Women’s Studies Coordinator Ann Peiffer and I were chatting after the evening of my final presentation at Mars Hill. We were talking, in part, about one male student who wants to be an ally and the limits of a person’s role in someone else’s struggle. I started talking about a critical turning point in my career as a women’s studies student:
"When I became a grad student, it was in sociology. I was having some friction for trying to use a feminist perspective in my papers and for wanting to do a feminist project for my dissertation. But right around that time, a women’s studies certificate program was being pulled together, they didn’t have their own department yet but they crosslisted courses from English and History and Art and Anthropology and so on. Anyway, I was encouraged to take their feminist theory course.
"Unfortunately, the people who had pulled that together were mostly from the English department. And they had used poststructuralist theory to justify teaching authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker even though they weren’t dead white European guys, you know, questioning the social construction of ‘excellence’ and all that. So that’s what they were teaching as feminist theory. And it was… well you know, you’ve read that stuff, …
“So after a few weeks I said, ‘This is what you’re teaching grad students as feminist theory? Your own students will theoretically someday be teaching undergraduate students–is THIS the material you want them to put out there to introduce new students to feminist thinking? It’s opaque and really difficult to understand, and then when you understand it, it strips all the meaning out of things. You can’t say women have a justifiable anger or a moral right to equality after you’ve just explained that everyone’s sense of what is right is caused by their location in culture and time and that no viewpoint is privileged.’ And I went on for a bit about how poststructuralist feminist theory is a problem for feminists.”
Ann Peiffer nodded. I continued, “Well, the professor got annoyed and said ‘Why don’t you try being silent for awhile and experience what it is like to be marginalized. Do you realize you are a male student telling feminist women that we aren’t doing feminism right?’ And… of course she was correct. Highly embarrassing. But it was more than just that moment’s conversation. It really rocked me back in my tracks. It made me question whether I could say the things I wanted to say, about my experience and identity and all that, from within women’s studies. And eventually I decided it just wasn’t going to work”.
On March 29 and March 30, though – 25 years after I abandoned my PhD attempts and left academia behind – I made a successful reappearance in the women’s studies classroom. Things are different now. Women’s studies has embraced the wider subject matter of gender and, on many campuses, has relabeled and repositioned itself as Gender Studies, or as Women’s and Gender Studies, or as Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. And since last fall (dating back to when I thought my book was about to come out in print), I’ve been pitching the idea, via my publicist John Sherman, that those departments should consider having me as a guest speaker, to present my perspectives. Mars Hill said yes, so I rented a car and took off early Wednesday morning, driving for 11 hours to get there in time for my first presentation, to the evening-class session of Women and Society. Ann Peiffer met me and took me out to dinner for a first chance to talk a bit, and then took me to the classroom and introduced me, and I was on.
I have a generic presentation structure that I’ve been using, sort of a baseline skeleton, and then I vary it depending on the type of audience. I described “the binary”-the traditional simplified notion that there are two and only two categories, the man over here with his male body and masculine characteristics, and, distinctly different and other from that, the woman over here with her female body and feminine characteristics. Then I put up my main diagram, the scatter chart.
“This is STILL an oversimplification. It assumes all people are biologically either male or female, so it ignores intersex people. And it treats the other characteristics, all the behavior and personality and nuances and priorities and tastes, all that stuff that is typically associated with the two biological sexes, as if masculinity and femininity were polar opposites like left and right, when actually it might make more sense to think of them more akin to sweet and salty, where someone could be one, the other, both, or neither. And it pretends that people occupy one point on the graph, but people change constantly, during the day or according to their mood and so on. But it is LESS of an oversimplification than the original binary because it shows that you have a lot of variation within each sex, and that you have a lot of overlap, with some of the female-bodied people being way over here on the masculine side and some of the male-bodied people being way over there on the feminine side, even though the same general rule still applies, that men in general are more masculine and women in general are more feminine”.
Talked about how generalizing isn’t evil and this generalization isn’t wrong, AS a generalization. Talked about moving from descriptive to prescriptive.
Then I introduced my cast of characters, individual people that I use in my presentation as a way of explaining the different experience of the same social world that conventionally masculine males and feminine females have when contrasted with the experiences of those expectations and predictions and assumptions by the folks who are outliers, masculine females and feminine males.
My characters have a mixture of sexual orientations, and I used that to illustrate the ways in which gender characteristics interact with sexual orientation. After awhile I identified myself on my diagram, my own location and my own experiences as a male femininine person sexually oriented towards female folks. I compared how my own experiences juxtaposed with those of the other characters I had described. This lets me contextualize my own situation, to show how it fits in against the backdrop of other folks’ experiences.
We discussed the process of figuring out one’s identity when the default mainstream expected identity isn’t a good fit, and how a person comes to arrive at a divergent understanding of themselves from among the ones that are out there, socially available as alternative identities.
The next morning, after breakfast, I made the presentation a second time, to the daytime session of Women and Society, and then a final time (with some modifications for the shift in audience composition) to Safe Haven, the campus group for LGBT students and allies. I felt like all three went well and I had attentive people at all three of them and definitely felt like I was reaching them and that they were following what I was saying.
