Category Archives: queer issues

New study says bi women are bi because they can’t get a man (and it’s probably bullshit)

Content warning: this post discusses biphobia and sapphophobia

Well well well. I have a confession to make. I only drink from the furry cup because I had a shit education and I’m ugly. I’m not being self-deprecating, there’s science behind it. There’s a study and everything!

Unfortunately, it was a conference presentation, so we don’t have very much to go on in critiquing the study, so a brief summary from what I can glean from the reporting: the study tracked men and women between adolescence and young adulthood, asking them whether they identified as “100% heterosexual”, heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual or 100% homosexual at four different points. Education, physical attractiveness and delaying childbirth were all factors associated with identifying as 100% heterosexual. The author interprets her findings indicate:

“Women who are initially successful in partnering with men, as is more traditionally expected, may never explore their attraction to other women. However, women with the same sexual attractions, but less favorable heterosexual options might have greater opportunity to experiment with same-sex partners.”

[…]

“I do not think that women are strategically selecting an advantageous sexual identity or that they can ‘choose’ whether they find men, women, or both sexually attractive. Rather, social context and romantic experience might influence how they perceive and label their sexual identity.”

One doesn’t have to read much between the lines to see the implication that the less attractive, less educated of us have trouble getting a man so might turn towards just being gals being pals.

While I don’t have much to go on here, there’s a couple of holes in what’s reported which means I have a lot to query on this study.

The causality could go the other way. Hetero women are at an advantage. The world likes them a lot better than us scuzzy queers. Is it any wonder that straight women, therefore, are considered more physically attractive, and get better educational opportunities, and can choose when they have kids? LGBT people have poor health outcomes, which isn’t usually conducive getting an education or looking sexy. Bisexuals have the worst health of all. So, these advantages for straight women might not be because they’re lucky, but because they’re straight. It’s their straightness that causes their better education, attractiveness and reproductive choices, not their better education, attractiveness and reproductive choices causing their straightness. To me, it seems pretty fucking obvious that the causality would go that way round. Anyway, this is all assuming that this was all measured pretty well. You see…

Physical attractiveness is a pretty difficult thing to measure. Bluntly put, there’s two ways to measure physical attractiveness. Firstly, you ask people how attractive they think they are. Given that living under stigma in a society that tells them they’re disgusting has pretty dire consequences on self-esteem (especially if they try to hide it rather than coming out young) it wouldn’t exactly be surprising if they were reporting themselves less physically attractive than the straight women. The other way you can measure physical attractiveness is show their picture to a panel and ask the panel to rate how hot they are. This is, obviously, highly affected by the panel, and maybe things like short hair and tattoos and not meticulously depilating every inch of your body because you’re less interested in what men think might affect the judgment–in other words, because straight women only want to go for men, perhaps they’re rated as more attractive under patriarchal beauty standards because they’re more likely to have to live up to them.

Sexual orientation is also fucking difficult to measure. Just last week, we had this conversation, didn’t we? Just giving people a list of options might not exactly result in covering the diversity of their experience, their attraction, and heck, their own identity. This probably explains better why men’s sexual orientations didn’t change so much as women’s–not because men’s sexual orientation is fixed and immutable while women’s is not, but because it’s a different kind of stigma that men face, and one which does not allow for anything to change.

It’s not exactly a long time between adolescence and young adulthood. You probably don’t have it figured out just yet. I am thirty now, and I still haven’t figured myself out, except acknowledging that I am a work in progress and I probably always will be. Who knows where these people will shift to later in life: if they do shift. I’m not convinced one can draw conclusions based on a sample over a very short period of time.

It’s a conference presentation. That’s very different to a peer-reviewed paper. At conferences, what often happens is preliminary findings are presented. Sometimes they go on to be published, sometimes they don’t. In fact, a whopping 91% of the time, they don’t. So, this could be something crappy which will be stuck away in a desk drawer, maybe to be trotted out occasionally in a popular science book as though it’s proper science.

All this study does is reinforce the general quite icky stereotypes about bi women, and the reporting is downright irresponsible. It’s sad, because from the data, it looks like there’s some interesting stuff going on about shifting sexual identities: stuff that might warrant further examination if the interpretation weren’t so flawed.


