Saturday, June 22, 2013

Hey, I Just Met You and I Know This Is Crazy, But Let Me Beat You Up

Early in my gay career I noticed that some people (gay or straight) were more comfortable around gay people who were gender-compliant -- that is, they behaved as men and women were officially supposed to behave.  Others were more comfortable around gay people who weren't gender-compliant, or "stereotypical" -- that is, they behaved the way people of the other sex were supposed to behave.  Each comfort pattern made sense in its own terms.  The former group liked men to 'act like men,' and women to 'act like women.'  I suspect that this made it easier for them not to think about what gay men did sexually with each other, but that's only a guess.  The latter group liked men who desired men to 'act like women.'  Perhaps it made it easier for them to think of sex between men as something a man would never do; if a man who coupled with other men 'acted like a woman,' they could distance the activity from something they, as manly men, would ever do.  Perhaps they were just more comfortable knowing who was gay, based on appearance and mannerism, and who wasn't.  I repeat that in both cases, I'm speculating.  The different expectations of how gay people should gender themselves, however, were clearly there.

Only a few years before I came out, homophile organizations like Mattachine and the Daughters of Bilitis were instructing gay men and lesbians to behave like 'normal' men and women (out of bed, at least).  Ironically, gender prescriptions for women at least were changing, broadening heterosexual women's options.  Lesbians were pressuring each other to be more femme just as straight women were becoming more butch.  I think it was DOB honchos Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon who observed, in their 1972 book Lesbian / Woman, that if you see a stomping butch in jeans, hiking boots, and backpack on the Appalachian trail, she'll probably have a husband and children with her; the lesbians will be tottering along in capri pants and flimsy shoes, trying to look feminine and fit into society.  But then, as they implied, PR-conscious strategies generally imposed more restrictive norms on gay people than heterosexuals imposed on themselves.  If it's not forbidden, it's mandatory; if it's not mandatory, it's forbidden.

To a great extent, the call for gender compliance hid behind the excuse of What the Heterosexuals Will Think.  Often it reflected gender-compliant gays and lesbians' wish to impose their styles of gender and respectability on all gay men and lesbians.  (As I've argued before, PR-conscious gays don't really care that much about what upsets straights: when most heterosexuals were offended by the idea of same-sex marriage or gays in the military, these activists brushed their objections aside with derision. Only the standards they shared with bigots had to be respected.)  But then, gender-noncompliant gays and lesbians were just as willing to universalize their styles as the way to be gay.  The idea that different people express gender and sexuality differently, and that these differences should be allowed and respected, is still too radical for many of us.

This realization led me to conclude that no single gendered style was going to win us acceptance.  If we worked at passing for normal gendered citizens, that would make us acceptable as gay people to many heterosexuals -- but not to all of them.  Many other heterosexuals would prefer that we conform to the gender norms governing the "opposite" sex.  No matter which course we chose, we would win over some heterosexuals and alienate others.  That's not to say that we should ignore what heterosexuals think, only that we shouldn't let it determine how we live our lives.  Whether we try a public-relations approach of marketing ourselves to straights, insisting that we are just like them, or work at education, teaching them about diversity and how to live with it, will depend on what issues we're working on.

There are also different levels of stereotype-breaking.  One, call it first-order, is to defend and protect people who "fit the stereotype."  There's nothing wrong with a boy's being a sissy, a grown man being a drag queen, a girl being a tomboy, a grown woman being a butch truck driver.  But while being allowed to fit the stereotype can be liberating, it can also close off many options.  For Graeme Reid, hairstyling is the quintessential black gay South African occupation, and many ladies exhibit talent with hair and ask for nothing more than their own salon and roster of adoring clients.  But here's where second-order stereotype-breaking comes in.  One of Reid's informants, however, Nathi,
did not see hairstyling as his chosen career ... When he was 23 years old, he said that 'since he has schooling', he would rather be doing something else.  However, two years later he was still in the same job and appeared to have settled into the life of a hairstylist [120-1].
This doesn't mean that hairstyling is in Nathi's genes, however.  It probably has something to do with the widespread poverty that still pervades South African life, especially for blacks.  Most wealth in South Africa is still concentrated in white hands.  As Reid shows, hairstylists work long hours and don't make all that much money, so attending night school, let alone college, requires more determination than most people have.  But it also suggests that while gays may be accepted, even celebrated, as long as they behave as gays are stereotypically expected to behave, they are under considerable pressure, both from straight society and from gay society, not to stray outside the bounds that have been set for them.  Another of Reid's informants, working as an informal apprentice in a hair salon, said that "he would rather do catering or fashion design" (118), both of which are comfortably gendered for feminine gay men.  But what if he wanted to play soccer, or become a doctor or lawyer or astronomer?  Those occupations would be largely closed off to him for class reasons, but I wonder how much encouragement he'd get from his gay friends.  (You can't play football!  You'd muss your hair.  You might break a nail!)  Letting people occupy a gender- (or race- or class- ) defined box is all very well, but those boxes need to be expanded to give them more options.

