the letter z

Boundaries, lines, boxes, and labels

Posted in Uncategorized by z on 2010-03-17

So something seemed to blow up on QT, namely, that a post regarding appropriation of genderqueer identites. I haven’t looked into the full two-hundred comments, partly because the discussion seemed to devolve into determining who was legitimately genderqueer or not, but partly because I’m unfamiliar with the subject matter as well as I would not necessarily consider myself genderqueer.

But this brings up an interesting side question. Normally, I find that a reasonably prudent way to define membership in a social group (for example, who is gay/lesbian, or who is trans) is by respecting a person’s self-identification. Most of the time, most people who self identify with a given identity are genuine, and everything works. But from an external perspective, someone may claim to identify one way or another for a joke, or for example, in the genderqueer case as described in the above linked post, “when someone decides that they are totally down with smashing the gender binary, and that they’ll show it by taking on a genderqueer identity”. This seems at odds with respecting self-identification, but it seems justified enough.

I am also reminded of the totally bizarre case from The L Word, where a “male lesbian” character was introduced — a man who identified with a “lesbian lifestyle” … er, or something. I imagine, as absurd as this might be, that a certain number of people identify this way. Again, while the notion of a cis man identifying as a lesbian is fairly absurd, this seems at odds with respecting self-identification.

What about intersections of identifications? How would one classify a trans butch lesbian? Is she trans, or genderqueer? What about a cis butch lesbian? What about a cis man who enjoys drag every now and then?

I’m at a loss. I’m sure that the number of these cases where self-identifications seem absurd are miniscule. I’m also sure that having hang-ups on labels is perhaps problematic in itself, but labels are actually important to LGBT people as well, as a rallying point and to distinguish who is part of our communities and who is not, but that leads to the problems described above.

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12 Responses

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  1. Lisa Harney said, on 2010-03-17 at 11:14 am

    I think it’s not just about the labels, but about the experiences. Someone who is genderqueer deals with a world that will probably never respect hir gender, preferred pronouns, or even acknowledge that ze could possibly have a gender that is neither man nor woman. A transsexual person has to deal with transitioning, changing documentation, paying for surgery or being unable to pay for surgery, and transphobia. A woman has to deal with sexism in general.

    So when someone tries to lay claim to the label, they’re also laying claim to the experiences. Someone like Jasper, for example, tries to claim he’s a trans woman in terms of his identity or experiences, but he also claims to be intersex, to be a woman of color, and genderqueer, and he’s openly admitted to “strategically appropriating identities.” And after presenting himself as a trans voice, he uses it to slam, degender, attack, and criticize trans women for not wanting to see ourselves the way he sees himself.

    Or the white authors who pose as NDNs, who sell memoirs or other books based on their supposed lives and experiences as NDNs. They’re not only making money off of someone else’s culture, they’re doing so in a way that erases the real people and culture.

    The other thing is that there isn’t any limit or ecxlusionary stuff here. A trans butch lesbian can be a butch lesbian and a trans woman at the same time. She can also be genderqueer (but I don’t think all butch lesbians are genderqueer) and still be trans, even if she doesn’t see herself as a woman or as female.

    • z said, on 2010-03-17 at 11:40 am

      Sure, I like that idea. Although the idea of using experiences as a qualifier might need to be extended somewhat: for example, what about a young trans person just starting out and has done nothing yet to further their transition (but perhaps intends to)? One may say objectively that this person has not really partially experienced what it is like to be trans (yet); perhaps the issues of living in a cis society for our trans person are enough to qualify them as “legitimately” trans. That tacks along similarly with the issues that surround genderqueer people being forced into binaries as you describe (except, naturally for the fact that a genderqueer person doesn’t really “start” to be so like a trans person may)

      Is saying that self-identification and a declaration of intent or of lived experience with that identification enough? I think that’s a tidy answer…

      • nome said, on 2010-03-17 at 4:02 pm

        I disagree. Being transsex isn’t just about the legal and medical stuff. It’s about waking up in the morning in the wrong body. It doesn’t matter how many or few procedures/processes a trans person goes through, or plans to.

        And ditto to Lisa about the trans butch lesbian. Being trans does not change the butchness, the lesbian-ness, the woman-ness. I would also add that being trans does not cancel out being genderqueer. I know many transsexual genderqueers. I myself am a transgenderqueer.

        • z said, on 2010-03-17 at 9:45 pm

          Of course it isn’t. Lisa brought up the word “experience”, and it is this that I am speaking to. There is a wide variety to trans experience, for example, but there are common elements underpinning them all: just like you said, “It’s about waking up in the morning in the wrong body”. Is that singular experience common to all trans people? I suppose it might be.

