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On Being Gender Agnostic

Team T

Academics, raise your hand if you have trouble sitting down to write in the morning?  Now, how many of you find that your procrastination stems from trying to figure out who you are in this world?  I do — and, today is one of those days.  In being a good little solider in NCFDD‘s Faculty Success Program bootcamp, I set aside this time to prepare my keynote speech — “Blogging for (a) change in higher education” — for next week’s Media Pre-Conference, ahead of the American Sociological Association annual meeting.  Instead, I am blogging (for a change) because my head, heart, and spirit are stuck this morning in the question, “who am I?” — at least with regard to gender.

I acknowledge that I am a bit self-absorbed, less because of arrogance or egotism, but more because of fear, self-doubt, and anxiety about my survival and success.  I am incredibly self-aware and reflexive, perhaps to a fault.  I am constantly trying to find meaning in the world, and to make it a better place.  My gender identity, though, is frequently up for internal debate because I lack a clear, static sense of who I am.  Is certainty about one’s gender identity a privilege afforded exclusively to cisgender people — those people who wake each day knowing who they are, and who go to bed each night having had their identity affirmed through every interaction and by every institution they enter throughout the day?  Once again, I canot get right to my work challenging patriarchy, cissexism, heterosexism, and racism out in the world because I’m consumed trying to figure out who I am in the world.  So much for the unlimited supply of cisgender male privilege I was promised when assigned male at birth.

You see, I recall as early as age 5 that my sense of gender does not align with the sex I was assigned at birth.  After openly writing about my gender as a journey, and my developing sense of being non-binary, my mom commented that she doesn’t recall me telling her (in my 5 year old voice) that I should have been born a girl.  I found girls my age to be incredibly interesting in their depth, complexity, and compassion; boys seemed one-dimensional in their desire to connect purely on a detached, physical level through sports.  In hindsight, perhaps being a girl in a boy’s body was the best I could come up with to name what I later realized was a queer sexuality.

In 2003 — the year I turned 18, and transitioned from high school to college — I passed the coming out test with flying colors.  After years of hiding in the closet, I left it and never looked back.  But, upon taking courses in sociology and gender studies, I began to realize my uniqueness was not limited to being a male-assigned-at-birth who is sexually and emotionally attracted to men.  I found my attraction to masculinity extended beyond its expression in cis men, and that my attraction to maleness was not limited to those with a masculine gender expression.  And, I began recognizing that the category of (cis) man was incredibly narrow for all of my queer fabulousness — or that it didn’t fit at all.  So, I went off to graduate school proudly identifying as genderqueer to account for my queer gender identity.

I won’t once again rehash the role the traumatizing chapter of graduate school has played in my gender journey.  Let’s just say mainstream sociology is not a place that welcomes playing with, fucking with, or transitioning gender.  I have grad school to thank for putting me back in the closet, at least in terms of being genderqueer.  I have slowly come out again quite publicly, now as non-binary in large part because I have begun to recover from that trauma.

But, if anything, I feel as if I have been hiding in plain sight.  To the extent that people have internet access and actually give a damn, they can easily find that I am non-binary.  I’ve written about it and I sign my emails with a note that I use they/them gender pronouns.  There are even a few pictures of me in various states of drag.  I have even gotten comfortable enough to share pictures of myself donning various gender expressions to personalize my lectures on gender identity and expression.

You know — but, the joke is on me, because you can easily forget.  I dress like a dude — partly because of comfort and partly because of fear of violence and discrimination.  I don’t want to admit that the slow genocide of Black trans women is perhaps one factor that has held me back from owning trans womanhood.  Though I don’t quite feel comfortable in the category of cisgender man, I present as such on a daily basis, and am rewarded accordingly.  When I put on a suit each day next week at the sociology conference, I’ll easily pass as a cis man, perhaps even white in a certain light, and maybe even straight if I’m not feeling particularly excited or chatty.  I hesitate to fuck with gender at the conference for fear it will be seen as too political (somehow more political than is any other gender expression), for fear it will distract from my message, and for fear of harassment.  But, I feel I remain complicit in misgendering myself by not being non-binary “enough.”  What’s a non-binary unicorn to do?

Fear of others’ reaction aside, I cannot seem to get passed the heavy emphasis on proving my gender identity through my attire and appearance.  My partner has the exclusive pass to see what’s in my pants, but the entire world will take me at my word that I am “biologically” male (with all of the required parts) because of the masculine attire I wear.  But, I’m afraid no one believes I’m genuinely non-binary because I don’t look it.  I don’t don a queer, colorful hairstyle (umm, thanks a lot early onset baldness).  I don’t wear make-up or nail polish (meh, too lazy).  I only seem to wear feminine clothing on special occasions (it’s fun for a night, but seems really impractical otherwise).

