What's at the margins of gender theory
September 5, 2021 11:28 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for trans-affirmative, anti-sexist writing (or audio or video) that frame gender somewhat differently than is the current dominant [left] framing.

This is really hard to articulate because I don't know if this exist or what it looks like but...

I perceive that there are some framings around gender that have become a sort of consensus view among the non-academic public who are good faith pro-trans and gender inclusive that, while are a huge improvement over the way gender was publicly framed 30 years ago, still don't quite resonate for me.

I imagine that in queer theory circles there are more ways of thinking about gender than I'm absorbing just from how this has all trickled down into popular (left) parlance, and I'd like to hear more about the various complex ways people are thinking about and theorizing gender.

To be clear: I have zero interest in any anti-trans anything and that whole set of thinking can go fuck itself.

To make this all a little less abstract: I am a middle aged person who was assigned female at birth, has been gender non-conforming my entire life and has been close with trans people and other gender non conforming people and queer people my whole life. I find our current gender climate much better than the one I grew up in: there are more options for gender, there is a belief that we should not assume people's gender. There's an understanding that people can move around on a gender spectrum. There is a recognition that certain people are targeted for harm because of their gender presentation and an effort to support and protect those people. These are all really huge material improvements over the world I grew up in.

At the same time I feel personally alienated by some of how gender analysis has disseminated into the (left) culture. As someone who grew up at an ambiguous margin of gender, I haven't grown comfortable with now being asked to provide a word and a definition to my gender in group settings and generally feel like there's something not 'clicking' for me personally with how gender is talked about around me. I wonder about the connections between gender and sexuality and romantic attachment and how we tend to divorce these in our current thinking. I'm interested in historical and cross-cultural understandings of gender and what other models exist.

So yeah, this is quite open ended, but what I'm basically looking for is what to read that will provide an expansive frame for gender that may include concepts I'm not seeing on like, social media.
posted by latkes to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
You don’t mention any names, which makes it harder to know where you’re starting from - so, I apologise if this too basic / obvious. But: Judith Butler?
posted by rd45 at 12:07 PM on September 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have found a lot of solace and comfort about these very fraught conversations in studying the history of tarot, and looking at how so many different artists have portrayed the "divine feminine/masciline" over time. There are so many ways it has been interpreted, and looking at different decks, some that lean in, others that lean out, and others still that sidestep those identities completely, gives me a space to ponder my feelings alone, and with others, in a much less politically charged and more accepting way.
posted by pazazygeek at 12:45 PM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

I don't have an academic reading for you, from a more experiential perspective, I might suggest Maia Kobabe's graphic novel Gender Queer. It gives e perspective on eir gender identity journey that may resonate with you.
posted by chiefthe at 12:52 PM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

I wish I knew what to tell you, because a lot of this resonates with me, as someone who was socialised into a very queer trans community before cis people pretended to give a shit about us, never mind treating "support" for trans people as some sort of shibboleth for progressivism. "Modern" trans 101 often feels regressive to me.

If you are questioning your gender, I would recommend waiting to read this (or at least the trans chapter), but reading Halberstam's Female Masculinity was like reading my history in this deep way and he literally handwaves me out of existence in the introduction! (I'm a transmasculine person who doesn't date women and I'm exactly what breaks the trans chapter) I haven't finished his more recent books, though that might be another place to look.

It's been a while since I've looked at the Transgender Studies Reader, but it cuts a wide swath through academic trans studies. The second volume (that I haven't actually looked at) is recent enough that it'll be contemporaneous with this very black-and-white understanding of gender that progressive cis people have embraced.

A recent pop trans 101 that doesn't lean so heavily on putting people into neat boxes is How to Understand Your Gender. The same authors have a book out on non-binaryness (it might be called Non-Binary), but I haven't read it.
posted by hoyland at 1:21 PM on September 5, 2021 [7 favorites]

Morgan M Page's trans history podcast One from the Vaults is good and recently there have been some episodes interviewing contemporary trans historians rather than delving into history.

Broadly speaking, I've noticed that on social media (well, Twitter mostly), people who are, so to speak, "older in trans years" (i.e. have been out and hashing out gender stuff with other people for a long time) tend to have perspectives that gel more for me, though those people are also not the loudest or most prolific on social media.
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:44 PM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

For broad overviews, there's the graphic novels by Meg-John Barker and Jules Scheele: Gender, Queer, and Sexuality. Because they are surveys, there's a lot of summation of ideas and name dropping that might give you pointers to reading the things that resonate with you.
posted by kokaku at 1:54 PM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

George Chauncey's Gay New York. It's a very detailed account of pre-WWII LGBT history and it radically changed my perspective on gender and sexuality in a way I found much more affirming. The ways we understood sexuality and gender back then were so completely different from anything we have today, and anything in the 60s (which is what most LGBT history focuses on) and I truly think there are some things in there that are more insightful than our current labels. It's hard to explain without all of the context but I definitely felt way more seen than I have in a long time.
posted by brook horse at 2:05 PM on September 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

As noted above, Judith Butler is a great place to start. You might also like Eve Sedgwick's work, especially the essays in the collection Tendencies. She famously defines queer as "the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically." Neither of these writers, is, though, at the margins of queer theory at all; both are foundational figures in the academic field. As hoyland points out, the black-and-white narratives of modern trans 101 are actually pretty recent and by no means do they dominate the academic discourse.

