Trans Day of Remembrance 2017

 

So, it’s TDoR, and there’s really nothing for me to add to the conversation. TDoR is not about me. It’s about trans women of color, it’s about poor trans people, it’s about the trans people that are visible in their daily lives. It’s about the most vulnerable among us , and those that suffer because of their vulnerability.

 

I have no words, just sorrow and hope and commitment to do what I can to support my trans siblings.

 

I’d like to share these obituaries with you. Remember them. Say their names. Honor them as best we can. And may next year be less deadly.

 

http://www.thefader.com/2017/10/15/trans-memorial-obituaries

 

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Theory: Using Critical Discourse Analysis

tl;dr CDA is a way of analyzing power structures in text that loads of people are doing already, it just adds a lot of fancy words to it. 

So, this is more methodology than theory, but I’m putting it under Theory mainly to make categorizing easier.

 

Long story short, I am tired of seeing “Critical Discourse Analysis” being wielded as a tool only for academics to maintain control of the Legitimate understandings of oppressive systems, when the fact is that everyone in an oppressed and/or marginalized population is using at least the barebones of CDA in their daily life. I find it particularly ironic and head-desky that, in describing the Aims of CDA, van Dijk claims that it “implies a critical and oppositional stance against the powerful and the elites, and especially those who abuse of their power” and that “studies in CDA try to formulate or sustain an overall perspective of solidarity with dominated groups” (1995, p.18). Nice thoughts, but when most scholarly articles on and using CDA are written with incomprehensible jargon, it starts to fall apart. A certain set of academics have managed to appropriate the ways marginalized people analyze and recognize everyday discrimination, going so far as to suggest that we can’t fucking see it without their help.

 

Example: The teacher that taught me CDA decided to use gender as an example to explain what made it so complex after I pointed out that it wasn’t complex at all. A very bad choice. He quoted Butler, explained that “gender is a social construct” and then informed me “this has some serious implications, especially for transsexuals, as you can imagine”. Not only did he completely show his lack of care for of actual trans people by failing to use our vocabulary in the way it is used currently (“transsexual” is a word best not used by cis people unless explicitly requested), he literally thought he, an older (cis) man, could educate a group of what he thought was young girls (I wasn’t out in that class) on gender. He didn’t see the power inequality in age, gender, or our teacher/student relation. And, in fact, he later abused his power over our grades to manipulate us, completely oblivious to how he was one of the elite his beloved CDA was supposed to stand against.

 

I’d love to CDA the heck out of CDA-based research more, but, for now, what I want to do is break down what CDA is so that it can become more accessible. On one hand, it’s a really basic concept that I see high schoolers using without realizing it all the time. On the other hand, with a little manipulation and a shot of vocabulary, it’s really easy to take the Obvious and communicate it in a way that appears more legitimate and makes people listen and take more seriously. Which, if you’re a member of a marginalized group, is incredibly powerful.

 

The foundation of CDA

 

Here, I’m going to talk about “text” because I usually use CDA against written word, but this can easily be expanded to include all of discourse – text, spoken word, images, videos, sound… van Dijk refers to one such instance as a “communicative event”, so basically – anything that communicates something (which is more or less everything).

 

If we’re just glancing at a text, information appears to go:

Writer –> Text –> Reader

Except, when you read a text, you bring yourself to it. For example, a trans exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) will read a text very differently from a nonbinary person. A binary trans person will bring their different experience of transness. I might read something negative about nonbinary identities in indigenous societies and get incredibly angry about how poorly nonbinary identities are discussed and completely miss the racism inherent in the arguments. A cis indigenous person reading the same article may get incredibly angry about the racism but miss the anti-nonbinary edge.

