Confronting Gender: The Three Pillars and Ethnicity

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Emily Skidmore’s fascinating article on “The Good Transsexual,” analyzes stories about the recent “appearance” of transsexuals:

I track the formation of the transsexual within popular discourse. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was those transwomen…depicted with the most proximity to white womanhood, who gained the most visibility in the mainstream press and whose stories therefore came to define the boundaries of transsexual identity (271).

The story of the pioneering transsexual woman, Christine Jorgenson, offers an example of the formation of this particular sexual identity in both positive and negative (as seen with stories about Delisa Newton, Charlotte McLeod and Marta Olmos Ramiro) ways. Jorgenson’s story “introduced readers to the concept of transsexuality and yet simultaneously assured them of continued dominance of gender roles forged in reference to white heteropatriarchy,” (272). She was a blond beauty and domestically inclined, as well as the embodiment of middle-class values, and this allowed her to be readable/intelligible:

Demure blond women represented the gender norm of white womanhood in the mid- twentieth century and regulated the gender intelligibility of all women in visual representations. It aligned her with an idealized femininity and asserted her desirability as a woman to an assumed male viewer (273).

Andrea Smith’s “Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” offers a framework for the ways in which white heteropatriarchy is a necessary structure for this positive representation of transsexual identity. At the same time, white heteropatriarchy is boosted by Jorgenson’s story, too, in the way it legitimizes the image of white womanhood.

The good transsexual naturalizes white heteropatriarchy through both gender and race identities. Jorgenson was a blond, beautiful woman, and specifically, a white woman. The good transsexual also normalizes her body through economic by upholding notions of middle-class respectability (Skidmore, 275). The good transsexual is intelligible as female, but specifically as a female body that is easily “consumed” by patriarchy. While I can imagine the necessity of the good transsexual in terms of survival, it reminds me a little of the problem of the model minority myth for Asian Americans. The issue with the construction of the good transsexual is that it as Smith writes still keeps us “trapped within our particular pillars of white supremacy…we are seduced with the prospect of being able to participate in the other pillars,” (69). All it does it really make us complicit in perpetuating the structures that oppress all oppressed groups.

Joana Nagel’s book, “Race, Ethnicity and Sexuality,” further problematizes white heteropatriarchy and any rigidly bound categories around gender and sexuality through her interrogation of ethnicity. She writes,

The lesson…is that ethnicity is not a fixed, unchanging feature of social landscapes or individual biographies. Rather the extent and meaning of ethnic differences are socially defined historically and situationally changeable, and sexually loaded. (38)

From chapter 2 on constructing ethnicity and sexuality, she tells the story of their move from urban Cleveland to the suburbs and what precipitated that move – she was approaching puberty and she was a young white girl at a school with too many blacks. The point was that ethnicity and sexuality are intertwined and so the same analysis she does with ethnicity could be applied to sexuality.

The social definition of an individual’s race, ethnicity, and nationality is decided and given meaning through interactions with others. An individual’s ethnicity is as much the property of others as it is the person’s making the ethnic claim…Ethnicity is then the result of a dialectical process that emerges from the interaction between individuals and those whom they meet as they pass through life.  (42)

And,

Conceiving of ethnicity as a system of boundaries that divide a population into different groups provides a way to think about it in terms of its structure rather than its content, that is its presumed genetic or cultural bases. (44)

The challenge to look at ethnicity as also socially, historically, economically constructed and dependent on specific context is really mind-blowing and intriguing. When she makes the move to sexuality:

These same insights about socially constructed aspects of ethnicity can be applied to sexuality. Just as we can conceptualize ethnicity as a series of boundaries dividing a population according to various characteristics such as language, religion, culture, or color, sexuality can be seen as a set of boundaries dividing a population according to practices, identities, orientations, desires. (46)

And,

The social meaning of a person’s sexuality, like his or her ethnicity is a matter of structure and power: which sexual categories are available in the society to be sorted into, and gets to do the sorting. (48)

What is compelling is the language of conceptualization and “giving meaning” to these categories. It is helpful to read all three pieces especially in light of Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender and thinking about the discussion we had in the classroom about the “liveable life,” and I’m drawn again to Smith’s organizing agenda, which is apparent and absolutely necessary and practical when we talk about victims, survival, and marginalized groups working together. I struggle with the appropriation of Jorgenson’s story – how much of it was self-constructed, how much of it was “authentic,” how much of it was for the sake of survival and the liveable life? Is it right or fair to even ask that question? Of course, I agree with Skidmore, and am appalled by the negativity that shrouded the stories of the other transsexuals, and I see the ways these oppressive structures are upheld by these bodies, these stories that are produced for the sake of consumption.