Mad studies and queer studies

My friend Helen Spandler and I recently wrote a piece for the Mad Studies Network about what Mad Studies and Queer Studies are, and what they might learn from each other. If you’re interested in mental health and/or sexuality and gender you might find it interesting. If it feels a bit too academic, my comic book on Queer with artist Julia Scheele is coming out in September!

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Mad and Queer studies: interconnections and tensions

With the recent emergence of Mad Studies we thought it timely to explore some connections with Queer studies – another critical field of enquiry. We wanted to examine their similarities and differences; any points of tension; and what each could learn from the other.

Helen has been part of the recent emergence of Mad Studies in the UK and has a long standing interest in critical approaches to gender and sexuality. Meg-John has recently written a book about queer theory as part of the ‘introducing…’ series of Icon press comic books, and has a long standing interest in critical approaches to mental health. This piece arose out of discussions between ourselves on this subject.

Summary of key points

  • Mad and Queer Studies have lot of common ground – especially in terms of challenging existing binaries (for example, gay/straight and mad/sane); subverting negative connotations of Queer/Mad; and critiquing prevailing normativities (ways of being ‘normal’).
  • However, we have to be careful to think critically about new normativities which develop when we move away from old ones, and who is included and excluded in any movement.
  • Therefore, both projects could do more to question the ‘alternative’ norms and binaries they introduce which may have unhelpful effects.
  • In addition, madness poses new and significant challenges to Queer activism/studies.
  • As a result, Mad / Queer scholars and activists would benefit from greater dialogue with each other – and with other critical fields of inquiry (like critical disability studies).
  • Finally, we recommend foregrounding practices of consent and kindness as part of our political strategy to achieve our desire for more liberated social relationships and societies.

We start by briefly outlining a history of the two disciplines.

What is the history of Queer theory and Queer studies?

Read more…

Gender and superheroes

My Open University mate Helen Owton and I just got together to write a piece about gender and superheroes in the run up to the new Batman v. Superman movie (with huge thanks to Joseph de Lappe for his expert input)…

Why is Wonder Woman only playing a secondary role in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?  This article looks at the role of gender in superhero films. 

The new Batman v Superman film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is coming out on 25th March 2016 so we thought this would be a good chance to reflect on superhero movies: particularly the place of gender in them.

 

We’re particularly interested in the role of binaries and hierarchies in these kinds of films. Batman v Superman pitches two well-known superheroes against each other in a binary way, and – of course – the superhero genre as a whole is based on the linked binaries of hero v villain, good v bad, and right v wrong, with the former winning out in the end. More recent versions of superhero movies trouble these simple distinctions somewhat. For example, The Dark Knight version of Batman is less clear cut, and the two groups of X-men can be seen as more about assimilationism v radical approaches to activism. However, audiences may well not pick up on such nuances.

An additional binary and hierarchical consideration in Superhero movies is needed. Characters are male or female, with predominantly male characters, and masculinity is privileged over femininity in various ways.

Currently, we are living through a golden age of comics, with a vibrant independent comic and graphic novel scene which includes strong representations of womenExternal link  and LGBT+External link  characters, much of which has been taken up by mainstream superhero comicsExternal link  too. Nonetheless, there is a serious disparity between this shift in comics, and the continued limited representation in the movies which are based on these comics.

Read more…

Non-Binary Feminism: The personal is still political

Content Note: There’s mention in this article of the heated debates around feminism and trans, of societal gender inequalities, and of gender-related bullying in schools. I’m using non-binary and genderqueer interchangeably here to mean genders outside of the male/female binary.

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Tensions between trans and feminism rarely seem to be out of the news these days. The so-called TERF wars (where TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist) smolder on and on, flaring up again every so often, as with the latest spate of articles about Germaine Greer’s inflammatory comments about trans women. The TERF wars fit well into the tired old media trope of feminist infighting, where conflict between feminists tends to be reported far more than, for example, areas of agreement between feminists, key developments in feminist thought, or campaigns about continued societal gender inequality. Unfortunately this kind of reporting seems to be a rather good way of discrediting feminism and keeping people’s eye off the ball of social injustice more broadly.

Over the last couple of weeks attention has turned to non-binary trans with Laurie Penny’s article on being a genderqueer feminist and Suzanne Moore’s response. This is interesting/challenging timing for me as I agreed to speak to my feminist reading group at work about non-binary gender this week. I had already been wondering what wider debates were likely to be swirling around us as we had our discussion, and how I could articulate my own thoughts clearly through all of that. I decided – as I often do – that blogging about it first might help me to figure out what I wanted to say.

What’s at stake here?

Reading Laurie Penny and Suzanne Moore’s articles helps to get to the heart of some of the deep feeling that’s in play in these discussions. This can aid us in understanding why they become so fraught, and why there can be such a temptation to polarise into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘them’ and ‘us’ – mapping those onto other perceived divisions (e.g. older and younger, authentic and inauthentic, natural and unnatural, etc.)

