specific codified roles in society?
Depends on your perspective. On the one hand, referring to a certain set of qualities or characteristics as being specifically masculine or feminine does appear to support the concept of a binary gender system. However, the implementation of those characteristics and qualities by the sex opposite to that usually associated with them suggests that while they may be a specific set of tropes, they are far more modular than generally assumed. That is to say that while the traits we generally refer to as being feminine or masculine based on social expectations of heteronormativity do typically manifest themselves more or less as cohesive wholes, they do not require the corresponding sex organs. Hence the butch/femme diagnostic employed by the LGBT community.
This point- while having always been hovering somewhere in my subconscious- never made it into my conscious thought patterns until I was reading a relationship advice column in the local LGBT free newspaper Xtra West. The article was written by someone you'd generally refer to as being a "butch lesbian;" a woman attracted to other women who espouses and exalts traditionally masculine traits over feminine ones. What was interesting about the article is that it was advice for those of the butch persuasion on how to get over a bad break up. Because of the lack of male/female or sexual orientation connotations, the article was easily accessible and equally relatable to men and women both gay and straight given that they have more of an interest in building things and being stoic than buying a new pair of shoes and eating a lot of ice cream.
That modularity is what makes the butch/femme diagnostic the most useful and accurate description of contemporary gender. While it would probably be preferable to use tags that are completely free of association with the sexes, the nomenclature must remain understandable and relatable to the general public if there is to be any widespread recognition or adoption of it. Butch women and femme men may face a bigger share of discrimination and ridicule for stepping outside of the expected gender norm, but accurately describing how they express themselves is the only way forward. You cannot collapse a false dichotomy without first proving that it is false.
Just as important as removing gender from the context of sex is removing it from sexual orientation. No matter how much we'd like to pretend otherwise, we do still live in a world where if you are homosexual, you are assumed to emulate the qualities of the opposite sex and visa versa. I can't say I'm aware of what the prevailing FTM stereotypes are in terms of orientation but it's rather safe to say that if you are transwoman, you are assumed to be homosexual or perhaps more accurately; androphilic. As if it is unthinkable that you could be born a man, feel more comfortable as a woman, and be sexually attracted to women all at the same time. There are, of course, a great many androphilic transwomen but gynophilic transwomen exist as well which is of course how I identify myself in that context. It's an excellent illustration of just how intrinsically linked sex, gender, and orientation are in everyday life, which is truly unfortunate given the truth of the situation.
One of the more laudable things that substituting traditional gender labels with the butch/femme diagnostic is that it breaks down barriers between the different elements of the queer community as well as those between the queer and straight communities. It provides common ground for traditionally segregated or oppositional groups. The clearest usage of the butch/femme diagnostic to break down barriers between fundamentally different groups is the propensity for straight women and (femme) gay men to socialize, something that by comparison rarely happens between straight men and (butch) lesbians.
The key here is that we are still a long ways away from being able to retire an essentially binary diagnostic tool for gender, but there is still a great deal of progress that can be made by detaching the language we use for defining gender from sex and orientation to become something completely modular. Real change occurs incrementally, after all.
I’ve mostly tried to use this particular blog to talk about narratives; either my own developing ones or extant ones and how they interact with the basic fabric of our lives. An extended attempt at vindicating myself for “thinking too much” about what some of the cumulative effects on modern society the prevalent themes in the pop we digest have. Or at least that’s the self deprecating log line.
I’m going to try to steer the ship in a different direction for a while, or maybe just send out a dingy to explore an island for a bit while the ship weighs anchor off the coast. The island is the transgendered aspect of my personality. It’s something I generally avoid in most of my communication, only ever usually referring to it in passing to a select few confidants. I want to try to organize a few pieces to explore all the facets of the issue as they relate to me directly and other perspectives as well and hopefully come to terms with it as I do.
In my experience, I can only speak for myself on this, realizing that I was in fact transgendered was a slow process of questioning and awakening. One that I believe based on the testaments of my homosexual friends is not very far removed from discovering and coming to terms with your sexual orientation if it differs from societal norms. For the longest time I really knew that I did not fit in with most other guys, and of course that doesn’t mean that feeling alienated by your gender peers means that you’re trans. That’s one of the key things that anyone grappling with their gender identity has to deal with; going from the idea that they don’t want to be what they are to actively wanting to be the other thing.
