by Katie Riegel and Lisa Lanser Rose
Please feel free to join this conversation. We know this is just us talking and thinking, and we do not intend to suggest we have all (or any) of the answers. And we’re not addressing even a fraction of other big issues, including the ways race, sex, and gender interact for both groups and individuals. I recently went to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. I swallowed tears during the part on slavery and rage during the part on Jim Crow laws and tears again at the dignity and courage of the people who used nonviolence in the face of violent opposition to bring about change. I did not even get to the part past the 1960s, where some of the issues we are talking about in this conversation begin to be addressed.
What struck me as I walked out of the air-conditioned museum into the blazing Southern July sun was that so much of the struggle for rights is about the issue of safety. Without rights, without the respect and acceptance of the majority, people don’t feel safe. They aren’t safe. And safety is the 2nd most basic human need, after the physical necessities (food, water, shelter, etc.). So the conversation isn’t just about language, or stereotypes, or even identity—but those things must be talked about. Because we at The Gloria Sirens want safety for us all.
Lisa—Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal have me thinking about personal and political wars over identity, which is an abstract territory. Which made me think of the identity of The Gloria Sirens. We say we promote the literary work of women. We promote the work of straight and gay women, no problem. But how do we define “woman?” Would we promote the work of a woman who began life as a male? At the thought, I have a visceral reaction that surprises me. I’m shocked to think I might say no, and the reasons why are well articulated by Elinor Burkett in “What Makes a Woman?” But reasons are one thing, and I had a visceral reaction at the thought of a man colonizing this woman’s space–grabbing the microphone from us, Kanye-style, as it were. Is that what’s really happening? I need to interrogate my own and humanity’s territoriality over words.
Katie—There’s much I know I don’t understand about the gender issues just now coming into the public sphere. I like the idea of a conversation because it shows we’re asking questions, trying out ideas—not handing them down as definite pre-decided truths.
Lisa—Me too. I’m barely able to dog-paddle in these depths. I just thrash and shout questions. I have no answers, but I’m fascinated by the passion around who can stake claim to an identity.
Why does anyone care if someone else calls herself a mother, a male, a Moslem, a mermaid? In an era when you can pay a surgeon for horns and a forked tongue if you so desire, the degree to which we can mold the body to trick the eyes is wilder and more wonderful than ever before. Male/female, black/white, human/unicorn—why can’t we all just admit life on earth is gray? Our identities are malleable day to day, hour to hour. In the androgynous glory of the 1980’s, when Boy George and Grace Jones were on the pop charts, I thought that on a Tuesday I could dress like a man, walk like a man, and access male privilege. On a Wednesday, I could pull on high heels and a sundress and assume the privilege of prettiness. But the truth is, alone and behind closed doors I hated my breasts and thighs. They marked me as a lesser person. They got me dismissed in politics and conversation in a thousand ways. Had I money and access, I might well have sought surgical relief.
So I have a soft spot for the young women I know who are embattled with their families, friends, bodies, and psyches over the right to claim a gender other than the one their chromosomes gave them. But the suffering is steep. I believe we should never have to lie, hate, or hurt ourselves to become what we know we truly are.
I wonder what’s happening culturally that the battle is so fierce that it severs families along with body parts. I was right there praying for Princesa, and yet, I wonder if part of the tragedy is a basic human desire to strive for what is denied us, a grass-is-greener drive for innovation and exploration that sometimes turns destructive. If the grass were equally green for black and white, male and female, maybe we’d be more at peace with our genetic lots? Maybe we’d tolerate more cross-over? But I came of age in the eighties and believe the best lives are the multiracial and the androgynous.
Katie—I don’t know who “Mr. Summers” is (Burkett’s article references him a few times). But I have been a bit worried about the possible ways this new fluidity of gender might support old-school sexism, by diverting the conversation (yet again) from the wage gap, rape, abuse, silencing, criticism, body policing, and other sexist injuries suffered by (in terms of numbers) women who were born women. The continued existence of sexism aimed at anyone who is perceived to be a woman is pointed out in James Saint James’ article, “Twenty-Five (More) Examples of Male Privilege as Experienced by a Trans Man,” which I love (and I loved the 1st one he did as well). He even says at the end how weird and problematic it is to be taking advantage of these male privileges when it all just reinforces sexism.
