Paris is Burning

I have probably seen the film Paris is Burning [PIB] close to 100 times. I can quote sections of it and know what scene is coming from one to the next. What is interesting about PIB is that I share some things in common with the subjects of the film but also have many differences. Through these differences, it is a film that has given me hope, strength and resilience. I write about it here as an homage, even though there are very real problems with its production.

Growing up as a queer, transgender teen in rural NH, I was in search of role models, of history, and of affirmation. I believe it was around 1992 when PIB was released on VHS. I quickly procured a copy and watched it over and over again. It was a whole new world. I was excited by seeing life in New York City, and I was excited by the whole subculture created by Black and Latinx Gay Men and Trans Women based in the Ballroom Scene. I liked the language, I liked the style and I liked the honesty of the people who were interviewed. As mentioned, I grew up as a white, working-class, rural child and teen in the 80s and early 90s. My first icon was Boy George from the group Culture Club. I was transfixed by his gender variance, beauty and music. Finally, I saw a reflection of someone who looked like me. It was not until I was 19 that I first learned the word “transgender” but when I did I knew it described exactly who I was. I knew I was also queer as fuck and did not fit into the cis-hetero world whatsoever. The subculture portrayed in PIB was one that glorified queerness and gender transgression. Nothing made me happier than to see subjects in the film “queening out” in public, making hyper-feminine gendered movements and articulations to shock cis-het onlookers and to amuse themselves. PIB helped me to realize that I could be myself, even though there was often a steep price for being one’s self.

I love the glamour, fashion and drama in PIB. These sisters, brothers and siblings are really into walking the runway, into performing vogue and to working the different categories. PIB reminds us that gender is a performance. In fact, many different things are a performance, as evidenced by categories such as executive realness, banjee boy and school boy, military, etc. As grand dame of the balls Dorian Corey says, if you can look the part, you can be it. In many ways, the film engages with difficult Butlerian gender theory but in a much more relatable way. In fact, Butler writes about the film and the film has become famous for its exhibition of intersectionality in action: looking simultaneously at race, class, gender, sexuality and more. As a professor, I have used the film many times to cajole students to look at the politics of performance and the ways in which intersectional analyses are vitally important in understanding the construction of contemporary society and culture.

As Fabulous and Amazing as the world within PIB is, it is also a world beset by multiple forms of oppression, including racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia. Given my identities I could understand some of these forms of discrimination. I could certainly understand homophobia and transphobia, and I could understand classism to an extent given my working-class background. But I could not understand extreme poverty and homelessness, nor could I understand the extreme racism that people in the film experienced. This was where my differences from the people in the film emerged. But it was also one of the first times that I learned about Queer and Trans People of Color [QTPOC] and the multiple forms of oppression that they face. The subjects of PIB often formed families of their own due to parental rejection and many others had run away from home. They formed “houses” of their own to form community, support and in many cases to forge basic survival.

The oppression can be so bad that it can cost people their lives. Transgender people face massive levels of employment discrimination. This means that people are forced into the underground economies and get by through doing things like sex work, drug dealing and boosting. The woman above in white was named Venus Xtravaganza. She was a Latina Trans Woman and a Sex Worker. This was how she survived in the brutally homophobic, transphobic and racist time of 1980s NYC. She was killed by one of her johns and discovered in a sleazy motel room three days after she had been murdered. Learning about what happened to Venus was the first time I learned about anti-trans hate crimes. I was horrified by the ending and cried many tears over it. A beautiful young woman who had the whole world in front of her had had her life stolen away by a bigot. Her story is one that I have never been able to forget.

PIB is not without controversy. The director Jennie Livingston is a white, Yale-educated cis woman. She has been very tone deaf over the years about her own privilege vis-a-vis her documentary subjects. While she did well financially and professionally from the film, the subjects of the film continued to deal with oppression, poverty and a lack of opportunities. I am sad to report that all of the principles of the film have passed away, many of them quite young. This controversy reminded me of the obligation of a documentarian towards the people they represent. Certainly Livingston failed to give her subjects the money and assistance they needed, even as she cashed in on their lives, experiences and stories.

