Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why Write About Gender and Sexuality?

Here's the situation: A year and a half ago I finished my first go at writing a book. How it might get published was unclear at that point, but I deliberately set the manuscript aside as I continued to pursue publication and I also turned to other forms and focuses of writing. I avoided committing to any new big projects but engaged in reading, experimentation, play, and work on smaller pieces with the intent of leading towards new big stuff eventually. One of the longstanding areas of interest that I decided to focus on was gender and sexuality, with particular interests within that but also a broad openness to following it wherever it might lead. Of the areas of focus that I came up with, this was perhaps the one that was least clearly defined in my mind when that interval of waiting and smaller projects came to an abrupt end in early spring of this year -- I signed a contract with a publisher and began to work furiously for around six months to split the book in two, cut extensively, and otherwise reorganize the material.

As I wrote recently, that process ended at the end of August, and with less than a week of breathing room between I've started an MA, notwithstanding my reservations about the academy as a site for doing intellectual work. Part of the point of grad school for me is to return to the centres of interest I identified last year and, through the reading and writing that school will require, to encourage the vague notions for future writing projects that had begun to coalesce last year to crystallize.

The tricky part, though, is that six months of working intensively on a project that, while not unrelated to gender and sexuality, was already clearly defined and well advanced, has meant that the tentative gelling, the amorphous maybe-what-ifs, the gently winding together of strands of possibility and meaning, have in large part dissolved. And here I sit, enrolled in (among other things) a course that focuses on gender and sexuality and that will bring a lovely list of readings and, I'm sure, a challenging series of discussions before me in the next few months. I will have not only opportunity to read and think and write about gender and sexuality, but I will be under an injunction to do so. And my interest in all of it is as strong as ever. But as I contemplate what I might write about, I reach for the tentative shape of meaning and interest that I had put together last year as a way to ground and guide my work in the course and most particularly to guide my writing -- I am very aware of the potential of "Oh, that's neat!" to dissipate my efforts and get in the way of what I want to accomplish with my return to school -- and it isn't there, or at least it isn't there in the form I wish.

So setting aside for the moment any concern for whether any of this might be realized by academic writing, the question is, why am I interested in reading and thinking and writing about gender and seuxality? What do I want to accomplish? What do I want it to lead to? What really matters to me when it comes to gender and sexuality?

When I try to answer those questions, I run fairly promptly into the ways in which my answers are all bound up in silences and shame. This is true for many of us, I think -- sexuality is by definition an incredibly intimate facet of life, and even the aspects of gender that are not as directly about sexuality are also often felt at their keenest in spaces that are heavily loaded with emotional intensity, such as family. And for me personally, silence and shame were woven through the ways that I learned how to live in the world via my family of origin, even when it comes to things that are much less core to self than gender and sexuality, but especially there. The erratic grip of this inability to speak is, in fact, central to why writing about gender and sexuality matters to me; it also makes it rather difficult at times. I write to not be silenced and not be silent, and I write to figure out how to write and to speak and to act to not be silenced and silent.

With that in mind, I want to write about these things because I want to think through acting in the world. It's not just abstract pondering, it is thinking about the living of life and about creating social change.

Given that I have been born largely into a place of privilege -- masculine and many other flavours -- how should I act in the world? How should I act as a parent? As a partner? As someone on a journey to overcome the massive constraints on desire I've felt all my life, but who recognizes that even before the first spark I am already in relation with those whom I might desire in ways that are, in many different senses, complicated and difficult and troubling? As a participant in little groups that dream of being part of big movements, that are relentlessly organized in gendered ways and that sometimes speak and think and act against gender (and other sorts of) oppression but that all too often are swept along in how-things-are, how should I act? As someone who sees building connections among people as a basic building block of struggle and who sees gendered social relations of power as one important barrier to that work, and moreover who experiences various manifestations of masculinity and shame as central personal barriers to forming connections, how should I act?

As I've done things and thought about them and read things and thought about them and done more things and thought about them over the last fifteen years, I've come to favour a way of thinking about social change that is about beginning from yourself and then building connections with others to radiate outwards into the world. From what I have seen, this model is most powerfully and effectively elaborated and acted upon by people who experience significant oppression. Moreover, even a cursory look at social movements, perhaps most relevantly the movements of the New Left and later that explicitly ground themselves in experience in particular ways, shows that applying something like this model tends to go rather quickly awry precisely in those areas in which a given person or group experiences privilege. Is it impossible? Does it, rather, require a radically different way of relating to experience, or of relating experience to analysis and action? What alternatives do we have? How do I, as someone who experiences white masculinity, begin from myself and from concern for my own liberation but also deep listening and connectedness with others and a commitment to collective liberation? Versions of these questions are relevant not just to "I" but to the various levels of "we" which I am or aspire to be a part of.

