Monday, August 30, 2010

“Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: The Case of Cross-Gender Females” and “Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body in American Culture”

Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: The Case of Cross-Gender Females” by Evelyn Blackwood is one of my favorite feminist/queer articles ever! In it, Evelyn Blackwood recounts pre-colonial Native American histories of gender that look very different from what we in the current USA imagine as "normal." She gives examples of several indigenous communities that allowed for children born a particular sex to follow the gender path they gravitated towards which was not always what their sex might predict. In several indigenous cultures female children rejected "girl" activities in favor of "boy" activities and these leanings were not discouraged. Community rituals marked these females as men in their adult life, giving them the opportunity to marry and assume all other duties of men in their societies. Part of the ease of these arrangements was connected to a non-hierarchal way of relating to gender, family, and money. Having a subsistence level economy and equal status for men and women in community made marriage less rigid and sexual activity independent of gender and marital status. You could sleep with who you wanted regardless of gender or marital status. Unfortunately, colonization by white settlers affected these beliefs, with traditional ways being suppressed by Christian ideas about monogamous marriage, male supremacy, fixed gender roles and heterosexuality. Cross-gender females were all but eliminated by the mid 19th century. This text shows the diversity of societies and the possibilities of people to think and live beyond rigid binaries.

Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body in American Culture” by Siobhan Somerville explores the connections between the racist science of the 19th and 20th century and the naming of "homosexuals" as a particular kind of degenerate person. She maps a similar process of examining the physical body for racial difference by scientists that is then used to look for sexual difference and determine who is "homosexual" or "inverted." Large clitorises and other genital "abnormalities" were used to prove the differences between whites and blacks and heterosexuals and homosexuals. Mixed race bodies became the templates for discussing the pervert body. Somerville's work stresses the importance of talking about race and sexuality together as the language used to talk about each, informs the other. She cautions against gay rights advocates desire to prove the biological nature of homosexuality, as the biological nature of queerness is connected to this scientific racist past, that ultimately does not work in favor of LGBTQ community because it assumes pathology.

Both articles remind us that sex, gender, and sexuality are understood through a historical and social context. People living in what we understand to be the United States, just a few hundred years ago, had completely different ideas about gender and sexuality than we have now. It has been a process to create the seemingly fixed ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality that we have now. If it was made, perhaps it can be unmade again.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dueling Dualisms by Anne Fausto-Sterling

In the first chapter of her book, Sexing the Body, Anne Fausto-Sterling pulls a part our understandings of what is normal and what is natural. She challenges the facts that we understand to be true; that there are two sexes, male and female, two genders, men and women, and two sexualities, heterosexual and homosexual (and maybe bisexual). She asks tough questions and uses real life examples that make these black and white extremes seem less fixed.

She begins by telling the story of Maria Patiño, an Olympic runner, whose life was destroyed when mandatory sports sex testing proved she was not female. Because she was one of many people born with sex characteristics that do not fit neatly into the box male or female, she had to fight in court to prove her femaleness and womanhood. Eventually she triumphed but this is still an issue today. Last year, South African runner Caster Semenya was publicly labeled intersex after smashing a world record time in the women's 800 meters. She has been the subject of cruel jokes and commentary for over a year before she was also allowed to return to track officially as a woman.

These two examples are a small window into the negative affects of thinking about sex and gender along an "either/or" frame. When one is either male or female, straight or gay it limits people's understanding of what true diversity there is in the world. Part of queer theory, or thinking about things outside of the "norms" of society, is not limiting possibilities to two "either/or" options. It's not about making new "norms" either. It's about recognizing the many ways that human beings can come to be and interact with each other. "Dueling Dualisms" is asking readers to think beyond competing polar opposites and really deal with all the shades of gray in between.