n. the pervasive and systemic belief in male/masculine and female/feminine as the only true, natural and correct gender identities and expressions

gender normativity n. the privileged state lived - whether momentarily or perpetually - by those whose genders perceptibly 'fit' with locally-derived and understood expressions of masculinity (for men) and femininity (for women)

gender non-normativity n. the oppressed state lived - whether momentarily or perpetually - by those whose genders do not perceptibly fit, as above

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Having feelings about Men Can Stop Rape advertisements

As I'm recovering from a bike injury, I've been internetting for a few days now.

A friend of mine shared a link to this article on the Incite! blog - it's about the problem of misogyny in social movements and how misogyny serves the ends of the very state that these movements are trying to change or bring down. The author cites a zine called Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Partner Abuse in Activist Communities, edited by Ching-In Chen, Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I read the whole thing today! On my computer, in my bad glasses that hurt my eyes. It was that riveting and important.

Beyond thanking the editors for their work on the zine, I also want to share an old gripe. As you can probably guess, it has something to do with Men Can Stop Rape. I began to see these posters on my university campus a few years back and every now and then I am reminded of them. Reading about the amazing community accoutability strategies people have used to address sexual violence certainly made me think of how problematic mass-market strategies can be, whether or not these invoke the criminal justice system. However, I carry two different and conflicting positions on these ads at any given time which can be loosely summed up as follows:

CRITICAL: This is the wrong idea. Reinforcing strength as a corollary of masculinity - for whatever purpose - is a mistake and props up sexism, genderism and misogyny in the guise of 'doing something' about sexual violence. These ads make me imagine a similar campaign about racism or any other oppression; it's easy to see how ridiculous this can become when privileged (in this case, male/masculine) perpetrators are lauded for doing something they should do anyway as though it's some kind of bonus. This sort of messaging reinforces the root problems that led to the violence to begin with. Furthermore, these ads completely construct sexual violence as a male-on-female, heterosexual problem. Which men can use their man strength to stop which rapes? And besides, doesn't this reinforcement of male virility further shame male survivors by making the 'my strength' narrative the only one getting any face/air time? Finally, I want to have access to the full spectrum of these posters to find out how many of them feature men and women of colour, because so far I see a marked over-representation and this is racist and completely unacceptable.

PRAGMATIC: It is always good when someone thinks twice about breaking another person's boundaries, raping someone or assaulting them. Whatever the reason or prompt, something terrible didn't happen and that's what matters. Do what works. Play on the messed up things that people are already buying into, and use them to make material change.

As I am always thinking about pedagogy, I'm sure I could make of this poster campaign to get students to think about genderism and misogyny - but also broader concerns about representation and privilege - in a very immediate and hands-on way. I will continue to think on this, and I welcome any comments.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A new thought for the New Year

My thinking these days has turned from gender as an object of concern to the means by which norms of gender are transmitted and instantiated in time/space through the mobilization of our affect. Basically, instead of thinking about how gender works, I'm drawn to concerns about what we do on an individual affective level that contributes to normalization of any kind.

To that end, here is a nugget for the New Year, that I hope will bear fruit:

Why do we teach children about staring by mobilizing the concept of 'rudeness'? Why do we not tell children that theirs could be the stare that finally pushes someone to leave the realm of humans, as zie has been similarly urged to do for so long?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Teaching the Caster Semenya story: On the connections between gender, education and visual culture

I am currently taking an interdisciplinary doctoral course at York called Visual Culture and Gender, and we are engaging with the visual character of gender as well as the pedagogical implications for teaching with this visuality in mind. This post features an excerpt from a brief writing assignment wherein I connect gender, pedagogy and visuality in a 'teachable example' and centres on the Caster Semenya debacle.


Lorber (1993, p. 569) reminds us that gender as a binary has always been instantiated through seeing. As a teacher educator, I am required to engage with visual culture because public battles surrounding ‘gender’ – or, more frequently, biological sex – are fought in the realm of the visual. In recognition of this visuality of gender (and in unconscious preparation for this course), I have long collected visual texts complimentary of my anti-genderist pedagogical aims, and I discuss one of these texts here. The intense policing of sex practiced by international sport authorities has yielded an inalienable exemplar of a ‘public battle’ in the realm of the visual. Caster Semenya, the South African world track and field champion, has had her sex (gender?) publicly disputed on an international scale; in answer, the September issue of the popular South African magazine YOU responded both visually and discursively.