Basically, no matter who writes a text or how it is written, it is read differently by every person, because we are all individuals. So, we actually have:

Writer –> Text <–> Reader

Except writers are also readers. No one simply writes, you need to get information from somewhere. In the previous example, both me and the cis indigenous person go off to write something, using the article as a source (as both of us seem opposed to it). We would write two completely different things because we had two different takeaways from the article. What is read impacts what is written. So we have, in fact:

Writer <–> text <–> Reader

In which information is constantly being passed via text between people that are both readers and writers.

Everything that is communicated has an impact. It will be read and interpreted and will affect the discourse of anyone that reads/interprets it. Nothing is ever a single, one-off, innocent instance. Language establishes ideology. Even seemingly neutral language expresses an ideology or a stance. These ideologies will then inform the ideologies of society.  This is a huge part of what builds social constructions.

CDA “Tools”

So, ideology and social constructions and discourse is nice and all, but what do we do with that? Now we have a theoretical foundation, we can start using tools to figure out what a text is actually saying instead of what it appears to say. If you want a really good example (and have the energy for this), I suggest going through recent news reports on police and gun-related violence. Note the race of the perpetrator, and then note how often forms of the word “alleged” is used. I haven’t quite solidified my data yet, but I’ve definitely found that violence from white people, especially white cops, is “alleged”, while violence from a black person gets no modifier. It seems obvious, but it’s a subtle distinction that continues to build on how society views black people as dangerous.

Lexicon

That was an example of how lexicon, or vocabulary, expresses ideology. This is the microtool. We can look at patterns of word choice, like that example, or note how one word is chosen over another (ex. In terms of my teacher, using the term “transsexual” instead of “trans”, communicated his particular position to and awareness of the trans community).

Transitivity

This is the one for people that like grammar, but really it comes down to the question of who does what to whom. Consider news reporting on terrorist attacks (while noting the lexical choice of “terrorism”). For example, the Wikipedia entry for the 2017 London Bridge attack starts “The June 2017 London Bridge attack was an Islamic terrorist attack” (linke=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/June_2017_London_Bridge_attack), specifically exampling that islamic terrorists attacked. The entry for Finsbury Park attack which happened soon after starts, “On 19 June 2017, a van was driven into pedestrians in Finsbury Park, London, injuring at least eight people.” (link=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Finsbury_Park_attack). Here, the perpetrator, a white man that had become markedly islamophobic after the London Bridge attack, is cleverly hidden through word choice and the passive voice (which means a subject is not necessary).

When is the perpetrator an active player in a scene? When are they not? Who does what? Who has what done to them? This says a lot.

Narrative

The narrative of the text is more of a big picture view. Especially in terms of news articles, but also in almost every form of discourse, things are rarely communicated in chronological order. Even they are, each type of discourse has a specific formula. Both following and disrupting the formula says different things. More importantly, what is said first affects how information is understand. For example, the introduction to the Wikipedia entry on the Finsbury Park attack is shaped like this: First, the incident and the casualties are mentioned, without a perpetrator. Then, it is mentioned that it happened outside a mosque. It then mentions a fatal casualty with an unclear link to the incident. Then, it is mentioned as a possible terrorist attack. And only then is the attacker mentioned. By taking so long to identify the incident as an islamophobic terrorist attack, the article suggests that what happened is much more important than who did it, or why, once again, subtly hiding the attacker and his islamophobic motives.

There are loads of other “tools” to CDA, but I have found that these three in particular, are the most useful and, are the ones already being used all over the place through other names.

A final note on art and CDA

While I’ve mainly been discussing news articles here, because that’s how I learned CDA and it gives some clear examples, it’s really important for every artist to understand that the work they create is also discourse. I intend to write more on this later, from a choreological perspective (choreology being the theory of movement). But for now, I’d like to leave you with this:

As an artist, it is my duty to know what I’m communicating. So, while I talk as a trans person, I use CDA-type tools both subconsciously and consciously to analyse what I’m reading and watching, or to understand why I feel a certain way about a certain discourse, I then have to turn back and use it on my own work – what am I subconsciously saying? What are the ideologies I am communicating when I present this piece of work? What social constructions am I breaking down or reinforcing? Is this something I can fully get behind?

