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What Is Queer Sexual Empowerment?


I have been thinking about Miley Cyrus a bit lately.

I never thought I would start off a post that way — particularly one about queer sexuality and queer people.  She … I don’t even know what to call it… at MTV’s Video Music Awards a few weeks ago.  And, became the talk of the town once more, this time swinging in nude on a wrecking ball.  When I finally saw the video for that single, “Wrecking Ball,” I was so disappointed.  Such a lovely, heartfelt song; in no way had I imagined seeing her naked, especially not sexually licking other construction equipment.  It just seemed unnecessary.  And, really, unnecessarily vulgar.  Must every video be an opportunity to sell sex?

I depart there from the conversations about Miley Cyrus and her public and private sex lives.  (I’m late, anyhow.)  But, I am intrigued by the conversations that speak more broadly about sexuality, gender, and empowerment.  Yes, Miley Cyrus is just one woman in our sexist, sex-obsessed, sex-negative society — even within the music and entertainment industry that suffers from those same characteristics.  (Really, just look at Rihanna’s new video…)  Good; let’s think sociologically!

But, what troubles me is we have not walked away from these conversations with any clear answers.  Is Miley Cyrus a sexually-empowered feminist iconOr, is she yet another pawn of the music industryApparently, the line between one’s sexual objectification and one’s sexual empowerment is too thin.  Fuck.  That is a really disturbing revelation.

Queer Sexual Empowerment

In deluding myself that there is a clear distinction, I am able to come up with clear examples of women’s sexual empowerment.  It’s women who refuse to hide that they are sexual, want sex, and like sex.  Right?  It’s “girl groups” like Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Salt ‘n Pepa, right?  It’s older women artists and actors who refuse to cave to the expectations that they should cover up, stop having sex, or just disappear completely, yes?

My thought process eventually turned to queer sexuality — including, but not limited to, gay men’s sexual empowerment.  My mind drew a blank.  What would queer sexual empowerment look like?  In some ways, merely existing as queer people, especially as sexual and loving queer people, is a political act.  Fuck you homophobia.  We exist.

For some, that empowerment entails a more heightened expression of queer sexuality.  Yes, gay pride regularly reflects the very public display of queer sexuality.  We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re scantly clad.  I have to remind the prude in me that homophobes and transphobes dismiss queer people whether we are dressed in gender normative ways or donning a rainbow boa, 6-inch-heels, and 5 o’clock shadow.  So, while I do not personally embrace the joy of public queer sex and sexuality in this way, I refuse to rain on fellow queer folks’ parade.


But, I do grow tired of the conflation of gay with gay sex.  I suppose the final straw was seeing yet another men’s sports team gone nude for a calendar to raise money for an LGBT-related cause.  First, this story implies that all of the players are cisgender and heterosexual.  It also ticks me off because — duh! — white muscular cis masculine men without disabilities are always sexy.  The pervasive sexualization of these kinds of bodies in the context of queer pride has gotten to the point that it no longer registers as empowerment, at least in my opinion.  These kinds of bodies are now used for more than sexual desire — ranging from political LGBT events, to businesses’ advertisements to LGBT communities, to any general nod that something is queer.  That’s not empowerment.

Even if that was empowerment, when do queer people like me get to be sexually empowered?  Why do brown queer bodies still serve the taboo sexual desires of white audiences?  Why are fat queer bodies only celebrated in subcultures within LGBT communities, while otherwise invisible or used to repulse or for humor?  And, what about gender expression — can I be sexy, sexually desired, and sexually empowered while defying society’s expectations for male-bodied individuals?

As an aside, I think that being sexual or having sex in public is only one way to be sexually empowered.  Yes, I do believe queer people should have the freedom to be sexual beings in their public, everyday lives without worrying about threatening cis heterosexuals.  But, not everyone wants that.  Speaking for myself, I would feel more sexually empowered if I could be a loving, whole person in public.  I hate being on guard during the few times my partner and I even hold hands in public.  I hate having to monitor how I interact with other men — especially cis heterosexual men, especially other queer men.  Even how I interact with people with whom I do not want to or actually have sex with is constrained because of the disempowering force of homophobia.