As I’ve said before, I think it’s useful to recognise the ways in which these kinds of tensions echo and reverberate up and down our multiple levels of experience: in our wider culture, in our communities and organisations, in our interpersonal relationships, and in our internal conversations. I’m struck by the looming, potentially explosive, cloud of emotion which seemed to be present as I read the social media responses to these two articles, and which has also been there each time I’ve been at a feminist event where these kinds of tensions have played out in person. I feel the same roiling, sparking thunderhead settling over one-on-one conversations when these issues come up. Also – like Laurie and Suzanne I suspect – I feel it inside myself as I try to make sense of my own experience of these matters, and to articulate it. This fact was underlined for me by the fact that I just spent 30 minutes staring at my computer screen wondering how to begin the next paragraph!

I think that one of the main things at stake here is the concern that non-binary people – particularly those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) – are somehow betraying women and/or feminism in their rejection of the category of woman. Laurie explicitly addresses this in their own retaining of the political identity of woman, in additional to her identity as genderqueer (whilst acknowledging that any genderqueer folks who don’t do this are equally legitimate). Jack Monroe – who also recently came out as non-binary – reports that they have been called a ‘traitor to women’. Suzanne hints at the sense of betrayal with her concerns over young ‘sexual tourists’ adopting ‘pick and mix’ and ‘hall of mirrors’ identities. She questions why AFAB genderqueer people could not use identity terms that retain their womanhood (e.g. butch dyke) or recognise that no women feel ‘at one’ with all of what being a woman entails (physically and socially).

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What have I been doing? All of the things

Many blog posts are brewing at the moment but none quite ready to bottle and serve. However I did spend this afternoon collating some of the things I’ve been working on recently into the resources space on my blog, so here’s some links to what’s going on at the moment by topic.

Bisexuality!

I spoke at the launch of the Purple Prose crowdfunder a few weeks back. This book is an awesome collection of British bisexual experiences, with excellent chapters on race, coming out, relationships, and many other topics. I co-curated the chapter on gender which includes a wonderfully diverse range of bi people’s voices. Please do considering supporting the project here.

Non-binary gender!

I was really privileged to be asked to join some other trans activists to go and talk to the Ministry of Justice about gender recognition policies recently. You can read CN Lester’s account of what happened here, and I’ve put up a page including the factsheet that we put together for the occasion: hopefully a really useful resource about non-binary experiences.

Non-monogamous relationships!

Recently I went to a great conference on non-monogamies and contemporary intimacies. It was wonderful to see what had changed a decade on from the first such conference back in 2005. You can see the keynote talk that I did there here, plus some other amazing talks on intersectionality, privilege and oppression, islamophobia, the refugee crisis and more.

Also I’m really proud of the guidelines for academic/activist spaces that I helped to develop for the conference, given how tricky past events have been when trying to be properly inclusive, so I’ve put up a page about them here.

Kink and consent!

I’ve been working with some colleagues to put together some guidelines for kink/BDSM party and event organisers and community members around consent. You can see what we came up with here.

LGBT+ mental health!

Last year I was part of a group writing good practice guidelines for health practitioners and services around LGBT+ people and mental health. These have recently been published, along with some guidelines for LGBT+ people seeking support – links here.

Also Pink Therapy’s Dominic Davies and I published a couple of articles aimed at improving therapist knowledge and skills around Gender and Sexual Diversity, included here. And we’re working with awesome people at Gendered Intelligence to bring young trans people together with clued up therapists. Please do consider supporting Dominic’s sponsored silence to raise money for GI here. One of the blogs I’m hoping to write is about gendered bullying and silence – in support of this campaign.

Books!

The book based on the Enduring Love project is with the publishers and due to be published in early February. My queer theory introduction is with the fabulous illustrator, Julia Scheele, being turned into comic form (do buy Julia’s collection of comics on identities in the meantime). And Justin Hancock and I are writing about sex together once a week for our sex advice book. Along with an edited collection on non-binary genders, both of these are due out in late 2016. Meanwhile check out Justin’s piece in the Guardian, and the amazing new sex and relationship eduction resources which he’s produced with Durex (which I had a small hand in).

Coming out day: Non-binary gender Q&A

Today is international coming out day. I wasn’t planning to write anything for the occasion because I’m in the extremely fortunate position of already being out about everything about myself that matters. It’s a real privilege that I don’t face any threats to my employment, relationships, or physical or mental well-being for being out about my sexuality, gender, relationships, and emotional struggles.

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That hasn’t always been the case for me, and it’s also vital to remember that it very much isn’t the case for everyone. Part of the reason that it’s important that people are out about their experiences in these areas (and others) is that it helps to create the circumstances in which it is safer for other people to be open about all that they are too. Nobody should ever be pressured to be out when it doesn’t feel safe enough for them.

However, I have noticed recently that – despite me being open about it – some people seem to struggle to remember, and to understand, my non-binary gender. So here’s a Q&A to make it clearer.

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Sex and gender beyond the binary

This week Ladybeard magazine published a piece that a wrote for them on thinking in non-binary ways about sex, sexuality and gender.

