Tag Archives: homophobic discrimination

Risk, Subversion and/or Death in Queer Portraiture

Paper presented at the Next Wave Risk Talkers Forum
Down & Dirty: Sex/Gender/Media,
Melbourne, Sunday May 23, 2010.

Vision is always a question of the power to see — and perhaps of the violence implicit in our visualizing practices. With whose blood were my eyes crafted? Donna Haraway1

What I’m interested in is the hostility with which gender ambiguous bodies are stared at, the actuality of violence against those bodies, and the ways visual – and performative – arts subvert, reinforce or simply avoid these real life threats that trans and gender ambiguous people live with.

To transgender studies, the photographic portrait provides a crucial argument for visibility and the centrality of corporeality [the body] to that discipline and ontology. As trans theorist Susan Stryker proclaims: ‘[Transgender studies] helps correct an all-too-common critical failure to recognize “the body” not as one (already constituted) object of knowledge among others, but rather as the contingent ground of all our knowledge, and of all our knowing.’2 That is, that our bodies tell (our) stories.

Transgender bodies disrupt expectations of sex and gender, and their photographic (re)presentations can be seen as damaging to, and damaged by, the ‘proper’ order of gender. Explicit gender ambiguity in queer portraiture troubles dominant concepts of sex and gender as stable and biologically determined, challenging the reader to (re)consider the immutability and safety of their own gender.  Or at least that’s the idea.

The figuration of the transgender as powerfully subversive was asserted by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble, where she used transgender subjectivities to show how gender is performatively (re)produced, thus rendering queer a gay and lesbian overlap through cross-gendered identifications.3 Butler went on in Bodies That Matter to suggest that while transgenderism was queering, it was in transsexuality that queer found its limit: bodily alterations that seek to (re)establish sexed stability or coherence reinforce gender normativity.4 That is, Butler argues that sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is not queer.

Trans theorist Jay Prosser critiques this theorisation of transsexual bodies – and I agree with him – arguing that Butler undermines the queer potential of SRS and marks out as transgressive that which makes the subject’s real life most unsafe [gender ambiguity].5 And it’s this risk that I think we need to take note of.

Jake Wotherspoon, Fiona, 2009

While portraits of gender ambiguous bodies confront us with the mutability of that which is supposedly stable [gender], there is a danger in idolising images of transgender bodies which place subversive power on instability and fragmentation. Transsexual portraits of bodies (re)made whole can emphasise integrity and cohesion while maintaining subversively queer force in their relation to technologies and the subject’s defiance of expectations of gender and sex as biologically determined. That is, I’m arguing for the consideration, rather than exclusion, of transsexual – transitioned – bodies in queer art.

Photographs are always and only fragments – moments past (dead) – and this is particularly salient to trans portraiture, where figurative violence is decidedly more likely to be(come) literal. In order to create sustainable images of queer ontologies, there needs to be value and pride re-established on images of queer bodies which emphasise unity and solidity, and recognition and appreciation of the queer power of transsexed bodies, as well as transgender bodies.

Trans Portraiture

Kate Bornstein, 2005 (Vintage)

Max Valerio, 2006 (Avolon)

The common tendency for trans theorists and writers to include photographic portraits in their work highlights the centrality of the body in trans story-telling, redressing histories of invisibility and concealment, as well as the potential violence of ‘revelation’.6 The text is, by definition, disembodied and the inclusion of photographs attempts to reify this disjuncture. Portraiture serves to unify this ambivalent subject and ‘insist[s] on continuity in spite of change.’7 Transsexuality, afterall, both relies on and defies calls to visibility. Pictures of passing transsexuals that call attention to their transsexual history (in title or series context), draw attention to the need for visibility even for those who are invisible (who “pass”).

Coming out is a strategic move, yet by announcing one’s transsexuality (or trans history) the person ‘undoes the realness’ that is the ‘aim of transition’.8 The tension between ‘revelation and concealment,’ between in/visibility, is complex: ‘[the portrait’s] primary function is to expose the transsexual body; yet how to achieve this when transsexuality on the body is that which by definition is to be concealed?’9

Sara Davidmann, Robert, 2004

Photographer Sara Davidmann argues that trans portraiture, particularly of naked bodies, provides a safe visibility for trans people, and that photographs of private atypical visualisations of gender taken into the public realm [exhibited] constitute an intervention that facilitates a questioning of pre-conceptions of gender and of the body, contesting the boundaries of these binaries, and presents a challenge to the gender system.10

