Archive for May, 2011


The Butch is Back!

I have complicated feelings about butch/femme identities in lesbian relationships.  On the one hand, I find the contrast incredibly sexy- I have a hard time aesthetically appreciating lesbian couples where the partners look too similar to each other.

((that being said, my straight, cis parents look so similar they are often thought to be brother and sister, and they are darn attractive people and a cute couple, so there are exceptions))

On the other hand, I dislike how that dichotomy of gendered identity in couples can play into the hands of people who completely distort conceptions of gay relationships, gender identity, and queerness to ask inane questions like “Who is the man in the relationship?” (um, last time I checked, we were both women, and I really hope it stays that way…)

Which is why I LOVE this piece that was written on the Made of Words blog for Sugarbutch’sButch Symposium.  I’ve recently come to follow some amazing bloggers who are participating in the Butch Symposium and writing about Butch identity and all the complexities that come with it, which has made me fall in love with butch (and femme) identities all over again, for the incredibly complex picture of sexuality (and genderfuck) that they represent.  In this piece, the blogger is femme and writes about her experiences dealing with stereotypes about her girlfriend’s butch identity. 

According to common wisdom. I’m supposed to be a huge pillow princess.  Complete bottom.  Love, love, love penetration with the biggest, most realistic cock ever in the history of cocks.  That common wisdom comes from the same people that ask “So…who’s the dude?” when trying to figure out how my and Jae’s relationship works. …If the above is true about me, then the following is true about Jae:  she’s the dude.  She’s got the biggest, most realistic cock (which she packs everywhere) and she can caulk the tub while fucking me at the same time.  She is always on top and calls me her girl and has a touch of chauvinism to her.

This is precisely the kind of distorted conceptions I am talking about, and it has much to do with the ideas I presented in Christmas and Gender Stereotypes back in December.  People love to conflate gender with sexuality and vice versa, and then further conflating those gender roles with sexual roles, which doesn’t work in straight relationships, nor in gay ones.  (I won’t go on a tirade about how your boyfriend asking you to fuck him in the ass is not an indication that he’s gay, but suffice to say that this is a prime example of one such wrongful association of gender and sexual roles in straight society).

When it comes to lesbians, people love to assume that butch women are also dominant sexual partners, primarily because they have first associated butch-ness with masculinity, and that same sexual assumption is packed into straight relationships too.  But if you separate out these “linked” dichotomies, you get a much fuller picture of what “butch” means.

Holden, at the Packing Vocals blog, eloquently explains one of the facets of butch that ze identifies with (I use ze as the pronoun because Holden identifies as genderqueer as well as butch, which is another bit of vocabulary unpacking you should consider when reading zir entire piece here):

“The Butch gentleman is chivalrous in an innate way, socialised as female she has an instinctive ability to care for her lady and others around her. She conforms to the accepted notions of being a gentleman but simultaneously her very nature is non-conforming. The butch gentleman has the guts to buck against society while maintaining (to a high standard) some mainstream societal values. She is gentleman performed in different way, more controlled and thought out, deliberate and not just because it’s expected. She anticipates rather than reacting to the needs of others and is almost one step beyond good manners. She will endeavour to control her emotions and hide her feelings, but unlike the English gentleman in the right hands it will all come flooding out.”

I think this is a brilliant explanation of one variety of butch, because, as Holden points out throughout this same entry, there are many different ways that a butch identity can be enacted, beyond simply how one dresses or styles her/his/zir hair.  I’ve written about similar thoughts related to femme identity expression that are more personal, which you can refresh yourself about here.

Most importantly, Holden sums up:

“Butch for me is having the strength to be true to the inner voice which guides me while ignoring outside influences which try to dictate how I should be. It’s the name for all the feelings and desires which have been with me since birth. It’s the label that most completely captures the essence of who I am and who I want to be.”

Butch identity can be beautiful in its completeness if you have the strength and vision to shape it, rather than allowing society’s expectations and understandings do the shaping for you.  Butch is deconstructing the contradictions that binary-style genderism has created about simply being yourself.

And whether you identify as butch, femme, a power dyke, a chapstick lesbian, a boi, or something in between or in combination, that’s advice we all can take to heart.

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*sigh*  This article link has been sitting in my bookmarks page for over half a year, but I hadn’t managed to post it yet because reading the article infuriated me so much that I couldn’t come up with anything constructive to blog about it in context.  But here goes.

