RESISTING GENDER BINARISM: JACK HALBERSTAM (IN BARCELONA)

Last week I attended two extremely interesting sessions with Jack Halberstam at Barcelona’s CCCB: a lecture on 1 February (the 400 seats in the room were taken!) and a seminar the next day (by invitation, attended by about 45 persons). I cannot give an exact idea of all that was discussed but here are some highlights. In any case, CCCB intends to make soon available online both the lecture and the seminar, which was actually a three-hour long conversation.

Jack Halberstam (b. 1961) is an American academic, author and transgender activist, currently at Columbia University, New York. As any person minimally interested in Gender Studies knows, Jack used to be known as Judith (a name he still accepts from family and friends), the name under which he published an early volume, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995) and his most famous book, Female Masculinity (1998). Later work appeared signed by Jack: In A Queer Time and Place (2005), The Queer Art of Failure (2011) and Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (2012). His forthcoming volume is Trans*.

I must recommend Skin Shows, which I believe was Judith’s doctoral dissertation. There is no doubt, however, that Halberstam’s Female Masculinity made a major contribution to post-Judith Butler Gender Studies. The point Judith Halberstam made then was and is still challenging: masculinity can also be performed by female-bodied persons, not just male-bodied persons. I found her argument convincing and liberating until a gay academic colleague, David Alderson from Manchester University, pointed out to me that far from breaking away from the gender binary Halberstam was endorsing it and, what was even worse for him, giving quite a monolithic image of masculinity. Later, Halberstam chose to transition and present herself as Jack, which I’m sure was a fine personal choice for her but left many of us, women who were coming to terms with our masculinity, somewhat stranded. I abandoned long ago this nonsensical idea that man have a feminine side and women a masculine one and now I put my efforts into de-gendering personal features such as assertiveness (why should that be coded masculine?) or a capacity for empathy (why should that be coded feminine?).

Jack stressed several times during his visit that Female Masculinity had been written 20 years ago and that he felt much better represented by The Queer Art of Failure (2011). I have not read this volume yet but following Halberstam’s own comments, the main argument is that transgenderism has made an art of failure because it has resulted in bodies that fail to be normatively male or female, which, for him, is positive. He sent a call to embrace this failure productively and helped me very much to understand this point when he said that “If we become men and we don’t change the meaning of manhood then we have been swallowed by manhood”. The other trans men in the room agreed. So now I understand that what bothers me as a feminist woman about trans women is, precisely, how little many do, generally speaking, to challenge conservative femininity–think Caitlyn Jenner.

A main bone of contention, of course, is whether just because you’re LGTB you are automatically subversive of heteronormativity. Halberstam believes this is not the case: 40% of LGTB people voted for Trump, he explained. The position he has been maintaining is perhaps a bit extreme, as he believes that whenever LGTB minorities are granted a civil right they should reject it as an attempt to expand normativity. Hence, he rejects gay marriage as part of a new homonormativity that parallels heteronormativity. In the same way transnormativity threatens to undermine the work of trans activists to undo gender.

And here comes the most remarkable argument presented in the sessions: Halberstam opposes the current extension of transgenderism to children. This, as he explains, is a new phenomenon based on the children’s access to YouTube standard narratives presented by transgender people outside activism. Their narratives focus on the enormous personal distress that gender dysphoria brings to the individual, the risk of suicide and the successful implementation of medical and surgical procedures, leading to a happy ending. The children absorb this story, which they then transmit to their helicopter parents and the distressed adults rush to doctors’ surgeries in order to place these very young persons on the path to early transitioning.

