Get ready for an unreasonably long post! This is what law school does to my brain!
National Coming Out Day was this Monday. The rash of suicides among LGBT youth in 2010 made this particularly poignant this year. Aside from the anger I felt about the bigotry and madness of the people who pushed those kids into suicide, Coming Out Day also reminded me partly why homophobia is so rampant and why it’s connected with the big ideas of oppression that also direct my sexual violence prevention work.
All systems of oppression privilege certain groups in society over others. In patriarchy, we’re generally talking about privileging men over women: how much money each group gets to acquire, how much power they can amass, how they can go about their lives in the world. Since these systems of oppression become foundational aspects of the ways we organize the entirety of society, let’s do a thought experiment. I want you to assume that you are the patriarchy for a moment (mmm…tastes so…oppressiony). You, as the patriarchy, are acting like a city planner, and here’s your task: make sure that men get more power than women, in your planned town. You’ve got a lot of problems to work out with that directive, aside from being a system of oppression.
How do you do that? You could take a biological approach, and flat out decide that anyone with a penis wins the status, and anyone with a vagina gets screwed. If you did that, though, how would you know for sure who gets what? Again, we’re thinking roughly like (evil) city planners here: how would we KNOW if someone has a vagina or not? Genitals aren’t really visible if people are wearing clothing, right? And people are smart - if they realize that only the be-penised get social power and status, they’ll start stuffing socks and zucchinis in their pants or skirts or utili-kilts to make it LOOK like they have penises, and then where would you be? On top of all that, what would you do with people who have ambiguous genitalia? What if they have something like Androgyne Insensitivity Syndrome, and so might be chromosonally male, but don’t have penises? Where do you put them on the male/female dichotomy?
In this case, you’d probably end up not giving the power you want to a lot of men, and accidentally giving a lot of power you don’t want to give to women. Unacceptable, patriarchy. You’re not performing like a diligent system of oppression would. Clearly, this strict genital technique alone isn’t going to work, if we really want to make sure our (evil) planned city is going to get its oppression on the way we want it to.
Let’s look at some other options. We could try to do a modified biological approach, where we look at ranges of things aside from genitals alone to determine who gets to be a male or female. You could look at height, or body weight, or maybe muscle mass. You could look at facial hair growth and maybe overall hair growth. These things are a lot easier to see, on the surface, than genitals are, so we solve that “what genitals do you have?” question, but this technique still suffers from a lot of problems. People of all genders overlap in these areas. Some men are really tall and really thin and some women are really tall and thin, and if you have a decent enough sample size, you’ll probably start to see that weight, height, BMI, etc., are only very vague indicators of what sex someone is. And, these techniques do nothing to get around that issue of how you distribute power to those people who have ambiguous sex.
In this case, we might solve that one issue of genital confusion by making height and weight and general body type a proxy measure of what genitals someone has, but you’re still going to end up giving a lot of that power you’re supposed to be giving to men to women who just happen to fit into the distribution curve for what you’ve decided equals “man.” You are not being efficient enough in your oppression, patriarchy! The other oppressions are nervous about your job performance.
Now, both of these ideas so far are very much in the realm of the physical, and not as much in the social (although of course social factors affect things like height). But by and large, these two approaches above exist in the realm of what people are, not what they do. I happen to be tall - my bones and muscle structure made me a large person, and I didn’t really have any conscious control over that. As we can see so far, limiting our oppression to what people are physiologically doesn’t really let you satisfy your evil city planner system of oppression job requirements because physiology is tricky stuff to determine at a glance. We’re going to need to get into something a little more amorphous to truly get our inspired oppression on - we’re going to need to modify what people do.
Here, our planning team of evil oppressionville is thinking a little bit differently. How can we take those ideas above (the biological stuff), and make those proxy variables a lot more reliable? How can we find easily identifiable ways to categorize people so that we can efficiently extend either unwarranted social privilege or sanctions against them? We know that things like height and weight aren’t really enough.
But what if we provide a whole bunch of messages over time about what people are supposed to look like, and how they are supposed to act? And what if we point those messages at a really core biological drive, like say reproduction? Let’s tell everybody in evil oppressionville that women, in order to attractive enough to find men who want to have sex with them, or to be worthy of love and/or companionship, need to have a) certain physical traits, b) certain types of clothing, and c) specific mannerisms, attitudes, and ways of interacting with men. Likewise, let’s tell men something very different, but in the same categories. And, even better, let’s make sure that the content of what we tell women in each of those categories makes them dependent on men. Let’s make sure that everything we tell the women is more onerous, dangerous, or expensive than what we tell men. Let’s make sure that we tell men that women are worthless.
Ok, now we’re cooking. While we’re still not perfectly efficient because we can’t stop everyone at the door and check their genitals, we’ve got a new set of proxy variables that are a lot more effective than height or weight by which to make the assumption about someone’s sex (and therefore, how much power they should get). Someone who is wearing a skirt, high heels, and has long hair isn’t guaranteed to be a woman, but those are much better indicators to our evil patriarchy planning team that the person is probably a woman than her height or weight.