At any rate, I do not love PIB for its director. I love it for the brilliant people profiled within it. The film will always have a very special place in my heart for showing what is possible, how things are socially constructed and how people can create a fabulous world even within the harshest of circumstances. The film is a queer classic and one of the first that shows the realities of QTPOC. Over 25 years after its release, it still packs a wallop and reminds us that we can be whoever we want if we are willing to fight for it.

Sexual Orientation

What does it mean to occupy a queer sexual orientation? The problem with sexual orientation is that it tends to apply fixity to identity, much like gender identity does. That’s fine for people that have a binary identity, but much less so for people who are outside the binary or who are fluid.

I think my critical perspectives on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation all have to do with my commitment to gender abolitionism. After all, if gender as we know it was obliterated, would sexual orientation even be said to meaningfully exist in any way?

Right now there is such a hyper-normalized sex-gender-sexuality trajectory. If you are labeled physically male, you identify as male, you present as masculine and you are attracted to females. If you are labeled physically female, you identify as female, you present as feminine and you are attracted to males. Obviously, sex, gender and sexuality diversity transform this trajectory. To their credit, categories of sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation help to illuminate some of the diversity that exists in terms of intersex, queer and transgender people.

However, all of these categories have become overdetermined. And the rigidity of the binary has congealed and hardened. Are you male or female? Are you masculine or feminine? Are you gay or straight? For some of us the answer to these questions is not possible. We exist outside of binaries in terms of bodily geographies, our gender expressions and our desire or lack thereof.

Many refuse to acknowledge intersex, trans and non-binary and ace, pan or bisexual orientations. Even adding these additional identities is insufficient. We can add dozens more words or we can trash the concepts altogether. My own view is that the terms will continue to be used for some time to understand diversity and may even prove useful in doing so. They provide a pedagogical function. But after a while people will tire of having to identify their sex, their gender identity/expression and their sexuality. It is not just a question of eschewing labels. It is constructing a new vision of personhood in which people do not have to grossly simply the complexity of who they are.

Many people are now fond of saying “everyone has a gender identity” or “everyone has a sexual orientation.” But what gives someone the right to say that? Do people not have the right to opt out of these categories? Why are they now seen by so many as fundamental components of the self? Why do some get so incredibly angry if someone ELSE says that for them sexual orientation is a choice? If sexual orientation is not a choice for someone I would never attempt to abrogate that reality but if someone chooses their sexual orientation [for whatever reason] I also support that. What if someone chooses to be queer because they like to be different? Who does such a choice harm?

I am well aware that my dream of gender abolitionism is not going to happen any time soon. The concepts of sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation are also not going anywhere anytime soon. However, we can in the interim continue to problematize them, continue to stress fluidity, spectrums and continuums, defend a person’s right to choose to be queer or trans and support a person’s right to “opt out” of any of these identities. My criticism is not a questioning of identity politics; it is a far deeper questioning of ontology. What does it mean to be a human being? Why are sex, gender and sexual identity so often cast as basic building blocks of the self? And do they need to be?

 

Gender Expression

Gender expression is the communication of gender to other people in the social realm. It is made up of things like clothing, hair styles, cosmetics, jewelry, gait, voice and more.

Gender attribution is the process of assigning (i.e. attributing) a gender to another person. Generally, in our society, this is done by visual appraisal of a person’s outward gender expression or the tone of their voice. Gender attribution was coined by sociologists and it is not often discussed but it is a vitally important concept.