“‘Magic Words’ Required at the Catholic STI Clinic” comes from the backlogged files of Carnal Nation and is a serious indictment of religious-based medical organizations.  I try not to hate on the religious sector of the country, despite a generally acknowledged antagonism between religious doctrine (not just Christian, but most religions) and my sex-positive morality, because I find that most people subscribing to religious beliefs do not advocate for the kinds of practices that I find abominable.  Most religious people are wonderful, friendly, and caring.

BUT religious institutions I often have a much bigger problem with.  In this particular article. Megan Andelloux, a sex educator and certified sexologist, volunteered for perhaps the least pleasant of all volunteer opportunities- to be a dummy for clinicians to practice giving gyno exams.  During the course of this volunteer experience, one of the doctors asks a fair question:

“…while a brave soul slides on a fresh pair of gloves to conduct the second exam, I hear a question asked by one of the other professionals. “At what point do you take a Pap smear?” The veteran facilitator’s shoulders subtly raise and she quietly answers, “This is a Catholic-based hospital.”

This is, of course, not a satisfactory answer to Andelloux, so later in the workshop, she returns to the clinician’s question.

“You mentioned that this was a Catholic teaching hospital when someone asked about performing a Pap smear. What exactly does that mean?”

She looks slightly defeated by my question…..  “This STI unit is funded by a Catholic hospital. Therefore, we don’t conduct Pap smears because that type of testing doesn’t fall in line with family values and abstinence only until marriage.” The room goes dead silent. She said it, and in doing so, messed up everyone’s head. We’re all thinking, “This is an STI clinic, a medical group that tests for Gonorrhea and Chlamydia, treats herpes and genital warts, but does not conduct Pap smears because they believe it goes against their religion (and therefore the hospital’s) values?!”

Andelloux uncovers through this conversation a series of problems with a medical system that does not adequately separate religious doctrine from medical practice and care.  Not only do STI clinicians there not do pap smear exams to test for cervical cancer, they do not even INFORM their patients that they are not running these tests.  Moreover, the same clinic refuses to administer birth control for the use of pregnancy prevention, even though that is one of the chief roles of an STI and sexual health facility.

Now I acknowledge that every person is entitled to their own religious beliefs, and that includes the desire to abstain from sex until marriage.  But when an institution imposes these beliefs on patients, who may or may not know:

  1. What risks they run and thus, need to be tested for
  2. What medical care they are entitled to

then the institution is engaging in medical negligence.  When a patient may contract HPV and not know it or be forced to abort or carry to term an unintended pregnancy because she could not access adequate medical treatment and care, it is no longer a question of religious morals, but of medical obligation to provide the services that would prevent these things from happening.

This whole practice stinks of the debate raised by Pharmacists for Life around 2008, when some pharmacies began refusing to fill birth

Is this offensive? Good- it should be.

control prescriptions or take orders for Plan B medication.  I was similarly outraged then, especially as the daughter of a pharmacist (raised Catholic, nonetheless!) who has gone to all lengths to ensure than his patients are safely treated with the medication that will protect their health and wellbeing.  It is NOT the prerogative of any medical professional- be they a doctor, nurse, pharmacist, or surgeon, to use morality to justify the refusal of medical care to a patient…

See, and there I go ranting again.  There are just so many things wrong with this picture.  The founding fathers saw fit to be clear about the separation of church and state in our constitution, and I believe that applies not only to government and schools, but to all civil institutions, including hospitals and pharmacies.  I want to see a world where, at the very least, getting tested at a clinic or filling a prescription for plan B will be about the patients needs and not the desires of the doctor.

Orgasm Inc.

There’s a documentary which was released in 2009, which no one made much of a fuss over, but I believe provides validate for the difficulties many women face in trying to understand their sexual bodies and capabilities.  It’s called Orgasm Inc. , researched and assembled by Liz Canner, who was contracted to make an erotic testing video for Vivus, one of the many companies racing to create a “female viagra” at the turn of the century.

Orgasm Inc. chronicles the way the medical industry has taken the pressures, doubts, and fears pressed upon women about orgasm and uses these feelings to market drugs and therapy options to make us “normal.”  This includes the creation of the new medical condition, “female sexual disfunction,” a term so broad and non-descript that it is used as justification by doctors and nervous women alike as the explanation for any kind of sexuality that is different than what society has put forth for us to accept.  That includes women with difficulty reaching orgasm, women who take longer to become aroused, and women who simply have lower sex drives than what the public considers “normal.”