No one is perfect. I know that. I hope to grow and change and become better. But, I do strongly believe that I should never present work I am not fully convinced by at the time of presentation. CDA is a necessary tool for finding the holes in my thought processes and patching them up and doing them better.

 

Works cited/further reading

Richardson, J. Analysing newspapers. (Basingstoke [England]: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). (see the book here https://www.amazon.com/Analysing-Newspapers-Approach-Critical-Discourse/dp/1403935653)

 

The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, ed. by Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001) <https://lg411.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/discourse-analysis-full.pdf&gt; [accessed 5 November 2017.

Thompson, John B., Ideology and Modern Culture, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1990). (American version of book here https://www.amazon.com/Ideology-Modern-Culture-Critical-Communication/dp/0804718466)

 

Van Dijk, Teuk, ‘Aims of Critical Discourse Analysis’, Japanese Discourse, 1 (1995), 17-27,  <http://discourses.org/OldArticles/Aims%20of%20Critical%20Discourse%20Analysis.pdf> [accessed 5 November 2017].

 

Some October Readings

And here it is! As we head to the end of October (Happy Halloween!), I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve read over the month – questions of self-care, creativity, and writing. All good reads. I promise.

 

7 self-care strategies for dismantling the patriarchy

http://www.bombilore.com/la-loba/2017/3/23/7-self-care-strategies-for-dismantling-the-patriarchy

 

“We must refuse to let our worth be defined by what we do, even as there is so much that needs to be done.  When approached from this perspective, we can recognize that the very fact of caring for ourselves is in itself a revolutionary act.”

 

Creativity under Trump

 

2017, Word Counts and Writing Process

https://whatever.scalzi.com/2017/10/02/2017-word-counts-and-writing-process/

 

“Why am I talking about this right now? Basically, because I know it’s not just me. I know a lot of writers have seen their process take a hit here in 2017. It’s hard to focus when the world is on fire, and with novelists in particular, I suspect that sometimes it’s hard to focus when you’ve got the suspicion that your fiction is almost frivolous in the context of what’s going on right now.”

 

Writer John Scalzi nails why it’s so hard to be creative under Trump

https://www.themarysue.com/john-scalzi-writing/

 

“While I’m sure we’ll see—are already seeing—art in reaction and refutation of Trump, I know that I’m currently not in the mood to give him any more of my reduced energies. If I’m able to write creatively at all now, I want to write about people with magical powers, or people traveling through time, to a world that’s not our own.”

 

LGBTQ History can be found in everyone’s past

https://www.lgbtqnation.com/2017/10/lgbtq-history-can-found-everyones-past/

 

“The lives, stories, and histories of LGBATIQ people have been intentionally hidden by socially dominant individuals and groups through neglect, deletions, erasures, omissions, bans, censorship, distortions, alterations, trivialization, change of pronouns signifying gender, and by other unauthorized means.”

 

Ace tropes: Cis-ace & Trans-allo duo

https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/ace-tropes-cis-ace-trans-allo-duo/

 

“Many (though not all) of the stories which use the cis-ace/trans-allo trope contain problematic ace representation and/or problematic trans representation. For example. For example, most of the cis-aces are presented as being completely flawless in how they handle trans issues, and the trans allos are usually presented as being just as flawless in handling asexuality.”

Carrying on the tradition

Tl;dr As I grow older, I am starting to regret my uninvolvement with Irish dance traditions and intend to change because moving the tradition forward is important to me.

 

Céline Tubridy died in late September. I never met her, but she is important to me, as an Irish dancer, as someone who kept an old tradition alive. She learned and held onto steps from the dancing master Dan Fury. As she moved towards alzheimers, she taught the steps to her husband, Michael Tubridy, who still teaches them today. Michael has visited Boston a couple of times, and I have had the honor of learning steps directly from him a total of once. The rest I learned through my teacher, Kieran Jordan.