Reid writes:
Local gender norms are fundamental to the ways in which same-sex sexual identities are expressed and performed in public. Gender norms also provide the framework for acceptable and transgressive forms of gay identity. Yet the deployment of an overtly feminine identity by gay men cannot only be understood in terms of imitating a heterosexual norm or unwittingly perpetuated gender stereotypes. In other words, a feminine gender identity is not simply imposed or adopted in the face of patriarchal pressure, the unrelenting logic of which would render gays effeminate and thus unthreatening to heterosexual masculinity [122].
What I wrote earlier indicates why I think this won't do.  Reid does recognize that there are both "acceptable and transgressive forms of gay identity."  In the South African townships, an "acceptable" form means that a man embraces a feminine style in varying degrees, which determines (while also enabling) his role in sexual expression no less than his social role.  A "transgressive" form in the same locale severs gender from sexual role, so that a man can be normatively masculine but still enjoy being penetrated, or take sexual pleasure in other ways.  But as I indicated, for a man to be a lady is both "acceptable" and "transgressive," in that he abandons normative expectations for males while adopting normative female styles; for a man to embrace what Reid considers an urban, male, activist, Western gay identity is also both "acceptable" and "transgressive," since such a man is normatively masculine except in his sexual activity.  Both styles appease some people while outraging others.  It's not possible to please everyone, so it becomes necessary to think about what one wants personally and how to get it in the face of opposition, which one will encounter no matter what one does.

It seems to me, by the way, that Reid is generalizing the gender norms of poor black people in the South African townships to all of South African society.  I imagine there are gay black men in South Africa who express gender differently; it won't do to accuse them, as Reid does, of conforming to "Western" concepts.  He assumes a much greater degree of uniformity than you'll find in any society -- including the townships, as his own examples show.

As for Reid's assertion that "the deployment of an overtly feminine identity by gay men cannot only be understood in terms of perpetuating a heterosexual norm" and so on (emphasis mine), those terms can't be completely dismissed either.  No one grows up in a vacuum.  A child learns her first language not by freely inventing one, but by observing and imitating the language used by the people around her; she also learns, at roughly the same age as she learns language, that gender matters, and can't simply go her own way in that arena either.  To reject one restrictive gender norm generally results in adopting another restrictive gender norm -- if I'm not going to be a Daddy, then I'll be a Mommy -- and yet no one conforms totally to those norms.  And in any case, there is considerable pressure to conform; if we all resist that pressure to some degree, we also surrender to it in some degree.  The penalties for nonconformity range from reproving, nagging, shunning, and harassment to exclusion, violence, and even death.

As Reid recognizes, adopting an overtly feminine style frees some gay men from the restrictions of masculinity, but it also exposes them to the restrictions and vulnerability of femininity.  Ladies, like heterosexual women, are menaced and victimized by theft, robbery, harassment, rape, and other violence.  Reid tells how, soon after his arrival in Ermano, he had to contend with the attentions of gents who said things like
I love you.  I love you so much.  Let us go and talk where no one can see us.  I know I am a black man and you are white, but just give me a chance to show you how much I love you.  I want you to be my girlfriend [52].
Such come-ons could shift from "flirtatious" to "openly aggressive" in a heartbeat.  Nor was this behavior comfortable for the black ladies: "Tsepo, who was with me in the car at the time, said, 'I hate it when people say "I love you" when they don't even know you" (53).  Some of this is directly tied to their being gay; some of it follows from being feminine, and even adopting the most respectable feminine image, that of the church lady and matron, doesn't immunize women or gay men against these dangers.

It appears that gents don't necessarily require their male paramours to be ladies who embody "a feminine gender identity."  The guys above could pursue Reid although he (whatever his personal style) was not a lady.  His lady informants, when he moved to Ermano, had trouble reading him: was he a gent or a lady?  Despite his failure to meet full feminine standards, they quickly classified and adopted him as one of them.

Reid continues to reify "performance" and confuse it with performativity, though he does finally recognize that "After all, women, like ladies, also engage in the daily performances that constitute femininity" (137).  As with all role theory, there are serious problems with seeing daily behavior as a role or performance, but confusing it with performativity just distorts Reid's intellectual framework.

I concede that this confusion has become normative in gender studies, but I'm not a big fan of normativity.  (Normativity is a pervasive social fact, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be criticized.)  When I pointed out this problem to one gay academic, he dismissed it by acknowledging that although it began as a misunderstanding of performative speech, the scholars involved were entitled to redefine the term to mean whatever they wanted it to mean.  Well, no they aren't: not if they continue to cite J. L. Austin as authority for the concept, and besides, in serious discourse, you are not entitled to play Humpty Dumpty -- especially if you're unaware you're doing it.  I found this example in an academic book on "making schools and communities welcoming to LGBT youth" by three concerned teachers.
Language is a tool. As such, we believe that speech is performative – it does things. Words invite or exclude, recognize or erases, empower or intimidate. Far from what the children’s chant would have us believe, words are sticks and stones.*
As authority for these assertions, they cite J. L. Austin's How to Do Things With Words, which introduced and popularized the concept of performative speech acts.  But Austin didn't, as far as I can tell, say that all speech is performative, as the authors above claim.  He argued that certain types of speech are performative, as distinct from other ways in which language can be used.  Saying flatly that "we believe that speech is performative" and citing Austin is like saying that "everything is relative" and citing Einstein's paper on Special Relativity.

*Vaccaro, Annemarie; August, Gerri; Kennedy, Megan S.. Safe Spaces: Making Schools and Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth (Santa Barbara CA: Praeger, 2012), p. 95.