The Binary World that We Live In

10 Jan

The world that we live in loves binaries. Black and White. Right and Wrong. Old and Young. Strong and Weak. Female and Male. Gay and Straight. The list is endless.

Perhaps, it can be argued, we need binaries to structure the world that we socialise in. It could be argued that it relates back to the fight or flight times, where split second decisions and knowing was a matter of life or death.

However, as someone who exists neither here nor there, neither gay nor straight, neither female nor male, always hovering between what I believe to be right and what society accepts as right, the binary system serves only as a reminder of my ‘transitory’ status in modern society.

Today I read two article.

The first, written by Sheila I. Velez-Martinez, is called Gender is more than Sex. Sheila writes about the difference between biological sex and the social constructs of gender, stating that, in order to protect human rights, “the formal binary articulation of gender rights … [is] incompatible with the complete protection of the rights of the gender nonconforming.”

The second article I read was written by Odhrán Allen, called Bi the way… sexuality isn’t just ‘straight or gay’. Odhrán writes that “A frequent misconception when someone comes out as bisexual is that they’ve only stepped ‘halfway out of closet’. This view ignores the fact that human sexuality exists on a continuum”

Both of these articles touch upon the same issue: that modern society requires binary definitions in cases where it is often not applicable. For those who don’t fit the binary, who exist in the grey area along the continuum, social situations can become fraught with tension and misunderstandings.

Take the basic toilet rule. Male. Female. What if you don’t fit society’s rigid rules for these spaces? Which do you use?

Then there’s the fact that modern European languages require the use of gender specific referents. He, she, his, hers, mr, mrs/ms/miss (don’t get me started on the reasoning behind one male vs three female titles!). So, here is when issues begin to arise. If a person is female bodied but identifies as male, ‘she’ as a referent often becomes problematic and can be upsetting. Then there’s the issue of identifying with neither gender fully. What referent should be used? There is of course ze/hir/they/it… But they don’t roll off the tongue quite as easily as he/she, and are used more often within the queer community but not without.

On the subject of sexuality, there is often pressure, from both the heterosexual and homosexual communities, for bisexuals to ‘pick’ one or the other. And then, of course, just to compound the issue, what if you do not believe that gender exists as the male/female binary? How then does one describe their sexuality? Queer is the term often used in such cases, but I wanted to draw attention to the binary aspect of gender and sexuality that are so bound up together that it seems almost impossible to step outside the binary to consider the continuum.

I understand the desire to fit in. But sometimes trying to fit someone into a gender binary is just as harmful to that person as it is for a trans person to be in the wrong body. And often trying to fit someone into a particular sexuality can be stressful and frustrating for that person. I find the need to fit people into binaries both unhelpful and damaging. Sometimes the box just doesn’t fit.

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Trans Invisibility in LGBT Spaces

24 Dec

One month ago I went to see The Trouble with Harry, written by Lachlan Philpott and directed by Alyson Campbell. Based on a true story, it tells us about Harry, a person with a physically female body who lived life as a man called Harry Crawford. Much of the debate up to this point regarding this story has been about whether Harry was a lesbian or a trans man. Certainly, such terms were not in common use in language at that time, but the depiction of Harry in the play seemed to me, at least, to be of a trans man.

trans male

Harry Crawford

It was brought to my attention recently, however, that the director herself referred to Harry as a lesbian in the brochure about the play. It might be worth mentioning at this point that both the director and the writer are gay. Is it, therefore, understandable that they might see Harry from their own viewpoint? At what point do we include the T in the LGBT?

I have heard, from lesbians, cries of disappointment when a particularly attractive, seemingly butch ‘lesbian’ transitions to a man. I am aware of certain feminist circles that intentionally exclude trans women. I have heard views that ‘trans women couldn’t possibly understand female issues because they were socialised as male’. None of these viewpoints are helpful or, more importantly, inclusive of the trans community. I have never understood why people who are themselves discriminated against by society, would discriminate against others who differ from them.