Lisa—To think St. James ever had to fight and even fear for his life to be free of those “ants” is what’s breaking my heart. Of course, you and I are still living with them crawling all over us. Here’s fear and pain, and I want to know the cause. Does gender dysmorphia arise from neurological, idiopathic causes or culturally disparaged femininity or masculinity? I don’t know. Does it—or should it—matter? I don’t know. Whatever the case, why do some people resent others wishing to change? When you fight to prevent change, sometimes you only inflame the desire to change and make it burn more hotly and destroy far more than it would have otherwise. We should let people figure themselves out and give them room to do it without making them feel that to get there they have to hate the bodies, the culture, and the language they were born with. I have enough trouble understanding myself!
Katie—I support people’s right to decide what gender they want to be called. I’m even—grudgingly—changing my language use so that the plural pronoun “their” is now what I use for a non-gender-specific singular pronoun. (It’s killing me, but I’m doing it.) I do wonder, though, if the sexism problem seems just insurmountable—too embedded, too complicated to ever be overcome—so it’s actually easier for the public dialogue to be about trans and gender-fluid issues than about boring old “what-we-still-haven’t-fixed-that-yet?’ sexism.
Lisa—Yes, it seems to divert the conversation to a sideshow (Last Week Tonight With John Oliver). Something about the story of Rachel Dolezal, which I think is probably more common and more poignant than you would think based on Twitter feed, has cast an unfortunate light of absurdity on all identity dysmorphia. Is part of that absurdity the assumed ridiculousness that anyone with privilege (of whiteness, or of maleness as in the case of the Olympian formerly known as Bruce Jenner) would want to “downgrade” to black (or female)? Is it fear that you think you know someone and their identity turns out to be a Don-Draper pack of lies? I have no problem with Dolezal bringing her outward physical, social, and linguistic realities in line with her inner realities. My problem is that she lied. But perhaps a bigger problem is that she felt she had to lie. We may grant too much power to pre-fab definitions of identity when none will ever fit the individual. Note the anguish, hysteria, and belligerence that has arisen around some of these patently absurd demands around language. Burkett mentions protests agains abortion clinics for using the word “vagina” because males who’ve transitioned to females feel excluded. What’s excluding them is the fact that there’s no surgeon yet who can remove the Y chromosome. If you had an ovary and uterus implant and might suffer an unwanted pregnancy, would you still need to picket the clinic for word choice? I don’t know.
How do you define black? Is a black person necessarily someone born black? Raised black? Is it a genetic thing or a cultural thing? I always thought it was more the latter, and if we start denying the Dolazels of the world, does it set racial progress back? The music industry has allowed the cultural Others to transform into cultural Insiders by virtue of passion, talent, and hard work, which is what Dolezal seems to have done in her life’s work. Is the reason Dolezal can’t pass as black because she lied about her childhood crayon use to get there? What if that’s how she really remembers her childhood?
As a memoirist, I’m particularly sensitive to the tales we tell ourselves of our own pasts, picking and choosing memories to suit the narrative of choice. Did Dolezal really only color herself with brown crayons as a child? Isn’t it enough her adopted siblings were African American? Was she born with a Negroid brain? Is there such a thing, and if so, is the crayon memory proof? Does the crayon give her the right to “pass” as black? The parallel to transgender arguments, as well as gay rights arguments, is too painful to ignore. But memories, particularly childhood ones, are highly suspect. They’re chosen, molded, and even fabricated to suit the present, often unconsciously. And even if they weren’t suspect, why should memories dictate how we live now, how much surgery our bodies and our bank accounts must endure, how embattled we must be with our friends and families, not to mention ourselves? What’s the battle for? What’s in a word?
I don’t call myself a “dog mom,” but when I was a child, I used to say I wasn’t going to have children, I was going to have puppies. I remember right; this is a fact. And sure enough, in adulthood, I still identify heavily with dog people and dogs. But there are people out there who’d hate me for owning this honest part of my identity. How would my dog-mom identity hurt anyone else? Would it hurt us all less if I made it more literal? By Dolezal’s example, should I start claiming I was raised by Border Collies? Should I say I gave birth to Mick? Because as a child I wanted to be a dog, should I start looking for my Dr. Moreau? How embattled will I feel if I can never give birth to a litter of puppies? Will I decry any organization who uses the word “whelp” and “bitch?” How can I make you care about my suffering? Do I have the right to bully you into speaking and thinking in a way that will alleviate my turmoil?
