Risky Thinking: The Implications of Sex and Gender Minority Advocacy

(My apologies for self-quoting so much here, but this article brings together some threads made before, and therefore need to be linked)

We’re experiencing an interesting moment, even if it sometimes brings heavier negative $#!t than we’ve ever expected.  As a transsexual during the societal coming-out of transsexuality, it’s kind of one of those rare glimpses within the split second of the rite of passage from obscurity to awareness.  Of course, it’s longer than a split second relative to our own lives — gays and lesbians made this transition in the early 1970s and are still not completely past the repercussive effect — but it’s still a moment on the cusp of a revolution, where we can look forward at those who trod the path toward acceptance, and then back at those who hide in the shadows, wishing to follow.

At this moment, several different subcommunities are self-defining to the point of excluding others, sometimes vilifying and refusing to associate with them, all in the name of determining their own identity.  We’ve seen it before, I detailed a lot of how the transsexual vs. transgender rifts forming mimic the self-defining-to-exclusion that occurred in other minority groups in “Rocky Horror and the Holy Grail” and won’t reopen that here.  But one thing I’ve kept hearing is about how trans is the “last great unprotected minority” and that kind of thinking boggles my mind.  Because in stepping back and looking at this from a perspective of sex and gender minorities, it seems to me that we are only just starting to come out.  And if we can’t learn from those previous mistakes, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past in a tragic way.

I’ve been challenged at times to qualify that.  “oh yeah?  Who is yet to follow?” as if there’s some kind of virtue to being the last or the “most marginalized.”  Well, overlooking that queer, racial and feminist struggles are ongoing, how about the following:

  • Asexuals.  Their plight may not play itself out in the legal frontier so much, but the medical clash may only be a couple years away.  With whispers that the work groups working on the revision to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) are wanting to remove “distress” and “impairment” as mitigating factors in what are considered to be various “hyposexual and erotophobic sexual dysfunctions,” asexuals are at risk of being unfairly medicalized to a degree they’ve not seen before.  Even if this doesn’t happen, the pervading societal belief that lack of sexual drive is something that needs to be cured persists.
  • Bisexuals.  It seems like everybody takes for granted that bisexuals have already arrived and are fully accepted… except for many gays and lesbians, who sometimes say in one breath that they’ve got just as many legal rights as anyone else, and then in the next pontificate about how nobody is “really” bisexual and accuse people of being disingenuous by claiming to feel attracted to both men and women.  Bisexuals have managed to remain in the shadows by acceptance in one orientation or the other, but the mutual lack of respect of bi- orientation will eventually force more to come out and assert their reality.
  • Consensual BDSM.  While this community made some strides in the early days of Internet that others didn’t, and seemed to dodge the defining-to-exclusion bullet through philosophies of YKIOK and mutual respect, there are still legal battles ahead, such as issues of custody of children and conflicts between definitions of domestic violence and consensual adult play.  Too, if “distress” and “impairment” are likely to be removed from the definition of anything in the DSM, it is Ray Blanchard’s precious “paraphilias” (where most BDSM practices are, or are likely to wind up, even if as “paraphilia NOS”) that will especially suffer, as he tries to bulldoze through and invent all his new definitions and create new emphasis to form his legacy, not caring who’s thrown under the runaway bus in the process.
  • Polyamory and ethical non-monogamy.  If the move to “protect marriage” and reinforce heteronormative monogamy is any indication, poly relationships are either going to have to go more underground (unlikely given how many young adults are trying this out or at least know and support someone who is), or the pressure’s going to build up here until it boils over.  Complicating the mix is polygamy, which in its rawest, basic principle might actually not be something to loathe, but has to date been almost exclusively abused by patriarchal groups in order to exploit women and children.  Although this too will change.
  • Sex workers.  In many places, it’s legal, but everything needed to do to do it safely (“communicating for the purpose of,” “living off the avails of,” the bawdy house rules, etc.) remain very much not.  And as long as that is the status quo, sex workers will remain easily exploited by authorities and lowest common denominators alike, and unable to get a solid enough financial and social control of their lives to be in control of their own destinies while engaged in something that for many is a reasonable means to an end.  In some ways, this overlaps with the feminist movement (though not all sex workers are female, many of the rules governing sex work are rooted in society’s treatment of women), and shows that there are still core integral changes that need to be won there as well.  Clouding this is the very real trafficking in and exploitation of women, but the two are indeed independent issues.
  • Youth.  Youth are often the silent victims in the many wars on sex that are waged.  “Protect the children.  Save the children.  Shelter the children.”  In reality, a great deal of the problem is that there is far too much protecting the children — usually from concepts that they can grasp far better than their parents.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for a world of rampant teen pregnancy or chickenhawkism.  I think kids need to be given the information they need to govern their lives as responsibly as anyone else (and trust me, they’ll often either learn it from us or the hard way), and need to be aware of and somewhat protected from predatory and exploitive behaviour by adults.  I’m not ready to side with NAMBLA just yet.  But I do know that when I was in my teens, I was far more capable of governing myself responsibly than youth are given credit for, and would have been even more so if given practical and ethical information.  Protecting the kids can be best achieved by governing ourselves as adults and rethinking our messages, rather than by heavily regimenting and reinforcing sex-negative perspectives in our youth.