If you're not looking for dense theoretical reads, and you haven't read it yet, Stone Butch Blues seems like it would check some boxes for you, and it is available online as a free PDF.
posted by dizziest at 2:41 PM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Glitch Feminism
posted by jeweled accumulation at 4:02 PM on September 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

George Chauncey's Gay New York. It's a very detailed account of pre-WWII LGBT history and it radically changed my perspective on gender and sexuality in a way I found much more affirming. The ways we understood sexuality and gender back then were so completely different from anything we have today, and anything in the 60s (which is what most LGBT history focuses on) and I truly think there are some things in there that are more insightful than our current labels. It's hard to explain without all of the context but I definitely felt way more seen than I have in a long time.

With the cavet that it really mostly covers the G and some variations on B and T, I couldn’t agree more. I don’t believe and never have that our current understanding of gender is Automatically More Correct Than Any Way Anyone Including Previous Queer Generations Have Ever Conceptualized It Before, it is always going to be an intensely culturally bound way of explaining things that are fundamentally not explainable in words, and when I feel pressured by contemporary queer culture to declare an elaborate and specific set of labels for myself I think about queer histories, including that book, which demonstrate absolutely different yet equally valid understandings.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:03 PM on September 5, 2021 [5 favorites]

The podcast Gender Reveal might be a rich resource for you. There are more than 100 episodes, exploring “the vast diversity of trans experiences through interviews with a wide array of trans, nonbinary and two-spirit people. Created by journalist and educator Tuck Woodstock, the show also serves as a free educational tool for anyone seeking to learn more about gender.”
posted by bluedaisy at 11:48 PM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

You 110% need Gender: A Graphic Guide. It's clear, broad and cites the thinkers that it is drawing from, so you can move onto other reading from it. Or, if you are me and have never been able to cope with hardcore theorist language (sorry Judith Butler), you can use this and the same author's Queer: A Graphic History to sound like you have read way more gender/queer theory than you actually have.
posted by Vortisaur at 11:57 PM on September 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

lol @ judith butler being "at the margins."

anyway, i love this video because i think bornstein comes at the issue really expansively and approachably, i start my gender class with this clip every year.
posted by athirstforsalt at 1:55 AM on September 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm fond of a couple of text from the late 90s: Read My Lips: Sexual Subversions and the End of Gender by Riki Wilchins, and (particularly) Genderqueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary edited by Wilchins and Joan Nestle.
Both probably use approaches and phrasing which have become less popular, and sometimes for good reasons, but even having a sense of how things shift over time is comforting to me. And much of the discussion does feel very usefully nuanced, in the ways you mention.
posted by Socksmith at 3:04 AM on September 6, 2021

Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues is good and has citations. It's only updated to 2014, so it's not cutting edge, but it's definitely beyond Butler's Gender Trouble.

You can check out the Transgender Studies Reader (Volumes 1 and 2). I'd supplement that with Black on Both Sides:A Racial History of Trans Identity. You might check out some gender studies or transgender studies course syllabi and look at what they use as well.

If you have the time, you might try seeing if you can get access to Transgender Studies Quarterly.

But all of that may not do what you want, especially in regards to your own identity and presentation.

Many cis people seek a return to the level of comfort they felt previously, and look to establish rules that afford them the ability to fit trans people, as indeed privileged people seek to do to marginalized people generally, into existing systems and social structures, even though those same systems and structures do not, and often cannot, serve the needs of those marginalized people.

They don't want to have to think about these things, these differences; that's a privilege trans people and gender non-conforming people are not afforded. It's like thinking you understand how to behave towards all Japanese people because you read about handing over a business card the right way or the symbolism of chopsticks in a bowl. It's farcical, an attempt to create a buffer around having to treat people different from oneself with real consideration by substituting a few rules and practices, a sloppy pearl built around the irritant of someone different than them, when trans people are individuals, and true kindness is in allowing each person autonomy over themselves and their own identity, which requires a deeper and more thoughtful level of interaction.

I don't think that's what you are doing. Nor do I think your discomfort is because you are a person who feels bothered by having to take on a few mild adaptions for the benefit of trans people. I suspect, if things aren't clicking with you, it might be because you can see how silly and simplistic it is to think asking people's pronouns "solves" gender for cis people.

Trans people are not a problem for cis people, cis people, and cisnormative society and institutions are problems for trans people. Asking pronouns can indeed be helpful, for some trans people. For others, not so much. It's fine etiquette, a way to lubricate the interactions of disparate people, but it's not true consideration.