Concluding Thoughts

I suppose, like cis women’s sexual empowerment, the bounds of queer sexual empowerment are difficult to define.  For queer people, it is their sexual relationships, behaviors, and desires that are the primary targets of homophobic and biphobic hatred.  Sex is often used to evoke panic around trans* issues.  To embrace one’s sexuality as a queer person in this homo-, bi-, and transphobic society is a political act.  But, only to an extent, it seems.  We have gained political ground by convincing the cis straight dominated society that we can be in loving, monogamous relationships, and thus deserve access to marriage and other important institutions.  Don’t worry, all of that kinky public sexuality stuff is just a phase until we are ready to have real relationships.Were Just Like YouIn a way, I worry the sexual empowerment of cis heterosexual women and of queer people is not 100% on their terms.  A cis woman’s public expression of being a sexual person is valued if it gets heterosexual men off.  The flip side of that is that women’s sexuality serves as a source of power — sometimes their sole source of power in this misogynistic society of ours.  Queer people’s sexualities are acceptable to the extent that cis heterosexual people do not have to witness it.  We gain power by presenting ourselves as “Good As You.”

Empowerment on the dominant group’s terms… that’s not empowerment.  Ugh.

A Gay Guy’s Guide To Feminism – A Brief Introduction

With the start of Women’s, Womyn‘s, and Womanist Herstory Month this past Friday, I have been wondering what more I can do to challenge sexism — including my own.  As I have noted in previous posts, I have an evolving awareness that my own disadvantaged social location as a brown queer man does not make me immune to sexism, nor any other system of oppression.

One important task of my anti-sexist advocacy is to become aware of the ways in which I am privileged as a man.  I know this to be a particular challenge for queer men because of our awareness that we are disadvantaged among men.  So, I was disappointed to find little beyond a few personal reflections from feminist-identified gay men to guide me and other queer men to understand and appropriately fight sexism.  The Guy’s Guide to Feminism seems like a good start, but I find it useful to engage gay men from their unique relationships with sexism, women, and male privilege.

Feminism For Gay Men 101

Though I am just at the beginning of a lifelong journey to understanding sexism and my own male privilege, here are a few lessons I would like to impart to my fellow gay men:

  1. We are men.  We hold male privilegePeriod.
  2. Yes, number 1 is true despite our sexual orientation and despite our gender expression (no matter how feminine, androgynous, or queer).  Though gay masculinity is devalued relative to hegemonic masculinity (i.e., white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied young/middle-age masculinity), it is still privileged over all femininities.
  3. Systems of oppression are linked including — particularly relevant to this discussion — sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism.  As such, our liberation is tied to the liberation of ciswomen and trans* people.
  4. While number 3 is true, we are not immune to sexist attitudes and behaviors.  And, most importantly, being gay does not make us anti-sexist.  Our marginalized status among men may make it easier to understand sexist oppression, but it does does not preclude us from it.  Just like heterosexual cisgender men who engage in anti-sexist activism, we must be active in challenging the prejudice, discrimination, and violence against women, and to keep our male privilege in check (i.e., give it up or use it for good).
  5. Though we generally are not sexually attracted to women, we are just as capable of sexually harassing or assaulting women.  The root of sexual violence is power, not sexual attraction.  I must point out here that too many of us have sexually harassed or assaulted women and naively excused the behavior as innocent because we are gay.  Sexual violence by any perpetrator is wrong.  But, that of gay men has the added element of placing our women friends and allies in the difficult position of questioning whether to feel violated or upset.
  6. Related to number 5, we must stop treating the women in our lives as objects or accessories.  Yes, many heterosexual women are guilty of doing this to us — the gay BFF, every girl’s must have! — which is also wrong.  Friendships that exist because of her gender or your sexual orientation are forms of exotification.
  7. Attraction to male-bodied individuals, men, and masculinity must be stripped of the presumed aversion to female-bodied individuals, women, and femininity.  We need not be repulsed by female bodies just because we are not sexually attracted to (cis)women.  Even when joking, this is no less problematic than (cisgender) heterosexuals who proclaim to be repulsed by people of their same sex.
  8. Certain aspects of gay men’s culture that promote pride and empowerment among us come at the expense of women’s empowerment.  To call a fellow gay man “bitch,” “cunt,” and, more commonly in the drag scene, “fish,” is to use a term that derogates women.  Though they may be positive in intent and meaning, these are not instances of reclaiming pejorative terms used against us: self-identifying as queer is; “servin’ up fish!” isn’t.  Just think how outraged we would be if women decided to adopt “faggot” as a term of endearment among themselves.
  9. Our queer, bisexual, and lesbian sisters are oppressed by heterosexism and sexism.  We, as LGBT and queer people, will not be fully liberated by addressing homophobia and heterosexism alone.
  10. Related to number 9, we must recognize that LBQ women are often subject to our sexist prejudice and behavior, ranging from anti-lesbian jokes to outright exclusion (often disguised as innocently bonding with other gay men or even the product of our exclusive attraction to men).
  11. The way that we devalue femininity among ourselves is another arm of sexism.  The “no femmes” sentiment, aptly called femmephobia, is nothing more than the hatred of femininity, which is associated with women.  Beyond eliminating this silly prejudice in our anti-sexist efforts, we do ourselves the favor of freeing the constraints on how we can behave and express our gender.
  12. We owe it — yes, we owe it — to the ciswomen and trans* people who have fought against the injustices we face to fight against those they face.  Even when kept at the periphery or outright excluded, transpeople have fought for equal rights and status for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Many lesbian and bisexual women served as caregivers to gay and bisexual men with HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s, while also fighting along side those who worked for better HIV/AIDS health care.  Feminists of all walks of life have advocated for our protection from prejudice, discrimination, and violence, seeing it as important in (and linked to) activism against sexist discrimination and violence against women.