I had several good questions during the post-presentation discussion periods:
I find it interesting that you choose to have a beard. Does it interfere with your ability to get people to perceive you as a girl? (I reiterated that I accepted both my biological sex – male – and my gender – girl, or feminine person. And we made some guesses about what girlish people would do with various male physical characteristics if they were the ones who had them instead of guys. I kept going back to the limitations of expressing as a male girl in a culture that has no notion of what a male girl would typically look like)
I have a female friend who has only recently realized she is genderqueer. She is always wanting to talk to me about it, she isn’t finding this easy, and I don’t know what to say to her to help her get through what she’s going through (None of us had any easy pat answers to this, but several of us encouraged the male student who had posed the question to realize that by making himself available as a sounding board, someone she feels she CAN talk to, that that is being supportive. I asked if she likes to read, and suggested some memoirs and narratives, adding that it is helpful to read about how someone else who is like you came to terms with it)
I see on your handout you say you are polyamorous. Can you talk some about that? (I hadn’t brought it up in the presentation. I talked about how a combo of 1970s vintage “hippie” ideals of free love and feminist critiques of sexual possessiveness had always appealed to my sense of how I thought things should be. And I talked aobut how multiple partners kept me from becoming so immersed in a relationship that I was a boring mirror that just reflected my partner’s interests and didn’t bring much to the relationship, and also how getting different feedback from different partners makes it easy to get a more ‘objective’ sense of how my behavior is coming across, instead of wondering if it is me or if it is just her).
There was a follow-up question, essentially What about jealousy? (I mentioned that as an atypical male, I was never going to be fully at ease with the idea that my partner would not miss the interactions with more conventionally masculine males if she’d had such relationships in the past, and that polyamory was a way of not asking her to give that up; and that, reciprocally, when I find a woman who does find me sexually appealing, I don’t tend to think of other males as direct competition – “Go have other boyfriends, sure! It may be easier for me to say that and not be worried about being replaced, because there’s a low likelihood of her connecting with guys who are a lot like me”. Went on to say that no one wants to be abandoned but that polyamory means not needing to discard one person in order to be with someone else. And I described the relationship summit, a periodic formal opportunity to air grievances and concerns and do a “state of the relationship” assessment, and said that poly people talk about jealousy all the time, that it is openly discussed.)
Can you describe a time when you had an effect on someone where you saw them go ‘Whoa’ and really change their perspective? (I described a gay rights activist I had appeared with long ago; he had told the audience he was sick and tired of gay guys being stereotyped as less manly or sissy, and he told them it wasn’t manly to gang up on one guy and beat him up as a group. He challenged them: ‘If you have a problem with me being gay, come up here and say it to my face.’ It got a lot of appreciative applause in a 1980 classroom of Human Sexuality students; they appeciated the guts it took for him to take them on like that. He was less impressed with me when I spoke to the same classroom immediately after him. He said “So, your whole thing is that you don’t want people to think you’re gay, is that it?” I tried to explain about being a feminine guy and the assumptions that people make. “So? People think I’m straight lots of times, you don’t think that gets awkward? Look, straight is the default. You shouldn’t go around saying you’re not gay, that just says you think being gay would be horrible. It’s not necessary for you to go around saying you’re the default”. So I said back to him, “Well, YOU just spent several minutes explaining to this classroom that you aren’t a sissy, that you’re all masculine. Isn’t masculine the default for males?” And he started to answer fast and then looked at me and it was like I could see that light bulb going on for him)
Do you experience dysphoria? (I think I gave a bad answer on this one. Or partly bad. I said “no”. I said I had never felt like my body was wrong. I had come to believe that if people perceived me as female, I would be treated more as who I actually am, but the body ITSELF, physically, wasn’t the problem, it was what people assumed because of it. I think I should have created a distinction between “physical dysphoria” and “social dysphoria” and said that most of the emotional content of dysphoria, as conventionally described, was very much what I have experienced, but that we do not tend to distinguish between “dysphoria because they think I am a guy or man” versus “dysphoria because my body is a male body”–the first one is social and the second one is physical. I should do that in the future: along with distinguishing between sex and gender, and between transsexuality and being genderqueer, I should create this distinction about forms of dysphoria.
What would you say to a cisgender heterosexual male who wants to be supportive of lesbian gay and transgender people and their rights? (This is where we came in. Before Ann Peiffer gave her own reply, I said that I would say to such a person ‘Try to be aware of how YOU have been oppressed by homophobia and transphobia and sissyphobia and so on. Even as a cis male hetero person, there have to have been moments and situations where something you did drew some attention or comments. And all your life you have seen what happens to gay and sissy and gender-atypical people and, at least in the back of your head even if you were not conscious of it, some part of you was thinking I DO NOT WANT THAT TO HAPPEN TO ME. So you learned to tuck your odd corners under where they will not be seen, even if you had to do far less of that than gay and genderqueer and transgender people. That means things got taken away from you. Reclaim that. Avoid any self-censoring that is designed to keep observers from perhaps categorizing you as gay or whatever. And then you are participating in part for your own reasons, which is a good thing’.)
This is a reposting of a blog post. Cleared in advance with the mods.