If 43% of young people aren’t straight or gay, why do only 2% identify as bi?

Content warning: this post discusses biphobia and lesbophobia

A YouGov poll was published the other day which revealed that 43% of 18-24 year olds don’t identify as completely straight, or completely gay, with pretty substantial chunks of other generations also being somewhere in the middle on the Kinsey scale (a third of 25-39 year olds identify this way; heck, even 21% of 60+ year olds don’t identify as exclusively straight or gay). Nowhere in the reporting did it mention how many people identified as bisexuals, preferring to focus on heteros and gay and lesbian people.

In fact, having a look at the full dataset revealed only 2% of people surveyed identified as bi. This held up for the 18-24 year old demographic, and was pretty much the same for most generations, although the 60+s had half that, and my generation, the 25-39 year olds had double the proportion of bisexuals than the younger generation, with a still fucking titchy 4% identifying as bi.

So what gives? Why are there so few bisexuals, despite a whopping 35% of hetero-identified people thinking they might have sex with someone of the same sex when it came down to it? Why so few bisexuals when so many aren’t identifying as exclusively straight or gay?

First and foremost, I don’t think it’s a product of the tumblr-generation-made-up-sexualities bullshit line that usually gets trotted out when queer folk come up with new words which better fit their sexualities. I don’t think this because of the absolutely tiny proportions who would describe their sexuality as something “other” than heterosexual, gay or lesbian, or bisexual. Only 2% of young people chose “other”, and even smaller proportions of the older generations. So, whatever’s going on, it’s got nothing to do with having the right words to express how they feel.

Maybe it’s a gender thing, to do with how women’s sexuality is constructed. That’s a definite possibility. Placing themselves on the Kinsey scale, 76% of women (compared to 68% of men) placed themselves at “completely heterosexual”. Despite this, following up with straight-identified women revealed only 46% would rule out ever being attracted to another woman and only half would rule out sex or a relationship with another woman. This pattern was not the same for men, where roughly the same numbers who identified as het would rule these things out. Something doesn’t quite add up here, and I suspect that it’s down to the fact heteropatriarchy doesn’t really believe sex and attraction between women exists–or if it does, it doesn’t count. It’s just gals being pals. So, women’s heterosexual identity is not at all threatened by the fact they could see themselves fancying other women and having sex with them and growing old together in the same bed.

That might account for some of it. Some of it. But there’s still a hell of a lot of people who fit the definition of bi, but do not apply it to themselves. This is probably because of the fact that bisexuals don’t exist. Ask a straight-identified person, and they’ll probably say bisexuals are actually gays who aren’t out of the closet yet. Ask a gay-identified person, and they’ll also probably say bisexuals are actually gays who aren’t out of the closet yet (unless they’re straights trying to infiltrate queer spaces). You might also get the standard grumble about tumblr-generation-made-up-sexualities–despite the fact the word “bisexual” was coined at the same time as “heterosexual” and “homosexual”.

I can barely think of an instance where I have heard the word “bisexual” applied to a fictional character: um, maybe Thirteen in House? Possibly the slutty one in Coupling, I think they mentioned she was pretending to be bisexual for attention? Did anyone actually outright say that Tick in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was bi? I feel, like, 90% sure that maybe the word came up there? Like, seriously, please leave a comment below if you can think of characters to whom the word “bisexual” is actually, canonically applied, because I am desperately struggling to think of them. Yes, we’re finally getting to see characters who fuck people of any gender, who love people of any gender, who experience attraction… but the word just doesn’t come up.

Because of this invisibility, there’s still a lot of confusion over what being bisexual even means, no doubt obfuscated a lot by structural biphobia (e.g. the myth that bisexuality reinforces the gender binary, the myth that you have to fancy both equally, the stigma attached to the label). Given the invisibility (and the often poor representation that comes up when it’s actually applied), the myths and stigmas can run free, making people reticent to wear a label that actually fits. People don’t feel like they’re “bi enough” to wear it, or they think wearing it means they are upholding an oppressive binary, or they think it makes them gross plague rats. And I can totally see why this means one might prefer no label to one which monosexuals–straights and gay people alike–have turned into a dirty word.