But back to Harry. Why, when it seems quite clear that Harry presented himself to the world as male, would the director write about Harry as a lesbian? The excuse of ‘drawing on her own experiences’ is not adequate enough to excuse this oversight. Indeed, neither the director nor the writer mentions gender at all in the brochure for the play. If we look at lesbians and trans men throughout history, there is very little evidence to draw upon that tells us who was which. Some argue that, if the term did not exist, then that to which the term refers also did not exist. I believe this to be a fallacy. We will never know how people saw themselves without written evidence. At the same time, claiming that all such people were lesbians is a typical example of how the lesbian community, in particular, can make invisible the presence of trans men.

There are precious few representations of the trans community in the media and the arts as it is. We cannot afford the mis-represention of those stories of trans people that are told. Although the LGB refers to sexuality while the T refers to gender identity, there is an overlap between the two communities that should allow for understanding and respect of each individual’s identity.

Interestingly, the bisexual community is, from my experience, the most inclusive of the trans community. Perhaps this is in part due to the relative exclusion (and distrust) of bisexuality in the lesbian and gay communities. Perhaps it’s simply that people who exist along the sexuality spectrum, neither gay nor straight, are more accommodating and more understanding of those who exist along the gender identity spectrum, or who are born into a body that does not fit their gender identity. It cannot be denied that both groups are excluded and discriminated against at times by the lesbian and gay communities.

I know this piece is written in such a way that I have grouped all lesbians, all gay men, all bisexual people and all trans people into communities. Such homogeneity does not, of course, exist in reality. But for the purpose of this blog post, I have written in this way. I know also that there are many people who do not hold such prejudices, and who do not discriminate against those in the trans community.

Finally, I am aware that have written this piece by focusing on sexuality and questioning the exclusion of gender diversity within this. These are separate issues much of the time. Yet gender diversity has always been present within the LGB community, and Trans allies should not be forgotten. We have made so many steps forward regarding the acceptance of sexuality diversity, but we must not forget from whence we came. The LGB community is guilty of pushing the Trans community in the background. The brochure for The Trouble with Harry is case in point. We need to make the invisible visible. This can start within the Queer community, with greater understanding of, and recognition of, trans experiences.

Lesbian Invisibility

16 Oct

I’m a proud member of the LGBT community. I believe strongly in equality and civil rights and liberties. I understand that the past is a different place, yet I’m constantly frustrated at the lack of historical records of lesbian and bisexual women. I know that, historically, women have been invisible, in part due to the fact that men were the ones writing women out of history.

The lack of record keeping by women or about women, particularly those that were part of the hidden queer community, makes writing a ‘herstory’ of LB women particularly difficult. If you take into account white privilege, or class privilege, you can see another hole opening up in which non-white, or working-class LB women are even less visible.

Then there’s the issue of trans* invisibility. Even in contemporary society, members of the trans* community are ostracised more than cis-gendered members of the queer community, sometimes even by member of the queer community. Historically, and up to the present, members of the queer community have crossed gender lines. The difficulty is in separating those who defined themselves as trans* and those who were cross-dressing. Certainly there were, and are, LB women who enjoy challenging gender norms. So how do we differentiate between the two when history has failed to consciously document either?

I’m not an historian by any stretch of the imagination, but I have decided, from this point forth, to attempt to pull together all the research that has been done so far to document the lives of queer women in the past.

Here’s a great post from Autostraddle to start this off:

http://www.autostraddle.com/150-years-of-lesbians-144337/

lesbian couple, 1990

lesbian couple, 1990

Cyberbullying, Misogyny and Slut-Shaming

19 Aug

Two years ago I attended a SlutWalk protest in Melbourne. SlutWalk came about after a Toronto police officer told a class of university students that, in order to remain safe, “women should avoid dressing like sluts.”

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This example of sexism and slut-shaming highlights the institutionalisation of misogynistic body-policing and victim-blaming that still exists at the very heart of contemporary society. Women are blamed whereas men are excused in cases of rape and sexual abuse. A woman can be questioned about her sexual history in rape court cases, implying that somehow the rape or sexual abuse was the woman’s fault.

