Saturday, June 11, 2011

Some thoughts on gender

 I have been wanting to write something about gender, my experience of it, specifically about genderqueerness. I have been hesitant because emotionally and mentally, I was unable to commit to it. The primary reason being the little squeaky voice in my head saying: Really? You're going to choose to mope over this over the gazillion other important things to write about and sort out in your life? This is trivial in comparison.

I know it's messed up. Call it internalized shit, and also the way genderqueer identity and experience has been so monopolized by a scene I can't really identify with...I am committed to figuring this shit out though. I am committed to understanding genderqueerness and gender non-conforming experiences as part of the texture of working class life, not the academic and elitist pie in the sky.

Last week, as I was coming down from my high anxiety/panic moments around the upcoming massive loans for nursing school, and the guilt I felt for not being around my parents, I was pushed to understand and figure out concretely why it is that I am no longer home, why being home with my parents, being home in the country that I grew up, is really scary for me, and why apart from the financial stresses of buying plane tix etc, visiting home for 3 weeks/month is an ordeal I dont currently feel prepared to take. I realized that I need to face the fact that gender continues to be a really stressful issue for me. My desire to escape the stresses surrounded with gender and gender presentation has shaped my life decisions in deep ways. It does me no good to trivialize my experiences. Otherwise, I just blame myself for the decisions I make, without understanding, respecting and accepting why I made them.  This is just recipe for guilt and regret.

In my mother tongue, being gender non conforming and/or trans, is to become labelled as a Human Devil. When I was growing up in the 90s back home, the only visible trans folk were transwomen who walked the city streets late at night, whom everyone assumed to be sex workers. The way I remember them, they were beautiful, forbidden and distant and evoked a mix of fear and awe from me. 

I remember also the fabulous Kumar, a witty, smart drag queen, who had showtime on TV. Trans life was fantastic, was extravagant, was glam, was distant, in that sense of being totally separate from my own little life back then.
A few years ago when I went home to visit, I was watching a popular Taiwanese talkshow hosted by a trans woman. I can't remember her name but she was a big celebrity. She was exotic and tokenized, and that explained her popularity. My family sat watching her show, and started their commentary: This ren yao is so funny, so weird, maybe she's doing it for money, she's really good for a renyao... etc etc.

I jumped to her defense, using my limited knowledge of Chinese terms around queerness and gender. Fuck, all my language for describing my gender experiences are so steeped in English! I dont even know the terminologies in Chinese. Another layer of stress.

I argue, What's wrong with being born a man but not wanting to live as one? What's wrong with living as a transwoman? Why are they insulting her for being trans? They would hate it if it was around race or nationality, so why is it OK for it around gender? And being trans doesnt make her a creep.

I remembered this awkward feeling of arguing very strongly around something I felt deeply invested in, but not being able to reveal that personal investment for fear of judgement. So I tried to push my point in what felt like distant and liberal arguments, around concepts like "rights"...which just didnt feel right.

Some back and forth ensue on nature, god (and we arent even seriously religious plus I dont recall the Buddha saying anything about gender presentation!)...and then the question:

Why are you taking this so seriously? What's wrong with you?

I felt like bursting out saying: Because I feel like this. Because I am not just a child who hasnt grown up and who hasnt figured out what gender she is. Because you think I am a girl and really I don't think I am.

Being seen as a child and not getting respect as a grown adult and the choices I make. This has been such a big piece in my relationship with my family. I know people say no matter how old you get, in your parents' eyes you are always a child.

But my specific experiences with being seen as a child, as someone who hasn't grown up, has been tied to my gender expression as well as my politics and life choices.

When I go home, I keep getting bombarded with these ideas that I am not a good adult, and therefore I am immature and childish. "Aren't you too old to be doing this?" is the kind of responses I get from friends whom I grew up with, about how I look, and the work that I do. 

I can brace myself for these moments, but the stabbing words always catch me by surprise.

"You're really lucky that X wants to be with you. I mean, you look the way you do and he likes you. How did you manage that?" giggles*

"Thank god you are not a lesbian. I thought you were one."

"Are you trying to be like one of those people? Don't try to be different. We're not people like that."

