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

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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Resource Spotlight - STILL BLACK: A portrait of black transmen

This is the first installment in my series of 'Resource Spotlights' wherein I'll review a media text or article in terms of its pedagogical application for teaching on gender in keeping with the framework that I generally use for doing so.



STILL BLACK: A portrait of black transmen
Dir. Kortney Ryan Ziegler. Prod. Awilda Rodriguez Lora
(C) Blackstar Media, 2009. B+W film.


Let's say for the sake of argument that, contrary to the stance that I usually take on such things, I decided to teach with a film on trans lives as part of a course on identity politics for teacher education students. How could I do this in such a way that would invite a broader engagement with the issues than is usually the case when such 'trans' is brought up in this context? Can it be done without peddling trans as spectacle, on the one hand or, on the other, tacitly allowing students to distance themselves from their own complicity in gender-normativity by focussing on 'the Others' of sex and gender? I didn't used to think so, until I saw STILL BLACK.

From the website: STILL BLACK "is an alternative feature-length documentary that explores the lives of six black transgender men living in the United States. Through the intimate stories of their lives as artists, students, husbands, fathers, lawyers, and teachers, the film offers viewers a complex and multi-faceted image of race, sexuality and trans identity."


The power of this film is in its quotidian representation of the ups and downs of living life. The lives lived happen to be those of black men who are trans or trans men who are black or men who are trans and black, etc. To the very limited extent that these men can be cast as a group, there is more within-group disparity among their wildly different self-representations, discourses and identities (as they express them) than there would be between one of these men and any audience member. However, one of the (very few) recurring themes across their accounts is coming to terms with their experiences of the devastating systemic racism habitually levied at black men in America. In the end, therefore, although the interviewees' narratives all make frequent reference to their individually embodied histories of gender, the pedagogical application that I foresee is the film's power to convey an understanding of racism that is uniquely powerful, perhaps even moreso if students are actively discouraged from dwelling on the 'trans-ness' of these lives in responding to/discussing the film.

For example, the film could be selectively screened by an instructor in order to foreground testimony related to racism, or the accounts in which racism is centrally addressed. A guided debrief activity could consist of students being required to discuss the film more broadly followed by an interrogation of their (if applicable - likely so, in my estimation/experience) focus on the 'trans-ness' of the excerpts and the two-fold implications of this focus: their avoidance of racism, and the politics of the trans-ness focus in line with what I have discussed before.


The drawbacks of using this film in teacher education (or any other kind of education) centre on racism as well, but of a different sort. Some of the interviewees espouse a point of view that is undeniably sexist and chauvinistic vis a vis their female partners or women in general. Although this discourse is certainly not endemic to the film as a whole, this portrayal of black masculinity will feel comfortable for a white or otherwise non-black audience insofar as this is the habitual racist representation thereof offered by mainstream white media. Challenging students' racism that leads to this comfort would be absolutely paramount in any pedagogical use of the film in order for the screening to be an anti-racist space.


This is an excellent pedagogical tool - however, I would strongly discourage the film's use by instructor who does not have experience with anti-racist education and/or facilitation with white people and (if applicable) mixed groups.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Teaching on 'trans' without tokenism in the university classroom

These are notes from a panel presentation I gave last fall for university faculty and instructors that was organized by the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women.

I have a lot to say about how we should teach on gender. My research in teacher education informs my pedagogical practice as a gender non-normative person who leads tutorials in women's studies, lectures in teacher education courses, and facilitates workshops on gender and sexuality issues. In my experience, a great deal of anxiety is generated by the constructivist insistence that gender is socially constructed; in fact, I often find that students interpret this as an assertion that their genders – and, by extension, their very lives – are not real. By the same token, constructivist pedagogies of gender tend to take as a starting point trans and intersex lives as ‘teachable exemplars’ of gender ‘gone wrong’. These lives are often objectified and Othered in such a way so as to preclude the possibility that students might be driven to consider their own positionality in relation to gender normativity. Given that gender is a palpable and thick experiential category, I have found it useful to abandon the discourse of constructivism when teaching on gender. Borrowing from my involvement in anti-racist spaces and actions, I am interested in further developing a repertoire of pedagogical tools and techniques for implementing the intersectional concept of genderism and gender non/normativity in teacher education. I continue to seek out opportunities to engage in conversations on how to develop and deliver integrated and multifaceted pedagogies of anti-oppression wherein genderism is but one component of a total approach to reckoning with power dynamics in the classroom.