 

That’s a lot of names, but what it represents is a lineage and it’s one I’m proud of. It’s where I come from. I don’t have a long, nonbinary history to link myself to (I wish I did), I’m really fucking confused about whether I’m Jewish…or Quaker…or Huguenot…or whatever. Modern and contemporary dance traditions are new and short. Irish dance tradition is my anchor in history and I’m honored to dance these steps and to know where they come from.

 

But it’s confusing too. When Céline died, I waffled about whether or not to write anything about what that meant for me and, by the time I decided I wanted to, it was just a little too late to avoid awkwardness. I feel like the paths I have taken away from Irish dance – mixing sean-nos with other percussive dance forms, never quite making the time to attend the main Irish cultural and dance events, the fact that I’m only a quarter Irish, always trying to dance to “untraditional” music and, yes, even my queerness (I’m not saying this feeling is Right) gives me less of a right to claim my heritage as an Irish Dancer, even when I continue to be one in any other dance space I enter.

 

At the same time, I’m watching the people who are the keepers of my tradition die. Beyond the fact that death is always awful on the personal scale, it’s not a terrible death, they’re old, it’s time, and I’m a strong believer in tradition as change. But, I can’t stop the deep curl of regret that I will never get to study with them. And, not in the case of Céline, but certainly in the case of Michael Tubridy and a few others, it is partially my fault. My teacher brings these people in, they teach workshops, they have been available to me, and I have just been too busy or stressed from high school or simply not committed enough to make the long journey. It’s a choice, it’s a completely understandable choice, but I regret it now.

 

Tradition changes, but it changes from somewhere, and I feel like I’m not grounded enough in this tradition to be able to change it. The moment when you realize you speak a language fluently is not the moment when you have a conversation in the language, it’s when you are able to make up a word in that language without the help of your native language that is completely logical within all linguistic parameters and completely understandable to a native speaker of the language. With Irish dance, I can copy the vocabulary, I can steal bits and pieces and use it, but I don’t understand it enough to create it. I’m proficient, not fluent.

 

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, proficiency is wonderful and I love Irish dance, it has influenced my artistic practice from the very beginning and, at the end of the day, is my one, true dance love. That is undeniable. But, now I’ve had my time away, and my time failing to be part of the tradition, I’m realizing how important it is to me that the tradition doesn’t stop at me. I want it to go through me to the next generation. I want to be fluent.

 

Of course my teacher has other students, the tradition wouldn’t be lost if I chose to look the other way and do my weird performance art nonsense. But that’s not what I want. This is my lineage and I want to see it continue. I may have never met Céline Tubridy, but her dancing has shaped the kind of dancer I am, and what she gave me was valuable. I’d be a fool to stop it there and not carry on this tradition so others can learn from her too.

 

In other words, it’s time to get my ass in gear and start committing to connecting with Irish dance traditions beyond just showing up to class when it suits me.

 

Also: you can watch Céline dancing here! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lMBQPr8Y9w

 

Transition, trans becoming

tl;dr The process of transition is defined and controlled by cis people in a way that denies transness to many, many trans people. However, we are all still slowly becoming our genders and that, for us trans folks, is our transition, cis-sanctioned or not. 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about transition recently. It started when, reading the brief for an application that recommended “gender transition” as one of the ways to explore the theme. My immediate reaction was to refuse. I am strongly opposed to the cis obsession with gender transition, as if that is the only thing worth noting about trans people.

 

But it also brought up another point: For me, one of the reasons why I am so violently opposed to talking about transition is because I did not have one.

 

Reword: I did not have a cis-sanctioned transition.

 

Transition is a funny one, because it is necessary for trans people. It is life-saving. To ignore it or downplay its importance ignores and downplays the very real harm that comes from denying transition. And transition describes a very particular, important experience for trans people.

