Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Appendix to Edith's Last Post

In college I wrote a paper specifically about the biological vs. non-bioligical debate surrounding homosexuality right now. One of the fascinating things I learned in my research is that a big reason that the argument favoring homosexuality as biologically determined has gained ground so quickly lately, is that various legal scholars and lawyers are trying to model their arguments in favor of gay rights on earlier civil rights movements. One of the requirements of the Equal Protection Clause in the Thirteenth Amendment is that the trait that triggers discrimination against a group of people be "immutable." This term has been falsely interpreted to mean biological, a clear blunder if you look at the classic group which the clause was originally written for: people of color. What do you know, race is not actually a biological trait. In my essay I examine all the reasons biological determinism is a weak argument for winning gay rights on the legal level, as well as how the gay civil rights movement can learn from the successes and failures of the feminist and anti-racist movements. In the process of writing it, I came to understand the issues Edith talks about in her most recent post much more clearly and if you're interested in reading my essay for yourself you can find it at:

Monday, November 27, 2006

Being Gay is Not Like Being Left-Handed

Disclaimer: I wrote this around eight months ago. I realize that I need to update my post about bisexuality and my own personal angst regarding it (as well as respond to the comments from that post). I also have a lot of new stuff I want to talk about. But I wrote this a while back ago, and, considering certain discussions going on in the femisblogosphere right now, I thought it would be a good idea to post it here. Enjoy!

Andrea Dworkin has said that, "Biological superiority is the world's most dangerous idea." I've been thinking a lot about that and, specifically, what happens when we use the idea of biological superiority to feel guilty about and pity those of us we see as inferior based on biological status.

First off -- I am a lesbian. I have been out my entire adult life. As a lesbian, I feel sexually, emotionally, romantically, and whatever else-ly attracted to women primarily over men. There is nothing contrived whatsoever about my lesbian identity -- in fact, as far as I feel personally about things, it's the identity I probably mention least about myself (online or otherwise) because it's the identity I am LEAST conflicted about.

That said: I believe sexual orientation is at least 75% socially constructed. I do NOT think sexual orientation is psychologically ingrained in you before you're five. I do think that the childhood, and infant, phases are important for overall sexuality development (and personality and intelligence, among other things), but I do not believe that orientation is totally formed, either through psychological or biological means, by the time you start grammar school. In short: yes, I believe that sexual orientation is "a choice."

There are several reasons why this is unpopular:

1) Everything is biologically determined these days. If it doesn't have a "scientific" basis, it's not considered "true." Watch "Dr." Phil and how he tells people that CAT and PEP scans can PROVE if a person has a mood disorder -- sorry Phil, but no dice.

2) So if homosexuality has no "biological" basis, what causes it? Something psychosocial?! Does that make it a disorder?

3) And if homosexuality has no biological basis, then what are we doing trying to give gays "special rights" when they can just "choose" to be straight?

4) And if it's really hard for some of them to "choose" to be straight, since there's no biological evidence, well, we should treat homosexuality like a psychological disorder, and "cure" them, right? For this line of thinking, GLBT activists have jumped all over the biological determinism angle. Which has created the current, "Don't hate gays, they can't help it, that's just who they are," liberal mainstream line. Not only is this thinking really harmful because it centers all its hopes upon the ability to use (or manipulate, whatever) science to FIND A GAY GENE or something (and if we never find it, eventually, people will start to doubt the biological-gay idea), it centers all its strength on the argument that yes, PERHAPS being gay is abhorrent, but they can't help it! They can't! Pity the sinner, the pervert, their physical brain makes them act the way they do!

The solution to this problem, for some people, have been to say, "It doesn't matter if it's biological or sociological, the point is they're gay now, and let's be humane." That works until the current generation of gays and lesbians get older and a new generation comes in. The let's-just-deal-with-what-we-have-now method doesn't work once "now" isn't "now" anymore, but rather, the past, when instead of dealing with a problem, we ignored it and schlepped it off onto future generations.

Here's what I believe we have to do: acknowledge that homosexuality is socially constructed. Acknowledge that heterosexuality, for that matter, is socially constructed too. We must further acknowledge that socialization is a process that NEVER STOPS until you die. It is INCREDIBLY complicated and interacts with your own psychology -- and yes, biology, specifically aging -- to create Who You Are. Forcing a gay man to be straight is not pleasant. However, it's not like forcing a left-handed person to be right-handed. Forcing a left-handed person to be right-handed is more like forcing a colorblind person to be suddenly not.

The interaction between psychology, biology, and sociology -- often referred to as "bio-psycho-social" -- is an important one. But we must take care not to rank them in that order, and let sociology just get thrown into discourse for show. Sometimes, sociology explains things better than your psychological or biological theories ever will.

