It’s been just over a week since I got home from the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in San Francisco and I am well on the road to recovery from the plague that everyone caught. The trip was worth a feverish cold. I had a blast catching up with colleagues, meeting new people, hearing new ideas and fresh interpretations, and trying out my own (more about that in my next post). The fabulous Laurie Stras and I stayed in a hotel a short walk from the main venue, and passed by the Occupy San Francisco encampment at least twice a day. Friday night was a special treat, as I actually escaped from the small circuit between hotel and conference centre. The LGBT Study Group held an evening session in the Castro District—the area where Harvey Milk lived and worked and agitated—and Rachel Cowgill and I lucked out bumping into Byron Adams who not only knows the area well but also took us for an impromptu tour with sad stories, affectionate stories, and hilarious asides. The walk worked up an appetite which we satisfied with delicious fried egg sandwiches in a diner that had been there since Harvey Milk’s time.
The session was “Trans/gendering the Voice: Julia Serano in Conversation with Stephan Pennington”, and it was really stimulating. I am already rethinking the way I will teach the construction of gender on my return to the classroom. Many feminists will challenge gender dimorphism (the concept that there are only two genders and they have distinct body shapes) and gender essentialism (the idea that we are the way we are because of our body/sex—males are masculine, females are feminine, and we have no option but to behave the way we do) by raising examples of people who are intersex or transgender, but Serano pointed out that it’s dehumanizing to always/only be the exception that proves the rule. (I don’t remember if Serano mentioned this, but it’s often tokenistic, too, since people who are intersex and/or transgender are mentioned in that one class to make the basic point and then might be forgotten about for the rest of the course.) And it is basically lazy, since people who are cis-gender (that is, not transgender) are just as socially, culturally, medically, physically constructed. That point I am definitely taking on board.
Serano had a really interesting take on the slogan version of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Serano noted that the whole book often gets reduced to ‘gender is performance’, which then implies that gender is something one can put on and take off. Serano went on to note that she is the same person inside now that she was before she transitioned and thus Serano queried the idea that there is no core identity. I can see this problem: the over-simplified slogan can lead to the idea that gender is as straightforward as getting dressed in the morning. Performativity is different from performance. It is through performativity, through daily interaction with our gendered society, daily repetition of certain behaviours (which might include behaviors that flout social convention), that the very subject—my self, a thinking, feeling, acting agent, which I think is what Serano meant by core identity—comes into being. What’s more, according to Butler, we continue to come into being on a daily basis because we are never fixed. Not one of us stays the same through our entire lives, although the changes may be tiny and barely noticeable on a day to day scale. Our social system and our culture don’t remain static either, even if the changes are miniscule evolutions rather than revolutions. (Although sometimes there are revolutionary changes—civil rights, and the political-legal-social-cultural recognition of same sex unions, to take just two examples.) So, I need to do more thinking about this. I’m not quite ready to ditch performativity in the way I understood Butler to mean it. I will keep chewing this one over, though.
Alas, I didn’t manage to catch the whole session—not just because of the fried egg sandwich, there was also a long wait for transport down to Castro—but other snippets that came up after I arrived included the continuity of the voice—which ties in nicely with Serano’s core identity—and Pennington’s discussion of steps he takes to be perceived as non-threatening, such as wearing a bow tie, and stepping off the sidewalk when passing a woman he thinks might feel threatened by his presence. I was talking to a friend about that last one and it turns out he does it too and hadn’t even realized he did it. (Incidentally, that’s an example of gender performativity in the Butlerian sense—regular repetition of a gesture without necessarily knowing one does it at all.) I found myself wondering whether any other axes of difference intersect with that gendered action.
So, all in all, a very productive session which I’m clearly going to be thinking about for a long time yet. Thanks so much, Julia Serano and Stephan Pennington!