It’s not clear to be how these children acquire so early such a complex gender discourse (surely, more than YouTube is involved, perhaps the parents themselves). Halberstam, however, made a number of very valid points: a) no person knows until adulthood, if ever, what his gender identity should be, b) the lack of contact between the trans children and their parents with adult trans persons is creating a generational split among trans individuals and activisim (the trans adults could act as mentors), c) most convincingly: if the current trend is to respect intersex children and not manipulate their bodies, why are we manipulating the bodies of trans children as early as 3 years of age? A father in the audience gave us his personal answer: he wants his trans daughter to be happy… But, then, there might be wiser ways of ensuring her happiness…

The other major issue which Halberstam raised in relation to trans children is that it is contributing to upholding the gender binary system. He agreed that “the categories male and female remain remarkably stable” despite Butler’s introduction of the idea of gender performativity back in 1990, and the current proliferation of new gender identity labels. The kind of transgenderism that helicopter parents embrace is based on the urge to make their children normatively male or female as soon as possible, thus erasing the adult transgender person from society. This is why Halberstam thinks that the phenomenon is not positive. An adult may make better informed choices about gender and, what is more important, may choose to perform its trans identity in challenging ways, which a child can hardly do. Thus, in contrast to his rejection of trans children, Halberstam answered my question about trans fathers and mothers by stressing the positive contribution that these trans adults are making to transforming the family. He stressed that trans/parenting is part of a wider re-organization of traditional kinship beyond heteronormativity but also a particularly beneficial part of it.

Regarding the representation of trans lives, Halberstam, who is perfectly comfortable with using popular texts in his academic work, recommended the film By Hook or by Crook (2001) and the TV series Transparent (2014-). He stressed that positive representations of trans individuals should be complex, eschew the suicide narrative or trauma, and, ideally, be transinclusive in relation to the persons involved in their production. They should also present transitioning as a life-long process, avoiding the tempation of easy or neat closure (as happens in the film Transamerica).

He praised Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) as a significant turning point but was somehow inconclusive about Kim Pierce’s biopic about Brandon Teena’s tragedy Boys don’t Cry (1999). Halberstam did not clarify whether the terrible violence presented in this film works well to erase transphobia but he used the trans protests against Pierce during a screening of the film to criticize identity politics. When asked to clarify this point, he stressed that identity politics cannot deny the right of persons outside a particular label to offer representations of the individuals under that label. He also warned that the famous case of Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner), a Trump voter, shows how identity politics are not necessarily subversive as it is too often assumed.

About the gender binary, it took me a while to catch up with Halberstam’s frequent use of the word ‘cisgender’, “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex” (or the opposite of transgender). I always have this feeling that the LGTB community is conveniently using labels that only serve to maintain separation alive. As a heterosexual woman who does not support at all patriarchal heteronormativity, I constantly vindicate the right to call myself ‘heteroqueer’ but I have been told that if I am heterosexual than I cannot be queer–I was under the impression, however, that been queer was about denying normativity. Now, it turns out I’m also cisgender. Well. Halberstam, to his credit, did stress that the LGTB community and activism are covertly enforcing the gender binary: “you also have to be male or female in a queer context”; he insisted that these are binary categories imposed by queers themselves, not by cisgender pressure. Thus, he explained, feminine gay culture is completely marginalized as is masculine lesbian culture.

I have used here the expression ‘female-bodied person’, which I’m borrowing from Halberstam’s talk. I find it tremendously liberating as it lays the stress on person, rather than woman. I increasingly dislike the words man and woman for their patriarchal connotations and although I’m well aware that ‘male-bodied person’ and ‘female-bodies person’ are a mouthful, they are as labels an appealing alternative. They say that you know how you see yourself when you look at the mirror and consider what comes first to your mind to describe yourself. I, definitely, see a person primarily, not a woman. It is very important that beyond all the identity politics defending particular gender labels, we make an effort to make gender far less important. I always say that as Gender Studies specialist my goal is to eliminate gender, by which I mean not only the pernicious gender binary but also any need to define ourselves primarily through our sex and our gender. This should be in the future as preposterous as defining yourself according to the size of your feet or the shape of your hands.

Until then, however, here we are: stuck with the same old labels and, yes, with the same clichéd, tired narratives (why, Halberstam asked, do heterosexual narratives always focus on size – tall men, big penises, big breasts?). I’ll finish by confessing that I was initially confused by Jack Halberstam’s female voice, as I had stupidly assumed that he had chosen a fully masculine style of self-presentation. I ended up loving this willing refusal to be a normative man, and his willing decision to be playful, to be queer. This is what we, heterosexual people, need: more queerness, less normativity.

Food for anti gender-binary thought…

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