These notes spell out my concerns with regard to tokenistic constructivist teaching 'on' trans lives and trans issues in greater detail. Any/all comments welcome!


On the Others of sex and gender: Teaching without tokenism

TITLE – The title comments on a trend that I see and does not name trans people as Others because of their trans-ness; there are many other aspects to trans peoples’ lives. It refers instead to the process of other-ing that takes place when trans people are imported into an academic context.

It is pivotal to ask yourself why you are choosing to include these issues in your class: "Why am I discussing trans people?" Sub-questions include:

Is it because I want to better understand the issues they face?

Am I being specific to a particular time and place or am I generalizing?

Am I placing lives lived in their context (i.e., class, race, geography, etc.)?

OR is it because I want to use an example to demonstrate a theory? Is it because I am using an intriguing, shocking or otherwise gripping example to pique the interest of my students?

Namaste reminds us that discussions of trans people particularly in women's studies classrooms are often used to broach the time honored question of identity categories and belonging with no consideration of intersections with race/class nor the material realities of those lives.

TWO THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND – Extreme and Spectacle

EXTREME - I often hear trans people brought up as extreme examples of nonconformity with gender norms. If we imagine that the average transman or transwoman identifies firmly as male and female respectively, then naming people who are living gender normative lives as examples of gender non-conformity places them firmly in the context they have left behind, namely, their sex of rearing. To do so ignores the lived reality of trans people, many of whom do not identify as transgressively outside of the sex/gender binary. But it seems as though when discussing gender as a social construction we require the existence of people who we can name as having experienced gender as being wrong, as though the wrongness exposes the social construction. Just as Mohanty and other postcolonial feminist theorists have reminded us, the language we construct our others shows us more about ourselves than anyone else. In the case of constructivism and trans people, if we can go to trans lives in order to talk about the social construction of gender we can allay student fears that their own genders are somehow not real. This is dishonest to our students and disrespectful to trans people.

This process of making trans people strange, freakish or outlandish only serves to create barriers between the gender theory students study in their own self understanding as gendered subjects. I believe this makes for very poor pedagogy, in addition to being transphobic and just plain inappropriate. Not only does this create trans lives as spectacle for non-trans people to take in from the comfort of their own seemingly solid gender identities, but it effectively disallows students from theorizing their gender. As such, when I must teach about trans politics or bring up trans lives in a lecture or workshop, I take a cue from postcolonial theory and do my very best to reverse their relationship of center and periphery, instead making normative gender expressions and identities the material under study.

SPECTACLE - In addition to the inappropriateness of rolling out trans lives as teachable examples of exactly what gender does when it goes wrong (as if to imply that it goes right for anyone), teaching about trans people as arm's-length exemplars of an otherwise abstract notion allows the discursive treatment of trans people as specimens. This allows the hyper surveillance of trans people's bodies so evident in the mass media to infiltrate the classroom. Trans activists have asked that when discussing trans people's lives in an academic context, we use our considerable capital and time (both of which are often not so considerable in the lives of trans people, particularly male to female transsexuals) to investigate the barriers faced by trans people in institutions and in securing the necessities of daily life. Unfortunately, most of the time we tend to give in to student curiosity fueled by the media; they want to know about surgery. This focus on the bodies and genitals of trans people often governs their access to the media. For example, well-known transgender antipoverty activist and lawyer Dean Spade recalls the following on his (old) blog:

“For the last month this guy from the major legal newspaper of Southern California has been working on a profile about me and my work at UCLA that keeps not being run by the paper. He told me the editor he works under refuses to run the story unless it includes whether or not I’ve had “the surgery.” I have told him I will not reveal my genital status to the readers of this paper, and that I don’t think any of the other lawyers and law scholars who get profiled do so, so I don’t see why its necessary to my profile. The reporter was understanding, and kept re-editing the piece, trying to make the editor satisfied without describing my privates.”

