Colonizing ontologies

Brin pointed me to a great blog post about how we relate to other people’s categories, especially the categorical systems used by other cultures. (The author, posting as “Boldly Go,”* calls them “epistemologies,” but they seem to be what I’ve heard called “ontologies” or “taxonomies.” I think “categories” is the most straightforward term. And yes, I do recognize the irony there.) Boldly Go also makes the point that these categories are referred to as “social constructs,” which mean that they’re not essential and can vary from culture to culture – and, critically, that they change over time, even in a single individual.

Boldly Go argues persuasively that abolishing gender is not a realistic approach. We all have a basic need to categorize people: who is a potential ally, sex partner, life partner, co-parent, leader, friend, collaborator? Who is a potential attacker, rival, rapist, burden? Figuring all those things out based on the individual characteristics of everyone we encounter would be exhausting and time-consuming, so we use roles and spaces based on gender and other categories as shortcuts. This becomes truly problematic when we forget that these categories are only shortcuts, when we essentialize them.

Here’s my favorite part of Boldly Go’s post:

Hidras of Panscheel Park II, New Delhi, India, 1994. Photo: R. Barrez D'Lucca / Flickr.
Hidras of Panscheel Park II, New Delhi, India, 1994. Photo: R. Barrez D’Lucca / Flickr.

For example, a great many people familiar with the trans* community may have heard of hijras, a concept of gender that exists within South Asia. A great many usually white trans* people have called hijra’s “trans*” or put them under the trans* label. Regardless of their intention, to take the epistemology of “trans*” and apply it to something like the hijra can be seen as an oppressive or colonising act. The hijra are hijra. That is their name. Unless a hijra specifically identifies as transgender or trans*, applying our own concepts of gender and sexuality constructed within white supremacist cultures to people outside of our epistemological framework is redefining them on our own terms for our own benefit.

They (that’s Boldly Go’s preferred pronoun) go on to talk about two-spirits and quote their friend Tiara’s thoughts about gender in Malaysia and Bangladesh, and to argue that gender abolitionism is colonization in the same way.

Much as I agree that it’s not realistic to abolish gender, I think it’s not realistic to ignore our own gender categories when trying to understand people from other cultures. We may say, “that’s kind of like our idea of ‘transgender,'” but it becomes problematic when we ignore the way others categorize themselves. It becomes colonization when we seek to replace their categories with our own. And it’s downright offensive when we act as though our way is the One True Way of categorizing the world.

This is not to say that it’s all relative, and all categorization systems are equal. Some may have particular virtues relative to others. But we can’t just assume that our own categorization system is superior. We have to make a coherent argument for it.

I’m less concerned with borrowing another culture’s categories. If it’s done respectfully and with full credit and an open mind, it isn’t appropriation. It’s just recognizing that other people may have come up with a better way of doing it than we did.

I’ll have more to say on this in the future.

* Boldly Go seems to have let her domain expire, so I’ve changed the link to point to a copy she posted on Medium under the name Lola Phoenix.

Gender roles are a kludge

A while ago I talked about gendered spaces, and how they’re something of a kludge, a shortcut. Gender roles are also a kludge, but one that’s even less justified than gendered spaces, given what we can do with modern prosperity and technology. They persist out of some combination of tradition, politics, personal preference and convenience.

Stewardess: Is your...
Photographer unknown.
The primary sex difference is of course the ability to bear children, so a thousand years ago if a man wanted to raise healthy children, the way to get them was by marrying a healthy, young, maternal woman. Of course, not all women can bear children, as numerous frustrated European kings have shown us, but looking for a man was definitely an unproductive strategy.

Nowadays it’s possible for gay couples or even single men to adopt children, so women are no longer necessary, but marrying a woman is still the most convenient way to get children, and it’s acquired the weight of tradition and politics. For men who are sexually attracted to women, marrying a woman tends to be the preferred way of getting a child, because it pretty much ensures that the man will have sex with a woman.

Other gender roles are based on secondary sex characteristics: men tend to be larger and stronger, so they’re preferred for fighting, smashing and lifting. Women tend to be able to lactate, which made them the obvious choice for caring for infants before formula was perfected.

Once these roles are established, they make it easier to segregate other roles. If women are taking care of infants, it’s easy for them to keep caring for older children, and eventually for the elderly and sick. If childcare happens mostly in the home, it makes sense for women to take care of other household needs.

If men are fighting, it makes sense for them to be policing internal order, and then it’s easy for them to be the ones who set the internal order. If they’re smashing and lifting, it makes sense for them to build houses and fortifications, and then it’s easy for them to be the ones who make machines.

Women and men also tend to form communities of practice based on these activities. Any father who’s spent time with a “mom’s group” knows what I mean, as does any woman who’s attended an engineering conference.