The September cover [inset above] contains a photograph of the newly- feminine Semenya, a smaller image of her ‘masculine’ alter ego, a statement discursively reifying Caster’s split (athletic/power vs. non-athletic/glamour) femininity – “We turned SA’s power girl into a glamour girl – and she loves it!” – and an enticing invitation to the viewer to consume this most unambiguous visual feast of true femininity: “Wow, look at Caster now!” The South African government has rallied around Caster by issuing scathing condemnations of the media and international athletic community. In light of this national rallying, that a South African publication is so firmly invested in the visually discursive reification and rendering intelligible of Semenya’s gender-normativity indicates that gender and visual culture can quickly become politicized in tandem, and on a global scale.

This cover is just one artefact of the visual culture of gender which, I would argue, can “shift the focus of analysis away from things seen toward the process of seeing” (Herbert, 2003, p. 455) and onto the ways in which this process is scaffolded by our own experiences of being gendered and being gender experts. Columpar (2002) aligns the colonial, ethnographic and male gazes “insofar as they accord their bearers a position of mastery and designate their objects as the site/sight of difference” (p. 40); I would add the gender-normative gaze for the same reasons. Analyzing the YOU cover with students will necessarily illuminate their own curiosity about Semenya’s gender as inflamed by the media, and in turn, the ways in which they exercise a gender-normative gaze when viewing visual texts and when appraising the genders of others. To this end, the pivotal question arising out of my engagement with visual studies, gender studies and teacher education pertains to the ethics of viewing and how I might foreground genderism and the process of seeing with a pedagogy disruptive of the gender-normative gaze. Just as Khan (2007) uses Hatoum’s work to pedagogically disrupt ‘racial seeing’ in the Women’s Studies classroom (p. 330), how can I seek to deflect the teacher’s eye from ‘gendered seeing’?

Sexing the education of indeterminate young others

This is a very brief conference paper that I presented last month at the Bergamo conference in Dayton, OH. I link the aims of anti-homophobia education to the project of 'sexing education' for particular constituents, arguing that gender is in fact what is at stake. As always, I would appreciate any comments!


I am concerned with how we construct a hypothetical ‘LGBT’ student body through our projects. I will introduce the nature of my concern with a conference anecdote. Two years ago I attended a paper presentation given by a self-identified LGBT studies scholar in education who had performed a content analysis of photographs depicting teacher-student touching in teacher education textbooks. He found that the touching depicted was overwhelmingly performed by female teachers unto students of any discernable sex, but never by male teachers unto male students. He named this a homophobic representation, and while I certainly agree that it can be linked to systemic homophobia, we ceased to agree when he answered my question on what he would like to see in future textbooks: “gay all the time,” he said, in order to rectify the prior imbalance. As is often the case, the contents of ‘gay’ and its visual representation were left empty and could only be filled with reference to the ‘gayness’ of my interlocutor. In other words, the goal here was not to represent possibilities other than heterosexuality within which children and youth can dream their futures (c.f. Mayo 2007; McDonough, 2008), but to represent ‘gayness’ – or, one particular way of being and signifying non-heterosexually – as the Other option.

This exchange dogs my thinking and underscores my argument here. I consider the question “can sex be educated and can education be sexed?” in the context of my work on deconstructing various mainstream modes for ‘dealing with’ sexual Others in schools. I would like to address Britzman’s question to the field of LGBT or anti-homophobia education, specifically with regard to who is educating whose sex, or for whom the ‘who’s’ imagine we are doing this work. Perhaps against my own retrospective interest, I can only conclude that we – the gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer adult scholars of anti-homophobia education – are tacitly seeking to reproduce ourselves, for ourselves. I argue that this self-reproduction embodies a commitment to sexing education and educating sex in highly particular and often undisclosed ways. This is a commitment that ought to accrue suspicion.