In the end the piece never ran. My pedagogy with respect to teaching on trans issues is grounded by the insistence that I will not discuss the status of anyone's genitalia prior to considering their identity and material conditions. This is a privilege afforded to non-trans people, and I do my best to afford this privilege to trans people when I lecture.


I’d like to encourage you to ask yourselves the why question, and if you can, choose other examples or encourage students to scrutinize themselves.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

glbtT-Siqq? Education for gender/sexuality justice that is also anti-racist

Last night I went to a lecture by Beverly Jacobs, President of the Native Women's Association of Canada who is also involved with the Sisters in Spirit project. The lecture titled "Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women" was phenomenal, humbling and pedagogically supreme. I felt like the inseparability of tradition and critique in Beverly Jacobs' lecture delivered a slap in the face to white racist and neo-colonialist commentators like Margaret Wente who dismiss thousands of years of knowledge and nation-building among the hundreds of nations that were intentionally (and which continue to be) eradicated under the Eurocentric colonial project.

Listening to Beverly Jacobs discuss the ceremonies and traditions of her clan (Mohawk Nation Bear Clan in Six Nations Grand River) particularly with regard to women and their centrality to any conversation on the impacts of continued genocide against indigenous peoples in Canada, at one point I began to ruminate on the imperative for specificity when including issues or concepts from the histories and/or knowledge bases of various indigenous peoples into anti-oppression organizing and education. More specifically, I have long been questioning the wisdom of tacitly white anti-homophobia organizations incorporating the T-S for 'two-spirit' in the alphabet soup acronym that is often represented like this: GLBTT-SIQQ.

I am concerned that organizations which have not worked on their race politics could enjoy a feel-good multicultural sensation when they include "two-spirit" in the list of identities to be itemized in, for example, a workshop. In my experience, definitions of this term enact a slippery pan-Indianism that hooks up with the problematic non-indigenous deployment of other terms such as 'shaman'. If 'two-spirit' is indiscriminately thrown into in an anti-homophobia educational context participants could leave carrying the erroneous notion that e
very 'tribe' has (or 'had' - in the tradition of colonial anachronism) 'a shaman' and, with the addition of two-spirit, that shamans 'have/had elements of both male and female'; such romanticized logic is often used to demonstrate how in some contexts trans people or queer people are/were universally 'revered' or 'given a special place in the tribe'.

In tune with Beverly Jacobs' injunction to last night's attendees to know whose land we are on as well as the traditions of those peoples, I would guess that people in the various educational contexts wherein I have encountered 'two-spirit' as part of the alphabet soup acronym, if they do know whose territory they are on, would likely not know whether 'two-spirit' carries any meaning for the nation whose territory it is.

In situations wherein I have to deal with the acronym and explain its components, my solution as someone who primarily identifies as a white anti-racist person while doing anti-homophobia education is to leave out the 'T-S' and, if asked about it, to offer the above critique of its inclusion in an sexualities/LGB mandate. I am not overly happy about this solution, but I think that it is better than giving participants a 'nugget' of colonial generality that they could henceforth feel entitled to wield as an interesting tidbit to 'liven up' the usual conversation on minority genders and sexualities.