 

And so, it is that much more important for cis people to control it, because then they continue to maintain the ultimate power over trans people. Only certain kinds of trans people are allowed to transition, only after jumping through frankly ridiculous hoops in order to “prove” that they are the gender they say they are, and transition is quite often used as a condition for then recognizing and respecting someone’s gender and transness.

 

And then cis people like to fetishize this dehumanizing process while making it all about them. Think of every sob-story documentary about a trans teenager transitioning and the kid says pat words about being “born in the wrong body” and then the parent has a nice long interview about how hard it is, but how they support they’re child no matter what. Think about the fact that a cis person felt completely comfortable telling trans artists that a great topic for their submission would be “gender transition” and not anything else related to trans identities. Think about the huge number of books written by cis people that focus on trans people getting access to medical transition or being bullied for social transition. Think about how a lot of nonbinary campaigns have had to center around documentation – being able to shift an honorific to “Mx.” or to have a third gender option on our paperwork – things that would out us, put us at more risk, but allow us to “transition” in a way that could safely identify us to cis people. Trans people are reduced to our transition and we’re reduced to only the transitions that cis people find titillating, dehumanizing, and unthreatening enough that they provide safe entertainment for the “normal”, cis person.

 

Some trans people need a cis-sanctioned transition. That’s important. And, to be honest, I’m glad that those transitions are getting more visibility and sympathy because it means that the people that need them have slightly better (slightly) access to them than before. Even the gross, cis-centric transition narratives are necessary in a way because it does put more pressure on society to create smoother transitions.

 

But, what about those of us who don’t fit the cis-sanctioned model?

 

Even something as simple as wanting SRS without HRT can be grounds for cis people taking away a trans person’s right to their transness. So, for someone like me, that isn’t looking at a medical transition at all and has no option of a meaningful social transition, I lost my cis-sanctioned right to be trans a long time ago. As far as most cis people are concerned, I’m not trans, I never transitioned, and I should shut up and let the “real” trans people talk.

 

Sometimes I believe them. Recently I was thinking about reaching out to a trans artist that I deeply admired because they would be near me and I would like to properly meet them, but I talked myself out of it because they were a “real” trans person and I was just “trans-lite”, the easy kind of trans person that doesn’t transition. I’d just be wasting their time asking them to meet with me on the capacity of two trans artists. (Bullshit, of course, but real enough logic in mind to keep me from sending the message).

 

And that’s a huge reason why I don’t talk about transition.

 

I thought it was because I was sick of trans people being turned into entertaining transitions for cis people, and that is true, I certainly am, but it’s more because every time I talk about cis-sanctioned transition, I feel like I am denying my own transness.

 

I don’t know if I really transitioned. I tried to, because I needed that legitimation. I had a clear “coming out” at school, I changed my name, I started wearing hats….and that’s about all. There’s no real road map for my kind of transition. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. I’m learning to be comfortable with that.

 

What I did do was become. And I’m still doing it. I’m slowly becoming my gender, learning what that means for me, letting it grow as I grow and change. I think this is something everyone does, it’s just felt particularly strongly for trans people, because our process of becoming is about not following the most common process. And then cis people feel threatened and fascinated by something outside of their norm and then learn how to control it – sanction certain practices, make other ones invisible.

 

But that doesn’t mean one thing is transition and one thing isn’t. Transition, trans becoming, is something all trans people do. We slowly but surely become our gender(s), we slowly but surely become ourselves. Sometimes it goes faster or slower, sometimes it’s visible and sometimes it’s subtle. It is always deeply personal. Sometimes it’s something cis people like to gawk at to maintain hegemony, sometimes they prefer to look away, also to maintain hegemony. But all methods of transition are real and exist and necessary for the person following that trajectory.

 

Someday I may be my gender fully and completely. Someday I may be fully transitioned. But, for right now, I’m just slowly becoming more me. That’s enough of a transition.