Attributing a gender to someone is not a taken-for-granted process. Because of the strength of the binary gender system, I think far too many think of knowing a person’s gender as a cut and dried thing. It is not. Gender identity, gender expression and gender attribution are all related but ultimately different things. Gender identity is a person’s core internal sense of themselves as a man, a woman or something else entirely. Gender expression is the way someone is expressing gender. Usually someone’s gender identity and gender expression match, but not always! For instance, someone could inwardly identify as female but have a “masculine” gender expression. This could be because they haven’t started the process of social and physical transition yet or it could be that they are never going to transition and are opting to inhabit a body where gender identity and gender expression are in permanent incongruence. Then when we add in gender attribution to the mix it gets even more complex. People have genders attributed to them all the time that they do not identify with. This is called mis-gendering. It could be accidental or intentional but the effects are the same: hurtful and invalidating to the person whose gender is not being seen correctly.

We look at someone and make snap judgments and determinations about their gender. We are taught through socialization what a boy/man looks like and what a girl/woman looks like. We are not taught how to deal with people who look like both or neither. Thus we either try to re-stuff them into one of the two existing boxes or discount their existence altogether. I have felt this keenly many times. Because I fail to evince adequate masculinity or femininity, I cease to be an actual human being.

For me, I do not wish to present a coherent or stable gender expression. Since I am non-binary, my very goal is to confuse and confound people. I do not do this out of a sense of malice, but out of a sense of rebellion against hegemonic gender norms. Clothing is a double-edged sword. It can be incredibly oppressive but it can also be incredibly liberating as well. Sometimes it is hard for me to see the liberatory potentiality because I get so stuck in the rigidity of the gender system and how hard it is to wiggle out of these cultural requirements of gender. Genderqueer, gender-fluid, non-binary and gender nonconforming people can seize upon clothing, hair styles, jewelry, cosmetics, shaving/not shaving, etc. as tools to confuser and confound people. The goal is for this to happen enough so that people realize the whole project of gender is illegitimate. The more the category itself is assaulted through strategic subversion, the more it will cease to be a meaningful cultural entity.

For some people, including some trans people, their gender expression is very important to them, and they are dedicated to a masculine/butch or feminine/fem(me) appearance. I do not mean to imply that those of us who are genderqueer in our gender expression are politically more progressive or subversive. However, people with masculine or feminine gender expressions do not need anyone advocating for them. This is the dominant cultural norms. Those of us who have betwixt-and-between identities or expressions that are outside of binary gender altogether deserve special support and attention. We often lead challenging lives as we walk through the world with gender expressions that are not culturally legible or intelligible.

Finally, as with gender identity, do we have to “have” a gender expression? What if people just do their thing and it is what it is? While the concepts of gender identity and gender expression may be useful pedagogically or sociologically, from the standpoint of human diversity or radical political ideology they can seem like a real drag, pun intended. What does it mean to just BE, without the need for elaborations of one’s identity or expression thereof? My gender identity is nothing, It is unknown, It is X. My gender expression is nothing. It is unknown. It is X. If concepts like gender identity and gender expression are useful to some people to illuminate their personhood then I have no problems with that. But they should not be compulsory. There is the option to opt out. And I am taking that option.

Gender Identity

Does Gender Identity exist? This was one of the questions that was asked at a recent hearing for a transgender nondiscrimination bill in the state of New Hampshire. Opponents of the bill believe that “gender identity” is a made-up concept that cannot be said to exist because it cannot be independently corroborated.

I believe that gender identity exists. But it exists within a particular gender system and hyper-genderized society. Gender identity does not exist in a vacuum. Sometimes I think: gender identity, do I have one of those? If your gender is not male or female, can it be said that you have a gender identity? I would say yes, you can have a gender identity. It would just be that your gender identity is neither male nor female.