I also do not wish to imply that the T-S is the only area of contention in the alphabet soup debates around what inclusion in the acronym means. Emi Koyama at Intersex Initiative Portland has a great piece about adding the I for intersex wherein she argues that the issues faced by intersex people are not bound up in sexuality-based organizing and fundamentally are not well-served by this inclusion. This is notably the case because inclusion in the acronym leads to the assumption that intersex people are, on the one hand, queer and, on the other, necessarily identify as 'intersex' within an identities-based framework for political organizing. The reality, that many if not most intersex people are heterosexual and male or female-identified, is obscured the association with the GLBT, etc. moniker.

There are also several critiques out there of the inclusion of the T for transgender and/or transsexual (depending on a facilitator's or organization's interpretation). An excellent anti-racist and anti-capitalist critique thereof is offered in Dean Spade's article "The nonprofit industrial complex and trans resistance".

And finally, I haven't even begun to address the particularly racist and colonial strangeness of including T-S in the Canadian context with its generally Eurocentric and orientalist aptitude for fetishizing all things indigenous...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gender diversity? On the uses and abuses of a new concept

This is the short conference paper that I presented this past weekend at the Education Graduate Students' Society conference held every year in my department. Comments welcome!


Due to the common occurrence in education discourse of the phrases religious diversity, ethnic diversity and – more recently – sexual diversity, it was only a matter of time before ‘gender diversity’ appeared in the educational research literature. Although the notion of gender diversity has been consistently used as a feel-good term for gender parity in the management literature, for example, its entry into the discourse of education seems to signal the acknowledgment of gender as other than a simple binary of male/masculine and female/feminine. Because I am a gender non-normative education scholar whose gender identity and expression most certainly do not fit within this binary, one might imagine that I would jump onto the gender diversity bandwagon, so to speak. However, I have my doubts. In this paper I address three critiques to gender diversity as a gender justice project in education.

My first critique of gender diversity embodies my skepticism of a liberal acceptance and acknowledgment model for combating what amounts to pervasive and systemic violence, discrimination and harm. There have been small scale-scale qualitative and national-scale quantitative studies documenting frequencies and student experiences of living with enforced gender normativity in school. Students of all ages who, either momentarily or consistently, step outside of what is locally considered to be correct masculinity or femininity risk much. They could lose any sense of belonging in the school community or, even, their physical safety. Some lose their lives, either by their own hand or the hands of others. At best, even as we look back to our own childhoods and adolescences there is no arguing that any gendered experience of school is generalizable apart from one marked by awkwardness and discomfort. From self-harm to bodily self-hatred to voluntary circumscription of our aptitudes and pleasures, learning to do gender ‘correctly’ is not fun for anyone.

If we apply the logic of gender diversity to the harm and violence experienced in schools by those who are gender non-normative – whether they are for one hour or a whole year – we are turning a blind eye to these dangers. By celebrating gender differences, as is implied in diversity discourse, we are affirming the goodness of being gender non-normative without taking action on harm and violence. By contrast, a power analysis of genderism is a harm reduction approach to dealing with gender injustice in education. Genderism – like racism, classism or heterosexism – is a social force that gives or takes away privilege based on one’s adherence to local gender norms or standards of gender-normativity. Anti-genderist education recognizes the life and death implications of gender normativity long before it embarks on a celebration of our many gendered and splendoured differences. And because most people can point to times in their lives when they were doing gender correctly, and because many cannot remember having been gender non-normative or experienced genderism, there exists a power structure in which those who feel more or less at home within the gender binary enjoy gender-normative privilege. Those who do not feel more or less at home within the gender binary are subjected to gender non-normative oppression. This is the framework that I use when thinking through what we in education must do about genderist harm and violence in schools. I contend that such a framework is required to articulate a gender justice project in education that is just as concerned about the violence experienced by transgender and transsexual youth as it is about bodily self-hatred, self-harm and starvation, or hyper masculinity and gang violence. Gender diversity as a concept is not suited to this work.