My preference for masculine attire has less to do with the gender I wish to express than simply being comfortable in loose-fitting clothes. Unlike other non-binary folks like Jacob Tobia and Alok Vaid-Menon (of Dark Matter Poetry) who frequently share fab pictures of themselves, I generally don’t feel compelled to express my non-binaryness through dress.  For me, it’s about how I feel in my spirit, my mind, my politics, and how I relate to other people.  Frankly, I’m non-binary in all of the ways you can’t readily see on the outside.

Maybe this is also connected to race and body size.  (You have got to read this essay by Ashleigh Shackleford on the complex intersections among gender non-conformity from Blackness and fatness.)  When I Google images of non-binary, I see dozens of images of thin white androgynous people; I don’t really see anyone who looks like me.  And, of what I see, I am drawn to people I assume to be female-assigned-at-birth in masculine or butch attire; my eyes skip over the (thin white) likely male-assigned-at-birth individuals in feminine attire.

The best I can do to make sense of this complexity is a sense of agnosticism about gender.  In my heart of hearts, I’d rather not constrain myself to a particular gender category or gender destiny.  The two main options — woman and man — suck.  I’ve thought, these days, it would almost be easier for me if I just identified as a trans woman; increasingly, Americans know at least something about trans people.  (Like my father, the average person likely would respond, “non-binary?  what the hell is BINARY?)  But, I have realized I am not a trans woman because I am not interested in attempting to authentically perform the rather constraining category of woman.  And, the category of man is pretty shortsighted, too.  There’s always agender, but I can’t wrap my head around not identifying in gendered terms despite not being able to opt out of the gender system.

There is no escaping being gendered and doing gender!

How ridiculous this all seems when I am well aware that gender is a social construction.  Drawing from the Thomas and Thomas theorem, to which many intro sociology students are exposed, if people define gender as real, it is real in its consequences.  There is no physical or biological basis for gender.  Yet, it is a fundamental organizing principle in society; gender shapes and constrains every social interaction, social institution, and every individuals’ sense of self.  Even if I decide I simply don’t believe in gender, I can’t escape its influence in my life.  And, pretending to be “gender-blind” would be just as dangerous as is trying to be “color-blind.”

So, I’m left with three options: 1) identify as a cis man (because I easily read as one), but queer the hell out of the category where possible; 2) identify as non-binary, and define for myself what that entails and what that looks like (if anything); or 3) do nothing, and just awkwardly move from gendered interaction to gendered interaction.  I’ve gotta say though, I’m pretty lazy about getting dressed in the morning.  I suppose I can live up to my declaration to keep playing with gender and to do gender boldly (to boldly go where no queer has gone before?), but, as a gender agnostic, I keep wondering whether there is more to gender than its expression in clothing, hair, and make-up.  Can’t I be a woman today, even if I’m wearing a loose black t-shirt and bagging blue gym shorts?  Can’t I be non-binary without dressing like a skinny white androgynous hipster?  Can’t I be a man, even when I’m rocking a blonde bombshell wig, a sexy red dress, and knee-high boots?

More questions than answers, as usual when I’m reflecting on this gender journey of mine.  But, at least I can get to work now.  Thanks for reading.

I Can’t Save You… I Can Barely Save Myself

feminists of color

It’s 11am now — typically the 2- or 3-hour mark into my work day.  But, on this day, like many of the days over the past two weeks, I have been awake and working in some capacity for 6 hours now.  I can assure you that I did not intentionally rise at 4:30am, not over summer, not ever.  I blame the anxiety, the growing uneasiness about an impending move from apartment to house — that is, while interrupted by attendance at an academic conference on the other side of the country.  Anxiety about my partner’s ongoing job search on the eve of taking on a mortgage.  Frustration that I’ve poured hundreds of dollars into acupuncture, personal training, nutrition, massages, and therapy, plus the free yoga class at my university’s gym, only to gain weight and feel just as anxious as I did months ago.  Even the supposedly easy way out — taking anti-anxiety medicine — doesn’t seem to be enough these days.

Oh, and should I mention the recent slew of hate-motivated assaults and murders, state-sanctioned executions on the street, and terrorists attacks on places of peace against people like me?  Black.  Queer.  Trans.

Meanwhile, the 2016 election circus, which seems to now be in its second year, serves as a perverse laugh track to news of death after death.  Murder, execution, and genocide are obvious in their disruption of our lives.  Increasingly, researchers have documented how even experiencing exclusion, discrimination, and microaggressions wears on our health and well-being.  The effects on entire communities — namely fear, distrust, alienation, and trauma — come at a cost, too.  Even hearing news about all of this violence wears on us.  For the most unfortunate, death comes quickly; for the rest of us, death is slow, like being poisoned over decades.

After the queerphobic terrorist attack on Pulse in Orlando, FL, I felt okay, but was probably numb.  Marriage equality, pushed hardest by those who benefit most from it (i.e., middle-class white gay cis men), did not prevent the senseless murder of 49 people, mostly Latino gay men.  Oddly, I heard a voice in my brain say, “see — it was only a matter of time.  Marriage didn’t liberate us.”