 

AAW 2017: Acespecs are under attack

tl;dr We need to recognize that acespecs are under attack from allo queer folks and mainstream society that are not just ignoring us, but silencing us, invalidating us, and denying our right to existence. This goes well beyond questions of awareness and it needs to stop. 

So I’m sitting down to write my mandatory post for Ace Awareness Week and realizing exactly how little I care. The Discourse ™ has raged over the internet for three years now and, instead of being proud of my ace identity, instead of wanting to share it with others, increase visibility, advocate and push for proper treatment of acespec folks, I’m honestly just tired. I feel like, in a way, I’ve lost my aceness.

 

I wrote about this last year on my personal tumblr (which is going nowhere near this blog, sorry folks), and it’s so frustrating that, since then, instead of seeing progress in the last year, our awful political downfall has become justification for pushing anything an acespec says to the side for later because there are more urgent concerns to deal with.

 

And yet, acespecs are still stuck defending ourselves everyday against people claiming we’re stealing resources from “real” lgbt people, people claiming we’re abusive, people claiming we’re confused/sick/misinformed, people denying the abuse we face because of our identity, people claiming we’re homophobic or transphobic through lacking attraction, and, above all else, being told our struggles don’t matter because other people have it worse. Even when I mention my own struggles with aphobia in trans communities, my words are immediately co-opted to discuss transphobia and other forms of discrimination within queer circles. Acespecs are not allowed to simply discuss our own struggles without recognizing and taking care of every other queer struggle at the same time. We are under attack from each other, members of our own community, and mainstream society. How is that not urgent?

 

It’s not about awareness anymore. I thoroughly believe that there is more than enough ace awareness going around at the moment, considering what any vocal acespec person faces the moment they dare to start talking about their experiences. It’s not even about education. People that are literally recycling TERF rhetoric to justify their hate of acespecs aren’t going to listen to civil education on acespec identities. It’s not even really about advocacy, because that’s a polite term, and every time we try something polite, it’s easy for people who don’t want to help to simply “prioritize” acespecs at the bottom.

 

And, let me tell you, prioritizing acespecs at the bottom perpetuates that harmful, harmful belief that asexuality is a white identity, that it is a christian, english-speaking, Western identity, that trans acespecs only struggle because of ther transness (and that most trans people stop being ace anyways after transitioning anyways, that’s a post for another person to write, I think), and that an acespec identity can, in fact (disgustingly), justify sexual abuse. It’s this assumption that being ace automatically is an “easier” way to be queer and we have nothing to complain about.

 

In the past, these have been intracommunity issues – acespecs constantly challenging each other on creating an image of the white, english-speaking, American that fits Christian values of purity and is, more or less, not a huge challenge to general society. It’s a question of respectability politics. As a white, atheist, English-speaking American, I’ve always tried to approach these issues cautiously, listening and sharing more than writing. Except, now that any “problem” in the acespec community is used to prove that acespecs don’t “deserve” support, I, and plenty of other acespecs are scared to even bring up these intracommunity issues.

 

We need to reframe the entire thing. I am sick of hearing queer and lgbt+ groups talk about how we need to “prioritize the most vulnerable” and then use that to just ignore huge swaths of their population. Yes, if there are limited resources, we do need to prioritize. We do need to prioritize the people that are most likely to be hurt first. I don’t like it, it’s not sustainable, simply temporary relief, but there are limits to our capabilities and I recognize that.

 

But, when we are prioritizing, we need to recognize who we’re putting at the bottom and why. When we claim to prioritize trans people, when we want to support PoC, when we want to talk about income inequality, when we want to talk about colonialism and linguistic imperialism, these are all acespec issues. We don’t get to put “asexuality” in a neat little “privileged” package and leave it to the side. Asexuality is part of what makes intersecting identities more vulnerable because an acespec person will face violence and discrimination for their acespec identity from people claiming to support other aspects of their identity. That’s before we even look at mainstream society. We cannot support vulnerable populations without recognizing and supporting acespec identities.