We owe it to our ciswomen and trans* friends and allies — and ourselves — to be better feminists.

In Defense Of Femininities — All Of Them

Happy Women’s, Womyn’s, Womanist Herstory Month!  Yep, it is March already.  A time the US has set aside for obligatory celebration of girls and women and their contributions to the world.  Sadly, there is a sense of obligation, with the whisperings of “do we still need this?”

Comprehensive Gender Equality

Yes, we do still need these 31 days — barely 10 percent of the entire year — to reflect on girls, women, feminism, sexism and patriarchy, and gender.  By no means have we achieved gender equality.  And, we are overdue for broadening our vision of gender and equality.

Some time ago, I blogged about the narrow definition of “gender equality.”  In this limited, traditional sense, we are referring to the the equal status and treatment of women and men, still recognized by their gender and presumed sex.  This is certainly the dominant vision of mainstream feminism, or was at least in the days of second wave feminism.

There are at least three aspects of gender inequality that remain in this limited view of gender and gender equality.  First, this vision reinforces the treatment of “woman” as a singular status and “women” as a monolithic group.  The unique experiences and needs of women who are also of color, poor, disabled, lesbian, bisexual, queer, older, immigrant, and so on are overlooked.  Second, this focus fails to address the marginalization of transwomen, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in general.  Finally, while aiming to free women from oppression, certain gender identities and expressions — namely femininities — remain stigmatized and invisible.

Gender Diversity

There is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often overlooked within our society that continues to treat sex and gender as binaries: females and males, women and men.

Women, as a group, come from diverse backgrounds: race, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, nativity, body size and shape, religion, region, and ability.  It is unsurprising, then, that various branches of feminism — or, more accurately, various feminisms — emerged to counter the exclusive focus of mainstream (second wave) feminism to the lives of US-born white middle-class heterosexual cisgender women.  Some of the prominent feminisms in both activism and academia include Black feminism, Womanism, Chicana feminism, multiracial feminism, Third World feminism, lesbian feminism, and working-class feminism.  Today, feminist advocacy and organizations are now more inclusive, but there is still a strong tendency to slip into “single issue” politics.

Related to this diversity among women is the variation within the category of “woman.”  Just as thinking of gender in binary terms, women and men, a singular view of women misses the existence of trans* and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen.  Unfortunately, feminist advocacy and organizations have even excluded transwomen in the past, and many wrestle today with deciding how far their inclusivity should extend (e.g., should women’s organizations serve transmen?).