Matriarchy: Home Ec for Feminists

I've been participating in a women's support group the last few months for women of a variety of ages with a variety of concerns. So far it's been an incredibly enriching experience for me, but it's also brought up some old questions about femininity, gender roles, and where I fit as a not-that-womanly woman. One topic that came up last week, for example, was how do we more equitably divide the labor at Thanksgiving so women don't do all the work. Which I think is an awesome, extremely important question for the women who asked it during group, but it's not something that I'm particularly concerned about. My father does all the cooking in my household and Thanksgiving is no exception. The food my dad cooked was delicious to the point that my grandfather, full of awe, awfully declared, "It looks like you're good for something other than gardening after all!" For those who didn't catch it, that's a reference to Asian American gardeners! Wooooo! Happy Thanksgiving!

But back on point, lately I've been wrestling with a sense that maybe I'm not a very feminine woman and also with the sense that none of the women who played a major role in my life when I was growing up, were what I would think of as particularly feminine either. My mom is an assertive, opinionated lawyer who pretty much rules our household with an iron fist. My grandmother and great aunts on my father's side are some of the mouthiest, most assertive women I've ever met who also ruled their households and families with iron fists. Sandra Oh once commented in an interview with Bust that she has never met a passive Asian American woman in her entire life, which I completely identify with. The women I modelled myself after when I was growing up were forces to be reckoned with in comparison to many of the more mellow men in my family who tend to do all the cooking, in addition to being more emotionally available. It's difficult for me to disentangle how race played a part in shaping the gender roles in my family, but I feel like the Japanese American culture certainly must have played some kind of role.

And as I reflect on the women in my family, it hardly seems surprising to me that taking the role of the passive, compassionate caregiver does not come naturally to me. And when I think of those aspects in my personality, I almost always trace them to the men in my life and not the women. I think a large reason feminism appealed to me at such an early age is that from my perspective as a child, it was so obvious that women were already the ones in control. The world of business, politics, economics was meaningless to me in comparison to the crushing dominance of women within the more human, interpersonal world of my own family. What confuses me about this experience, however, is that I'm not sure it is unique or actually outside the old patriarchal norms of womanhood to begin with.

Going all the way back to the 19th century, it's easy to trace the importance of Republican Motherhood which stressed that women did indeed dominate the household and that they made their influence through their families, by educating their children and advising their husbands. And even though this might be simplifying things somewhat, one of the most crucial victories for First Wave feminism was it's assertion that women could and should contribute to society on a direct political level. Suffrage meant pushing out into the public sphere and emphasizing the importance of women's participation and leadership on a broader level than what home and family could contain. And naturally, I wouldn't second guess what a crucial step that was for women. But it does lead me back to one of the slippery debates that Third Wave feminism raises: "Is choosing to be a housewife, a feminist choice?"

Personally, my answer to that quesion is easily no. Growing up in a culture where there is still a tremendous amount of pressure put on young women to automatically become housewives and dedicate their lives to their families it is difficult for me to look at my already married and pregnant peers and feel they have not been at least somewhat influenced by patriarchy. Even with my card-carrying feminist beliefs, I think I've been influenced by that pressure and when I see intelligent, charismatic, college-educated women putting their lives on hold, it's very disappointing to me. While I am willing to believe that within the context of their lives and their options they certainly might be making the best choice, I still think the choice they're forced to make is un-feminist from the get go. If they had more options, if their context was different, a lot of women would choose differently. Not all, but a lot.

On the other hand though, I still see the power women have within their families and within their relationships as very important. I think it would be stupid not to use that power, stupid to understimate what it's worth. It might not be feminist to be a housewife, but when I see a woman leading her family and marshalling her household I do see real feminist power and real feminist potential. Which raises an even more interesting point: maybe feminism is not so much about the path we take in an embattled and constricting world, but about how we live that path as women, how we face our oppression with courage and honor, and how we learn to live with those limited choices.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Troubled Waters

Hey, everyone. I have a lot of things I want to talk about here -- such as an update to my bisexuality post, and a celebration of the recently departed Redstockings feminist and ex-New Yorker music reviewer Ellen Willis and discuss some of her more controversial stances, and what I think about the Veteran Feminists of the USA and Borat debacle, and so forth, but actually friends, I am really not doing very well at all. Like quite a few of you, I have spent some time in the psychiatric gaze. I have my reasons for being compliant in some instances and not-so-compliant in others, but overall, I trust the legitimacy of my diagnosis and treatment. For those of you who are explicitly anti-psychiatry, I respect your opinions, but please, don't treat me or any other (willing) psychiatric patient like we're fucking morons who just don't know any better to leave the big bad psychiatric daddy-rapist, and we need to go through CR in order to learn to kick the psychiatry habit along with the heels and the marriage licenses and the razors. Please. I suggest you build yourself a bridge, and get over it.