If you aren't personally comfortable being asked your pronouns or to state your gender, that's okay. You are the most authentic and trustworthy authority on how to be polite and considerate to you. Maybe you want a neo pronoun, or to just be called your name without any reference to your gender. Or it may be, being gender non conforming, you don't feel you easily fit into these simplistic rules and practices that so many cis people, even on the left, imagine themselves progressive for adopting.

Personally, no theory or rule can fully contain the alchemy of my existence as a nonbinary person. I say use they/them, but I'm genderfluid; they/them is simply the least wrong compromise that I adopt because I don't trust most people to be truly considerate.
posted by Chrysopoeia at 5:13 AM on September 6, 2021 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Really appreciate the suggestions so far! I am especially intrigued by the suggestion of a pre WWII gay history and I think that gets at what I’m looking for most in that I imagine it will include ways of framing gender and sexuality that are unfamiliar to me. I will check out the podcasts and curious about the journal suggestion too.

(I haven’t read Judith Butler who I understand to be notoriously difficult but have read about their work and I know that much of how I understand gender grows from ideas they articulated. As I write this I am wondering if maybe I should read Judith Butler since I only have a simplified understanding of their ideas. Les Feinberg’s work is also very dear to me and I love Kate Bornstein. I guess what I’m sharing is that I am somewhat familiar with the amazing work that has happened to broaden the understanding of gender over the last 40 years and I’m curious about thinking that is off to one side of that. Anyhow, I so appreciate everyone sharing suggestion so far.)
posted by latkes at 8:06 AM on September 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm not on the cutting edge of gender work, but I am an academic in adjacent areas, and I'm sorry to say that I haven't run across theory work that ties into the question that you asked. So, I'll just talk about my thoughts and experiences recognizing that this is a difficult topic due to the wide variety of experiences and perspectives and I'm likely to make mistakes.

I am not an active part of an LGBTQ community though I am supportive and I have friends within the community, including trans people. I am aware of the issues and want to act how I can best be supportive of people who have been historically marginalized. That said, I feel some of the same discomfort about the expectation being that I declare my own identity so decisively as a part of these practices. Being an Old Millennial, I have seen the change in understanding of these issues over the last 20 years and I suspect that my understanding of my own gender would be differently were I coming of age now. What I have come to recognize over the years is that I am just not that invested in my own gender and most of my identification with womanhood is in the shared experience of having outside expectations for presentation, appearance, actions, and opportunities being tied to something that I don't find all that significant to me.

Does that mean I'm a cis woman with privilege and internalized misogyny? A non-binary person with solidarity for the shared expectations of the female experience? For me, does it matter? Yet in being expected to declare pronouns, there is an expectation that I take these uncertainties and reduce them to a certainty at that given point. Do I want to declare that all of these expectations related to womanhood are indeed applicable? Do I want to take on a non-binary identity that I'm not sure is applicable? Or, in the worst option, do I act in a way that is recognized as not supportive of trans people by refusing to declare pronouns?

And extrapolating out from that, are there trans people who may also be in these spaces of not knowing or not comfortable with declaring publicly? And are these practices causing them to either out themself prematurely or declare a gender that is inaccurate because they aren't yet comfortable saying something else? In some cases, are we creating a cruelty against people by this well-intended practice of bringing gender to the forefront of introductions?

Obviously, these practices are intended to support people being open and truthful about who they are. Yet, in some cases, I think that there is power in leaving space to not have to be certain as well. And, unfortunately, I don't know that these practices leave that space. Which perhaps all this says is that there are no universally perfect processes, only the best we can do to support others in any given moment.
posted by past unusual at 10:54 AM on September 6, 2021 [15 favorites]

I think it may seem harder to find than it is because what I think you are looking for is, or is based in, very standard boring older feminist thought, not contemporary cutting-edge theory per se. less constrictive ideas of gender than are now in fashion may seem cutting-edge because they were simultaneously discarded by eager young thinkers for not being new anymore & by the broader culture for opposing sexist paradigms. we did not collectively move forward so much as collectively get bored and move sideways. in some ways, this is the fault of older feminists for not beating back homophobia and transphobia more decisively; in other ways, it is not about that at all.

I am not recommending any classic feminist texts to you because I don't think you are after anything that doesn't explicitly acknowledge or center trans people and I don't think you want to have to read defensively, as one does often have to do in this area. but if you really feel at the margins, I think that is only a temporary historical accident. the idea of being "gender nonconforming" used to be a great deal broader than it is now; more of a more matter-of-fact expectation of anybody who thought about gender and less of an identity compartment restricted to a select qualifying few. I think that the recent & horrible public prominence of "gender critical" transphobes who misapply feminist rhetoric has made a lot of otherwise brave and thoughtful people very wary of correctly applying feminist rhetoric, for fear of becoming associated with hate groups, and this has been bad for everyone.

anyhow, I second the various recommendations of pre-1960s texts. I doubt any of them will be exactly what you want but they are enlightening regardless.
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:00 PM on September 6, 2021 [6 favorites]

Seconding Gender Reveal podcast.
posted by matildaben at 10:15 AM on September 7, 2021

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