I don’t think I need to go into a tirade about how absurd the concept of “normal” is when it comes to sex, so I’ll skip right to why this is so down-right infuriating from a personal standpoint: there’s nothing wrong with these women!  At the end of high school, I spent what feels like years worrying, researching, hypothesizing, and even talking to some doctors and sex therapists about why I couldn’t orgasm.  I was desperate for an explanation, a disorder that I could pin on the problem, so that I could tackle  it with drugs, with meditation, even therapy if absolutely necessary!  And I received a lot of advice- most of it telling me to relax, to stop putting pressure on myself and just let “it” happen.  When that didn’t work, I found a medical excuse: inorgasmia.

All of this was absurd and stress-inducing, of course, but the puzzle piece I was missing which would let me escape from this self-imposed sexual labyrinth had nothing to do with medicine, nothing to do with disorders, nothing even to do with relaxing my body or using a vibrator; it had to do with expectations.

When I started reading sex-positive blogs and 3rd wave feminist work, the deconstruction of sex made everything clearer.  Who decided that orgasm was necessary for sex?  Who decided that there is only one way to feel pleasure, or even to define what sex is?  This was a hard pill to swallow, having tried for so long to fit the mainstream’s idea of what is normal for sex, but eventually it eased the pressure.  I went into my current relationships saying, “I can’t orgasm, and that’s ok.”  The pressure was gone- sex was about exploring, understanding my body better.  Sexual disfunction was not part of the conversation and I didn’t feel the need continue looking for answers.

And you know what? 2 weeks later, I started having orgasms.  Crazy stuff.  

I’m not saying that this approach will allow every woman who has ever had my problem to orgasm, but I AM saying that doing so should not be the point.  You can have fulfilling sex without orgasm, without pressure to perform.  And maybe then the orgasms will come.  Or maybe you will have just found a better way to have sex in general, which doesn’t revolve around a societally-ordained “goal” for your pleasure.  Awesome.   Or, you can continue wasting your money on gadgets like this.

Also, I usually hate The Frisky.com, but this article, “Girl Talk: My Sister Taught Me to Masturbate” is amazing.  100% evidence of how communication about sex can be not as awkward and way more rewarding than we could imagine.

Stay cool, queer kids.

On the Lol-down

Just for fun this friday morning, here is Gloria Steinem’s wonderful essay, “If Men Could Menstruate,” originally published in the 1978 issue of Ms. Magazine and found here by me.

If Men Could Menstruate

by Gloria Steinem

A white minority of the world has spent centuries conning us into thinking that a white skin makes people superior – even though the only thing it really does is make the more subject to ultraviolet rays and to wrinkles. Male human beings have built whole cultures around the idea that penis envy is “natural” to women – though having such an unprotected organ might be said to make men vulnerable, and the power to give birth makes womb envy at least as logical.

In short, the characteristics of the powerful, whatever they may be, are thought to be better than the characteristics of the powerless – and logic has nothing to do with it.

What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?

The answer is clear – menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event:

Men would brag about how long and how much.

Boys would mark the onset of menses, that longed-for proof of manhood, with religious ritual and stag parties.

Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts.

Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. (Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of commercial brands such as John Wayne Tampons, Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-dope Pads, Joe Namath Jock Shields – “For Those Light Bachelor Days,” and Robert “Baretta” Blake Maxi-Pads.)

Military men, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could serve in the Army (“you have to give blood to take blood”), occupy political office (“can women be aggressive without that steadfast cycle governed by the planet Mars?”), be priest and ministers (“how could a woman give her blood for our sins?”) or rabbis (“without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean”).

Male radicals, left-wing politicians, mystics, however, would insist that women are equal, just different, and that any woman could enter their ranks if she were willing to self-inflict a major wound every month (“you MUST give blood for the revolution”), recognize the preeminence of menstrual issues, or subordinate her selfness to all men in their Cycle of Enlightenment. Street guys would brag (“I’m a three pad man”) or answer praise from a buddy (“Man, you lookin’ good!”) by giving fives and saying, “Yeah, man, I’m on the rag!” TV shows would treat the subject at length. (“Happy Days”: Richie and Potsie try to convince Fonzie that he is still “The Fonz,” though he has missed two periods in a row.) So would newspapers. (SHARK SCARE THREATENS MENSTRUATING MEN. JUDGE CITES MONTHLY STRESS IN PARDONING RAPIST.) And movies. (Newman and Redford in “Blood Brothers”!)

Men would convince women that intercourse was more pleasurable at “that time of the month.” Lesbians would be said to fear blood and therefore life itself – though probably only because they needed a good menstruating man.

Of course, male intellectuals would offer the most moral and logical arguments. How could a woman master any discipline that demanded a sense of time, space, mathematics, or measurement, for instance, without that in-built gift for measuring the cycles of the moon and planets – and thus for measuring anything at all? In the rarefied fields of philosophy and religion, could women compensate for missing the rhythm of the universe? Or for their lack of symbolic death-and-resurrection every month?