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Yesterday, these double standards once again reared their ugly head in a recent spate of slut-shaming and cyberbullying on Twitter, trending with the hashtag SlaneGirl. A teenage girl, photographed performing a sex act on a man in public, has become a victim of slut-shaming and sexist abuse on a scale that only social media could facilitate. The very fact that the woman is shamed while the man in the very same photo is praised highlights the deep-seated belief that, while it is acceptable for a man to express his sexuality, it is unacceptable for a women to do the same thing. The double standard is evidenced in the many tweets that praise the man captured in the same photo.

This slut-shaming has to stop. The sexist, misogynistic double-standards have to change. Women are just as entitled to their sexuality as men, and women should not be shamed for something that men are praised for.

Shame on those spreading the photo and increasing the cyber-bullying of this girl. Just as rape is a sex act forced by one person upon another, consensual sex acts are part of a two-way process in which both parties are responsible for their actions and should be treated in an equal manner for performing the same act. This shame/praise contradiction that underlies the slut-shaming of women alongside the hero-worshipping of men is disgraceful.

Irish Shorts at GAZE 2013, Dublin’s International LGBT Film Festival

7 Aug

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I often find with LGBT films that there are stereotypes and particular stories that we cannot seem to get away from: lesbian (ex-)prisoners, flamboyant, effeminate gay men, coming out stories (a particular favourite in lesbian films), lesbians turning to men briefly to fix their failing lesbian relationship…

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with some of these themes and stories, it’s simply that their prevalence becomes wearisome. I was therefore delighted to be presented with different stories and themes at the screening of Irish Shorts at the GAZE Film Festival in Dublin.

There were 5 short films of varying lengths. Dara deFaoite’s Mums & Dad documents the story of a lesbian couple who chose to have a known donor, a gay man, for IVF, with the intention that their child would grow up knowing who their biological father was. This short demonstrates a functioning alternative family set-up while addressing deeper issues of loss and guilt that are an integral part of this family’s story.

Barry’s Bespoke Bakery was the only fictional short shown. It shows the intricate process of the creation of a wedding cake, told using vibrant colours and a simple, but touching, storyline. One of the lighter short films in this screening, the placement of this film right after Mums & Dad was effective in lifting the mood of the audience after the somewhat heavy ending of the first film.

The next film was Caroline Campbell’s Our Love Is History, which cleverly tells the stories of the people who lived, loved and laughed during the era of the Hirschfeld Centre dancefloor. The stories were read out by the generation of young LGBT people who are only now reaping the rewards of the struggles of the underground movement in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Filming in various abstract locations around Dublin, this documentary ties together the past and present in a unique and humourous way that got laughs from the older generation, while forcing the younger generation to acknowledge their relative privilege growing up in Ireland today.

The penultimate film, Lisa Fingleton’s Waiting For You, is a unique look at a lesbian couple’s desire to become mothers, focusing on the little-documented stress of IVF treatment, the search for donors and the expense, both emotional and financial, it can have on a couple. This documentary is particularly touching as the footage was originally intended only for personal use, so it opens up a door into the hidden world of a very private couple, telling their story which any couple struggling to conceive could relate.

The most powerful documentary was, without a doubt, Anna Rodgers’ documentary A Different Novena. Filmed and screened in Ireland within a Catholic Church, in which a lesbian and a gay man are invited to speak at Novena mass at St Joseph’s Redemptorist Church in Dundalk, the film documents these two individuals as they speak to hundreds of people over the course of a day. Speaking of their exclusion from the Catholic Church in which they were both raised, the issues they touched upon are still relevant today. Despite Pope Francis’ proclamation that the Church should be more open to gay people, he stopped short of overturning the outdated notion that the practice of homosexuality is a sin.

So, rather than the usual themes, these Irish shorts address contemporary issues such as motherhood (and fatherhood), alternative family set-ups, conception in same-sex family set-ups, as well as telling stories from the past in a humourous and engaging way, with lesbians that are not ex-prisoners and gay men that have more than a one dimensional-identity.