After the televised executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I thought I was okay. I tried to avoid watching Diamond Reynolds’s video of her fiance (Castile) being murdered before her and her four-year-old daughter; but, thanks to my school’s gym, I couldn’t help but catch it playing over and over on the big screens airing CNN and MSNBC. I wept while walking on a treadmill.  But, I generally felt I was okay. 

I jumped into high gear with doing more anti-racist advocacy while others pulled back, overcome with grief.  I encouraged Dr. Judy Lubin to restart the Sociologists for Justice initiative, and successfully scheduled a forum for the group at the upcoming American Sociological Association annual meeting.  I started an associated Facebook page for the initiative, now kept active by several sociologists of color.  Weeks before, I had created Sociologists for Trans Justice, an associated Facebook page, and scheduled a forum for this group at the ASA annual meeting to advance transgender rights through sociology.  Did I mention that I run a blog, Conditionally Accepted, that features weekly essays by marginalized scholars?  And, that I am now co-editing a book on academic bravery among women of color scholars?

Maybe taking on initiative after initiative, project after project, was just a means to distract myself from the weight of the world.  But, it certainly did nothing to help me outrun it.  My sleep has been interrupted more and more over the past couple of weeks.  I feel incredibly overextended, yet surprisingly isolated and hopeless.  A bit of intense organizing, largely within the walls of the ivory tower, doesn’t feel like much; and, it certainly did not shield me from the nausea I felt after seeing a picture of Sterling’s funeral on Facebook.  My mind screamed, “Emmett Till,” and I promptly logged off, keeping a low profile online thereafter.

I’m in the thick of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity‘s (NCFDD) “bootcamp” — Faculty Success Program — right now.  This week, our homework is to lower our standards and expectations, hopefully calling out those among us who are perfectionists.  Would you know, perfectionist describes me well.  So, I brought the issue of being controlling to my therapist yesterday.  Surely, the need to control things and other people, to make everything neat, to tidy up loose ends, are all at the core of my anxiety.  It now seems to me that I will continue to be anxious until I get to these root issues.  I was a bit disheartened to hear my therapist say that that’s just who I am, and that the lifelong goal is maintenance — to keep the need to control in check.

But, we made some progress during the session, specifically engaging my need to perform at a high level.  I have a tendency to work so long as there is enough energy to get out of bed.  I have convinced myself that I have perfected the 40-hour workweek, not counting the time I put into blogging and other forms of service and activism.  But, now I am being forced to reconcile with a limited capacity for productivity.  I can’t do it all, even without suffering from mental illness.  But, with the ongoing symptoms of anxiety, I certainly have to scale back on all that I do.

It is hard, though, because what seems to be the most appropriate level of concern, labor, and advocacy is just barely outside of myself, envisioning concentric circles of concern here.  I have a limited capacity to concern myself with what’s going on in other people’s lives and what’s going on around the world because I’m overwhelmed just managing my own life — at least until I can learn to scale back.  My starting point for responding to tragedy in the world can no longer be, “what can I/we do?!”  Rather, it has to be, “what do I need right now?”  (Sshhh, internal critic; self-care is not selfish.)  I admitted to my therapist that this felt like resignation; I feel like the kid with asthma who is stuck in the house, watching other kids run and jump outside of my window.

What seems even harder is that the situation was already bleak for me as a Black queer non-binary person.  Think about the trauma inherent in being queer in the midst of ongoing queerphobic violence, or of being Black in the midst of ongoing state-sanctioned violence against communities of color.  If you can even fathom it, imagine being at the dreadful intersections among racism, heterosexism, cissexism, and sexism.  (Fuck intersectionality.)

I haven’t been as attuned to this baseline of oppression, distracted, instead, by the unique oppressive reality of academic institutions.  I’ve been working through and writing about the trauma inherent in my academic training.  Maybe I was already traumatized by this oppressive society.  Maybe every social institution is already set to crush me, just as graduate school did and, on some days, as my current institution does.

I don’t have much to offer.  I’ve resisted the temptation to just yell “Black women rule the world!” on Facebook and Twitter, and then deactivating my social media accounts.  For my own survival, I’ve got to back off for a while.  Unfortunately, I can’t save anybody else, since I’m barely hanging on myself.

I Am (Kinda) Transgender: More On My Gender Journey

Rockstar

I am transgender.

Sorta.

Mostly, but not really.

Since age 5, or even birth — but, really only recently.

Am I making any sense?  If not, it is because I have yet to make sense of my gender identity and expression for myself.  I was 5 years old when I first acknowledged that my own sense of self, interests, and experiences bear little resemblance to what we define as “man” and “masculinity.”  Early on, I knew that I wasn’t like other boys, and later learned that I like other boys.  So, adopting a bisexual, and then gay, sexual identity made sense.  But, with exposure to LGBT and women’s studies in college, I knew my uniqueness transcends whom I find attractive.  So, upon discovering genderqueerness, I adopted that as my own, and began identifying as queer more broadly.  Queer as an identity reflects my attraction to masculinities (no matter the bodies that expresses them) and maleness (no matter the genders it expresses); it also reflects that I do not neatly fit into the category of “man” (nor “woman” for that matter).