Trans theorist Jay Prosser asserts that trans portraits always force us to question our own gendered state of being, as he asks: How is our reading of the transsexual invested in and produced by our own gendered and sexual subject positioning, our own identifications and desires? Photographs of the transsexual, particularly of the transsexual in transition, push us up against the limits of gendered representation: the limits of what gender we can consign to representation, of what we can process as identity in the visual.11

For Prosser ‘we can only look at the transsexual, then, if we look at how we look.’ While the trans portrait forces us to consider the nuances of gender, I am arguing that it does not necessarily follow that the reader will focus this attention on themselves.12 What guarantees that the image will provoke such a self-reflection? It is painfully possible that it will in fact have the opposite effect: the reader re-establishing the stability of their own gender and their own body in its appropriateness up against the inappropriate freakishness of the portrait they stare at.

Catherine Opie, Jake, 1991

Catherine Opie‘s 1991 series Being and Having contests the centrality of the power of the viewer to gaze unscrupulated at the portrait. Jake stares down at us, head tilted back as if to say ‘who the fuck do you think you are to look at me?’ confronting us with our own ability to slip out of the ordered and ‘proper’ categories of ‘man’ or ‘woman.’

Queer theorist Jack Halberstam argues that: The power of the gaze in an Opie portrait always and literally rests with the image: the perpetual stare challenges the spectator’s own sense of gender congruity, and even self, and it does indeed replicate with a difference the hostile stares that the model probably faces everyday in the street.13

Visibility for trans people is desperately important, but the fetishisation of our bodies is just as concerning. Just as the objectification of women’s bodies in photography has been analysed as double (by the male gaze and the camera), so too is the transgender body objectified and othered in dominant discourse.14 In seeking out the curve of the jawline, the broadness of the shoulders, the thickness of the neck, trans portraits expose our investments in these distinctions (and their stability). To Opie’s photographs, Halberstam argues that the royal colouring of the backgrounds forces the stare of the spectator to be ‘admiring and appreciative rather than simply objectifying and voyeuristic.’15 But really, we can only hope.

In Butler’s formulation of the transgender, and in Prosser and Halberstam’s readings of it: the image of the transsexual is set up in opposition to both nontransgender gender normativity [the normative male or female] and transgender gender ambiguity [the genderqueer]. This serves to create a clear hierarchy which values transgender identities more highly and ‘locates transgressive value in that which makes the subject’s real life most unsafe.’16 In this way the nontranssexed body is privileged eroding the queer potential of sex reassignment surgery.17 SRS becomes a tool of gender conformity and normativity: a not so queer moment. And it is this marking out of subversion to exclude transsexual bodies that I’m arguing against.

Risk

This idealisation of ‘gender incongruence assumes one has the luxury to take on the gender order.’18 The ability to exist in a ambiguously gendered state in a tenuous one at best, more often it is simply an impossibility.

We are all taught that those of us who are most visibly different will encounter discrimination, hostility and violence.19 Violence against transgender people is not only frequent but underreported and anti-trans sentiment is institutionalised within the system of law enforcement. Social sanctioning acts to preserve the boundaries of gender and cultural pressures are often at the forefront of our internalized anxieties about gender ambiguity; individuals are punished or rewarded according to our adhesion to social expectations of gender.20 And ‘[w]e’re taught to pay attention to humiliation, because it can be enforced by violence.’21 The GenderPAC Survey of Transgender Violence reinforces this statistically, finding that over 60% of respondents had experienced assault, and that harassment and violence were often manifested in schools, churches, police and health care professionals.22

The threat of violence is a devastating and constant consideration in trans lives. By placing subversive value on that which puts us at the highest risk of violence, we – artists – risk overwriting the reality of violence to such an existence.

The relationship of queer embodiment to physical violence and death creates queer and trans portraits as powerfully defiant. In this way, the presentation of the trans body in photography – or other visual or performance arts – lays bare the strength of trans subjects as we face death in violating the social order of gender and sex.

Death

To photographic theorist Roland Barthes, every photograph contains this catastrophe‘ of Time; a tension between preservation and the coming of death.23 While the subject of a photograph may or may not be dead, the moment in which the picture was captured is past – dead – and draws attention to the passage of Time as the nearing of death. This notion of the photograph’s ‘that-has-been,’ interrupts any contemplation of the picture’s narrative with the catastrophe ‘that is dead and that is going to die’,24 and this seizes us to rethink the text.