It has long been acknowledged that public space, unless branded otherwise, is always already heterosexual (and white, etc.), and that schools as public spaces are similarly heterosexual (see Letts & Sears, 1999) and, moreover, heteronormative. Anti-homophobia educators and researchers have named this state of affairs as contravening the right of non-heterosexual students to learn in a space where their subjectivities can flourish alongside those of their heterosexual peers. However, despite heteronormativity’s extensive powers of circumscription and limitation, it is only seldom named as a source of harm in the lives of heterosexual students. The consequent isolation of heteronormativity concern solely on the bodies of students whom we self-referentially recognize as queer has, I would argue, resulted in a counterproductive geographic isolation of this concern in the form of ‘gay-straight alliances’ (e.g. Macgillivray, 2007) or islands of ‘non-heterosexual space’ in schools.

Gay-straight alliance (GSA) meetings are discursively constructed as spaces wherein non-heterosexual students can find respite from homophobia/heterosexism/heteronormativity, express their ‘true selves’ which are otherwise hidden, and experience the flourishing of their marginal sexual Otherness in relative safety amidst people ostensibly ‘like them’. In the parlance of adult LGBT academics like me, ‘we’ would have greatly benefited from these spaces as adolescents, and so would have countless thousands of other LGBT youth. However, GSAs and other initiatives advocated within the dominant mode of anti-homophobia education, such as workshops for teachers and students or the outlawing of phrases such as “that’s so gay,” are limited by the deployment of a sexuality-based anti-homophobia model for doing what amounts to gender justice work in education. The intention to sex the education and educate the sex of indeterminate young Others is so pervasive on the part of LGBT educators (myself included, perhaps) that the ubiquitous harm of genderism and gender-normativity is obscured.

I have made the case elsewhere (Airton, 2009) that an anti-homophobia educational project is, in practice, an anti-genderism project in disguise. I define genderism as the pervasive and systemic belief in locally-defined norms of male/masculine and female/feminine as the only correct or possible ways to be a gendered person. The argument is as follows: as they are commonly formulated, many social justice projects in schools require particular students as their subjects; an anti-homophobia project requires either fleshy or imaginary non-heterosexual students; non-heterosexuality is most frequently – and often erroneously – inferred from gender non-normativity and not a student’s expressed desires, affinities or practices; and homophobic and/or heterosexist harassment is levied on the basis of a student’s gender non-normativity regardless of their sexuality. Therefore, an anti-homophobia project is tacitly an anti-genderism project insofar as it addresses the oppression that accrues to gender non-normativity, whether this non-normativity is momentary or perpetual and whether it is expressed by a student who is heterosexual or a sexual Other. This conflation of gender and sexuality concern carries potent implications for the identity formation of gender non-normative youth participating in sexuality-based anti-homophobia projects.

I worry that anti-homophobia projects, in requiring highly particular subjects (ourselves in miniature) for their enunciation, risk stifling the emergence of identities that the mainstream non-heterosexual world does not recognize as being ‘queer’ or non-heterosexual due to our contemporary constellations of what ‘nascent’ queerness looks like: i.e., particular flavours of gender non-normativity. In this vein, I remain troubled by the insistence that we ought to sex education for or educate the sex of particular identities or constituents, even if such impulses are inextricably linked with the politics of recognition, the alleviation of harm and the pursuit of social justice.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Genderqueers in childcare: Spoken word by Andrea Gibson

As a genderqueer, working with kids involves being asked the same question a weekly basis (at least): "are you a boy or a girl?" I never respond to this bifuracted prompt, instead prefering to hold the question (c.f. Atkinson and DePalma). I say "I haven't decided yet today - it's not even lunchtime!" or "Would you think I was more or less cool if you knew?" or "Neither of those words really fits everything that I am so I don't think it's fair that I have to choose."

It is vital and important that we preserve the possibility for these kids to think about other options or to know that, like me, they also do not have to be bound up in everything that a proper "girl" or a "boy" is supposed to do or be. Like Andrea Gibson conveys, the kids don't care beyond initial curiosity. All they really want is a conversational segueway into asking for (another) push on the swings.

Andrea Gibson in Swingset seems to share my feelings and reactions on this score, but she has the gift of the gab and I do not. Check her out.

PS - Thanks to Karleen Pendleton Jimenez for sending me the link.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Resource Spotlight - REVOLUTIONARY ROAD


Revolutionary Road
Dir. Sam Mendes Prod. John N. Hart, Scott Rudin and Bobby Cohen
(C) Dreamworks Pictures, 2008.