This is good, for our evil oppression team. Things are working out much better now, in that we are able to oppress very efficiently. The more these social messages get entrenched, the harder they will be to fight. Here, we’ve swapped trying to oppress people by finding out who they are by oppressing them based on what they do. If we can keep the stories going for long enough, people might even start to confuse the distinction between the two, and assume that what they do is who they are. If we’re lucky, the people then will start to perpetuate these ideas on their own, and we won’t need to use major tools like the media or law to push the messages. They’ll get absorbed into people’s cultures and identities. People will assume that the differences in behavior are natural, and they might even start mostly crap academic disciplines like evolutionary psychology to pretend to explain them. The women we’re oppressing will generally know that the deck is stacked against them, and some of them will fight that, but most of the men probably won’t. In fact, a chunk of them will invest a substantial portion of their identity and work in trying to keep things the way they are, in either support of “tradition” or “family” or some other term that means “status quo.” The women who do fight against the system will, if our patriarchy planning team entrenched the messages deep enough, have to fight against not only us, but all of the rest of society, too. We’re looking pretty good right now - we’ve got a self-perpetuating system that tells men and women how to act. That serves our dual purpose of making it easy for us to identify who’s who, and therefore pay out social and economic and legal rewards appropriately, and also helps to make sure women don’t have the ability to easily fight back because they don’t want to lose the few social privileges they have right now. Just in case, though, we might want to push some messages that women aren’t full people, just so that the men will help do our work for us by keeping the women from getting too out of control with the whole questioning of the system thing.
BUT WAIT! You aren’t out of the forest yet, evil patriarchy city planner! You thought you had it all wrapped up, too, didn’t you? We have a nice, self-perpetuating system that would let us continue to inequally divide social resources and power amongst the genders to keep men on top, and it might not even take a whole lot more work from us. A couple of good toxic messages, a couple of generations of reinforcement, and we’re good to go. Of course that’s not gonna work, though. People are unpredictable!
You remember those people we had problems figuring out what to do with before? The ones who had ambiguous genitalia, or an unusual condition? You still haven’t accounted for them, and some of them are following the messages we told men to follow! They are gaming the system we set out to efficiently oppress people!
Furthermore, there’s this other group - they seem to be sexually attracted to people of their own gender. Our self-perpetuating system doesn’t seem to work quite as well on them. They know they are in a minority; most people are straight, and they seem to push the boundaries of our system a little more. If these women, these lesbians don’t care as much about what they need to do and look like in order to attract a man, because they DON’T WANT A MAN, then they are less vulnerable to our proxy variables! They might not act like other women! They might even sometimes do things that we tell MEN to do. And if they do that, then maybe other women will realize that women can act like men, at least some of the time! And the gay men! They might make other men think that some of the things we tell men to do are ridiculous! In both cases, they also show the rest of society that the messages we gave them about finding love and passion and sex are mostly untrue! This is completely unacceptable!
These people don’t want to buy into our system completely. Their existence threatens the stability of our oppression. These GAY people, these TRANS people, they are a threat to the way we have organized the power in our society. They put the lie to the social messages we’ve spread to everyone else. They might help to show the rest of society that we’ve been misleading people about the difference between who you are and what you do. That distinction, and blurring it, is what makes our proxy oppression variables work - we can’t allow that to happen.
In order to silence this threat, we need to take drastic measures. We need to find a way to get the rest of society not to listen to them. Here’s what you should do, evil patriarchy city planner: tell everyone that this subset of the culture is a disease. Tell everyone that the LGBT population can infect others. Tell the society that anyone who steps over those boundaries of acceptable gendered behavior will never get laid again ever in their lives ever ever (ever!), they might also ‘catch’ gayness and be permanently ostracized. This will help keep the majority in line, and it might be solidify those rules we gave them, because now they’re not only acting on our groundrules because they want love, attention and respect, they’ll also do it out of fear. The more we can get the majority to fear this smaller group, the less they will tolerate them, too.
And make sure you repeatedly tell this LGBT group that they are stupid, worthless, unusual and freakish. Then, we can let social isolation and the fear we’ve already installed in everyone else help silence them! Then the world will go on as before, with only a token group of people who resist our oppression on the margins.
Because if the patriarchy didn’t tell everyone to hate and fear the LGBT population, then maybe they’d see that you can be a lot of different things, and still find people who like, love, and welcome you, and that our rules for behavior are mostly gendered and mostly crap. They might help to show the rest of the world that the completely bullshit distribution of power between the genders has nothing to do with reality, nothing to do with “nature,” and everything to do with oppression and limited people.
Homophobia is the self-defense mechanism of the patriarchy for dealing with a substantial threat, just like rape is the enforcement tool of patriarchy to keep women afraid of men and in line (and following those behavioral codes). If you fend off the tools (homophobia and rape), you weaken the system of oppression. And hopefully, our patriarchy city planner gets hir ass fired and replaced by a group that knows how to lay out a society based on reason and fairness. Hopefully.
A little bit of activism to go along with your blogging. October 20th is being pushed as Spirit Day, and a remembrance of the LGBT youth suicides. Wear purple if you got it.