Liberal males in every field would try to be kind: the fact that “these people” have no gift for measuring life or connecting to the universe, the liberals would explain, should be punishment enough.

And how would women be trained to react? One can imagine traditional women agreeing to all arguments with a staunch and smiling masochism. (“The ERA would force housewives to wound themselves every month”: Phyllis Schlafly. “Your husband’s blood is as sacred as that of Jesus – and so sexy, too!”: Marabel Morgan.) Reformers and Queen Bees would try to imitate men, and pretend to have a monthly cycle. All feminists would explain endlessly that men, too, needed to be liberated from the false idea of Martian aggressiveness, just as women needed to escape the bonds of menses envy. Radical feminist would add that the oppression of the nonmenstrual was the pattern for all other oppressions (“Vampires were our first freedom fighters!”) Cultural feminists would develop a bloodless imagery in art and literature. Socialist feminists would insist that only under capitalism would men be able to monopolize menstrual blood . . . .

In fact, if men could menstruate, the power justifications could probably go on forever.

If we let them.

In Defense of SlutWalk

Consider this one part editorial, one part event announcement.

Some of you may have heard of SlutWalk, an event held in Toronto recently in response to the unfortunate choice of words used by a Toronto police officer, wherein he stated: “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.

The event explanation elaborates: “As the city’s major protective service, the Toronto Police have perpetuated the myth and stereotype of ‘the slut’, and in doing so have failed us. With sexual assault already a significantly under-reported crime, survivors have now been given even less of a reason to go to the Police, for fear that they could be blamed. Being assaulted isn’t about what you wear; it’s not even about sex; but using a pejorative term to rationalize inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it’s okay to blame the victim….We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.

Unfortunately, because of the event’s name, its purpose has been misrepresented and subjected to reductionist logic that pins it as a celebration of women’s right to dress like prostitutes and degrade themselves.  The articles which attack SlutWalk contribute to the acquiescent side of rape culture that perpetuates our society.  And that’s what people don’t understand- that by making “logical explanations” of why dressing like a slut is a bad idea, they are abetting a society which is tolerant of rape.

You don’t have to be a misogynist or a rapist yourself to have this effect on society.  But every time you allow yourself to fall into that logic trap, wherein we must live in accordance with the reality at hand rather than trying to change it, you allow rape culture to exist.

To put it more simply, participants of SlutWalk are not advocating that women go walking through Northeast DC or the North Side of Pittsburgh, or any number of other “bad parts of town” in 3 inch heels and short skirts.  That would be foolish.  But we ARE SAYING that we deserve to live in a world where we could.  It is entirely possible to acknowledge an unfortunate reality and simultaneously work to change it.  THAT is what SlutWalk is about: breaking the silence, refusing excuses from status quo observers, and changing people’s attitudes to create a world where the threat of sexual assault isn’t contingent on what we wear or where we go, because it shouldn’t (and one day, I believe, WON’T) exist anymore.

So if you feel like this is a worthwhile cause, come out and support one of the satellite SlutWalk events happening all over the US and Canada this year.  I’ll be at the one in DC on August 13th.  Let me know if you want to join me!

Rent

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the musical “Rent.”  I’m a musical-fan in general, but Rent is a standout for a number of reasons, not the least of which being its incredible score and vocal casting.  There is simply too much talent in that cast to ignore.

Now, I will put out there that I have not seen the Broadway show, only the movie (for financial reasons, mainly), so any and all comments are directed at that version, but nonetheless, I have a problem.  And it pains me to have a problem with Rent, because it has done such an amazing job showcasing the vibrancy and interconnectedness of individual lives, of embracing what the rest of the world might consider sinful bohemianism – drugs, stripping, the struggle with AIDS, being LGB, and most importantly, perhaps, the trans community—in a way that is both humanizing and entertaining.

I was especially taken in by Angel, the drag-dressing transwoman who falls in love with Collins, and eventually succumbs to AIDS and dies, but not without providing the inspiration and reminders of love that keep her group of friends together.

Rent doesn’t address the issue of Angel’s identity directly, but it is alluded to in artful ways, that reveal the cis world’s difficulty in understanding trans people and the multifarious ways they negotiate gender.  Most telling is when Angel’s friend Mark stumbles over words when he delivers Angel’s eulogy, occasionally referring to her as a “him,” but then correcting himself.  Angel is made complicated in the same way she is made human, by dressing primarily in outrageous drag, yet taking off her wig during support group sessions and while performing out on the street for spare change.  She and Collins use the terms “king” and “queen” to gender themselves in the song, “I’ll Cover You,” yet other songs continuously refer to Angel with male pronouns.

