Tag Archives: Michel Foucault

The Power of Politeness

Being gender ambiguous means that I don’t get the opportunity to interact with people the way most people do. Nothing is a given. In every (however minimal) social interaction – from ordering in a restaurant to asking for directions – I’m clocked as abnormal. Androgynous, queer, trans, a gender pirate: people decide whether that’s ok or not, and treat me accordingly: well or ill. It’s a subtle kind of mistreatment, but a constant one. With each polite or kind interaction (of which there are many), I’m relieved. But the relief never lasts.
Feminist sexual politics demands a certain nonchalance in regards to “female masculinity“. Hence, I can’t mind if people think I’m a boy or a girl so much (though I clearly have a preference). Mostly I’m seen as genderqueer “first.” And it is this gender ambiguity that precipitates the unkindness of strangers. This is a form of social sanctioning that acts to preserve the boundaries of gender; individuals are punished or rewarded according to our adhesion to social expectations (especially of gender). We’re taught early and persistently that transgressing these stipulations is punishable by humiliation, violence (including sexual violence) and death.
I don’t think it’s ok that women and people with female bodies are forced to look a certain way in order to get by; that it’s not ok to look queer. I also don’t think it’s ok that maleness and (for the most part) masculinity are reserved for people with certain body types and/or assigned “male” at birth. Men should be able to be as femme as me; I should be able to be read as male. But feminist movement has shifted gendered expectations (rightly) so that women, too, should be able to look like me (and they do). So, really, what’s a boi (like me) to do?
All those dirty looks, short replies and general rudeness hints at the possibility of more severe mistreatment, suggesting that such mistreatment is justified; that the violation of gender deserves punishment. In order to resist these stringent concepts of binary gender (and a gender hierarchy), all you need to do is stop playing a part in policing it; be a little kind, considerate, polite.

Historically, manners evolved as a way to make social interactions less awkward. Everyone knew what to do: shake a man’s hand, kiss a lady on the cheek. Things are certainly different now, and there have been important critiques of the cultural and gendered privileges and problems that come with this type of  “appropriate-behaviour” manners. But politeness in a more general sense remains a valuable, and too often overlooked, way of communicating.

Politeness can also act to disseminate power. Rather than one party taking control of a situation (with rudeness) to put down someone else, politeness given and politeness returned can level a playing field of power. This doesn’t mean people should get away with behaving badly, not at all. There can (and must) remain space to call people out. But being critical doesn’t need to be rude, and being rude is a pretty poor way to be critical.

Kindness and politeness can pad over more than just social awkwardness and anxiety. As I’ve been arguing, greeting gender ambiguous people with politeness (and respect) actively resists the social regulation of gender (stability and “coherence”); allowing a space for gender (and social) transformation.


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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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