Beyond diversity in terms of gender identity is the recognition of diverse gender expressions.  In reality, there is no universal femininity.  Rather, there are multiple femininities.  Because of the conflation of sex and gender, we tend to assume that femininity = woman; so the reality that femininity can be expressed through any body, regardless of sex and gender identity, is actively resisted and suppressed.  This means we also overlook the hierarchy of femininities, wherein hyperfemininity in female-bodied individuals is rewarded and valued over other expressions of femininity and its expression in other bodies.

Just to make sure the above discussion is clear, I stress that there is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often ignored or erased.  “Woman” does not imply white, US-born, able-bodied, heterosexual (or even sexual), cisgender, feminine, middle-class, Christian, and thin.  There is no singular status or identity of woman.  As a consequence of overlooking this gender diversity, we also miss the inequality that persists among women and among femininities.

In Defense Of Femininities

Despite the many gains that (cis)women have made, and increasing attention to the lives of transwomen, femininity itself remains stigmatized and devalued.  In fact, I would argue that some of the gains made toward gender equality have come at the expense of femininity.  Indeed, early on, some feminists expressed concern that the elevation of women’s status to that of men’s would largely men that women become men.  You can join the old boys club on the condition that you become a boy.

My discipline (sociology) recently tipped over the threshold of gender parity to become a predominantly-female field.  Though the “glass ceiling” has been cracked, if not completely shattered, in some of the field’s top-departments and leadership positions, feminist sociologists continue to struggle to gain legitimacy in mainstream sociology.

Further, we continue to prioritize and reward masculine (or even masculinist) presentations of self.  On two occasions, I witnessed a woman professor scold women students (in front of a mixed-audience) for appearing to lack confidence and aggressiveness: “don’t do that, that’s girly!”  I, too, was discouraged by a (man) professor from being a “shy guy” during an upcoming talk, which, upon comparing notes with another student, realized was the softened version of “man up!”  (I suppose I was assumed too sensitive or critical for the more direct assault on my gendered presentation of self.)

These interpersonal constraints are compounded by those at the institutional level.  In particular, academic institutions continue to evaluate scholars, particularly for tenure, using standards of the days where (white) male scholars had stay-at-home wives to take care of house and home.  Women who become parents face great professional costs, while women who forgo parenthood are rewarded.  Of course, an ironic twist to this aspect of sexism is that fathers receive a slight boost.

Liberating Femininities

As an optimist, I see liberating girls, women, as well as femininity as beneficial to all members of society, no matter their sex, gender identity, and gender expression.  As a critical scholar, I see this liberation as inherently tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Sexism is linked to transphobia is linked to heterosexism is linked to classism is linked to racism is linked to xenophobia is linked to ableism is linked to ageism and so on.

For example, two groups of oppressed men — Black men and trans, bisexual, and gay men — stand to benefit from the liberation of femininity.  Just as a hierarchy exists for femininities, one exists for the diverse expressions of masculinity, with that of US-born white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual men as the most valued.  Thus, Black masculinity and queer masculinity are devalued, stereotyped, and simultaneously threatened and treated as a threat.  As a result, many queer and Black men devalue femininity in society and particularly among themselves.  (Some rationalize this by asking, “why would you want to be further stigmatized?”)  True racial and sexual equality cannot exist if these men’s gender expressions remain constrained and policed.

It is time, then, to update our feminist vision of the future.  Feminism cannot be limited to the goal of liberating (a “narrow” category of) women.  We must liberate all women, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, race, age, ethnicity, ability, nativity, religion, body size and shape, and social class.  And, we must liberate all expressions of gender, particularly femininities.  For women will never be truly free in a society that oppresses femininity.

The Importance Of Representation: Voice, Visibility, And Validation In America

white meeting

For one obvious reason, disadvantaged groups are often called “minorities” — the groups are smaller in size than another group.  In this sense, people of color (or racial and ethnic minorities) and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (or sexual minorities) are numerical minorities.  However, these groups, as well as women, are also minorities by virtue of having less power in society than their majority counterparts: whites, heterosexuals, and men.  Unfortunately, this latter point is often forgotten; look, for example, at the hope that racial equality will be realized once people of color outnumber whites in the US.  Indeed, the history of Apartheid in South Africa serves as evidence that a group’s minority status in terms of power is not the mere product of being a numerical minority.

