I care which pronoun is used, but people have been respectful to me with the wrong pronoun and disrespectful with the right one. It matters whether someone is using the pronoun as a bigot, or if they are trying to demonstrate respect.
On a typical Tuesday, I end up filling out demographics on two different forms. The first form is a job application, and I’m used to the standard set of questions that are used to assess compliance with the patchwork of federal and state laws regarding workplace discrimination. In my experience, those questions are always the same, except for California. On this Tuesday, the employer added the question “What is your preferred pronoun?” with a choice of he, she, or they.
Later in the day, I put my name in for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. That form has a simple, “What is your gender?” with the choices of “male, female, and transgender.“
Celibacy has a mixed reputation in American culture. Paradoxically Americans appear to be having less sex, with the percentage of young men who did not have sex over the last year increasing from 21 to 31 percent in less than a decade. Celibacy is often described as a hardship associated with deprivation, self-denial, and religious or political extremism. What if, instead it was viewed instead as a natural part of sexuality in the midst of dynamic negotiation between psychological wants and material needs? Why do we make a sharp distinction between celibacy, choosing to claim space after or between relationships, and setting personal boundaries?
Most of this comes down to compulsory (hetero)sexuality and amatonormativity, the view that sexual relationships are central to adult life and the absence of those relationships constitutes a significant harm. Bi, pan, and queer people also need to deal with expectations of performative bisexuality.
BPQ people are stereotyped as faking if we’re in monogamous heterosexual relationships, and uncommitted if in monogamous homosexual relationships. Expectations for sexual activity can be used against us as part of emotional or sexual abuse (pages 16 - 18). The differences between a “unicorn hunter” and an abuser can often be five minutes and the word “no.” Stereotypes about BPQ hypersexuality fuel pandemic levels of intimate partner violence. The result is that BPQ people are much more likely experience significant relationship trauma than heterosexual people.
“I don’t call myself a woman, and I know I’m not a man.”
– Kate Bornstein
“I’m not a real boy, I just play one for the health insurance benefits.”
A few years ago, I hit a wall. The internalized pressures of living my life in mortal fear of being clocked as queer was ruining my life. I had reached a dead end with attempts at reclamation built around reframing what I did into a fragile masculinity. The cognitive dissonance between “men can …” and “but that’s not me” hit a breaking point. I started describing the work of presenting to the world in exactly the same terms as Abigail Thorn (via an actor stand-in) recently did.
So, time to let it go. This isn’t the first time I seriously started questioning myself as genderqueer. But 1992 and 2016 are radically different years, and changing identities after 12 years on a job is a completely different matter. Regardless, “not a real boy” should be pretty damn simple. Right?
This is just some ideas that have been kicking around in my head as I wrestle with some issues with current definitions. My suggestion is that bisexuality involves the following components, at minimum. Each of these will be explored further below the cut.
- Sexual Excitation and Fantasy: A reflexive sense of “that’s sexy (for me)”
- Sexual Inhibition: Factors that “put the brakes” on sexual activity or ideation.
- Socio-Political: Cultural factors and framing
- Sexual Behavior: What we actually do with our bodies.
Note that these are not intended to be comprehensive. And I’m much less concerned with answer the questions of “Am I bisexual?” or “Who is bisexual?” (I’m increasingly anti-essentialist) than providing ways to explore “What does bisexuality mean for me?”
Netflix’s import, Invisible City, provides a solid urban mythic fantasy story. The series follows Eric, an environmental police officer, as he tries to untangle the mystery of his wife’s death and his own identity. The mystery includes a number of Brazilian folk spirits, or “entities” including the cuca (a female boogeyman), mermaid, pink dolphin, curupira (flame-haired forest guardian), and saci (one-legged trickster). Curses are revealed and strange things happen. While the series delivers on strangeness, the conclusion fails to stick, unless there’s a Series 2 forthcoming.
Before we talk about sex, let’s talk about art.
In 1939, Solomon Linda was employed as a packer and cleaner for the Gallo Record Company in Johannesburg. His band, The Evening Birds, reportedly was paid a flat fee for a recording session that included “Mbube.” The song would sell over 100,000 copies across Africa over the next decade. The record was exported to the United States, where Pete Seeger transcribed part of the chant as “Wimoweh.” It helped restart his career. Seeger sent Linda’s family $1,000 and told his publisher to send royalties to South Africa, but they didn’t. In the 1960s, an English version with Linda’s melody would become a hit sensation. In 1994, the song would appear again as a gag in Disney’s Lion King, which was worth an estimated $15 million dollars in royalties.
None of which Linda or his family saw, due to the complexities of copyrights that allowed for Gallo to claim ownership, and the complexities of international copyright that allowed for American producers of the 20th century to rip off “folk” compositions.
This conflict is fundamental to the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Ma, a butch and black blues singer, is forced to collaborate with white producers. She shows up late and dictates the entire recording session because she recognizes that she only has power in that relationship until she signs the copyright release. Young Levee doesn’t have the same leverage, and is blatantly ripped off after making the mistake of giving the producer a copy of his song. Both are ultimately exploited to make other people money. Both reveal deep frustration and rage at needing to survive a system that exploits their creative labor.
We’re quite comfortable with the principle that music producers of the 20th century repeatedly used legal measures in the service of unethical exploitation and discrimination. It is reasonable to object to that exploitation even when everyone involved arguably had informed consent. Which makes the hangups in using consent as the primary framework for defining ethical sexual conduct to be troubling.
Here I’m going to make three arguments:
- It’s reasonable to define what is ethically and psychologically sexual abuse independently of legal definitions.
- Consent alone is not sufficient for defining ethical or healthy sexual behavior.
- Looking at duties of care allows us to examine issues of coercion, manipulation, structural power, relationship abuse, and grooming independently of consent.
(Potentially triggery discussion of sexual assault.)
Abigail Thorn (using an actor stand in as “The Man Who Was Not There”) comes out as transgender (youtube). In the process she nails what trying to pass as a man is like on a day-to-day basis. They are almost the same words that I said to my therapist a few years ago. The gender identity part really gets rolling about 12 minutes in.
(Minor quibble with the blindness metaphor. Blindness is a diverse spectrum and “legally blind” a somewhat arbitrary label. A majority of legally blind people can perceive color, light, and shape to different degrees.)
Kinda related, a movie adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Passing was screen at Sundance. The Harlem Renaissance novel deals with the social and psychological stresses of racial passing, with implications for gender and sexuality as well.
(Linking because youtube decided to block embeds on my site.)
In 1991, six teens get sucked into the RPG world of the game they play. Five of them return to Earth, unable to talk about what they witnessed.
In 2019, they go back into the game, and living in the game is pretty much horrible. Volume 3 cranks up the horribleness with time pressure. (mild spoilers)
The premise of Travelers involves time-traveling agents from a dystopian future sent back in time in an attempt to “fix” largely human-created disasters in the early 20th century. Instead of bodies, the Travelers arrive by replacing the consciousness of people who are known via phone records and video evidence to have died at a specific location and time. The series follows one of many teams attempting to enact “The Plan” created by the artificial quantum intelligence “The Director.” The people replaced by the team covered by the show includes:
- Grant MacLaren: An FBI agent who died falling in an elevator shaft.
- Marcy Warton: A learning-disabled woman killed in an mugging.
- Carly Shannon: A single mother killed by her ex.
- Trevor Holden: A teen athlete killed in an illegal boxing match.
- Phillip Pearson: Heroin addict.