I think opponents of the concept of gender identity struggle with it because it is not something that can be seen or measured in any way. It is a psychological construct. It exists through discourse. People self-report what their gender identity is. This usually does not cause a problem when one is a cisgender male or cisgender female. The problem arises when the self-reported gender identity does no match the assigned sex at birth. This is when an identity falls somewhere under the transgender umbrella. People become extremely uncomfortable when a gender identity does not match a perceived bodily formation or gender expression. Transphobia is the irrational fear and hatred of transgender bodies and transgender lives. Transphobia erupts when a person’s self-reported gender identity does not match the body that they walk around in. Hormones and surgery can bring this body into greater alignment with the gender identity, but it is fair to say that the transgender body will never be completely identical to the cisgender body, at least not at the current level of scientific expertise. But this does not make the transgender body in any way “inferior” to the cisgender body. It just makes it different.

If gender identity exists in a specific cultural context, one must ask difficult questions about the universality or coherence of gender identity as a concept. For instance, if we did not live in a virulent gender binary, in a tyrannical system of gender conformity, how would this affect gender identity? If we lived in a society where all gender expressions from A to Z were wholeheartedly embraced, would there continue to be a need for gender identity? If society become genderless, wouldn’t gender identity cease to exist? I am a gender abolitionist. I loathe gender and wish to see it completely disappear. Therefore, while I acknowledge the existence of gender identity in the current society, I would like to see “gender identity” disappear along with gender in the more radical society that I envision and seek.

My gender identity is agender or genderless. If my gender identity is agender or genderless, is this an identity still or does it cease to be an identity at all? This is not just an intellectual exercise. It becomes particularly hard to explain my trans-ness because the general definition of trans-ness is that of a person who does not identify with the sex assigned at birth. Therefore I am essentially forced to have an “identity” by default in order to make my trans-ness legible and intelligible. But in many ways I feel that I don’t even have a gender identity. This is does not mean to in any way, shape or form deny the validity oif other people’s deeply felt sense of gender identity. And I do feel some level of “gender dysphoria” even though I think that is an ugly sounding term that makes the experience of bodily discomfort sound like a terrible affliction.

What if you are the identity that is not one? What if you place yourself under the trans umbrella and claim that as an identity but do not claim a gender identity? Is that an oxymoron or a distinct possibility? This blog entry may seem like I am anti-gender identity. I am not. I know that bigots and opponents of transgender rights state that gender identity does not exist. I accept the existence of gender identity but problematize it. Usually one states that everyone has a gender identity. But is that really true? Can one simply opt out of even having a gender identity? I think part of it comes down to the question of agender identity. Is agender a gender identity or is it the absence of a gender identity? I struggle with it because I do see asexual as being a sexual orientation. So logically speaking one would see agender as a gender identity. But for some reason I resist seeing my agenderism as a gender identity. There is something about the paradigm of gender identity that feels limiting to me. I feel constrained under the auspices of gender identity. We can ask: why must one have a gender identity? Is this not part and parcel of the attempt to artificially impose orderliness out of a chaotic society? That if one’s internal sense of self does not match their bodily geography, they must take on a coherent and static “gender identity” to explain the complexity of their exitence to a world that seeks controllability and intelligibility.

I am gender identity-averse but I understand that it exists and it is a needed concept for many transgender people to explain their identities. I have laid out some of my objections herte but l know that my desires for a radically different societal organization is very much based in futurism and not likely to appear any time soon. Still, we must problematize and complicate simplistic notions of gender identity and interrupt the psychology textbook definitions to illuminate the beauty of the spectrum of gender and the grave limitations of the bipolar gender schema.

Appearance

We live in an image-obsessed society. This has done incalculable damage to our citizenry, especially to women and girls. The reason for this is looksism, a type of prejudice that is rarely discussed but that is incredibly powerful in our society.

In a previous entry, I wrote about feminism. To me, a major part of feminism deals with body image. Another previous entry I wrote deals with weight. Weight is a major part of appearance in today’s world. The answer to combat both weightism and looksism is feminism. We need more feminism and we need to use feminism as a tool to combat appearance bias.