          I brought up the example of the trans butch lesbian to underscore an issue about using objective criteria as a determinant of group identity, for example, if we are to externally define genderqueerness as a nonadherence to traditional gender expression, then this woman qualifies under this definition, though she may have a binary gender identification. I didn’t really explain this very well in my post, sorry.

      • Lisa Harney said, on 2010-03-19 at 12:13 am

        Trans people have a lot of common experiences pre-transition as well. I was citing examples, not prescriptions. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

        Also, trans people can be genderqueer and vice versa.

        I’m actually getting really tired of talking about “identification” and “self-identification.” I think that, more than what we choose to call ourselves, is often used in trivializing ways. How many times have you seen cis people referred to as “men and women” but trans people as “identifies as men or identifies as women?” For me, it’s frequent enough to notice. I don’t see my transness or femaleness or womanhood as a matter of identification, but again as an accumulation of my life experiences.

        I also think your comment below about “objective criteria” isn’t really what I was getting at. I’m no fan of objectivity, and I don’t believe it really exists.

        • z said, on 2010-03-19 at 12:51 am

          That’s an interesting and valid point you bring up about “identification”. Deserves some more thought.

          My point about objectivity wasn’t made in response to you or your comments specifically but was intended originally to highlight complications and problems when attempting to take purely objective criteria to determine whether someone is trans or gq or anything like that.

  2. Jessica said, on 2010-03-27 at 8:07 am

    Not to draw this too far off-topic, there are enough of your example that they have a name: guydikes, the less common(?) male counterpart to the girlfag. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girlfags_and_guydykes They seem to be sincere, and it is sometimes a trans identity.

  3. Sophia said, on 2010-03-31 at 10:40 am

    I’ve started to comment on this at least half a dozen times, and hopefully this time it’s reasonably cogent.
    Basically I’ve been trying to work out why I didn’t think that the answers to 2 questions were necessarily the same; namely, what constitutes a GQ identity and what constitutes GQ identity in respect of appropriation.
    My thought was that an answer to the first would serve best in delineating when someone might have a case of jaspers syndrome, whereas the second would be better at showing the shades of belonging in those with a more genuine case to be considered as a member of the group.
    And I suppose that a possible approach to the second question might be in terms of defining group identity as a set of appropriations which of itself sets some individual group grounds for determining fruitfullness of relation and shades of legitimacy.
    Which hopefully makes some sort of sense and isn’t too far off topic.

    • z said, on 2010-04-01 at 1:05 pm

      I’m not sure I fully understand. How does a trans person appropriate trans identity, as a definition for a trans person’s group identity?

  4. Sophia said, on 2010-04-01 at 10:26 pm

    I think that adduces an additional layer of complexity.Actually I was simply looking at the notion that the group identity could be framed in terms of a set of appropriations. I’m supposing considering something like the cases of identification with a group that’s based on political belief, in the sense of rad fem lesbians or people who assert GQ group membership based on a political stance vis a vis the gender binary. People who talk the talk and walk the walk but out of admitted choice rather than necessity.Or, to take a simpler but less problematic case, someone who asserts group membership via a declaration of intent.
    Besides the practical socio-political realities, one might raise the question of their group membership in more theoretical terms. All I’m really suggesting is that those might be in terms of degrees of sanguinity, rather than membership boundary, as measured by the nature, degree and directionality of interrelationship based on permissable types of appropriation.
    I’m using appropriation in a reasonably commonplace manner,as in the way of reclaiming the word tranny, or asserting membership through intent, or performing learned imitative behaviour or adopting a symbol which has roots across cultures. All these I’d count as potentially perfectly proper types of appropriation.
    Your question could therefore be answered in terms of the act of identification being intrinsically appropriative in some aspects, and therefore every trans person could be said to be appropriating trans identity at some point or other, though that would only have any real significance when attempting an essentialist view of identity, I’d think.
    Maybe the reason that I took so long to comment is that I fear I am saying something extremely simple in a totally overcomplicated fashion.

    • alexthesane said, on 2010-08-12 at 11:40 am

      I disagree with the concept of taking on a label like this for political reasons. I am genderqueer because it is part of my being. I am a feminist because I believe in the issues involved. I am not a woman. Being a feminist does not imply womanhood even though feminism takes on issues with the patriarchy and other things often thought of as “women’s issues”. The problem here is that we are using “genderqueer” to mean (analogously) “woman” and “feminist”. This allows many people to assume that a non-binary identity is a purely political experience rather than a legitimate gender. Equating non-binary with anti-binary as it were.

      Taking on a label out of solidarity to a group trivializes the group’s identity as purely political. I am anti-racism, but as a white person I would never consider myself “politically black” or any such nonsense. Again, the issue is that we are using one word for both terms, and that can hide the identity aspect of it, especially if the emphasis of a particular point is on the political.


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