 

I would like to be able to walk into a room of trans people without having to hide or defend my asexuality. I would like to be able to discuss aphobes without having to discuss terfs in the same breath in order for the discussion to be justified. And seriously? I’m still sour about the people that argued against the Trevor Project including asexuals (yeah yeah, it’s history, I know. But STILL). Are you seriously that hateful that you would deny a young queer person a life-saving resource because they aren’t the right kind of queer?

 

I’m too tired to be polite about this anymore. So, this AAW, I have a message for allo queer people: you are aware of us. You are very, very aware of us. I know it because we are being attacked by you daily on the internet, because you are telling us we are undeserving of support, because you are refusing to listen to our requests for safety for acespec and sex-repulsed people in queer spaces, spaces we belong in.

 

So stop pretending like you can ignore us. Stop trying to justify your hate of us. A year ago, I may have been ready to claim it wasn’t hate, but that you felt threatened and scared by people challenging things that have been positioned as pillars of lgbt communities. Now you’ve crossed enough lines that I’m not quite able to do that anymore. There are legitimate, justifiable reasons to feel threatened by acespecs. But we’re people. Deal with your emotions. Don’t force us to suffer the consequences of you refusing to face them.

 

Stop assuming aces have it easy. We don’t. Every time you make that assumption, you make it harder for us.

 

I wish I could talk about what I’d like to talk about – ways we can make queer spaces more welcoming for acespecs, conversations around trans identity and acespec identity and how those two things interlink in really strange and important ways, how we can all do better to support survivors of sexual abuse and what can be learned (both good and bad) from the ace community on this…

 

Except, I’m sitting here watching young, optimistic acespecs get death threats on a terrifyingly regular basis.

 

So, this year, I only have one demand, and it’s non-negotiable:

 

Please stop challenging our existence or our human rights. Please stop attacking us.

 

 

 

Theory: Passive Performance

tl;dr Passive performance is a theory of performance which accepts that gender in Western society is interpreted through a binary lens and so refuses to engage with the practice of manipulation that would reinforce the gender binary.

 

Untitled
Photographs by audience members, you can see them all here

 

If you can’t tell, the past few months have been a transition for this blog. As I have been moving out of an educational setting into an attempted professional one, I have been finishing up my reflections on my course, tying up some loose ends I’ve wanted to discuss for a while, and am now repositioning myself as someone outside of an institution. Ouf.

As part of that, I am adding a more theoretical component to this blog. My art is deeply linked with an artistic and academic theory-building. It is an important part of who I am and how I make. So, I intend to start monthly discussions of theory I am developing and try to demonstrate how it informs my work. These may be a little bit longer and more academically inclined than my more personal writing, but I hope I can still make it accessible to anyone who is interested.

I’m going to start with the theories I developed for my independent project, “Construction Zone”, and  we’re going to start with passive performance because it’s a great way to just nip the inevitable Judith Butler tangent in the bud before it happens.

Performativity

“Performativity” was developed by Judith Butler, very well-known in gender theory (and quite often strongly hated by trans people, I can’t say I love her at all). She uses the term of “self-stylization” to describe how individuals build their gender, as opposed to having gender as an innate, essential trait (1990/2004, p. 94). More interestingly, she discusses how interpretation is part of this construction. Someone’s gender is as much about how it is perceived and interpreted through social constraints as how it is presented. From there, it is possible for someone to manipulate another’s perception of their gender. We can make choices to navigate and control the limitations of gender interpretation.

However, an unavoidable limitation in Western society to gender interpretation is the Gender Binary (ew). Butler suggests that a nonbinary gender is impossible, because gender is interpreted by society and society only sees two genders (Butler, 1987/2004). I’m, of course, a nonbinary person sitting here and going “how the hell do I exist then?” and that’s kind of where the whole theory falls apart.