It always feels like an all-out attack to trivialize and make me second guess all the decisions that I make about myself. Somehow when it comes from friends back home, and my family, it's not something I can easily dismiss. I think what's so hard about it is the psychoanalysis that they do on me. Where because they believe so strongly that what they are doing is right, they think someone who does anything different must have an ulterior motive that isn't just about expressing who they are. It's always gotta be about covering up some insecurity.

I feel like with the culture back home, this stems from the fact that material necessities has shaped so much the totality of so many peoples' lives If I dont get with it, and plan my life around upward mobility, there has to be something intrinsically wrong with me. Choice, is for the rich. For working class/poor people, choice about our lives and gender identities we present, HAS to come from some dysfunctionality. Otherwise, why wouldnt you prioritize food and shelter, over gender, loves and creativity? So this is how their words seep into me. Is there really something wrong with me? Am I being indulgent? Can't I get with it?

I have so much to say about this. How the politicization of gender and sexuality has been seen as "individualist" and simply labelled as "middle class." It is as if people of color or working people can't make choices unless they absolutely, inevitably, have to, that all our life decisions HAS to be shaped ONLY be oppression and being in the dead end -- that we dont have the right to experiment, and play with gender, and have fun with how we present ourselves, and explore etc etc. All our needs NEED to come from extreme deprivation, all our choices must be HARD choices. It's not just my parents, but even the left is guilty of this streamlining and erasure of the vibrant, exciting, interesting textures of working class life. 
[*I have lots to say about this in relation to the recent Slutwalk controversies. But more on that later.]

Which brings me to another point. I have a hard time with embracing fully as genderqueer for a few reasons, and one of them is how much I have associated this concept of trashing the gender binary, as something that has been so tied to queer theory and academia. I know this is not true. I know bending the gender binary, or smashing it, IS a  texture of working class life that is, once again, robbed and monopolized by hip middle class queer theorists...and gender is one of those things that are so powerful and intimate and yet so trivialized and easily brushed away...the most dedicated anti-racist, class struggle people become liberals when it comes to gender and sexuality, saying: if you do what you wanna do in your own world, thats fine, just dont bring it into my bedroom. When it's about race, it's called liberal racism, and a segregation of POC from white folks was called Jim Crow. But somehow when it comes to gender and sexuality, it becomes a thing of "I prefer to be with ciswomen, or cismen, and transmen or transwomen should self identify and not pass as cis." All this smacks of liberalism and transphobia!!!

This post is kinda all over the place, cos I lost steam while writing it. But I was happy today and motivated to write about this stuff now because of some interactions w my coworkers around gender that made my day. 

Anyway, some pieces for now that I think are great and think everyone should read:)
Joanna Kadi: Thinking Class


  1. you are brilliant!!! and awesome :)

  2. This is a great post. I think writing like this can start to wrench genderqueer identity and queer theory out of academia. It might be a case of "we make the road by walking", you know? By working this stuff out, and by prioritizing doing that no matter what the haters say, maybe you'll be a part of shaping a new identity, or at least helping open up space so other working class queer people of color won't face the trauma you're describing here alone.

    Your point about how the Left sees things only in terms of hard choices and struggle is spot on. Loren Goldner calls the Left "Malthusian".. I wonder if that's what he means... making it seem like there is this life or death struggle over limited resources and that material struggle is all that matters. It's the flip side of the ideology you describe facing back home. It denies the fact that there is enough technology in this world where everyone could have a creative life with all material needs satisfied and plenty of free time to devote to developing and shaping our cultures and identities, and cultivating our bodies in a variety of ways (as I describe in my comments on your most recent post). Capitalism needs to destroy this potential constantly to keep itself going.

    But the Malthusians say it's all about struggle to put food on the table.... the neoliberal ones say do it by getting a job or marrying a rich man, and the Leftists say do it by struggling over bread and butter class issues.

    In contrast to them, you have the academic queer theorists who rightfully embrace playfulness, creativity, self expression, and introversion about gender, but divorce this from class....

    So you get it from both sides... the Malthusians tell you there is something more important to focus on, like making a living, but the people who talk about and affirm your struggles around gender have nothing to say when you talk about what you need to do to make a living.

    I love that this blog talks about both!