But back to me! So I am heavily depressed, and trying to build my own bridge of sorts, but it's been slow going. I don't know how active I'll be -- I honestly thought the worst of it was over, but now I'm thinking, perhaps not. In any event, you know the Vickster will be around. Maybe if we all treat her really nicely, she'll be doubly mean to make up for my slack.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Rant Against Roller Derby

So I know that people have already kind of debated the whole Roller Derby thing in feminist Blogland, but I just got in a fight with some people about it on a different blog of mine and thought I might as well post my rant here as well in case people are interested.

I went to my first Roller Derby match a few weeks ago and had pretty mixed feelings about the whole experience. So far I'm seeing a two-pronged argument in favor of Roller Derby in some feminist circles:

Point 1: The athleticism and showmanship of the girls on the team and the fact that they're pierced, tattoed, dyed, or alternative looking in some other way makes the sexy part of Roller Derby ok. There's an idea that well, these girls are tough enough and outside the mainstream enough that we shouldn't read their sexuality as falling into the traditional dynamics where women are exploited and used by patriarchy.

Point 2: It's ok for these Roller Derby players to play with their sexuality because sexuality is fun! It's fun to skate around in a mini skirt kicking people's asses! The sexuality is empowering for these girls because they no longer have to be masculine to be athletic, they can also show off their feminine side a.k.a. their tits.

Don't get me wrong, I think there is some validity to these points. Why should you have to look like a man to be perceived as tough and powerful? And surely these women should not be ashamed of their sexuality and their bodies, like the patriarchy has been telling them their whole lives. Roller Derby comes to symbolize a kind of punk-like, self-liberation strategy. I'm taking the roles you've placed on me, twisting them ironically, and shoving them back in your face!

But maybe we should pause for a moment and think of a couple things that most people WOULD consider patently sexist: Cheerleading for one. A lot of the advocates who I see talking about how badass Roller Derby is, think of something like cheerleading as the most terrible sexist thing imaginable. And yet, cheerleading requires a tremendous amount of athleticism and involves a huge amount of danger and physical risk. Further, the costumes cheerleaders wear bear an uncanny resemblence to the Roller Derby costumes that I've seen. Are you going to tell them what they're doing is any less empowering than what Roller Derby women do? Ok so cheerleading is ok. I sense the third wavers nodding.

Well let's push it further: what about Mud Wrestling? You know, the game where a couple of women get semi-nude and roll in the mud duking it out at strip clubs to cheers and yells. I would argue that you can make similar types of arguments in favor of women's Mud Wrestling as you could for Cheerleading or Roller Derby.

Now, I totally get there are huge important differences with these examples. The female bonding that takes place within Roller Derby teams is awesome. The audience at Roller Derby shows is usually pretty evenly gender-distributed, suggesting that it isn't as blatantly sexual as Mud Wrestling is. In a lot of cities the matches are women owned, women operated, and women may or may not be the ones reaping the profits from games. And sure, Cheerleading was naturally founded on women playing a secondary role to the "real" male athletes on the field (Newsflash: Roller Derby didn't have the greatest start in the world either). But I also think the idea of an audience cheering as women in skimpy outfits wearing roller skates try to make each other fall down isn't exactly the most feminist thing I can imagine. I think it's the sort of display you would never see at a men's atheltic event, not just because of the way masculinity is constructed by patriarchy, but because it's degrading and undermines how serious and competitive the players are.

If Roller Derby is really about how awesome the girls are at their sport, then it should REALLY be about that. It should really be about how empowering it is to see women being competitive and athletic and downright bad ass regardless of what they're wearing. Why does "embracing your femininity" in this context turn into wearing sexy clothing? Are there no other ways for women to assert their femininity? And if not, maybe we should reconsider what's so great about femininity in the first place. And if it's primarily about playing with sexual norms and doing some kind of Suicide Girls type performance with a little bit of violence added in for spice, well then I think we should stop pretending it's feminist and empowering.

To take things a bit further, here's the deal: a stripper doing a pole dance very well might be having fun or feeling powerful. Sure. I completely believe that. But what I don't buy is that her taking off her clothes for money is somehow resisting patriarchy because on a broader level the commodification of her sexuality just feeds back into the commodification of women's sexuality in general, whether we collectively volunteer for that or not. I think it trivializes what sexual repression and domination actually means for women on a psychological and sociological level and how sexual violence against women gets excused in the minds of men as business as usual. I continue to see violence against women as a problem with men first and I am not going to go around blaming women in the sex industry or Roller Derby ladies for violence against women. No no no. BUT let's not kid ourselves and pretend that all the ways women "play" with their sexuality are feminist or that when we make an "individual" choice about our own bodies, we aren't effecting other women or reacting to standards set by men.