It isn’t healthy or productive to define yourself as what you are not or do not want to be, despite the fact that most changes we make to our looks and how we present ourselves to the outside world are born from dissatisfaction with one thing or another. I’m too fat so I want to lose weight would be the simplest iteration to use as an example. The first thing to be thinking about is not how you can lose weight. The first thing to be thinking about is what gave you the idea that you are fat and why you feel driven to lose that weight. If you can’t fit into your favorite pants anymore and would like to fix that, you’re on the right track. It stops being about not being fat and starts being about wanting to fit into those pants again. Of course you then have to determine how much weight you should be losing and whose standards you’re working to conform to.
Gender identity works very similarly. Like I alluded to before, feeling uncomfortable in your body does not make you trans, and being trans does not necessarily mean that you should be investigating gender reassignment surgery. For me it started off with a “I’m too fat,” train of thought. General feelings of malaise and dissatisfaction with being male. But what really pushed me over the top was the positive experiences that I had either while in drag or in social contexts where I was completely free and encouraged to indulge what I would refer to as being my more feminine side. Being a guy isn’t all bad and I don’t entirely hate it. There will probably be a few things that I’ll miss about it if I do go through with transitioning- which I intend to- but at the same time my experiences that allowed me to tap into femininity in both a physical and metaphorical context were so liberating and rewarding that it seems downright masochistic not to pursue it further.
I guess from here I’ll try to pick apart the different components of the transgendered experience and try to provide some insight into how becoming cognizant of it has changed my perspective on a lot of things.
The internet is abuzz, Lady Gaga has a new video out and it is nine minutes long. That's pretty stunning in and of itself. The whole thing takes a few viewings to properly digest because it's incredibly dense for something so seemingly shallow. I want to attack this thing from about a dozen angles, so apologies if it loses coherency for the sake of completeness.
The first and most remarkable thing about the Telephone video is how queer it is. Gaga's talked about being bisexual in the media before but until The Fame Monster, it hadn't even shown itself except subtly in her lyrics. If it wasn't for the Rolling Stone interview, a lot of people including myself wouldn't have figured out that Poker Face is about distracting a guy to get with his girlfriend. By contrast, the only time anything hetero appears in the Telephone video it's Tyrese's cameo and he's really just there to be sacrificed on the altar of Beyonce and Gaga's girl-love.
It's not particularly notable for having girl-on-girl sequences, but it is very notable for how they're portrayed as this run down of Music Videos With Content of a Lesbian Nature by the ladies at Autostraddle makes very clear. Probably the biggest thing to mention is that it's Gaga herself who is making out with the ladies in the prison yard and not a proxy of some kind as is usually the case. The amount of self-possession it takes to break that kind of ground in the mainstreamiest of the mainstream is truly laudable. But it doesn't stop there. The women in the jail sequences of Telephone are not tarted up hetero girls put there to please the boys in the audience, they're a wide range of butch and femme with the butch end of the spectrum getting the most play. One of the most socially marginalized demographics in North America is African-American lesbians. To wit, recent articles have alerted me to the fact that they face wildly disproportionate discharges under the DADT act and African-American women in general (in the US) have reported a median wealth of five dollars. Despite that, it's a black leatherdyke who is given the honour of flashing Lady Gaga's own headphones in the more obvious instances of product placement in the video.
After comments about the appearance of the infamous Pussy Wagon, "Let's Make a Sandwich," and "Told you she doesn't have a dick," the product placement is one of the most discussed things about the video. What a lot of people are missing is- again- the context of that product placement. Yes, someone is on a laptop accessing Plenty of Fish and the screen brightness is magnified so that you can't possibly miss it but who is that at the keyboard but the muscly, masculine in bearing dominatrix prison guard. That's a seriously ballsy way to promote your dating site because after all this is not a Teagan and Sarah video where you could conceivably tailor a spot to appeal to a niche market sight unseen by the mainstream. The Virgin Mobile plug happens right in the middle of what was shaping up to be a jail yard lesbian threesome during which Lady Gaga is wearing sunglasses that are decorated with lit cigarettes. The sheer amount of things that offend contemporary mores and prejudices is mind boggling and any one of them would usually be enough to send any advertiser running for the hills, but Gaga's appeal seems to be making the risks involved for the firms palatable which is why she's so goddamn important.