My second critique of gender diversity as a transformative educational project has to do with the present historical moment wherein a failure to conform to the gender binary is most often interpreted as a sign of queerness or non-heterosexuality. In an upcoming article in Sex Education, I make the argument that any social justice project in education requires an envisioning process whereby we envision what a school would look like that embodies the end result of our project. With regard to anti-homophobia education, I argue, envisioning the school at its means that we would have to see the full participation of students who we would recognize as queer given our current visually-based understandings of what queer looks like. However, it is a person’s gender expression – in terms of both behaviour and grooming – that is scoured for clues about their sexuality when we lack information on that person’s life or relationships.

The conflation of gender non-normativity with queerness is especially evident when we speculate as to the hypothetical sexualities of children and young adolescents. We seldom look to a child’s overt sexual behaviour or sexual or affectional orientation toward partners of ‘the same sex’ in order to suppose that he or she is non-heterosexual. Consequently, when we envision the children and youth whose identities would flourish – and that we would recognize as flourishing – in the school at the end of anti-homophobia, we are not, in fact, advocating for the end of homophobia but instead for the flourishing of gender non-normativity. When envisioned in this way, an anti- homophobia educational project can be equated with a gender diversity project and re-cast in practice as ‘pro-gender diversity'.

I worry that a pro-gender diversity project – the subject of my critique in this paper – would in practice become an anti-homophobia project mired in a sexual minorities-only paradigm. Pro-gender diversity would thereby risk losing its linkages with other gender-based movements and concerns in education such as bodily self-hatred, self-harm, violence, etc. I contend that, as long as the dominant culture conflates gender non-normativity with queerness, a gender diversity project will be ultimately bound up in a sexuality conversation. While I certainly advocate anti-homophobia education and the visibility of sexual minorities in schools, I am leery of this movement’s capacity for dealing with gender in a way that opens doors when student lives hang in the balance as a result of systemic genderism and transphobia. For this reason, and others, I reject gender diversity.

My third critique of the concept is grounded in my concern that working against genderism from a gender diversity platform means focusing our attention on the ‘Others’ of sex and gender i.e., transgender, transsexual, genderqueer and gender-variant students whose presence would be required in order for most people to name that classroom as ‘gender-diverse’. I argue that we should not to wait for the presence of a student like me who stands out as gender non-normative in order to activate our awareness that genderism is a bad thing. In fact, it touches the lives of all children, whether or not they are perceptually gender normative girls and boys.

In a changing climate of parental rights and school accountability, gender expression is effectively a grey area which allows for teachers to perpetuate highly personal standards of exactly what children should or ought to be or do, or become. When faced with gender non-normativity, particularly in a young child, teachers are apt to adopt a mandate of gender socialization, particularly in naming a behaviour or characteristic as a problem or an issue to be ‘dealt with’. Several studies point to the myriad ways in which the gender binary is naturalized in the classroom practices of teachers. I offer two examples here.

In a quantitative investigation of student teachers’ approaches to categorizing student behaviours as serious or worthy of intervention, Kokkinos and co-authors (2004) found that student teachers—when compared with experienced teachers—were more apt to label certain behaviours (such as crying) and character traits (such as being suspicious, sensitive, cowardly, etc.) as ‘serious’ in boys whereas behaviours labelled ‘serious’ in girls included profane language, rudeness, restlessness, distrust and disobedience. The authors concluded that behaviours which differ from preservice teachers’ gendered expectations of students would likely stand out to them as more meaningful. To name and address a child’s behaviour as ‘serious’ is to say that a shift toward some ideal type is necessary. The implications bear directly on responses to student behaviour which may not be viewed as especially ‘problematic’ outside of the teacher’s own understanding of gender. For me, this study serves as a reminder that teacher educators ought to be concerned about genderism and its ramifications in the classrooms of their students.