Joining the cult of academia, beginning with my graduate studies, proved to be a hard-right turn in my intellectual, professional, and personal development.  There were blips of authenticity, resistance, and fierceness.  I had a tongue ring for a month.  Had both ears (re)pierced for a few months.  Did a little drag.  But, as I attempted to advance professionally, I caved to the pressures to be gender-conforming — both in my appearance and in my scholarship.  As a researcher, I write with unwavering authority.  When I present at academic conferences, I no longer bang on the podium, despite my internal anger about the issues of my research — discrimination, violence, oppression.  Slowly, I have moved away from the full suit and tie look to teach, but that really just means no tie.

As a fat Black/multiracial genderqueer person, the implicit and explicit pressures to sever ties with my own identities, politics, and communities for the sake of professional success proved traumatizing.  My own parents’ hesitation to accept my queer sexuality when I came out at 17 pales in comparison to the misery of graduate school.  I am closer with my parents today than ever in my life — even after recently coming out as non-binary to them.  (Mom: “Hmm, I saw this coming.”  Dad: “Non-binary?  What the hell is binary?!”)  My grad school advisors… not so much, despite their supposed life-long investment in my career.  And, I imagine the more I veer away from my training, the less likely they’ll care what becomes of me.  In their eyes, it was my career to throw away, anyhow.

Late in my first year of college, I stopped taking calls from my parents.  I made clear that they either accepted all of me or none of me.  I was tired of lecturing them in public spaces about why I was taking classes in queer studies and “insisted” on being publicly out.  My Dad eventually drove the 45 minutes to see me.  (I wouldn’t have agreed to see him, but my dorm’s front desk called my room and said, “there is a cop here to see you!”)  Refusing to look him in the eyes, I told him I was on full scholarship and could figure out summers, so I didn’t need them anymore.  I didn’t see his heart break a little every time I said that.  Eventually, he got through to me, we had a nice heart-to-heart over lackluster pizza, and have been close since.

I wish I had been as cavalier with my grad school advisors.  Sure, I pushed back, and eventually took my current position despite their opposition.  But, I only rarely stood up for myself, and regularly caved or at least tried to compromise.  Their voices, with their goals for my career, remain in my brain.  By design, grad school is about professional socialization — that is, a systematic program of teaching new values and ways of viewing and behaving in the world.  And, the program was somewhat successful in re-programming me.  But, not enough to do so completely.  I am like Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager; my scars are reminders that I once was Borg, and occasionally the Borg way of thinking trumps an independent perspective.  (No, I’m not a Trekkie.  Well, you can say I’m a second-generation Trekkie.  I’m fairly fluent, but only talk Star Trek with my father.)  So, even in deciding to write this essay after much back-and-forth, I feel I have a mini fierce queer activist on my left shoulder who is constantly reading the mini R1 minion on my right shoulder for filth.  On my right, I hear, “but you’re a professor!  Professors don’t write personal blog posts like this!  Professors don’t blog!  Professors aren’t trans…”  And, there it is.  The transphobic roots of my academic training.

Then, why write this essay?  Wouldn’t my time be better spent working on a manuscript about transphobia than publicly agonizing over whether I am, indeed, transgender?  I can’t right now.  Aside from the fact that I am exhausted on so many levels after a difficult semester, I can’t sit down to do research on other people yet because I need work.  Yesterday, when I sat down to make a list of research projects I wish to pursue over the next five years, it morphed into journaling about whether I am truly trans.  There is internal work that cries for my attention when I sit down to do research that I tell myself is detached from me as a person.  I need to write this.  I allowed my personal journey and development to be interrupted during my academic training; I internalized (at least partially) the view that my scholarship is divorced from the scholar — the myth of “objectivity.”

But, why publicly?  Why risk the potential consequences of transphobic and queerphobic discrimination in my profession?  I won’t try to convince others of the benefits of baring your soul on the internet.  But, for me, I feel a sense of release when I push back on the social forces that are constraining me, erasing me, killing me.  Why should I privately struggle through the transphobia and cissexism that I have internalized when these are forces that affect us all?  I know that I am not alone.  I write because there may be others out there struggling, too.  And, I know I’ll likely hear more hostility or at least crickets than any sort of appreciation.  And, it’s not about feeling appreciated.  It’s about sharing my journey with others — perhaps even those who will simply read and learn.  To ignore the critics, and haters, and trolls, and bigots, and nay-sayers, I now just write for me — the me of the past who wishes he had stumble upon a professor who spoke so openly about their gender journey.  I write for the future me — the me of 10 years from now who has no regrets, and sees sharing such vulnerability and uncertainty as just what you do.