I have to admit that I watched Revolutionary Road on an Air Canada flight to San Diego, and it was my second choice after Valkryie (apparently Tom Cruise is more interesting to me than Kate Winslet these days - what's up with that?). I wasn't expecting to have my pedagogical brain so delightfully tickled, depite my having heard wonderful things about the film. Suffice it to say that I was completely taken with the film's possibilities for teaching about the evils of genderism and compulsory gender normativity in such a way that absolutely and totally abrogates the use of the 'Others'. I intend to teach with outtakes from this film in the future.

[On a side note (and in keeping with my Tom Cruise/Kate Winslet observations above), I went to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button a few months back and - apparently barraged with mainstream movie propaganda these days - kept wondering why Kate Winslet hadn't shown up yet given how much she is probably paid to be in movies. "What a waste," I thought, all the while confusing her with Cate Blanchett. Deary me.]


Although multiple moments throughout the film capture and reinforce the message of the first 15 minutes, I would start by screening everything prior to the credits. We meet Frank (between/among jobs) and April (studying to be an actress) on the night of their first meeting whereupon the passion they have for each other is palpable. This suddenly cuts to Frank watching his now wife April in a terrible suburban community theatre production when the players are taking their bows and members of the audience are voicing their disapproval all around him. Frank feels as though he is being very nice and understanding, and becomes angry on the way home on April testily rejects his efforts at being supportive of her in spite of the play's flop (i.e. "Honey, you were the only person in that play!" etc.). This erupts into a full-scale battle at a rest stop on the way home wherein they have an incredibly abusive argument about why they moved to the suburbs (the theme of the film) and how they each feel put upon by the consequences. This culminates in April saying something to the effect of "You aren't a man, you're a stupid, etc. little boy" and "Look at me and tell me in what way you could possible call yourself a man". Frank reacts in anguish and raises his fist to punch April, only to hold back and punch the car instead, twice. April responds with a completely deadpan "Can we go home now?" and gets back into the car without waiting for his reply.

Believe it or not, but there is enough character development in this first 15 minutes or so to ground what is happening between them, and to distance it from conventional narratives of 1950s-????s 'absentee career husband' vs. 'desperate suburban housewife'. This distancing complicates the standard narrative of sexism, misogyny and male domestic violence, throwing genderism into relief in a very teachable way. Further, throughout the film Frank's provider and protector masculinity is repeatedly challenged by other characters, alienating him from his wife and their revolutionary plans to flee to Paris. I would argue that masculinity is the villain in this film, with both characters being subjected by and implicated in its deployment.

When Frank winds up to punch April, this moment stands in for the film as a whole in that doing heteronormative masculinity successfully is shown to be excruciating. It is April's deployment of genderist shaming that drives Frank to the brink of violence and not his inherent maleness. We are confronted by the degree to which 'doing masculinity right' is so heavily dependent on the acceptance and recognition of heteronormatively feminine women; in many ways, gender itself is revealed as violent outside of the usual formula of [men/violence/badness | women/non-violence/goodness] that so abounds in popular culture. I firmly believe that students could grasp the harm of stringent gender normativity and genderism using this film is a touchstone. Best of all, it is absolutely applicable to their own lives as (largely) heterosexual and gender normative student teachers (who grew up in the shadow of The Titanic, where Kate/Leonardo first met...).


Of course, this is a film about white middle-class suburban people at a time in American history where segregation was in full swing; however, there are no people of color in the film. Granted, it takes place in Connecticut, but that does not mean that the raced (and thereby classed) context of white, suburban hegemonic masculinity is in no way influenced by a climate of white supremacy. This is perhaps not entirely a drawback, as discussions on the implications of this absence (and I would hazard a guess that students would argue that segregation is 'irrelevant to the film's events') could lead to pedagogical moments wherein Hollywood representations are revealed as white, middle-class, etc. and created for white, middle-class people (i.e. I doubt that the exclusion of people of color from the film would be seen as 'irrelevent' by everyone). Here I would repeat my qualifier regarding the necessity of having experience with anti-racist education when inter alia confronting white students about their whiteness.

And watch out - there is sex in the movie (if this is a problem for you).