I have often found it difficult to watch LGBT films, mostly because they do not address the underlying issues of being openly gay in a country where abortion has been (barely) legalised, same-sex adoption is still illegal, and equal marriage is yet to be decided upon.  I’ve always thought of myself as a feminist first and foremost, and have often disagreed with women who proclaim themselves to be ‘pro-equality’ without being a ‘feminist’. But now I’m starting to think that feminism isn’t enough to address the discrimination that members of the LGBT community face, discrimination that is enshrined in law both in Ireland and worldwide.

 

Negative Body Image – Where does Responsibility lie?

26 May

I came across an article in the Metro UK on Monday 13th May, depicting emaciated pictures of women juxtaposed alongside similarly emaciated sketches of women. These images are part of an anti-anorexia campaign by Brazilian model agency Star Model, designed to shock viewers into a sense of reality. Using real women as models, the images were edited using Photoshop to recreate the sketches, giving them the emaciated look that is often seen in sufferers of severe anorexia.

youarenotasketch

The fashion industry has a lot to answer for in terms of creating unrealistic ideals of super-thin (or extra-large breasted) women, although the blame does not solely lie within this industry. Children’s toys, television shows, beauty pageants… an obsession with a particular type of beauty: thin, busty, clear skin, long legs, caucasian.

Much of the issue lies in an area that is, for the most part in the Western World, beyond control. The media industry, and the ease of access to media sources via the internet, has multiplied the availablility of images. Alongside image editing software such as Photoshop, images of unrealistically thin and/or busty women can be created at the click of a mouse.

Adi Barker, a fashion photographer in Israel, has helped to make history by campaigning for a law that prohibits models with a BMI below 18.5, from working in the fashion industry in Israel. Alongside another law that requires advertisements to clearly indicate when they use airbrushing or any other computer alterations to a model, Israel has taken a step forward, leading the way in the fight against anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders by changing the cause of unrealistic images at the source.

It is easy for photographers, publishers, image editors and other people in the media industry to take a step back and state that the issue lies with the individual, not the industry. This is the easy way out. If companies can be held accountable for false advertising, then why not photographers? Why not the fashion industry? Every action has a reaction – it’s simple physics. Here’s hoping that others in the fashion industry follow the example of Adi Barker, and use their influence and power in the industry to try to change negative body images from within the industry that creates the most unrealistic, airbrushed images of women the world over.

Body Positivity: Naturists and Vegans

16 Apr

I recently watched a Channel 4 documentary called “My Daughter the Teenage Nudist” for no particular reason other than the fact that it sounded interesting! The programme interviews and follows various different people, discussing the reasons behind their public displays of nudity. Regarding the naked aspect of the programme, my feelings are fairly ambiguous towards the whole concept of naturism. People should be able to do with their bodies what they like without being judged. What interested me most was the feminist group featured in the programme called the “Naked Vegan Cooks”. This group have a blog in which they combine vegan cooking (again, I think people should be able to choose how they eat and not be judged for it, so no comment on the veganism) and positive body image.

One girl in particular, Alex, was featured on this programme taking off her top in public and being asked by a policeman to put it back on straight away. What was interesting about this was that she did this to demonstrate how women’s bodies are objectified and sexualised in a way that men’s aren’t. In her blog she writes that “the issue is not having breasts, it is being a woman”, drawing on the example of the androgynous, male-bodied model Andrej Pejic: when presented as a topless female on a magazine cover, his “acceptable male chest becomes an unacceptable female one.”

I find this fascinating, because it looks at the idea of nakedness and the objectification of the female body from an entirely gendered viewpoint. That a naked man’s body can suddenly become unacceptable when presented as female (without any alteration to the male chest to make it appear more female) demonstrates that it is indeed the way in which our society view women as sexual objects that is the issue. I’m not sure I’ll be walking around naked anytime soon, but I applaud this group for their efforts to tackle body image as well as the objectification of the female body through their naked vegan cooking. Food for thought!