And, see, now I feel better.  The R1 minion stormed off.  The mini queer activist is doing her victory dance, muttering “why y’all gagging so?  She bring it to you every ball!”

Thank you for tuning into my journey.

My Gender Is A Journey

RockstarOver a year ago, I wrote a short essay to reflect on the dynamic and fluid (rather than fixed and static) nature of my gender identity.  Similar to Dr. Betsy Lucal’s essay, “What it Means to be Gendered Me” in Gender & Society, I drew on personal experiences to demonstrate academic conceptualizations of gender and, in turn, used these conceptualizations to make sense of my own gender identity.  But, the essay lacked one critical thing: the bravery to share it publicly, as I had initially intended.

Recently, an opinion piece in Out magazine, “Snoopy and Me” by Michael Narkunski, caught my eye.  Narkunski reflects on being distressed by feeling that his sense of gender does not fit with the narrow (heterosexist and cissexist) definition of a “man.”  He sought the care of a therapist, whom he assumed would finally “diagnose” him as transgender.  Instead, she offered him this:

“Being gay is hard,” my therapist said. “You have a dearth of role models, and you’re constantly subjected to gender norms that don’t apply. You have to work more on learning to be happy and creating an identity to be pleased with, not transferring yourself over to a whole new one.”

I see myself in Narkunski’s essay.  And, I admire his bravery for sharing such a painful and personal story.  In fact, his bravery has inspired me to finally share my own below.

My Gender Is A Journey

I do not see gender as destiny anymore than I see sex-assigned-at-birth as destiny. These are crude categories and identities to distinguish one set of characteristics, experiences, expectations, and opportunities from others. While they do include predictions about what one’s life will be like, they are not sophisticated enough to determine how one’s life will transpire. Gender norms change, both because of changing expressions of one’s gender identity and changing how one can express one’s gender identity. And, gender norms, identities, and expressions are deeply tied to other axes of oppression: racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, fatphobia, and xenophobia. So, in addition to changing gender norms over time, there is variation in who we are as gendered people by virtue of our other identities and statuses – and these, too, change over time.

For me, my gender identity and how I express it are both cause and consequence of my body, my experiences in this world, my ideology and values, and my relationships with other people. Let me describe each in greater detail.

Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Body

I became a fat child around age 8. Since then, my body has never been one that reflects hegemonic masculinity. Even after losing an extreme amount of weight before my senior year of high school, I was still flabby and unmasculine in the normative sense. The greatest struggle of all regarding my body has been my breasts. I rarely go swimming and, when I do, I tend to wear a black t-shirt. (There is a reason wet t-shirt contests feature white shirts. I learned that lesson first-hand, unfortunately.) I was teased as a child because I had breasts as large as, if not larger, than girls my age. Though I have a hairy chest, I still have a part of my body that is a visible betrayal of my maleness.

Me - GI Beyonce

Halloween 2009

At one point, I seriously considered surgery to have my breasts removed. Throughout my adolescence, my primary physician repeatedly offered to have “those” removed – never explicitly naming that I had breasts. The first time I visited Richmond, VA was to meet with a cosmetic surgeon. The cost was prohibitive, and there was no guarantee that I would keep fat off of that part of my body, or that the scars would not prevent me from going shirtless in public. So, I decided against it. Funny, before my then-HMO agreed to pay for some of the mastectomy, they had to verify that I did not develop breasts due to intersexuality (or Disorders of Sex Development [DSD]). They provided an ultrasound examination on my testicles, and a hormone test to assess levels of estrogen and testosterone via my urine. Thankfully (by their standards), I was not intersex – just fat. Looking back, it was an interesting moment: fatness or intersexuality were two possible causes of my non-normative male body.

Ironically, having breasts as a male-bodied individual is a benefit when I wear drag. I do not need to stuff a bra, nor don a breast plate, because I am naturally endowed in that area. Still, my body image issues as a fat person limit how far I go with my drag. Too fat to fit the ideal image of a man translates into way too fat for the woman I would like to portray in drag. So, I do not shave. I have embraced my genderfuck self – high heel boots, a revealing top, and a blonde bombshell wig.

Clothes, too, have a way of reminding me that my body does not fit (sometimes literally) into society’s ideal image of a man. The most common gripe I have when clothing shopping is the unflattering fit on my chest. Men’s shirts and dress clothes are not designed with breasts in mind. The clothing-related body image issues have been heightened lately because dress clothes demand a tighter fit. You will never, ever, ever find me in a dress shirt without a suit jacket or a vest (or both).  The breasts must be hidden, and a necktie will not cut it. In casual clothes, loose button down shirts are a staple in my wardrobe. If men were socially “allowed” to have breasts, maybe I would be showing them off with pride, rather than hiding them in shame.

Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Experiences

From age 5, I knew I was not like other boys. Girls and their worlds always seemed more fun, interesting, and evolved. The only close male friend whom I had only wanted to wrestle. I did occasionally, but it seemed boring to me. How were we to discuss current events (albeit through a child’s eyes) and get to know one another at a deep level if every time we played I ended up in a headlock? In elementary school, I hung with the less popular girls at recess. We discussed plans for a play with an anti-violence message, but the plans never came to fruition. Boys remained of little interest to me (not even romantically) because they seemed incapable of meaningful interpersonal relationships.

I should not have been surprised that my parents kept pushing sports, especially football. I attended basketball camp a few summers, just until I complained enough to get them to let me attend the regular day camp. Yes, I chose arts and crafts over yet another game of “shirts and skins.” In their final ultimatum, while I was in high school – football or JROTC – I chose the latter. Interestingly, I loved it. There was an academic component with emphasis on citizenship and character-building. And, I loved having the opportunity to take on leadership positions. I even served as president of the Kitty Hawk JROTC Honor Society. (No, I did not name it that. I would have been subtler than “kitty.”)

But, at a younger age, they bought me gender-neutral toys, and even a dollhouse. My action figures, including X-men and Power Rangers, would go on dangerous missions, but not without steamy romances and personal struggles. While there were elements of boy, girl, and gender-neutrality, they all blended together in ways that made sense to me – an emphasis on people and relationships. I suppose that is the ticket to raising a sociologist.

Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Values

My gender identity has evolved alongside my gender ideology. In college, exposed to new ideas about gender, sexuality, feminism, and queer politics, my understanding of my own gender and sexuality changed. I began to accept that “man” reflects too little of my own experiences, interests, and values. So, I adopted a genderqueer identity. And, I better understood my attraction to masculinity as an expression, rather than male bodies. So, identifying as gay no longer made sense because I do not see myself as a man who desires other men; “man” and “men” are deceptively simplistic. Queer as an identity better reflects my own gender identity and the gender expression of those whom I find attractive. Also, queer reflects my intersectional, radical politics about gender and sexuality in ways that “gay” does not.

However, I have wavered somewhat from my queer and genderqueer identities in recent years. I have become more aware of the infinite ways in which I am privileged as a (presumably) cisgender man. So long as I dress, act, and relate to others as a man, I am privileged as a man by society. So, it has felt disingenuous to identify as genderqueer in absence of a genderqueer expression.

Admittedly, I desperately cling to what little masculinity I wield for safety reasons. In everyday interactions, I would fear the violence, harassment, and discrimination that would come if I were more visibly queer. I fear that I would take a major hit to my status at work. Being a man feels like the only resource that I have available to overcome the oppressed statuses of being queer and Black. The other challenge is not knowing what expressing a genderqueer identity would entail. I am balding, so I cannot adopt a queer hairstyle short of wearing a wig. I have moved away from piercings and tattoos to keep my professional (i.e., middle-class) credibility. Frankly, many things that come to mind simply express femininity atop masculinity (e.g., earrings, nail polish, women’s clothing).

The Journey Continues

To be completely honest, I have wondered whether I am trans. The question has been raised in my mind, but then dismissed because I realize I have no interest in changing my body. My issue is with how I adorn and use it. Once, riding a train home from a night out with friends, my brain screamed, “shit I’m transgender!” I woke up the next day hung-over, laughing at the idea. But, I really cannot say with confidence that being trans is outside of the realm of possibility. I do not say this to make a mockery of trans people’s experiences, identities, and struggles. Nor do I mean to suggest that my dilemma is anything like that of a trans person. I just cannot say for certain who I will be in the future, especially in feeling disconnected from the rigid categories of man and woman.

Maybe the time has come when I should begin playing with gender with more bravery and intentionality. Rather than going along for the ride and trying to make sense of who I am, I should start defining and expressing my gender for myself.  I imagine that will be the only way to carve out a space for me to exist outside of the rigid gender binary.

Fear of Violence at the Intersections of Sexuality, Gender, and Race and Ethnicity

A great deal of victimization research has investigated factors that explain differences in fear of crime, including prior victimization, community disorder, and population density. A number of scholars have examined gender differences in fear, consistently finding that women experience greater levels of fear than men. Given the high level of violence against LGB people, particularly anti-LGB violence, it is surprising that no studies to date have considered sexual orientation differences in fear of violence.

Doug Meyer and I recently published an article on gender and sexual orientation differences in fear in the Journal of Homosexuality (April 2014). This was the first study to examine whether sexual minority (e.g., lesbian, gay, and bisexual [LGB]) people are more likely to report fear of crime and violence than heterosexuals. In light of the extensive work on women’s heightened levels of fear relative to men’s, we also considered whether sexual orientation differences in fear differed by gender. I briefly summarize our study below.

Initial Findings

We used data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative sample of adults in the US. Our outcome of interest was self-reports of fear at night. That is, whether respondents said yes to the following question: “Is there any area right around here – that is, within a mile of your residence – where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?”  