Performativity is an extremely flawed concept (I highly recommend reading Julia Serano’s “Performance Piece” and “Julia Serano on Judith Butler”  which both discuss Butler and the ways she’s been misinterpreted in a sympathetically critical light), but it is useful because it recognizes the role of interpretation in gender presentation and allows for us to consider the possibility of manipulation.

Passive performance/non-performance

So, if nonbinary people aren’t recognized in Western society, how can a nonbinary person manipulate others perceptions of them in order to perform a nonbinary gender?

The usual way this happens is by “mixing” gender presentations – drag, not-quite-drag, someone in a suit and high heels, cute boys in dresses, etcetcetc. The person takes bits and pieces from each side of the gender binary until they’re significantly “between” enough to not belong in either category.

While I recognize this does work to an extent, I question its long-term impact. Simply put, this manipulation is completely dependent on the Gender Binary, so it is still, in many ways, a binary expression, just in between the two points on a sliding scale instead of in the polar opposites. It reinforces the Gender Binary just as much as it challenges it.

My first reaction when faced with this dilemma was to say “fine then, I won’t perform anything at all”. But, the bad news is that, no matter how much you try not to perform, people and society will keep interpreting anyways. So, an absolute non-performance is impossible. However we can consider a response in terms of passivity instead of negativity.

Passive performance is refusing to actively manipulate interpretation. We cannot keep people from interpreting, but we can refuse to take part in the process. This is not something I do every day, manipulating people’s perceptions of me is as much about survival as it is about comfort, but it is effective in staged and presented performance. As soon as you make something a “performance”, questions of performativity and performance and interpretation become exaggerated because the manipulation and the interpretation processes become conscious as opposed to learned, subconscious behavior dictated by society. Removing a significant part of it, the manipulation that pressures the audience to interpret in specific ways, opens up possibilities for the audience to interpret, re-interpret, and consider their interpretations in a different way.

In practice

I developed this theory directly for “Construction Zone” which was, because of the passivity, an installation. Since I couldn’t manipulate the audience’s interpretations of me (and, instead, invited the audience to make their interpretation without my input as part of the installation through the use of the odious genderbread person’s scales), I couldn’t “perform” in any way: I couldn’t speak, dance, move, even my “costume” was designed to turn me into the genderbread person instead of an attempt to manipulate people the way I do in my everyday clothing choices. The night before, I had still not decided what to do with my hat, a particular characteristic that most people attribute to me (and I have purposefully encouraged, a form of manipulation). I eventually decided not to wear it, but to use it to hold the clothespins which the audience used to interpret me, presenting it in the space, but leaving it up to the audience’s interpretation, just as I was presenting myself. As for me, I simply sat, passively finger knitting (building the social constructions, that’s another theory topic), not engaging the audience members as they (mis)gendered me.

I also included written texts. These encompassed anything from my frustration at cis people to reflections on my own gender to discussions about the theories driving the work. You could argue that the texts were an attempt at manipulating my audience. However, they were placed passively in the room, similar to the hat. I did not have any power over whether or not the audience chose to read the texts while they had the ultimate decision-making power in terms of what they got out of the installation or what they learned or decided about me. I’m a control freak, so this level of passivity was terrifying and made me realize exactly how active I am in manipulating my audience’s perceptions in most of the work I create.

I’m not sure if this is a particular theory I’m going to return to immediately, as my interests are currently more movement-based, but I do think it flags up a lot of the issues that come with being a nonbinary performer. We cannot avoid binary interpretations of our performances, but we also don’t have to actively engage with the gender binary in order to perform. There is room for challenging the audience without having to reinforce damaging stereotypes of gender. That’s a particularly optimistic thought worth exploring further and could open up so many fascinating inquiries into performance.

Works Cited

Butler, J. (2004). Bodily inscriptions, performative subversions (1990). In Salih, S. (Ed), The Judith Butler reader (pp. 90-118). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Butler, J. (2004). Variations on sex and gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, Foucault (1987). In Salih, S. (Ed), The Judith Butler reader (pp. 21-38). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.