In keeping with widely gendered patterns of ADHD diagnosis, Jackson and King (2004) conducted a study of elementary teachers’ perceptions of student behaviours to find out whether teachers were being influenced by the perceived gender of a child in their labelling of ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). ODD is a behavioural disorder wherein, bluntly, a child says ‘no’ for the sake of saying ‘no’ and tends to defy all caregiver attempts to pacify, reason with or negotiate with them. In the childcare context with which I am familiar, ADHD is seen as routine and ODD is seen as very serious, with the obvious outcomes for the perception of differently diagnosed children by caregivers. In a nutshell, kids with ODD are, problematically, viewed as ‘problem kids’.

In the Jackson & King study, teachers were shown video footage of boys and girls coached to display a particular set of hyperactive, or, oppositional behaviours in keeping with clinical guidelines for diagnosing ADHD and ODD, respectively. Jackson and King found that boys who display oppositionally defiant behaviours in keeping with the ODD guidelines are more likely to labelled as hyperactive by teachers, whereas girls who display hyperactive behaviours in keeping with the ADHD guidelines are more likely to be seen as pathologically defiant. Jackson and King sum up these findings, stating that, quote “these teacher rating tendencies could contribute to higher diagnostic rates of ADHD among boys and ODD among girls” (ibid.) [Unquote.]. If teachers are so influenced by genderist conceptions of student behaviour, it can be argued that a child given a medical diagnosis and pharmaceutical behavioural remedy is perhaps so targeted due to being seen as one gender and not another. This is especially troubling when we recall how teachers are the vanguard of child development as well as gatekeepers of services for children with learning and behavioural difficulties.

Having fleshed out three critiques of gender diversity, I will outline why I am more generally suspicious of diversity as a concept when it used with the intention of broadening ideas about what gender is and how it is lived. According to the gender binary, ‘gender diversity’ would be achieved when both identifiably male and identifiably female people are present in a given space, group or representation. Of course, I take issue with the idea that gender is only as diverse as a binary of men and women, boys and girls. However, broadening gender diversity to include other genders creates similar difficulties. Both binary and diversity models beg the question: who else must we include in order to say that a representation, image or group is gender-diverse?

The question should not be ‘what else is there to represent?’ but ‘what does the act of representation do?’ If we cast about looking for ‘other genders’ to include alongside male-masculine and female-feminine, we are doomed to fail. This is because our new larger field of genders will always contain those it does not represent from the perspective of those who are not represented but who are, most certainly, gendered. An example of a similar difficulty comes to us from the arena of sexual minority advocacy. This is the weighty acronym (among many) employed by some queer organizations—GLBTTIQQ, standing for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex, queer and questioning. Recently I have also come across acronyms with an A, for asexual. There is the obvious difficulty of continually adding to this laundry list of identities and then, when viewed from the perspective of those excluded such as butches, femmes, polyamourists, pomosexuals – the list goes on – there is exclusion and injustice. The question ‘what else?’ leads to ‘what still isn’t?’ And this is a central failure of a diversity project.

What representation does in every instance of ‘diversity’ is associate its contents – in this case, whichever ‘diverse genders’ it portrays – with what is ‘good’. In photographs representing diversity – and plenty turn up in a Google image search – people smile. Diversity carries an entirely positive or progressive connotation and cannot easily be spoken of as a ‘bad thing’ to do or be. Currently, almost every representation of diversity offered in language or image contains only people who are men and/or women, masculine and/or feminine. I do not think it somehow better that ‘gender diversity’ might be broadened to contain people of other genders because this still sets limits in terms of how we can think about gender.