This is where I start to have trouble with Rent.

I will admit that I didn’t catch this until just today, while I was cooking up a storm and playing the Rent soundtrack on my laptop, but I started hearing a lot of “him” and “his” and “he” in songs I know were speaking about Angel, and these were songs that were reverent and loving, not humorous ones like “La Vie Boheme,” (A and B)  which poke fun at gender and sexuality by turning around negative or incorrectly applied words like “trisexual, faggot, or lezzie” to reclaim agency.  No, these were songs like “Halloween,” where Mark wonders about the fate that led all his friends together:

“Why did Collins pick that phone booth back where Angel set up his drums?”

And “Goodbye Love,” where Roger, frustrated with Mark, who has invoked Angel’s death as a reason to learn from mistakes, says,

His death is in vain.”

Now this is where I get confused.  While Mark has set some precedent in the movie of being bad with gender pronouns, Roger has never had this problem.  And perhaps most disconcertingly, Collins, mourning Angel’s death, says in the same song, only lines earlier,

“Can’t believe he’s [Angel] gone, can’t believe you’re going.”

Collins has always referred to Angel by her preferred gender, as in the song, “Today 4 U,” where, upon introducing Angel to his friends, says,

“And you should hear her beat” (referring to Angel’s rad drumming)

Collins is also her lover.  Why in the world would he screw up Angel’s pronoun usage now, when he’d never done so earlier in the movie?

I have 3 potential theories here.

  1. Pronoun usage is inconsistent because of poor editing and oversight by Larson and his production crew.  This seems highly unlikely, as there are hundreds of people who worked on this movie, and the Broadway show before this movie.  At some point in the rigorous editing, rehearsing, and production process, someone would have noticed this.  I’m 90% sure that this was not the problem, although Occam’s razor suggests it is.
  2. Each individual instance of incorrect reference has its own contextual reasoning behind it: Mark, who has had little interaction with trans people in general, makes pronoun mistakes out of discomfort with the contradicting language.  He “knows” Angel as being male-bodied, and thus, often forgets to address her as a female.  Roger, angry and upset, and Collins, distraught and mourning, make their respective pronoun mistakes in the song “Goodbye, Love” because of their emotional rawness, making the “details” of Angel’s gender less important.  This seems nuanced enough to be unbelievable to me.  Don’t get me wrong- Rent is a groundbreaking and deep movie, but it does not probe identity questions enough in the rest of the movie to assume so much nuance on this particular issue.
  3. I have interpreted Angel’s identity incorrectly, and ze actually considers zirself as genderqueer or something of that ilk, and has alerted zir friends in some heart-felt moment off-camera that ze doesn’t give a flip what pronoun they use to address zir.  This does seem consistent with some of Angel’s behaviors, like taking off zir wig at the support group meeting, and playing drums dressed as a male.  However, one may also note that Angel always carried zirself in a feminine way, never mixes male and female clothing, dances in a way that is considered predominantly feminine, and only dresses as a male in “stress situations” (homelessness, sickness in the hospital, and the support group), which indicates that zir priority remains performing female (if not identifying as such) in most situations.  Even when Angel removes zir wig at the support group meeting, ze waves by curling her fingers in towards her palm, rather than with her whole hand, indicating that ze is still maintaining facets of female-ness, even when she is not dressed exclusively feminine.  For these reasons, I can’t say the term genderqueer fits quite right, yet I’m not sure what might be better.

Regardless of which of these potential explanations are true (or if all of them are wrong), Angel’s character in general gives us a lot of questions to ponder about trans/genderqueer people.  How much should one read into physical behavior in gendering a person?  Should we, as observers with limited information on a given character, allow ourselves to gender that person at all?  Is it safe to say that all of us understand gender and its manifestations differently?  How does and how should that affect the way we view entertainment?  How much can we assume about an author or director or producers intensions about gender when they are dealing with queer characters/subjects?

All of these questions blur the lines of agency- do characters have thoughts?  Do actors form the way a character is interpreted (theirs or their co-workers)?  Do writers occasionally place flaws like these in their work to provoke just such discussion and analysis of our modern conceptions of gender?

I wish- truly, madly, deeply- that I had the answer to any of these questions.  But unfortunately I don’t.  And perhaps that’s my real problem with Rent.  There is no conclusive or succinct answer to these queries in the script, and I don’t know if that was intentional or not.  I will probably never know.  But as James Thurber once said, “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”  Rent is just trying to remind me.

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