All these tendencies make sense. What doesn’t make sense is to be so rigid about them. Natural variation means that these sex characteristics aren’t a given. Some people are naturally infertile. Some women are big and strong, and some men are small and weak.

Technological and social changes have made a lot of these biological generalizations irrelevant. If we do most lifting and killing today by pushing buttons, how strong does a soldier or construction worker have to be? If we can feed infants with formula, we don’t need nursery school teachers to have functioning breasts.

Some roles have undergone gender flip-flops, or simply diversified over the years. In the nineteenth century, the position of secretary was considered too cerebral to be entrusted to women (with all the misogyny that implies), then in the late twentieth century it was treated as exclusively female; in Binghamton in 1992 a retired temporary placement agent told me that they would never send a man on a secretarial assignment. “Stewardesses” were once all female and doctors male, but last month I flew on a plane where most of the flight attendants were male, and my last dermatology appointment was at a practice that was mostly women. The best nurse in my son’s neonatal ICU, who taught me to change a diaper, was a guy named Scott.

There have long been exceptions to these roles. The US Army’s recent official inclusion of women in combat is notable, but women have been fighting throughout human history. There have been women leaders and male nurturers.

There will probably always be roles in every society that are more strongly associated with one gender or the other. There will also be people who will, for one reason or another, be drawn to the other roles. We need to be flexible and ask if there’s really any good reason why a role should be rigidly reserved for one gender. If there isn’t, we should accommodate everybody.

Come jump on the “Don’t kill trans people” bandwagon!

The killing of Islan Nettles in July followed an all-too-typical pattern: a man classified her as a woman, found her attractive and flirted with her. He then reclassified her as “a man,” fought her and killed her. In response to this terrifying event, I’ve told you about two alternative visions for this type of scenario. In Janet Mock’s vision, everyone accepts all male to female trans people as women, that status as is never questioned, and the man never feels any desire to attack her. In Desmond Child’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” people may see trans women as men, but we can still be attractive, and there is no shame for any man who is attracted to a trans person.

Those are definitely the best alternatives, and I pefer the second, but there’s a third one. It isn’t as good, but it’s still better than what happened to Nettles. It’s simple: nobody should die just because they’re trans.
Here’s my vision: A man sees a trans woman and is attracted to her. He reclassifies her as “a man,” and loses interest in her. Maybe he even feels angry and calls her names. Maybe he even attacks her physically. But he doesn’t kill her.

This is what happened with Lewis Dix, Jr. and B. Scott. Dix called Scott a “faggot,” and Scott was right to give him hell for it. But Dix stopped there. He didn’t attack.

Nettles’ killer could have stopped at name-calling. Or if he didn’t stop there, he could have stopped after a punch or two. Even if he was too drunk or too much of an asshole to stop, his “crew” could have stopped him. They could have said, “It’s okay, we get it, you’re not gay.” they could have said, “This is a human being who doesn’t deserve to die.”

I know, it doesn’t seem like a lot. I wouldn’t be satisfied with “just” being called names and beat up. But it would be better than what currently happens to black and Latina trans people.

The thing is that there’s a large constituency for not killing trans people. A lot of people don’t think we’re women. A lot of people don’t think we’re sexy. Some people think we’re sinners. Some people think that any man who’s attracted to us is gay, and that being gay is bad. These people may disapprove of us in all kinds of ways, but they don’t think we deserve to die.

This constituency for not killing us is largely untapped. On stage at the vigil for Islan Nettles were her family, three trans people, and some lesbians and gay men. Attending were people from the entire trans spectrum, and straight allies, including several politicians. Besides the politicians, what I didn’t hear about were “thought leaders” in broader African-American culture beyond LGBT subcultures: clergy, musicians, actors, athletes.

Who are the people that Nettles’ killer and his “crew” listen to? What if they said, simply, it’s not okay to kill someone because they’re trans? What if we asked them, nicely, to say it now? Not to say “trans women are women,” not to say “it’s okay to be gay,” and not to say anything negative about us either. Just “Don’t kill trans people.”

How many of them would sign a statement? How many would appear in a public service announcement? How many would perform in a music video or television episode?

Don’t get me wrong. I want more than this. I want people to treat me with respect. I want people to treat those who love me with respect. I want to be treated like a woman when I present as a woman. I know you want those things too.

I’m not giving up on what I want, and I’m not telling you to give up on it either. Laverne Cox argues that it’s the same problem, that we need those things to be safe, to be alive. The actions of Robert Wace and Lewis Dix, Jr. show us that that’s not true. People don’t have to endorse our entire program before they can treat us like human beings. They don’t need to agree with us about anything else to speak out against the violence. Let’s get them to do it.