This seems particularly relevant this week given that the papers have been full of the YouGov survey findings that nearly half of 18-24 years-olds consider themselves as something other than straight or gay.

Here’s the Ladybeard article

Why are trans and bi generally so invisible in mainstream media, and so problematic when they are represented? One major reason is that they trouble the binary ways in which we are encouraged to see the world: people are male or female, straight or gay. They are born that way, and they stay that way. So we are told.

Of course bi and trans experiences differ greatly. However, research in these areas has highlighted the common ways in which these groups suffer in light of a mainstream binary perspective. There is the consistent media erasure of each experience, and the suspicion (‘you must really be X’, ‘you can’t really be Y’), and double discrimination from either side of the binary toward such groups that can mean they have no real sense of community. Read more…

Sexual ethics

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one on sexual ethics.

Are sexual ethics changing? Are forms of behaviour that were frowned on in the past considered acceptable today?

Definitely. Some people have called it the ‘sexualization‘ of culture: the fact that there are changes in what forms of sexual behaviour are seen as acceptable, with a general trend towards more forms of behaivour being acceptable – or even desirable – and a lot more visible sexuality in the media, advertising, the music industry, and the like.

So sexual ethics are changing in the sense that there is more openness to people being sexual and to a variety of sexual practices. However, there is also a shift towards a pressure, or demand, on people to be sexual in certain ways. Now there is quite an expectation that people should want to be sexually desirable, and a sense that being ‘up for it’ is fun, pleasurable and empowering. The negative side of this is that many people are excluded who don’t fit the rather narrow definitions of what is sexually desirable, and others find it hard to tune in to what they want because they are under so much pressure or have picked up on fairly narrow ideas of what is pleasurable.

Changes in sexual attitudes may be considered a value-neutral development, but if they take on forms that are hurtful it’s different matter. Is that happening today?

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The future of gender

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here are my thoughts when asked about the future of gender.

I think we’re at a really complex time in relation to that question. The future I would like to see – and there is some evidence of movement towards it – is one where:

  • Gender isn’t such a defining feature (i.e. we’re only interested in it when it’s actually relevant rather than being the first thing we ask or notice about someone);
  • There is a lot more flexibility in what we regard as being male/masculine or female/feminine – as well as realising that many people don’t fit well into either box;
  • There is an understanding that gender is fluid and can be – and is – expressed differently throughout life (e.g. think about how femininity is expressed by a toddler, a teenager, a middle aged woman and and old woman);
  • We get that gender is complexly biopsychosocial – it has all those elements running through it and woven together – so we stop asking about nature vs. nurture and start respecting people’s experience of their own gender as well as acknowledging just what a major part our social rules about gender roles have on people’s bodies and brains.

However, there seem to be constant pushbacks to more rigid and limited ideas of gender, where women and men are seen as being from different planets, and where masculinity and femninity are narrowly defined in specific ways and there is no room for anything between or beyond these two.

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New talk: Love, sex and gender

All this week the Open University Social Sciences Faculty is running its Student Connections Conference: A range of online talks and discussions on a wide range of topics, accompanied by discussions on facebook, twitter and the OU website.

Yesterday night I did a talk on the ambitious topic of love, sex and gender (in 20 minutes!) which you can watch here.

I was very fortunate to follow a fascinating presentation by OU sociologist, Peter Redman, about one of my great heroes: Alfred Kinsey (who – I recently found out – was born exactly 80 years to the day before me!) You might well want to listen to that as well, as there are some very interesting points indeed about how people study sex and sexuality, and the ways in which assumptions can impact on research, as well as some fascinating historical context. Peter’s talk is available here.

You can also view the student connections conference podmag here.

Today the conference features two talks about the results of the major OU study on long term relationships, Enduring Love. Jacqui Gabb and Janet Fink presented the major findings of the research, and Danielle Pearson talked about specific research on same-sex couples in long term relationships.

Do follow the conference this week as there are many treats still in store.

 

 

Will gay rights and feminist movements please return to your assumptions

Pride season is upon us and I’ve been struck by the tension that still exists across various Pride events around the B and T parts of the LGBT acronym (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans).

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Two friends attended EuroPride to be on a panel about bisexuality. They reported back how they were faced with the usual stereotypes about ‘making your mind up’ and scepticism about the existence of bisexuality. Another friend attended a Pride London event where the words ‘gay’ and ‘homophobia’ were used throughout by speakers, despite Pride London claiming to be an LGBT+ event.

Other friends attended the London DykeMarch, the week before London Pride, and were met with a protest by a group of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) who shouted transphobic abuse at one of the speakers. The speaker in question has written about this here. Whilst we may well have reached a transgender tipping point – and media representation has certainly improved dramatically in the last few years – trans remains a serious point of contention in some feminist movements, and there is also a good deal of scepticism around non-binary genders now that these are receiving media attention.

I think that this trouble around bisexuality for gay/LGBT+ movements, and around trans and non-binary genders for feminist movements, stems from the same place. Recognising this provides a way forward that will not only be more inclusive for B and T people, but will be better for everybody, if we’re brave enough to do it.

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