I argue that the last thing we want to do by persisting with a diversity metaphor in anti-genderist education is create another system of exclusion whereby a limited constellation of ‘gender diverse’ people or identities takes the place of a similarly limited zero sum binary of male/masculine and female/feminine. For instance, if a group, space or representation contained male/masculine people, female/feminine people and me (a female-bodied, masculine-identified person), would we be doing good work against gender oppression if we named this as an example of ‘gender diversity’? I do not think so. As gender-diverse as I am, not I nor anyone else’s genders – even in the hundreds or thousands – will suffice to keep a representation of ‘gender diversity’ open enough for the full spectrum of gender-variance to be included in its beauty and complexity

My goal here has been to destabilize the good feelings that permeate diversity discourse by outlining three critiques of thinking with ‘gender diversity’ in education, drawing our attention to its limitations as a concept. I believe that we must begin thinking differently about gender especially in teacher education, and I want us to skip over the usual ‘diversity is good’ pathway for including issues of difference anew in the equity components of teacher education programs. I do not want the fostering or celebration of gender diversity to be a goal of preservice teacher learning about gender. I instead want them to know that genderism is a force that can confer or withdraw a student’s will to live or experience happiness and fulfillment. I want preservice teachers to situate themselves within the power structure of the dominant genderist society and recognize the moments in their lives when they have been gender non-normative. And they are there. Ultimately, I want preservice teachers to come to a place where they recognize the contingent and individual nature of all genders. Perhaps then they will not risk perpetuating genderism in their classrooms. And I don’t think that celebrating gender diversity is the task at hand.

In response to the 'Pink' segment on CBC's The Current

On January 28th, my beloved CBC One radio show The Current aired a segment on the colour pink in an attempt to engage explanations as to 'why little girls love it'. Already there is an absence of criticality in terms of the very driving question - it isn't 'do little girls love it' but, having confirmed that this is certainly the case, why.

I submitted this to The Current as a listener response, but the following Thursday was less-than-surprised when it wasn’t read on the air along with other letters.


Dr. Ken Zucker’s commentary - and The Current's discussion of 'pink' as a whole - completely missed the point as to why little girls seem to prefer the colour pink. Dr. Zucker pointed to the cognitive development of little girls and boys as accounting for the overwhelmingly disproportionate “preference” for the colour pink expressed by girls, with absolutely no acknowledgment of parents’ role in selecting and buying clothing for their children. Even the youngest baby girls or boys are increasingly decked out in clothing that is gendered to the point of ridiculousness (i.e., infant-sized Carhartt overalls and Harley Davidson leather jackets for baby boys, frilly and flowery ‘head bands’ for infant girls who do yet have any hair to be elaborately styled). All of this has nothing to do with children’s “preferences”. Dr. Zucker insisted that the noticeable decrease in children’s adherence to the pink/blue girl/boy dress code as they grow can be attributed to their cognitive abilities becoming “more flexible” with age when, in fact, it could just be that they are finally able to express a degree of agency and resistance to pink and blue.

Moreover, Dr. Zucker completely ignores the research-tested reality of gendered harassment, violence, ridicule and isolation that befalls children who do not ‘fit in’ with the blue/pink regimes; he instead insists that children start to identify girl groups and boy groups and simply want to be part of a particular group hence the adoption of particular girl or boy behaviours. He shows no consideration of the fact that children know what happens to those who do not or who cannot contort themselves into the pink/blue boxes. This is why children participate in rigid gendering practices, and this is how adults come to see them as ‘normal’ or ‘well-adjusted’.

It is widely known that Dr. Zucker’s clinical method for treating children who do not/cannot fit within the gender binary involves effectively taking away their most beloved and cherished activities and possessions simply because they are for girls-not-boys or vice versa, often inducing despair and depression in hitherto happy and vibrant children whose only problems were the lethally gendered environments they had to survive on a daily basis. As a graduate student in Education and Gender Studies, I plan to combat the notion that children must be so pathologized and changed. We must instead pathologize the rigidity, hatred and fear that together maintain the absurd and convenient myth that the only normally-developing girls are the ones who sit easily in pink. Psycho-medical pseudo-interventions are not the answer.


For more information on Dr. Zucker and his clinical methods, check out this NPR story or, instead, you can read it here interspersed with an excellent trans critique.