This interruption Barthes names the photograph’s punctum, that which breaks or punctuates its narrative content. Barthes infers that punctum is necessarily that which leads to the contemplation of something else, that cannot be named and makes him linger on the photograph: ‘the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion. This power is very often metonymic.’25

Here, Time is an ever present punctum.

The notion of the image as referencing death renders the photograph as both damaged and damaging thing, confronting the reader with hir own impending death. What I am arguing is that this reference to death takes on a new and poignant meaning in queer portraiture, where the subject’s real life is threatened with the knowledge of anti-trans violence.

Integrity and Subversion: A Queer Conundrum?

Kael T. Block. Self-portrait, 2005

The queer fixation with transgender ambiguity and disorder has eroded the appreciation and consideration of transsexual bodies as unified subjectivities and still powerfully subversive. Kael T. Block‘s series xx boys resists this postulation by focusing instead on pride forged through integrity. As its description declares: ‘[an xx boy is] F2M, [a] Gender Pirate, [o]ne whose genre capsizes the binary, one who creates his own beauty and body, one who created his identity without paying conventions from a sovereign gender system.’26 Although the gender system cannot be thrown aside, Block’s intentions to capture images of transmen without stringent, or preconceived, borders of who that might include indulges this consideration of queer subversion as potentially transsexual or gender ambiguous.

In this self-portrait, Block exhibits (his) maleness not as invisibility but as alterity. His body is resolutely masculine and male. It is only in/on the site of his top surgery scars, and in the reader’s ability to recognise them as such, that his transsexual ontology (and history) is made apparent; that is, a queer punctum. Halberstam suggests that it is this relationship to technology which is (subversively) significant: ‘[the] body situated in an immediate and visceral relation to the technologies – guns, scalpels, cars, paintbrushes – that have marked, hurt, changed, imprinted, and brutally reconstructed it.’27 Though his maleness and masculinity is not in question or dislocation, rather his relationship to technology marks/makes his body transgressive. In blending his body into the background through the matching designs of his tattoos and the wallpaper, Block presents a resolute image of wholeness, strength and integrity. Block represents (his) transsexual ontology as precisely not fragmented, yet the presentation of his surgery scars mark him explicitly as queer in his refusal to be bound by the limitations of his assigned (at birth) sex and the feminist and queer discourses which dismiss the transgressive potential of SRS.

The series as a whole serves to redress the delineation of transsexual from transgendered, as to Block xx boys are who they say they are, sometimes with surgery scars and sometimes without. Block’s emphasis on beauty through pride demands a strength and self-esteem of a subject intact.

Conclusion

By idolising images of ruptured and dislocated bodies we risk idealising our own fragmentation and disintegration. Rather, we need images which point to our potential to stick together, that reaffirm our desires for our bodies as mutable and whole. The potential of a project like Block’s shows us that queer subversion on the body can be transsexed or transgender. While images of ‘gender incongruous’ transgender bodies present queer punctum as the nuances of gender-crossing, images of transsexed bodies are able to interrupt understandings of sex-determined gender through the relationships to technology which mark the body.

So I have said 2 things:

  • that there is a danger in glorifying gender ambiguity (in art) without consideration for the real-life threats that gender ambiguous people live with.
  • And that by limiting what we consider to be transgressive to the exclusion of transsexual bodies and lives, we invalidate the suffering and subversive force of those lives.

While transsexual and transgender bodies have the potential to queer understandings of seeing and being seen, as well as concepts of gender and the body, we need to remember that ‘[t]hese are claims on people’s lives.’28

These are things which we – as young artists, and especially as artists of “the body” – need to be thinking about.

Thanks to the rest of the panel: Rinske Ginsberg, Zahra Stardust & Eric Bridgeman.

Reference as: Attitude, Max. “Risk, Subversion and/or Death in Queer Portraiture.” Paper presented at Down and Dirty, Next Wave Festival, Melbourne, May 23, 2010. https://maxattitude.wordpress.com.