And of course “bi” isn’t a dirty word. It’s an innocuous label, and one which would fit a pretty sizeable proportion of the population if there wasn’t all the stigma surrounding it.

Update, about five hours after posting this: I confused myself, wondering if I myself was right to describe myself as bi. And then I decided I don’t give a flying fuck, and I am bi. You can see me waffling to myself here. tl;dr my goodness sexuality and identity is ~hard~


In which I review a book that I read: Trans, by Juliet Jacques

Content warning: this post mentions transmisogyny and misogyny

I was recently sent a copy of a book I’ve been itching to read: Trans, a memoir written by Juliet Jacques, a journalist and all-round interesting person who I’ve had the privilege of meeting a couple of times, and always found myself wishing I knew her better. Now, in a way, I do.

It’s hard to explain what sort of book Trans is, because at face value it’s a memoir of her life before and during transition, in reality it’s far more than that. Trans is a book about art and music and football and journalism. Trans is a political exposition of the prospect of a life of shit jobs and no money, the path that our generation find ourselves treading. Trans is an exploration of the intersections of class and misogyny and transphobia, the political springing from the personal. Trans is a reflective examination of the benefits and pitfall that come with having a platform. Trans is a critique of its own form.

The thing that makes Trans such a brilliant book is that it whets the appetite, leaving the reader with a desire to know more, and gently signposting where you can find it. I have found my reading list for trans and feminist theory grow enormously, as well a whole bunch of films I just need to watch, and a playlist of bands I should probably listen to.

Perhaps because of this constant state of piqued interest, I found myself disappointed when the book ended: it ends abruptly, a pointed choice on the part of the author, for as she says in the epilogue (a conversation with author Sheila Heti), “it really was that anticlimactic” to be discharged from the Gender Identity Clinic to go back to work at an admin job in the same hospital. Yet this is entirely consistent with the style of the book: glimpses of moments, a continuity emerging from a discontinuity. Nothing is sudden, and yet everything is sudden.

I could write loads on this, but Juliet says everything much better than I ever could, so I’ll just say this: read this book. There’s something in it for everyone, and it explains complex political issues accessibly. Juliet writes vibrantly and engagingly, and highly evocatively. I said at the start that she’s an interesting person, and this comes through in her writing. She’s cool, with great taste in music and art–although I’m not so sure about her choice of football club! Everything is presented in bite-sized chunks, making such a deep book nonetheless the kind of thing you can dip into during a short bus journey or on the toilet, or tear through during your commute or on holiday. So, read it. I guarantee you’ll like it.

 


On Pluto and planethood: or, how science isn’t very good at classification

As I write, New Horizons is within celestial spitting distance of Pluto. When the craft was launched in 2006, Pluto was a planet. It isn’t any more.

Later in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), decided to finally get their shit together and define what a planet actually was. You see, in the run-up to 2006, improvements in observation methods had led to the discovery of what is scientifically known as a fucking fuckload of objects, at least one of which was more massive than Pluto. This would not do, because with each new discovery, it had been possible to say it wasn’t a planet because it was smaller than Pluto (pleasingly, the object more massive than Pluto was named Eris, after the goddess of fucking shit up and ruining everyone’s day). And so the IAU decided to finally figure out what the hell comprised a planet, and couldn’t manage a definition that left you with My Very Easy Method Just Shows Us Nine Planets.

And so, Pluto was stripped of its planetary status, because it only met two out of the three criteria they’d settled on for planethood: yes, Pluto orbited the Sun and was massive enough to be approximately round, but unfortunately for poor old Pluto, it didn’t meet the third criteria–clearing the neighbourhood of its orbit (i.e. there’s other stuff around where Pluto orbits).

This isn’t the first time a planet has been demoted. A little over 200 years ago, it was hypothesised that there was a small planet between Mars and Jupiter, to account for the relatively large gap between the two planets. They found the hypothesised planet in 1801 (then they lost it, then they found it again, but that’s a different story entirely). They named it after the goddess of agriculture, gave it a symbol and everything. Just a year later, another object in the vicinity was found… and then another, then another, and then basically they had a fucking fuckload of the fucking things. It was eventually decided that we would call these small objects orbiting between Mars and Jupiter the asteroids, and they were a different kettle of fish to the planets.

