Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gender and the NYT

So, this is clearly very late in being written, but I think the topic is still relevant - especially after the most current issue of Bitch has more than a few pages on this subject...

This article from way back when in the New York Times was forwarded to me by my friend Sass a few weeks ago. Sass, our friend Sarah, and myself engaged in a long email-conversation about the visibility of gender non-conforming women versus the agonizing disgust that such poor coverage brings.

Upon reading the very first pages I thought that the author had some incredibly valid points around the majority of assimilatory gay men and their lack of concern for non-cute male issues, i.e. women's rights, queer woman's liberation etc. It's so rare to see any real insight into queer culture in mainstream press, that I was genuinely surprised to see an actual truth as opposed to a truth that journalists come to after watching back to back episodes of The L Word.

Specifically, this thought came after a weekend of volunteering for The Vagina Monologues where I argued at length with cisgender male youth volunteers who refused to watch the show. I tried talking to them about solidarity - so many of them have straight female friends who care about gay rights, isn't it only a matter of respect to care about issues pertaining to women too? No avail. I argued with them on an ego level: what if they have a male partner who transitions to female, or if they fall for a trans man? What if, even though they identify as gay now, they fall for a woman later in life? No avail. On a basic knowledge is power level...aren't you at least interested in learning how more than half the world experiences sexism and misogyny?

What most appalled me was trying to justify a play that I truly dislike. I have seen so many versions of The Vagina Monologues and while I see an respect the empowerment so many women with vaginas might feel from the play...I have to agree with articles like this one and this one and this one that the play reifies many identity markers that so many women of various identities are fighting against. Yet for these young men, I knew seeing the play could still have the impact I felt when i first heard them so many years ago.

Anyway, to return to Rachel Maddow...I initially thought a conversation about lesbian invisibility was long overdue, and to focus on one of the smartest, savviest and apparently kindest lesbians known internationally was an awesome way to broach the subject! She's not sugarcoated, but Maddow is indeed accessible to many.

But then I read on and saw that apparently lesbians come in two gender identities: butch and femme.

Well. thank goodness, and here I thought that femmes were suffering from invisibility and butches from heterosexism. After all, butch ladies seem to be receiving the same internalized-patriarchal push back these days that they endured in the 80s, and femmes are organizing across the US into amazing collectives around visibility - despite the popular (mis)conception that a certain Showtime show has pushed femme identity into an approved normality. Ask any actual femme, and she'll let you know how femme the cast of that show is. Moreover, its good to know that The New York Times has sanctioned butch-femme and thereby made invisible all other gender identities and possible partnerships (heaven forbid we have a butch butch couple!). I know that queer female identities will never be given a fair day in the pages of the Grey Lady - and I'm not even sure they should have an equal exposure as an exposed culture loses a lot of its meaning and nuance.

So I am lost thinking how amazing to have an honest discussion of gender, and then the repulsion that the article was not well executed. I feel like this constantly with the NYT... they tackle these complicated, relevant subjects: marriage legality in post-transition, the relationships between transmen and lesbians, and gender identity and invisibility in lesbian circles. But...good god! Do it well please! Don't just interview Sally Herschberg and don't draw your lesbian "facts" from pop TV. Where was Joan Nestle in this article? Or the Lesbian Herstory Archives? or Sarah Schulman? Or all the famous lesbians living in NYC who could talk about invisibility and media representation of gender identities!

Well. At least this helps broaden the discussion a bit...I hate feeling "thankful" for bad stories though, as in "i should feel thankful that you cared enough about my community to report on us..." The fact that there wasn't enough concern to do a good job overrules so many feelings of "thankfulness". Like so many ally issues, the NYT can drop lesbians and gender non-conformity in a hot second if they feel like it - there's no survival understood in the coverage. Unlike so many if us, this story can represent an interesting fad, and not a real and consuming aspect of how we understand ourselves.

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