Minority Status: The Roles Of Size And Power

The size of a minority group is an important component that plays a role in shaping the experiences of minority group members.  In particular, by virtue being a member of a smaller group, minority group members theoretically have a lower chance of seeing other minority group members across various contexts.  Whereas non-Hispanic whites make up two-thirds of the US population, white people have the greatest chance of any racial or ethnic group of seeing other white individuals at work, the grocery store, church, on the street, at the doctor’s office, and so forth.  In these terms, women and men have roughly the same chance of seeing other women and men, respectively.

However, the unequal allocation of power, resources, and opportunities also plays a role in shaping minority and majority group members’ experiences.  In terms of gender, despite slightly outnumbering men in the US, women are often underrepresented in many contexts.  Take as a very important example the US Congress: there are 76 congress women in the US House of Representatives (compared to 362 men), and 17 in the US Senate (compared to 83 men).  Do the math.  Women make up roughly 50 percent of the US population, yet only 17 percent of congresspeople are women!  Though 10 percent of congresspeople in the House are Black, not a single member of the US Senate is Black.  Indeed, other factors play roles in the outcomes of elections, including — I add emphatically — prejudice and discrimination.  But, it is safe to say that something other than a numbers game is at play when there is such a stark underrepresentation of women and people of color in one of the most important institutions in this country.

Representation: Why Group Composition Matters

There are a host of reasons why the extent to which a subgroup is represented matters.  Continuing with the example of the gender and racial and ethnic composition of the US Congress, it is important to note that the House and Senate, with their underrepresentation of women and people of color, is making important decisions that impact the lives of every person in the US.  So, two groups that consists primarily of white middle-class heterosexual men — many whom are only interested in the needs and desires of other white wealthy heterosexual men — are making decisions right at this moment on behalf of people of color, working-class and poor people, LGBT people, women, and other disadvantaged groups.  In fact, the leadership of every organization and institution in the US — most which are also dominated by white heterosexual middle-class men — is making decisions as I write this post that impacts the lives of every person of every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class-standing.  Indeed, the decisions these individuals are making has great influence in guaranteeing that the next generation of leaders will also be white middle-class heterosexual men.

So, in a big way, what a group produces is shaped by the composition of the group.  Since individuals can only truly speak from their own experiences, the contributions of women and people of color systematically excluded from important decision-making processes.  But, the composition of a group also shapes the interactions among the groups’ members.  For example, a recent study on the gender composition of small groups found that the presence of fewer women is associated with less contribution from women group members:

When voting by majority decision, women deferred speaking if outnumbered by men in a group.  However, when voting unanimously, the researchers found that women were much more vocal , suggesting that consensus building was empowering for outnumbered women. The researchers also found that groups arrived at different decisions when women did participate. These findings, however, are not simply limited to business settings.

In this case, when women are underrepresented in a group, especially where reaching a consensus is the primary goal of the group, they are less likely to contribute to group decision-making.  And, the group loses out on what could be a unique contribution and voice not offered by male group members.  Because so many important, powerful groups include few or no women, the contribution of women is systematically excluded in important decision-making.  I would say the most shameful of these exclusions is the absence of women in important conversations about women’s health (e.g., contraception for women!).

Unfortunately, it seems that the challenges that arise from being a member of a minority group are sometimes exacerbated when one is also in the numerical minority in a group.  I would suggest one factor that contributes to women’s underparticipation in groups that are dominated by men is the stress associated with being the token woman. Social scientists, including professors Cate Taylor , Pamela Braboy Jackson, and Peggy Thoits, in Sociology at Indiana University, have examined the stressfulness (and resultant problems for health) of being “the only X” or token in groups and organizations that are heavily white and/or male.  The uneasiness one may experience as the token woman, token Latino person, or token lesbian, can contain so many different concerns and feelings, ranging from the discomfort of always being evaluated as a woman, Latina, or lesbian, to the discomfort of feeling that one is perceived as speaking on behalf of their entire group, to feeling that one has to contribute the perspective of a member of one’s group.  I can think of many discussions where I have been overwhelmed by anxiety that stemmed from being the only person of color or queer person present or, more often, from feeling the urgent need to interject that the group has systematically overlooked the importance of race, sexuality, and/or gender.