These are only the ones I see close on the horizon.  There are more.  And some of them are communities we are not going to be very comfortable being associated with.  This requires an acknowledgment and acceptance that what fits for us does not fit for all.  But if we expect others to allow us to self-define, listen open-mindedly to our experiences and accord the same respect given to anyone else in the human microcosm, do we have to be prepared to do the same?

I’d think we’d have to.

Some areas of queer / LGBT activism have started using the terminology of “sex and gender minorities” but I don’t know if it’s quite understood what that means and how universal that requires people to think.  “Sex and Gender Minority” doesn’t simply replace the GLBTTIQAN2Setc alphabet soup with something more comfortable than “queer.”  If anything, it should challenge people even more.  If we think outside these boxes, then inevitably we are going to be challenged with something that we’re not comfortable with.

I believe that we need to start looking at sex and gender minorities through a new framework.  I wrote previously about how finding biological origin to transsexuality serves a valuable purpose but is not itself something to stake our legitimization on (“Rocky Horror” again).  Instead, we have to ask ourselves what constitutes a valid human life / perspective / lifestyle and what are the bases upon which we make those decisions?

I’d like to think that most of us realize that merit should hedge solely on individual ethical behaviour.

In “Fetish, The Other F Word,” I talked about “fetish” being a vastly inadequate term used as a dump bin for anything we don’t adequately understand, anything we consider “not real” for whatever reason suits us, and which our society doesn’t want to respect.  I have come to believe that our whole notion of “fetish” has to be discarded and replaced with a rethinking of sex and gender minorities — not to drag homosexuality, lesbianism, transsexuality, transgender and all back into the hoary clutches of “paraphilia,” but instead to reassess a number of unfairly classified communities and lives without the baggage that that word brings.  We may in fact be surprised by the real lives and real identities that we discover.

In “… F Word,” I also related how the BDSM community was one of the first places to welcome me.  From that experience, I had learned how that community governed itself, and how that provides some invaluable guidelines that potentially give us a far better measuring stick than basing acceptance on biology:

  • Safety:  In the BDSM rule of “safe, sane consensual,” safety is seen as one of the cornerstones of ethical behaviour.  Simply, it means doing everything possible to safeguard human life and well-being as a part of our co-existence.  It means shunning practices that cause lasting physical, psychological or even spiritual damage.
  • Responsibility: In the BDSM mantra, this is sometimes referred to as “sane,” although it does a disservice by implicitly excluding people with high-function conditions that can be handled responsibly given a well-thought-out framework, such as bipolar disorder.  The spirit of the original intent gets to responsibility.  Responsibility refers to maintaining a constant sense of diligence and prudence, and realizing the consequence of actions.  It means maintaining a strong distinction between fantasy and reality so that one does not ride the rollercoaster at the park and then apply the same principles to the drive home.  In BDSM terms, it means (for example) that you do not engage in humiliation play with someone who seems to be inclined to internalize it and use it to feed their own poor self-image.
  • Consent: This doesn’t just relate to the age of consent, but requires mature, informed, non-coerced consent.  A “yes” resulting from intimidation, blackmail or drinking / drugging is not consent.  “Yes” without understanding the consequences is not consent.  A “yes” born out of a starstruck feeling of “but he’s my idol / Brad Pitt / the President” isn’t necessarily consent unless other factors of personal foreknowledge and acceptance of the consequences are present.  Consent requires clear negotiation and communication absolutely and almost to a fault.  “Consent” from a BDSM perspective is most often far narrower and more demanding than simply “yes” or “no,” and I do believe that there is something valuable to be learned from that.
  • Respect: The BDSM mantra of “safe, sane consensual” doesn’t include it, but the most successful and ethical relationships inevitably do, even if it’s not a previously-discussed parameter.  Respect also considers respect for anyone peripheral who is affected by the relationship or proceedings.

To me, those four points have always seemed an appropriate framework in which to measure the validity and acceptability of anyone, rather than assumptions based on identities, lifestyles and states of being.  Many heteronormative relationships do not meet those standards.  Many relationships that our first instinct might be to condemn actually do.

We have a responsibility to all who will come after to blaze the trails without burning the bridges in the process.  We have a responsibility to not erase, eject or oppress others in the same way that history has done to us.  And if we are going to claim to advocate for sex and gender minorities, we will necessarily have to rethink our own perspectives on some of them.  Are we up to that challenge?

And in the meantime, we need to stop flogging the victim mantra of being the last great oppressed minority, and prepare ourselves to address the war on sex that underlies most of our struggles from a more universal perspective.

(Offered to sexgenderbody.  Sometimes we accept things to be self-evident and then are surprised that most others clearly don’t “get” them, and that they have to be revisited.  For those for whom this is old news, I apologize for restating things that may seem obvious to them.)

  1. Another great article! Glad sexgenderbody posted it as well. But I’m wondering if intersexed people also should be on the list, especially with regard to the right not to be surgically altered as an infant.

    • dentedbluemercedes
    • January 10th, 2010

    There are many more who should be on that list, I was just focusing on those whose advocacy I see as making it likely that they’ll be emerging soon in the same way that transsexuality is emerging. I don’t know if intersex people are quite prepared to do that, save for a few organizations, unless accepting some solidarity with trans.

    The surgical alteration is a serious issue, yes, and something that I think we can speak to (because of our experience of how incongruent identity adversely affects people) without co-opting the IS community.

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