Revolutionary Road provides an exemplary anthropological account of how terrible gender normativity can be for the people who do it very well and who are never conceived as outside of its strictures. A variety of activities could stem from this, including individual analyses of the role of a particular scence within the film's total depiction of masculinity, problem-solving for the couple from an anti-genderist standpoint, representation issues (as above), etc. An entirely teachable film for anti-genderist education - when I have used it I will report on its effectiveness.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Education that always already links genderism with racism and classism

In my formulation (see the definitions below the header), gender-normativity involves the qualifiers 'locally' and 'momentarily or perpetually'. I think that it's important to be clear on what I mean by including these qualifiers, and this is excerpt from my upcoming AERA conference paper spells out the main reason why I include them: doing anti-genderism in coalition with other anti-oppression projects.


I use the terms genderism, gender-normativity and gender non-normativity to denote a project that differs from the approach I have discussed. I define genderism as the pervasive and systemic belief in male/masculine and female/feminine as the only natural and acceptable gender identities and expressions. Gender-normativity is the privileged state lived, whether momentarily or perpetually, by those whose genders perceptibly 'fit' with locally-derived norms of (usually but not always) masculinity for those assigned male and femininity for those assigned female. On the other hand, gender non-normativity is the oppressed state lived, whether momentarily or perpetually, by those whose genders do not fit locally-derived norms for their assigned sex. In these definitions, the spatial qualifier ‘locally’ and the temporal qualifiers ‘momentarily or perpetually’ align with two reasons why I have found it necessary to generate or reclaim (see Airton, 2009a; 2009b) this terminology.

First, the spatial qualifier ‘locally’ names gender as inextricable from race and class. As a white gender non-normative queer, it is all-too-easy for me to elide my whiteness and, in the history of my family, my consequent middle-classness by highlighting the social traumas of my youth and the harassment that I face in clothing stores or on the bus. Because I have my parents’ whiteness, I will perpetually have access to the liberal space of higher education where my gender non-normativity will always flourish. Similarly, in asking students to name a new source of oppression in their lives (genderism), I am responsible for ensuring that white students do not elide their white privilege in the process. I do anti-racism and anti-genderism at the same time by keeping ‘gender’ local.

In my framing of it, ‘gender is generous’. The meaning of ‘generous’ is two-fold. First, if your gender accords with the norms of your community, you are given certain rights and freedoms there. Second, if you are of the dominant culture (white, middle-class, heterosexual, Anglophone, male/masculine or female/feminine and Christian) your rights and freedoms follow you everywhere. This is because your culture controls how power relations are structured through discourse and representation. Everyone has a local context wherein they are gender-normative and we have all had to learn how to do that gender-normativity. The gender-normativity privileged by the dominant culture, however, is only available to a few by virtue of their race, class, sexuality, etc. and the degree to which these are legible.

I will now move on to the temporal qualifiers ‘momentarily or perpetually’. These invoke the critical importance of examining one’s own experiences of gender-normative privilege or gender non-normative oppression, however fleeting these may be. In my experience, education on gender beyond the binary often begins with definitions of Other identities such as transsexual, transgender or intersex. This is intended to provoke students into realizing that gender is more than man or woman. In reality, however, most people who occupy these Othered spaces firmly identify as men or women. Homophobia and transphobia are consequently identified as the oppressions that police the boundaries between these Others and Ourselves. Even if we broaden homophobia and heterosexism to include their terrible effects upon heterosexuals who are momentarily or perpetually read as queer, their associations with queerness still preclude heterosexual students from naming themselves as subjected to them. And while transphobia denotes a gender-based oppression, it is only invoked if the recipient is transgender or transsexual, whether or not they live or identify as trans and are so perceived by their oppressors (c.f. Lamble, 2008).

Anyone can do gender wrong and suffer the consequences, but these rarely named as flowing from a gender-based oppression to which everyone is susceptible (see Airton, 2009b). By contrast, within an anti-genderist framework everyone is at one time or another gender non-normative and subject to genderist oppression or coercion for this failure to conform. I required new concepts that separated gender and sexuality with which to prompt largely gender-normative and heterosexual pre-service teachers to look critically at their own genders and name the processes that brought them to that – usually – male or female place. This is necessary for students to recognize the contingent nature of all genders, particularly their own. In direct opposition to the dominant mode of gender in teacher education that sees the individual as expert on everyone else’s gender while simultaneously denying that gender is individual, an anti-genderist pedagogy foregrounds the individual. My doctoral research will explore whether students of anti-genderist pedagogies understand themselves as contingent instead of model gendered subjects and, as anti-genderist teachers, whether they try to combat genderist hegemony in their classrooms.