Katie–I think it’s dangerous to talk about “bullying” people into using the right language: the bully is the one with power. So women can’t “bully” men into using non-sexist language or recognizing equality. Expressing how other people’s words and actions hurt us is not bullying; what other people choose to do with that knowledge is up to them. I’ve always hated the way people disparaged “political correctness,” calling people who pointed out the effects of language “the pc police.” That’s a false analogy: the police have power, the power of the state. And it is historically sexist to tell people they are “overreacting,” as this article on gaslighting describes quite well. But as for big claims about identity: why not? Who gets to define?
Lisa—The word “bully” is problematic, (and hopelessly gendered—I always picture a boy). It really only means to intimidate, to be loudly arrogant or domineering. I’m referring to an attitude, a more-PC-than-thou belligerence that I’m not sure always serves a cause well. Although I understand their anger, I’ve seen LGBTQ students bully the heck out of cis students, many who were “allies.” I’ve even seen them bully each other for perceived language misuse. They forget that, as you said, “expressing how other people’s words and actions hurt us” can be more effective. Perhaps because the battle is so difficult, frightening, and personal, they were lashing out. I’ve seen them hurt and silence each other and drive away people who genuinely cared. I believe there’s a way for our culture to lower barriers so that we can safely explore identity while still loving and accepting our origins. Or does that put surgeons and tabloids out of business? I like to think the truth is we’re an animal driven by curiosity and empathy, as well as envy and a life-and-death need for change. Just as “we’re all a little bit racist” aren’t we all a little bit Other? I fear that the truth is we’re all bellicose beasts drawing battle lines wherever we stand because we want and need a fight.
Katie—Yes. Of course it all comes down to power. People are terrified of losing any power they have, so the arguments about identity have an extra edge of fear and anger (which is born of fear) to them. The media lives on that fear, as many people have pointed out elsewhere. But so many people want to do what’s right, to support other people who have also suffered. The gender issues currently in the public sphere come with their own language—cis, trans, genderqueer, genderfluid, etc. Progressive people think they can get the language right and then everything is ok—they are allies, doing what they’re supposed to. But with sexism, the language is subtle. Interrupting someone isn’t an issue of using the right vocabulary—it’s an action. Easier to change the words we use than the things we do.
Lisa—So sad and true. Just as a man born with a vagina may never make a woman pregnant and a woman born with a penis may never give birth, most women will never be physically stronger than most men, in which case, we will always be the weaker, and more vulnerable, animal. I suspect an unconscious awareness of the physical difference in power underlies most human interaction. Perhaps the heart of the hostility on every side is feeling unsafe and unheard.
Katie—I think so. And so many people don’t feel their own privilege because of the huge—and widening—economic gap in this country. Because the middle class is only sort of a dream for many people now—or perhaps we have re-defined the middle class to fit our adjusted expectations. When you’re a white cis male making $50,000, you’re still going to be aware that you’re not in the 1% and you never will be; that your salary would not support you buying a house or going on a vacation; that you won’t be able to pay for your kid’s education, if you could even afford to have a kid. Yeah, to many of us writers, that seems like a good salary—and it is, to some extent—but it’s not what middle class used to mean. So even if he recognizes the suffering of those with less power than him (women, people of color, genderfluid individuals), he still wants someone to recognize that he’s working his ass off for less than what his father or grandfather had. I know that sounds despairing. Money inequality in this country gets me down. It seems at the root of so many other problems, including many of the ones I see with higher education, which is both my life-long love and my career-long disappointment.
Lisa—Another way the culture still quite literally devalues women, minorities, and anyone who isn’t a white heterosexual male. As John Oliver recounted, the military bans transgendered people from enlisting. In the end, we Sirens joined forces to help promote the voices of literary women, who don’t get the support and respect that literary men get, and I now feel certain that we will consider promoting trans voices on a compassionate and individual basis. In closing, is it wrong of me to wonder if more transwomen are able to afford the surgery than transmen? Would Caitlyn have gotten the media attention had she been transitioning from Caitlyn to Bruce? So many questions for another day. We want to hear from you. We’re listening.