We found that approximately one-third of adults reported being afraid to walk alone in their own neighborhood. As prior research has indicated, women were significantly more likely to report fear than men (44% compared to 19%). Similarly, sexual minoritiesand people of were significantly more likely than heterosexuals and non-Hispanic whites, respectively, to report being afraid to walk alone at night. These differences are displayed in the graph below.

Graph 1 Fear - Main Statuses

Next, we assessed whether these initial sexuality differences in fear hold once accounting for gender, race and ethnicity, age, education, income, religiosity, urbanicity, and region. Indeed, even net of these other factors, sexual minorities were significantly more likely than heterosexuals to report fear at night. Women and Blacks and Latina/os were also significantly more likely to report such fear than men and non-Hispanic whites, respectively. We found other significant differences, as well: greater fear with decreasing income; and, greater likelihood of reporting fear among Southerners and those living in urban areas.

In sum, we found that sexual minorities were significantly more likely than heterosexuals to report being afraid to walk alone at night in their own neighborhoods. Women, people of color, and lower-income individuals also shared this heightened sense of fear relative to men, non-Hispanic whites, and higher-income individuals, respectively. Considering these patterns, we decided to explore the intersections among sexuality, gender, and race and ethnicity in these reports of fear, which I discuss below.

Intersections among Sexuality, Gender, and Race and Ethnicity

The graph below displays the reports of being afraid to walk alone at night in one’s neighborhood for the four gender-sexuality subgroups: heterosexual men, heterosexual women, sexual minority men, and sexual minority women.

Graph 2 Fear - Gender-Sexuality

Sexual minorities’ and women’s higher reports of fear compared to heterosexuals’ and men’s, respectively, mask the patterns at the intersections of sexuality and gender. The effect of sexuality on fear is gendered, wherein it distinguishes reports of fear among men but not women. Heterosexual women (44%), sexual minority men (41%), and sexual minority women (46%) are significantly more likely than heterosexual men (19%) to report fear at night. However, the three former groups’ reports of fear do not significantly differ from one another.

We investigated whether race and ethnicity intersected with gender and sexuality in reports of fear, as well. The graph below displays fear for each racial/ethnic-gender subgroup.

Graph 3 Fear - Gender-Race

We found that the effect of race and ethnicity on fear at night was unique to men once we controlled for the effect other sociodemographic characteristics. That is, like the effect of sexuality, race and ethnicity distinguished men’s but not women’s reports.

We were unable to consider simultaneous intersections among sexuality, gender, and race and ethnicity due to the small number of sexual minorities. You can see differences just in percentages, without controlling for the effects of other sociodemographic characteristics, in the graph below. These patterns should be interpreted with caution given sampling constraints.

Graph 4 Fear - Race-Gender-Sexuality

One in six white heterosexual men reported being afraid to walk alone at night in their neighborhoods. That jumps to one in four for heterosexual men of color, and approximately two-fifths of white heterosexual women and white sexual minorities. And, half (or slightly more) of women of color and sexual minority men of color reported fear at night. These differences in fear mirror the disproportionate violence experienced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged identities.

Conclusion

Using a nationally representative survey, we found that sexual minorities are more likely than heterosexuals to be afraid to walk alone at night in their own neighborhoods. However, this sexuality gap reflects differences among men; substantially more women (both heterosexual and sexual minority) and sexual minority men report fear at night than heterosexual men. A similar gender-specific effect exists for race and ethnicity. Black and Latino men are more likely than white men to report fear at night; however, fear does not differ by race and ethnicity among women once accounting for the effect of other sociodemographic characteristics.

Our paper emphasizes the importance of studying the intersections among racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression. Prior research comparing women’s and men’s fear of crime and violence has (unintentionally) assumed that these gender differences hold across sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, and other statuses; however, we found that it appears to be limited to white heterosexuals’ reports of fear. Given the vast diversity among women, as well as men, these groups’ experiences should not be treated as universal. Our other studies highlight the urgent need to attend to the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals (e.g. Black LGBT people), who are often the most vulnerable to violence and discrimination.

Can We Celebrate Queer Lives And Activism, Too?

James Franco

I’m (not) sorry, but can we hold up on celebrating every white straight cisgender man who does anything minimally non-homophobic/biphobic/transphobic?  I appreciate these efforts.  And, I recognize the work of some as anti-homophobic, anti-biphobic, and/or anti-transphobic activism (you know, because not being a bigot is not the same thing as being an ally or advocate).  In my opinion, they should be doing this, and giving a cookie to every self-proclaimed ally reinforces the message that bigotry is just a few bad apples and justice can be achieved through a few noteworthy, but infrequent acts.