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Passing Lies

While trans theorists such as Jack Halberstam, Sandy Stone and Kate Bornstein argue that the notion of passing is singularly unhelpful, idealising gender ambiguity assumes one has the luxury to take on the gender order. The ability to exist in an ambiguously gendered state in a tenuous one at best, more often it is simply an impossibility. ‘Choosing to pass,’ then, needs to be considered in the context that trans ontologies elicit homicidal rage. Desires for invisibility need to be disentangled from affirmations of gendered power asymmetry; that is, transexual desires for the ordinary should not be misconstrued as reinforcing normativity.

you-cannot-pass

Ftm bodies overwhelmingly present either bodily ‘incongruity’ or ambiguity, or bare physical marks of (re)construction,(unlike mtf transexed bodies on which reconstructions are able to be rendered invisible, ftm transexed bodies remain visibly scarred). We are punished or rewarded according to our adhesion to social expectations, especially of gender, and the social penalties for ambiguous, androgynous or ‘incoherent’ gender presentation and performativity tend to be rude or insidious at best, torturous or homicidal at worst. It remains apparent that those of us who are most visibly different encounter discrimination, hostility and violence. Cultural pressures to conform to gendered expectations become internalised and naturalised, creating anxieties about gender ambiguity from ‘everywhere and nowhere’. This occurs through socially organised gender policing in science, law, religion, education systems, art, pornography and economics.

To ftms especially, misrecognition remains powerfully affective in choices about ‘passing’. For the most part ftm ontologies remain unrecognisable to others and this misrecognition presents a(nother) form of oppression. In order to be recognised as men we rely on body modifications via hormone use and/or sex reassignment surgery, and/or enacting socially legible ‘masculine’ behaviour. The ability to relax ‘hypermasculine behaviour’ and still be read as male corresponds to male appearance (‘passing’): what it means to be a man really hinges on just one thing: being (read as) bodily male. In this way, ftm body modifications can allow for breaking hegemonic gender ideals; we can be effeminate feminine men.

As social theorist Michael Warner suggests in his book The Trouble With Normal, ‘nearly everyone, it seems, wants to be normal. And who can blame them, if the alternative is being abnormal, or deviant, or not being one of the rest of us? Put in those terms, there doesn’t seem to be a choice at all.‘ Passing isn’t a lie. Suggesting that it is erases us from being, as though we must be identifiable from nontrans people. Passing is a survival technique. And as I’ve said before: we need to survive.

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(Avoiding) Mardi Gras

“Faggot bisexual cunt!” was how I was saluted when I exited the train in Sydney‘s CBD for the 31st New Mardi Gras. I was gobsmacked. Not because I was being insulted on the one day of the year it’s supposed to be ok to be flamboyantly gay, (clearly not), but because never had such a whirlwind of terms I adore been used against me with such aggressive force. I laughed. He wasn’t wrong.

I was in for a long night.

I’ve never been in the parade. For a long time I’ve been disconcerted and troubled by spectacle. I am highly aware of its political uses (as mass distraction, especially fascist), which disables me from ever ‘enjoying the moment’ in a crowd. However, I realised that my discomfort has more to do with the fact that I’m a spectacle every day everywhere I go. My friends and I joke about being a gay pride parade. But we are. Every day. And I feel like if I enact that spectacle in a parade, then I legitimate all the things I think are illegitimate every other day.

Mardi Gras is important, absolutely. We have cause to celebrate, and reason to remember to keep fighting: a lot hasn’t changed on the other side of the fence.

Here are some of the other encounters I had at this year’s Mardi Gras in Sydney:

l        >while sitting by myself at the end of the parade, tears running the make-up down the sides of my face, a lovely gentleman gave me a plastic rose.

 

l        3 guys in a taxi stop at the lights while we’re waiting for the bus and scream at my friend and I: it blurs in my memory –  ‘fucking transsexuals’ was there ‘what are ya?’ There’s one empty lane between us and the cars aren’t moving. We stand there as they abuse us for almost 2 minutes. I march over to the car and the guy in the front quickly pulls up his window. The guy in the back doesn’t bother and as I reach into the cab, he grabs me and the guy on the other side gets out ‘Are we ok?’ are the words he uses but what he says is ‘Are you going to fuck off now?’ I walk back to the bus shelter and he gets back in the cab. They don’t stop shouting as the cab moves away. My friend yells at me for my violence. ‘It’s fine that it makes you uncomfortable,’ I say, ‘And I’m sorry. But being yelled at and not responding I can’t abide right now. And I had no words.’

Best of luck out there,

 

Max xx

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Whose history?

Gay and lesbian historicism has all too often used gender transgressive individuals to create gay history, yet argued that gender transgression is not in and of itself important, instead assuming that gender transgressive behaviour and cross-gender positioning were taken up for the specific purpose of engaging in a homosexual partnership or ‘lifestyle’, excluding the possibility that gender transgression was engaged in for more complex reasons.