Seeing Yourself

The importance of representation extends beyond small groups and decision-making processes.  The visibility of minorities in the media is an extremely important arena of representation, one that has been extensively studied and debated.  For example, each year the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) analyzes the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in film and television each year.  The positive portrayal of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, same-gender couples, interracial couples, working-class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and so on is crucial so that people are aware of diversity, but also appreciate and celebrate that diversity.

Specifically for the members of minority groups, seeing oneself reflected in the media is crucial, particularly in the face of prejudice, discrimination, and the constant barrage of invalidating comments and actions.  In fact, there was a recent study featured in the media this summer that finds evidence of a self-esteem boosting effect of television for white boys, but self-esteem damaging effects for white girls, black girls, and black boys.  One primary reason?  White boys see lots of white boys and men in the shows they watch.  And, not just that, but they regularly see these characters and actors in positive, powerful, and central roles.  This is less so the case for other kids.

Though less frequent for members of minority groups, to see a face or body that looks like your own is powerful in its effect to simply validate you as a worthy human being.  I can think of the range of emotions I saw or heard about in people of color, especially Black Americans, when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008.  Some had tears streaming down their faces simply because they were overwhelmed with joy, hope, and likely some sense of relief.  I am not ashamed to admit that I get this feeling in terms of race and ethnicity in the media, but also sexuality.  To not only see LGBT people on my television screen — again, I emphasize positive portrayals — but to see them loved by others, or in love, is sometimes emotionally overwhelming because these images are new to me.  I am disappointed, however, that I have to feel such joy just to see someone who looks like me — a joy whites, men, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups do not experience because their representation is the norm and, as a result, their presence is treated as the default.

Though things have changed, and are continuing to change, there is still much work to be done until we stop seeing systematic underrepresentation and hearing about “the First African-American X” or “the First Woman to Y.”

Gender Equality … Sort Of

I cringe when I hear the suggestion that gender equality has been achieved, or that we are now living in a post-gender society, or something of the sort that suggests that women now occupy an equal status to men.  But, I do acknowledge that major gains have been achieved for women, inching further away from an exclusively subordinate status and, sometimes, closer to an equal status to that of men.  (I do not, however, buy arguments that men are now a disadvantaged, subordinated group, even if women numerically outnumber men in some contexts, like college.)

Gender Equality For Which Women?

If we learn only one thing from Black and multicultural feminism, third world feminism, lesbian feminism, working-class feminism, and other strands of feminism that challenge the narrow perspective and actions of mainstream (white, heterosexual, Western, middle-class) feminism, it is that the category of “woman” does not consist of one universal set of experiences, needs, and interests.  Acknowledging this point, I regularly correct people who suggest that women began entering the labor force in the 1960s and 1970s.  Rather, white heterosexual middle-class women in the West were beginning to enter the labor force upon the weakening of the societal norm that a woman’s place is in the home.  Women of various disadvantaged backgrounds would have experienced the freedom to stay home as a luxury, for they were/are forced, either due to enslavement in our ugly historical past or poverty in our ugly contemporary present, to work to support themselves and their families.

As such, it is crucial that we attend to whether all women have achieved equal status in society, or at least inched closer to it.  In many ways, gains toward gender equality are realized for the relatively privileged class of women but not others; worse, sometimes those gains are experienced at the expense of disadvantaged classes of women.  (Who do you think is taking on housekeeping and childcare responsibilities while white middle-class women are off working full-time jobs when they aren’t doing it themselves?)