Moreover, how do I deal with the fact that it is all more complicated than I assumed when I first began to think deliberately and in consciously political ways about acting in the world? Though it certainly has its challenges, there is deceptive apparent simplicity to acting in the world from a political sensibility like mine when you're a middle-class white guy. A certain kind of knee-jerk self-effacement makes, or appears to make, a good first approximation of a plan for acting -- be quiet, listen, don't take up too much space, play well with others, foreground complicity, admit fault. It isn't necessarily easy but it is straightforward, especially when such practices are somewhat consistent with your personality anyway. And I still don't think that is such a bad place for middle-class white guys to begin. But it can't be more than a temporary refuge in the absence of significant enrichment and complication. Part of this approach to social change (and living) is valuing full presence. You must treat others as whole people and strive for social relations that value everyone as whole people, and it is hard to imagine that without striving to be present as a whole person yourself. Knee-jerk self-effacement and rigid, rule-based shoulding get in the way of that, often in ways that just lead you into other kinds of oppressive behaviours. Moreover, I've found that this starting place has made it easier, at least in certain respects, for me to talk about my experiences of privilege and about the ways that I unfairly gain than to talk about and make real, grounded political sense of the ways I don't. Take masculinity -- it is privileging but it is also damaging, and even as we are privileged by it we are damaged by it too. Figuring out how to admit that, how to talk about it, how to build relationships and groups and movements in the face of it, is a much trickier proposition than a unidimensional admission of privilege. (One facet of dominant masculinities makes it difficult to admit vulnerability, after all.) And when it comes to sexuality and to relationships of which it is a part -- well, I continue to wrestle with the ways in which my journey has brought me to a place that is no less infused with all of the privileges that shape the rest of my life but that also include practices and inclinations and spaces and moments that are also distinctly not-so-privileged in specific respects. Dealing with all of that complexity -- figuring it out personally, figuring it out politically, figuring out how to use it as a basis for building connections and making change -- is why I want to write about gender and sexuality.

I'm not going to try to figure out right now if or how any of this might be accomplished through academic writing. But I hope that having written this will help me keep connected with my underlying motivations as I figure some of that out.


Red Jenny said...

This is very interesting to me as I am trying to understand and deal with some similar questions. Growing up poor with a single mom, I certainly did not see myself as having a position of privilege but now I'm an educated, middle class white woman and also more aware. My social mobility was certainly facilitated by my whiteness. I study communities that are generally underprivileged and marginalized and I too start with what you call "knee jerk self- effacement" (perfect description). I wonder sometimes whether this comes from lack of confidence and what could be described as a history of having a lack of power (largely because of being female in relationships with very dominant males).

I worry constantly that I'm doing the wrong research project - who needs another white person making a career off of studying a marginalized community? Then again, the research isn't getting done and it could be very important. And would it be better for me to study white canadians, who already have hundreds of books written about them?

p.s. one of my main interests is the history of masculinity. Not sure why as a woman I'm so interested in it, but it really really draws me in. Are you reading any historical works in your class/

Scott said...

Lack of confidence may play into it, but I think there's more to it as well...for me, anyway.

No, I don't think we're reading anything quite like that...I mean, Foucault's History of Sexuality at some point in the middle of the course, and then towards the end a newer book that takes a genealogical approach to looking at sexual and racial oppression in the U.S. over time, but I'm not sure that's quite what you mean. Most of the readings are theory of one sort or another, though I think kind of a quirky cross-section of theory for a course with this focus.

I don't have a lot of space for extracurricular reading at the moment, but for future reference do you have any favourites when it comes to the history of masculinity?

Red Jenny said...

Haha I can't believe this, but I'm envious of you. I miss coursework, and new books, and classrooms in which to discuss the stuff, and term papers, and... My first instinct is to ask you for your reading list and to find out your impressions of some of the stuff you are reading. I feel so uninspired in my research right now!! The thought of a shiny new reading list is exciting. I hope you will have time to share some of your reflections in your blog! I always enjoy your book reviews.

ps most of the reading I've done has been in terms of imperial masculinities (eg Sinha Colonial Masculinities, Elizabeth Vibert, Bederman Manliness and Civilization. I did a project on hunting that was so fascinating

Scott said...


Well, if you really want, I'd be happy to share the reading list with you. I do hope to grab time to do some book reviews, but we'll have to see how things play out. And I'll file away those titles for later!