This is political work. To show that homosexuality has existed in all times and places and, in certain times and places, has been socially accepted, even revered, gay historians argue for social tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality (fair enough). However the way such histories have been written is to privilege homosexuality at the expense of transgenderism.

radclyffePat Califia explains: It does not further our understanding of human sexuality to press for recognition of homosexuality throughout history at the expense of recognizing other sexual minorities. The history of their oppression is as valid as our own, and if gay male and lesbian scholars deny that history, we are as guilty of censorship and prejudice as any straight anthropologist who chooses not to report homosexual activity.

Such gay historicism was (and is) a part of the gay liberationist project, which sought to separate sex, gender and sexuality, in defiance of the early sexologists’ assertion that gender inversion was a manifestations of same sex desire. Here, the contradictory tensions of gay historicism are revealed: on the one hand it seeks to escape the equation of homosexuality with gender inversion, and on the other it needs to use stories of heroes from the past who had just such an embodiment. Perhaps gay historians hope by locating homosexual gender inverts in the past, they can keep them there. However, in arguing that sexuality is not necessarily linked to gender inversion, gay historians have gone too far by removing the importance of gender transgression all together, thereby dislocating historical links between gender and sexuality, the effect of which is to render impossible a transgender history.

Writing a transgender history that does not exclude homosexuality, such as that of Leslie Feinberg in Transgender Warriors, is crucial work that still needs to be done. Historical figures cannot simply be ‘taken back’ and named ‘transgender’. Histories need to be constructed that acknowledge that these people were, and are, important because they were different: different because they had same sex desire and engaged in same sex relationships and different because they transgressed the expectations of their sex.

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Gay Blood Ban

Positive change required

As a guy who likes sucking cock, I found it not only offensive but pretty difficult to answer the National Blood Service’s question: “Are you a man who has had oral or anal sex with another man (even if you used a condom)?”

Answering yes to this question results in a lifetime ban from donating blooddonate-blood

For me, mostly it’s the kind of cock that one isn’t born with. Secondly, I know I’m not the kind of man ‘that counts’ to them anyway. Thirdly, I do always use a condom and I really think that should count for something. (A dear friend of mine got herpes as a teenager and that shit lasts forever. No thanks. Really, it’s worth it). Also, women can have cocks too you know.

The NHS, supported by leading AIDS charity Terrance Higgins Trust, says that men who have sex with men (MSM) present a high statistical risk of having HIV and this therefore justifies the lifelong ban on MSM donating blood. They claim that this is not discrimination: “The reason for this exclusion rests on specific sexual behaviour (such as anal and oral sex between men), rather than the sexuality of the person wishing to donate. There is, therefore, no exclusion of gay men who have never had sex with a man nor of women who have sex with women.”

So their justification of why gay men are excluded is not because we’re gay but because we have sex? Nice one.

The truth is: anal sex is a high-risk activity for transmitting HIV, and unprotected oral sex is high-risk for other STIs, such as syphilis or herpes. But it is also true that not all gay men have anal sex, and lots of heterosexual people do. While it may be the case that more men who have sex with men are at risk of contracting HIV, it is not because they have sex with men, but because they have unsafe (or less safe) sex.

So, a question that (actually) doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sexuality, but on risky sexual behaviours, would be: do you practice anal sex or unprotected oral sex (regardless of the sex or gender of those involved)?

In their lengthy justification for supporting the ban, THT state: “The Blood Service policy does not imply, nor is it based on the assumption, that all gay men are promiscuous.”

And continues: “not all assumptions are wrong… It is unfortunate that generalisations have to be made and that people have to be categorised and grouped, but we accept that in this instance it was not done in a judgemental or discriminatory fashion.” ahhem.

By assigning people to social categories, rather than dealing with them as individuals, the THT and NBS reinforce negative stereotypes of gay men as promiscuous, dishonest and ‘unclean’. This is institutionalised homophobia, regardless of their claims that it’s not.

To sign a petition to lift the blanket ban on MSM donating blood, go to www.bloodban.co.uk.

For the full explanations given by the NHS and THT, go to:

www.blood.co.uk/pdfdocs/position_statement_exclusion.pdf

www.tht.org.uk/binarylibrary/blloddonationsbypeopleathigherriskofhiv.pdf

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