It doesn’t matter how we look. That is a basic feminist tenet for me. It is shocking that we are still caught up in how people look. I am a very tall, fat, crip, non-passing transfeminine person. I get stares everywhere I go. It is absolutely exhausting. I get dressed and I put very little thought into it because I don’t think the way a person dresses matters. Yes, I get that it is a mode of self expression. Some people take a lot of pride in their appearance and I don’t want to take anything away from that. But the truth of the matter is that way too much stock is put into a person’s appearance rather than on their inside. As corny and clichéd as it sounds, it’s what is on the inside that matters. But the appearance-obsessed society doesn’t see it that way.

I think my social positionality as a fat person, a tall person and a non-passing, non-binary transgender person has of course greatly impacted my views on appearance. In addition, I have a mobility challenge and sometimes limp and/or use a cane. When people comment upon my height, it drives me up a wall. I don’t think they are being malicious, but I do think they need to understand that I have been asked about my height a thousand times and it grows tiresome. Since I have doubled my weight from 200 to over 400, I have noticed the way people have treated me. Ironically I have become less visible in some ways, When you are fat you become a blob who fades into the background. When I use my cane I notice people give me a wide berth when I walk around and rush to open doors for me. But of course it is my non-binary, non-passing gender expression that gets the most attention. It is that facet of my identity which continues to provoke fear, embrassment and humiliation.

My experiences with being treated differently due to my appearance greatly affect my feelings about it. Looksims divides people into those who are physically attractive and those who are not. It labels people as “beautiful” or as “ugly.” I fall into the category of people who are deemed unattractive/ugly. This means that in addition to fatphobia, transphobia, crip-phobia, and heightism, I also face looksism. The unending emphasis on appearance and image is really sickening. Everyone is beautiful but we are not allowed to feel that way because society grades us based on external beauty rather than on internal greatness. Why can’t people see the light that burns within us?

My desire is to allow people the right to their own image but to stop placing so much emphasis on it and most especially to stop grading people on their appearance in a hierarchical fashion. The media is one of the worst culprits in this and we need to demand that everyone is beautiful, including People of Color, Trans people, People with Disabilities, Fat People and people deemed phsycally undisirable in the current system of hierarchical valuation. I ask anyone reading this [all 5 of you ;] to hold up the preceding groups as beautiful and fight back against the system that devalues some of us. Get involved with feminist groups to fight for body positivity, fat acceptance and appearance diversity. Only through concerted effort can we ever foment change in this very important area.

 

Gender

What is gender? Many tomes have been written on that very question. First and foremost, I see gender as a mechanism of control. It is two and only two boxes and each person is stuffed into one or the other. When each of us are born, the doctor makes a cursory examination of our genitals and declares “It’s a Boy!” or “It’s a Girl!” This is not a benign utterance. It is a life-shattering declaration and prescription. The intent behind it matters not. It has a velocity all its own. When the attending room physician makes this declaration, the baby is off like a race car. We get placed on pink and blue tracks for the remainder of our natural born lives. If we obey, the ride is very smooth. If we disobey, it is one car wreck after another. It is no wonder that the vast majority of people obey. The bigger question is why some of us don’t. Or can’t. One can only withstand so many crashes. Eventually it can even be fatal.

Some may see my language as hyperbolic. It is not hyperbolic to me. As someone assigned male based on a brief glance between my legs, I am angry. I am angry that gender exists and that it affects so much in our society. If your own personal declaration does not match that initial declaration, you are in for it. If your declaration is the “opposite” of the initial declaration, there might be hope for you if you look as much as possible like the “opposite” of your birth assignment. If you don’t try, don’t care or don’t feel like either male or female, you are flushed down to the bottom of the social hierarchy of the society. You are trash.

As someone who has been treated like gender trash my whole life, I have had a front row seat to how gender is A) bullshit B) all about social control and power. It is about the perpetuation of cis-heteropatriarchy. Cis people, heterosexual people and men are seen as superior. Trans people, queers and women are seen as inferior. Gender is the glue that ties the whole system together. To get the glue unstuck you have to smash the gender boxes. This is why I am so committed to gender abolitionism. It is not a popular position, including in the trans community. But then again I don’t see anything good about gender. I am the negative nancy of the gender studies world.

