Generalizing about social movements
The other week I saw a talk by Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity!, and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. She also has a super sweet blog.
This particular talk was based on Excluded, which is about the
way that minority movements exclude other minorities. Feminists have a
history of excluding lesbians. The gay movement has a history of
excluding women. Both of those movements have a history of excluding
people of color. And then moving on from that, feminists have a poor
track record with transgender people, gay/lesbian people have a poor
track record with bisexuals, and so on and so on.
Serano draws from her personal experience as a bisexual femme tomboy
transsexual woman. Since she's part of several different groups which
have been excluded, she hopes to make some general theories about how
the exclusion operates, and how to combat it.
totally in favor of this conversation, since it's something I often talk
about myself. I started out as an atheist activist, and then became an
asexual activist, and I've found it very interesting to compare and
contrast. However, I'm a little less optimistic about making broad
generalizations, because it seems to me that bisexuality, transgender,
and femme issues, despite being very different, are basically nextdoor
neighbors. Atheism isn't even on the same block. And what happens when
we consider other minority groups, such as poor people, criminals,
people attracted to minors, or people in poor countries?
example, one strategy Julia Serano advocated was unification.
Feminists thought gender was everything and ignored LG issues, and LG
activists thought sexual orientation was everything and ignored women's
issues. If the movements had been more unified, they would have avoided
this problem. But should every pair of issues be unified, just because
some people are affected by both problems? What about the
disadvantages of unification, such as when a broader umbrella causes
more group-specific issues to get lost?
This is not to
say that we shouldn't try to make general theories. I think even when
these ideas turn out to be wrong, they don't cause much harm, and
instead lead to lovely discussions.
Marked and invisible groups
Serano presented at least one idea that I thought might be widely
applicable. She proposed the idea of a "marked group" vs an "unmarked
group". For instance, transgender people are marked, and people who are
not transgender are just considered "normal". When a group is marked,
they are "sticky", in that stereotypes, assumptions, and everything tend
to stick to that group. When a group is unmarked, we don't think of
them as a unified group at all.
Thus, the term
"cisgender", to label people who aren't transgender. Now, if we want,
we can think of cisgender people as a marked group of their own,
removing some of the conceptual disparity between cis and trans people.
Of course, trans people remain as the marked group, and a minor change
in language can only do so much to counteract that.
why I think the idea of a marked group is generalizable: It even
applies to careers. I'm a physicist, and that marks me as different in
many contexts. People tend to assume that I know all about cosmology
and want to talk about it. People assume I'm really smart and that I
cultivate a secular spirituality. Of course, this is not a very strong
marking, and the assumptions people make aren't particularly bad ones.
But it's easy to see how the same processes can go wrong when a group is
more strongly marked, and the assumptions more negative.
another group, asexuals. Are asexuals marked the way that transgender
people are? For the most part, asexuals are invisible, which is like
the polar opposite of marked.
On her blog, Julia Serano has discussed the way that activist language changes over time,
primarily so that people can avoid being stuck with "bad" words.
Serano imagines that once the groups are no longer marginalized, the
language will stop changing so quickly. This stands in contrast with
asexual language, which seems to change radically every five years.
Asexual language does not develop to replace bad words. Instead,
people coin words to describe experiences that they feel people haven't
talked about enough.
In a way, asexuals are voluntarily marking
themselves, and marking their various experiences. This is not without
its disadvantages. It may lead to stereotyping. Perhaps one day it
will allow a more coherent anti-asexual movement. But these are still
preferable to invisibility and obscurity.
Serano has also talked about the way that activist movements change strategies over time in response to the changing context. What's adaptive in one generation can be maladaptive in another. She recommends embracing ambivalence--"recognizing that certain ideas or objects may simultaneously posses both
good and bad qualities, especially depending upon the context in which they
occur." I suggest that we should also embrace ambivalence with respect to being marked or unmarked.