Equality For Two

By virtue of their gender identity and expression, transgender and gender non-conforming people are not treated as equals in our society.  Rather, transphobic people, groups, and institutions attack, exclude, and belittle transpeople in ways that suggest more than a subordinate status — their humanness itself is challenged.  This is seen in the resistance to acknowledging individuals who occupy spaces outside of the female-male/woman-man sex/gender binaries, resisting individuals’ right to define their own gender identity and expression, and, in more subtle ways, like referring to transpeople as “it,” as if they are inanimate objects.

Liberating Gendered People, But Not Gender

Yes, gains have been made for women and, to a lesser extent, transgender and gender non-conforming people.  But, what we usually miss in our assessment of the presence or absence of gender equality (besides thinking of equality/inequality in binary terms) is whether all components of gender have moved toward equality.  There are a number of dimensions of gender: gendered people, sexed people, gender identity, gender expression, among others that I likely have missed here.  We typically focus on the full and equal inclusion of gendered people.  For example, we attend to whether equal access exists for women and men in education and the labor market, and whether household labor is equally divided between female and male partners in heterosexual couples.  (Again, note that transpeople are regularly excluded from these assessments, seen instead as a special case or even a matter of sexuality rather than gender.)  Now that we think about gender instead of sex, we seem to fail ask about the inclusion and treatment of particular sexed people.  One need only to look at the treatment of intersexed people to see evidence of this reality.

Finally, what I find most ironic about traditional assessments of gender equality is that we fail to ask about individuals’ freedom of gender expression.  To be frank, it appears that women are increasingly welcomed in traditionally male-dominated spaces if they become men — not to literally transition their sex to become males and gender to become men, but to become masculine.  Women are freer today to express themselves in masculine ways (e.g., wearing suits, jeans); however, men are not substantially freer today to express themselves in feminine ways.  In fact, femininity is devalued, even at times when women themselves are not.  The policing of gender is sometimes seen in the most surprising places: the “no femmes” and cultural femmephobia seen in gay male spaces, women criticizing other women for being too feminine or “girly” especially in male-dominated space, men snapping at other men to “man up,” and so forth.  Further, society still expects gender conformity.  This means for women, in particular, the double bind of needing to behave like men to get ahead in life, but the expectation to be women at the end of the day to avoid any challenges to their woman-ness and sexual orientation.

What’s My Point?

My overarching point is that we must acknowledge the complexity of gender equality and gender inequality to comprehensively assess whether they are reflected in society today.  This means fully understanding the complexity of gender itself: there is no universal category of “woman,” nor are humans limited to the two gender categories of women and men.  We must acknowledge the experiences, needs, and interests of transgender and gender non-conforming people, as well as women of various racial, ethnic, class, sexuality, nationality, ability, and religious backgrounds to begin to assess equity.  We must also acknowledge that there is no universal category of “man,” a point that reflects that men of disadvantaged backgrounds do not fully enjoy the privileged status as men.  Finally, we cannot miss the absence of full liberty to express one’s gender freely without risk of harm or consequence.  For to see women and transpeople equally valued while femininity and gender non-conformity are devalued is only halfway to equality.

Male Privilege 101: Safety From Sexual Harassment and Assault

Me - GI BeyonceI won’t lie – I pride myself on my pro-feminist ideology, further extended and nuanced through a black queer lens through which to view the world. I spend a considerable amount of time agonizing over the privileges that have been bestowed upon me because of what is assumed to be between my legs and its extension into my self-presentation to the world.  I am aware that, even with a genderqueer identity, my masculine gender expression, especially in terms of clothing and name, grants me an indefinite number of conveniences, leg-ups, head-starts, and other forms of unfairly distributed advantages that are denied to women and transpeople. But, no matter how hard I work to recognize and reject my male privilege, there will always be a block of privileges that are unknown to or unseen by me; hence, this is how privilege sustains itself – it is invisible to its beneficiaries, even those who fight to challenge inequality.

Again, another admission: I wish I could dress and behave in ways that more accurately express my genderqueer identity. But, I’m both too comfortable in boys’ clothing and too afraid/unmotivated to deal with the expected harassment, violence, outcasting, and discrimination that I would face if I were to stop dressing in masculine clothing.  So, dressing in feminine or androgynous attire for Halloween is the next best thing. This year, I donned a feminized and sexualized army uniform.  I supplemented the costume with my own blonde wig, leopard print bra (that I stuffed for additional bust), fishnet stockings, and men’s combat boots.