If gender is an apparatus of power, and we need to smash it, what should we do? For starters, we should all be feminists, all be queer advocates and all be trans liberationists. Beyond that, we should opt out of gender whenever possible. Do the opposite. Undo it. Do it differently. Anything that goes against what the scripts of normative gender tell us we should do. Even if it doesn’t smash it, we can still fight it. It will be exhausting and we will be punished for it, but I’m afraid that is the price of the ticket.

 

 

Performance

There is something very special about performance. Unlike film or TV, it is live and in person. There is something unique about the live-ness of performance. When people gather together to see a live performance, to me it represents hope. And our society certainly needs way more hope. The live-ness of performance elicits an emotional response that is hard to find in pre-recorded media. I rarely see live plays but when I do I am very much transfixed and brought right into the present moment. I would like to start seeing more performances because there is nothing like them.

The other thing I would like to talk about in relation to performance that queers the subject is the way in which gender is a performance. In 1990, queer theorist Judith Butler wrote the groundbreaking academic text Gender Trouble. It is brilliant, difficult and foundational. She applied a postmodern lens to gender and took social constructionism to the next level. In the book she interrupts the specious notion that gender is constructed while “sex” [the category] is real and essential. Both sex and gender are thoroughly constructed and imbedded with multiple cultural meanings. “Gender is performative” has become a common slogan now within the fields of women’s, gender, sexuality, queer and transgender studies.

What does it mean? If we think about drag, we can easily see how someone of one assigned biological sex/gender is performing the expression of the “opposite” sex/gender. Drag performance highlights the constructedness of gender. Gender is not a real, stable or coherent essence. It is something that is filled with social, cultural and political meanings. The meaning of gender is constantly being created by social actors. It is constantly being made, remade and unmade. Its meanings differ across cultures and across historical periods. But drag is simply the more obvious manifestation of the performativity of gender. It is literally performed on a stage. We see an exaggerated version of femininity or masculinity that the drag queen or king is typically portraying on that stage. So while it highlights the constructedness of gender, it should be known that this “drag” performance moves beyond the stage to the realm of everyday life. RuPaul said you’re born naked and the rest is drag.

Some misunderstand the performativity of gender to mean that it is as easy as wearing a suit one day and a dress the next. While that may be true for some non-binary or gender fluid people, for others it is not that simple, including many trans people. Judith Butler states that this mistakenly see gender as voluntarist. In Philosophy, voluntarism is the doctrine that the will is a fundamental or dominant factor in the individual or the universe. What makes people perform gender in a particular way is not entirely known. Just like we don’t know why some people are trans and so thoroughly dis-identify with the sex/gender assigned to them at birth. Gender performativity for everyday people is usually not done in a willful manner like it is for drag performers.

But we must not stop the analysis there. Why is gender expression so automatic for so many people? Is this due to something essential within the person or due to the fact that the binary gender system is so ubiquitous and so tyrannical? Gender expressions that do not conform to one’s assigned sex are heavily punished, even to the point of violence or murder. If all gender expressions from A-Z were routinely accepted, I doubt if people would feel so boxed in to the gender role expectations of only one rigid category. In fact, I believe expressions of gender would become so variegated and multiplicitous that gender would cease to have any meaningful existence, hence my desire for gender abolitionism.

Performance is live and agentic. It gives spectators hope and inspiration. With gender, however, gender is performative but not voluntarist. We do not know the limits of gender performativity because we live in such an oppressive binary gender system that punishbes people for transgressing assigned gender roles. If we lived in a radically different culture, there’s no telling what gender would look like and how its expressions would multiply due to a lack of fear of reprisals for stepping outside of the narrow box.