One of the more tragic reminders of the very narrow appreciation for film- and I suppose culture in general- that my generation has is how often and to what extent Quentin Tarantino is mentioned in reference to Telephone. The reason that an artifact typing itself explicitly to Tarantino was required in order for Ackerland and Gaga to express their love for his work is that his aesthetic is very difficult to invoke without attribution because of how referential it is. The irony of course is that a very large portion of his audience has no direct experience of his influences and thus conflate anything that uses the grindhouse aesthetic with him despite the fact that he is quite vigilant in crediting his influences through his dialogue. What all too frequently gets missed is that Paparazzi of which Telephone is the narrative sequel has the shadow of Frederico Fellini looming over it just as heavily as Tarantino (his contemporaries and influences inclusive) does Telephone. Beyond evoking Fellini's life long fascination with the Italian elite- be it aristocracy or movie stars- the very name has it's genesis in his most famous film (La Dolce Vita) which is a derivation of the Italian word for "sewer rat."
Now begins speculation of which iconic film director Gaga and Ackerland will pattern their next outing after. My money is on David Lynch based on his indelible imprint on pop culture, love of Woman in Trouble narratives, and reputation for being impenetrable and "weird." After Telephone, it's hard not to hunger for their take on Mulholland Drive or Wild At Heart. Another brilliant subversion would be to take on film's most notorious and unapologetic misogynist, Lars Von Trier.
Of course this whole thing ultimately traces it's way back to Michael Jackson who is largely responsible for the music video as an art form and most definitely the progenitor of the long form version of it. Witness the side to side clawing the air look at me I am homaging Thriller dance move that Gaga has been using since Beautiful Dirty Rich or the everything but a crotch grab little dance she does on her release from prison in Telephone. Until her first splashy foray into the long form video, it was a dying art form that had become little more than a plug for the single with rapidly declining time share on the cable channels that were birthed to showcase them. When was the last time people were talking this much about a music video? Probably Marilyn Manson's Coma White video that portrayed him as JFK being shot in the head, literally over ten years ago. Of course Paparazzi- if not so much Telephone- shares a lot of themes and statements about fame and media martyrdom with Coma White and the corresponding Manson album. No wonder Gaga and Manson are BFFs.
Love her or hate her, Lady Gaga is dominating the pop culture discourse and she understands precisely how to weaponize it. She's doing the counter culture's work from within the mainstream. Infiltrate, subvert, destroy.
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I think that I need to finish my first novel- that vampire thing I always talk about- pretty soon. I'm always switching gears and trying to take on new perspectives thanks to that pesky hypervirus that infected my brain a few years back, but I'm feeling a growing distance forming between the me that conceived of bloodampersandink and the direction that I'm rapidly heading into. Back then, I was the fish out of water naive wannabe artist grappling with the whole falling for the bad girl thing and adjusting to life out here on the coast, and those are the goggles through which the protagonist sees the world. There's some decent sized chunks of my budding feminist dialectic in it and perhaps the early seeds of my confusion, guilt, and recriminations about my gender identity but there's no room for my full blown transgenderism or the other trappings of the rapid queering of my worldview over the last two years in the novel. I think I was trying to light the way for a contemporary brand of enlightened (post) feminist compatible masculinity, but I've fled so far and so fast from heteronormativity that I'm not sure that I can see it without squinting anymore.
It's becoming a retrospective, a eulogy of sorts I guess. This is my Dear John letter to heteronormativity, to accepting my life as a man. I'm occupying a strange kind of space right now that is completely outside the binary gender system. I've been kind of shocked at how easily and readily my friends have adapted to my... well I'm not sure if I should call it queerness or eccentricity or even if I ought to make a distinction there. For most of my life Mark has been a signifier of some kind of oddness because I've almost always been seen as an eccentric in one way or another but it's really reached it's apotheosis in my gender identity. To several, I'm Mark as if saying my name in italics is enough to define my otherness (which is just peachy with me). To some I'm one of the girls. I also have three separate nicknames integrating the word "Dyke." At some point I'll talk a bit more about the butch/femme paradigm and how it became a cornerstone of my queer informed perspective on gender and sexuality.
I was feeling pretty anxious and confused about the whole thing when I started writing this, and then I saw an article over at the Huffington Post about how Lady Gaga has posed for a magazine cover topless in leather pants, pointy Edward Scissorhands gloves, and a strap on. She's out there doing that so that I can be here doing this. Thank you Lady Gaga for reminding me that it's my responsibility and duty to go flat out. I'll be a Little Monster until the day I die.