My goal was not to pass as a woman, so I didn’t shave my facial hair, legs, or chest – and all of these areas were exposed. If anything, I wanted to be a sexy expression of both masculinity (i.e., hair, boots, and failure to feminize my voice or behavior) and femininity. I would say that the numerous compliments from friends indicated a success!

But, from others at the local gay bar I attended for Halloween fun and dancing, I found that complimenting was not limited to pleasant appraisals of my outfit. In fact, the first two people that approached me decided to grab my breasts in order to measure their authenticity – both were men dressed as drag queens. Then came the man dress as a mail carrier who insisted on giving me a chance to select a free drink from his bag of random goodies. (To his disappointment, I pulled a note that said “happy Halloween!”, the same note I pulled a second time later. Eventually, he just pressed to buy me a drink and I caved so he’d leave me alone.)

Then, there was the heavily intoxicated woman, whose costume wasn’t much more than a ball gown, who decided to give me what seemed to be a mammogram because she was so fascinated by my breasts. (As an overweight male, yes, I have breasts, but I stuffed with a couple pairs of underwear in a way that pushed up the real breasts to achieve an authentic busty look.) There were long, shameless stares; an attempt to see if I had “tucked” my penis; a few anonymous grabs of my butt; two “motor boats” (essentially vibrating one’s head between a woman’s breasts); an attempted kiss by the cowboy friend of the mail carrier, to whom I was introduced as the mail carrier’s boyfriend; and a bit of following during the night (mainly by the cowboy and mail carrier).

Lessons Learned?

I do not attempt here to suggest that I now know what it’s like to be a woman.  This experience was limited to a few hours, which were otherwise fun. Most of my “admirers” were men, though there were a few drag queens, one drag king, and one woman.  And, this happening in a gay bar rather than a predominantly-heterosexual bar makes this experience somewhat qualitatively different than a night a woman might experience. But, this experience, brought on my by appearance, is one that I do not otherwise have access to.  Even if different, I was able to gain some insight into what it’s like to be stared at, felt up, given “free” drinks under the implicit expectation of sex in return, and followed.  I could see that others, even if in masculine attire, who bore some skin were often the target of aggressive, sexual attention. In that women face greater pressure to wear very revealing clothing, this skin-as-invitation-for-harassment experience is faced to an enormously greater degree by women than by men.

And, I am certain that any complaints I would make about being harassed would be rebuked with, “well, what did you expect, coming dressed like that?” At one point, I felt it was implied when I did complain. I am well aware of the victim-blaming that is practiced when women are victimized by sexual assault, rape, and intimate partner violence, but I had no idea that victim-blaming was so pervasive, that to bare one’s skin is read as an explicit, intentional invitation to be gawked at, fondled, and propositioned. The double-bind is ever-apparent: wear sexy, revealing clothing in order to get attention, be desirable, and not to be dismissed as an inauthentic or unsuccessful woman; but, then, when you do bare some skin, be aware that you are essentially “asking for” any and everything that comes your way.

Back To Life, Back To Reality?

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming. The drag is off and I’m back to my usual genderqueer-identified and masculine-expression self.  Though inappropriate touching, staring, and commenting are always a possibility, the rate at which I experienced them last night will never be seen again unless I re-transform into my sexy GI Beyonce self. But, this unintended breaching experiment’s results will not disappear. I am debating, today, about whether to address this new found awareness of gendered sexual harassment and assault in my lecture tomorrow on sexual assault and rape. But, my fear is that my male privilege allows for me to speak openly about a one-time experience, while women and transpeople experience sexual assault and harassment, or at least the threat of it, on a daily basis. In some ways, I resign myself to capitalizing on the privileges I cannot avoid by speaking out against injustices that are otherwise dismissed as a woman’s issue, or a play of the “race card”, or cry-baby complaints.

In any event, even if my Halloween experience does nothing to help others become more aware of the rape-encouraging culture we live in and gendered violence more broadly, I find comfort in the eye-opening of at least one person: myself.