Beyond that, I find that queer people do not get enough credit for existing, daring to be visible, authentic, happy.  Coming out.  Refusing to hide.  Refusing to conform.  Refusing to resign themselves to a miserable, invisible, inauthentic existence.  Refusing to tolerate the status quo.  Refusing to be excluded from important social and political institutions. Who could ever imagine a day that lawsuits are filed in the country’s most conservative states to force them to get up to speed with federal recognition of same-gender couples?  Even in the face of opposition that has demonized queer people as promiscuous, drug-abusers, pedophiles, non-monogamous, and perverts, queer people have demanded to have their relationships recognized and celebrated.

We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.  Straight, cisgender people, get used to it!  That is some brave, bold shit.

Oh, but it takes a lot to be so brave.  Individual queer people are worn out from the daily toll of being out (or not) or making that negotiation minute by minute.  Our relationships are tested as we navigate another, unexpected layer of the closet: queer love and sex.  Do we embark on the war with our intolerant families?  How do we navigate our communities?  How do we navigate the law and institutions?  All while not really seeing ourselves, seeing others like us, in public and the media.  All while, at best, being tolerated but never fully accepted.

Sometimes, the well runs dry.  Sometimes, it is easier to give it up — accept our second-class citizenship.  The opposition can be so fierce that you begin to wonder why you fight — maybe you are asking for too much, too soon.  Maybe you are naive to hope for better.  Maybe you are even greedy for wanting equality in an unequal world.  Maybe you should concede to the world’s desire to make you disappear.

Fuck.  That.  Noise.

My activism is not radical unless staying alive is radical.  It is radical if equality is radical.  We have got to fight — all of the time — so we can stop fighting.  When one of us gets weary, another one should step up to carry on, and another to support the both of them.  By continuously fighting, we carry on the legacy of those who fought before us, and improve the opportunities for future generations.  It is not a war we started, but it is one we will have to win in order to survive.

So, I am celebrating queer warriors — all of them.  And, I am honoring the fallen.  Fight on.  Thanks to our heterosexual and cisgender supporters and allies; keep fighting on, but celebrate the victories for queer justice — not yourselves.

Homophobia, Biphobia, And Transphobia As Sexual Violence

A few weeks ago, I watched (and loved) the film, Gun Hill Road.  One scene of the film hit me in the gut, hard.  The film’s lead character, Vanessa Rodriquez (played by Harmony Santana), a young Latina transwoman, was coerced into having sex with a woman sex worker by her father, Enrique Rodriquez.  Her father pressured her to do so in attempt to “cure” her gender identity, making her the heterosexual cisman he preferred as his child.  “Wow,” I thought, “that’s a form of sexual violence!”

Oh, wait… that happened to me.  When I was 17, just a week shy of my 18th birthday, a family member guilted me into being with a sex worker.  I identified as bisexual then, so the pressure was on to finally give sex with a woman a try – of course, with the implied intention to “cure” me of my sexual attraction to men.  I resisted, saying I was not interested, and did not want my first sexual experience to be with a sex worker in a hotel room.

Eventually, I caved to the pressure.  The sex worker arrived and explained that for the amount of money I had, she could only provide an erotic dance.  I was uncomfortable and wanted her to leave immediately.  While she danced, I asked how business was, and she asked how school was coming.  Ten minutes later, she was gone and I was both relieved and disgusted.

I later came out as gay, and now identify as queer.  And, fortunately, my family has come around to accepting me as a whole human being.  But, I will live with the memory of being coerced into any sort of sexual activity with a woman for life.  So, too, will every other instance in which I was asked an inappropriate question about my sex life or relationships, or been subject to comments that aimed to shame me for being a sexually active queer man.  “You don’t take it up the butt, do you?”  “I hope you are using condoms.  You can die from AIDS”  “Which one of you is the woman in the relationship?”

Sexual Violence Against LGBTQ People

As a scholar, my perspective – informed by my research and personal experiences – has shifted to see sexual violence as the sexualized manifestation of any system of oppression, not merely of sexism or misogyny.  In the ugly racist history of the US, Black people and other people of color have been raped, lynched and castrated, sterilized, and exotified; we have been demonized as jezebels, savages, whores, and temptresses.

Homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, too, are regularly expressed in sexualized ways.  The subtle and explicit shaming of LGBT people for existing, being sexual, and having loving relationships is widespread.  Transwomen are harassed on the streets by police who assume that they are sex workers.  Manufactured lesbian sexuality is exploited for cis, heterosexual men’s desires, while authentic lesbian relationships remain invisible or stigmatized.  Lesbians are subject to “corrective rape” in South Africa (and worldwide), while gay men are punished with extreme violence, including rape, for being gay.  Even as the US has become more tolerant of LGBT people and same-gender relationships (that mirror the acceptable, heteronormative and cisnormative standard), queer sexuality remains demonized, despised, and closeted.

Ironically, queer people are punished, sometimes through sexual violence, because of our sexualities.  While the cis heterosexual dominated society is obsessed with our sex lives and our sexual desires, we are the ones who are seen as perverts.