Funnily enough, with the 2006 definition of planets and dwarf planets, Ceres has been sort-of-promoted, to occupy the same dwarf planet class as Pluto. Good for it, I suppose.

The 2006 definition of planethood has been criticised, because of the “clearing the neighbourhood of its orbit” criteria, and not just because it means Pluto is no longer a planet, which kind of makes everything we learned at school about the nine planets a fiction (or something). The thing is, it also means that Earth isn’t a planet, because we have Cruithne, and Jupiter isn’t because of its trojans, and Neptune isn’t a planet either because of its army of plutinos… turns out that this “clearing the neighbourhood” gig is not particularly well-defined either, so if I fancied, I could demote that oversized shitlord Jupiter, with its more moons than it has any business having and its smug red spot.

It’s worth noting at this juncture that while the science upon which the “clearing the neighbourhood of its orbit” is based doesn’t deplanet Earth, Jupiter and Neptune, the wording of the definition adopted by the IAU doesStern and Levinson wrote a discussion paper, laying out a proposed new scheme which contained size criteria for a planet–small enough to have never ignited a fusion reaction, but big enough to be roundish. As well as this, they suggested dividing “uberplanets” from “unterplanets” by their ability to be gravitationally dominant. This is not simply clearing the neighbourhood of everything: a gravitational interaction is acceptable. The paper is an interesting, and reasonably accessible one, and well worth a read as it outlines a lot of the problems with approaches to defining a planet. It’s assumed that the IAU’s neighbourhood clearance criterion was based on Stern and Levinson’s work, although Alan Stern himself points out that it’s a bit of a shitty criterion and excludes literally half the planets.

So, in short, what happened was we started out with no definition of a planet: it was something we just knew when we saw one. And now, we have a definition of a planet, and it’s pretty much just a manifestation of what feelings we have about planets, which Alan Stern described as “sloppy science and it would never pass peer review”.

That’s a thing with the science of categorisation, though. For the most part, it simply reflects what prejudices and constructions we have about whatever is being categorised, because it’s humans doing the categorising. It is something which needs to be undertaken with a degree of reflexivity. A lot of the time, we can pootle on for years lumping and splitting things into various categories, only for that to be thrown into disarray when new information emerges (take, for example, the advent of DNA analysis, and how that has moved a lot of animals around the tree of life). With new information, we tend to redefine based on what we already think.

Some areas are more behind than others. For example, if we defined planets in the same way we considered biological sex, we’d only count the five or six planets we can see with the naked eye.

I expect that within my lifetime, I will see the definition of “planet” changed once or twice more, to incorporate new discoveries, but, more than that, to maintain a comfortable number of planets that falls within Miller’s Magic Number: I suspect this is the ultimate motivation for creating a reductive approach to categorisation.

So, is Pluto a planet, or is it not a planet? Does it really matter? I consider it so, not due to any scientific criteria–although I am sure I could rustle up a definition. All right, fine, fuck it. A planet should have an atmosphere which isn’t predominatly just particles flying at it from the Sun. This makes Pluto a planet (it has an atmosphere and literally as I write this a spaceship is studying it!), but it makes Mercury not a planet since it doesn’t fit this criterion; which is fine, because fuck Geminis, they don’t need a ruling planet, the two-faced bastards.

This, then, is the challenge in classification, categorisation, and building definitions, and similar problems pop up everywhere. Remember this, when you see definitions presented, and categories built by scientists. Remember it, and question it–what do they stand to gain, or preserve?

__

A couple of years after Pluto got demoted, I was doing my PhD (I never finished). My subject matter involved classification and categorisation, and I turned to the natural sciences to have a look at how they did stuff. I suppose, in its own way, this post is the reinterpretation of the findings of the literature review I published; this is something which lurked in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really have the courage to say at the time, because it would put my work on a pretty shaky footing from the off. I needed to believe that classification systems had some sort of “objectivity” to them. I might have nodded in Borges’s direction then, but now I think I’m basically with him.


I won’t be going to Pride tomorrow

Content note: this post discusses homophobia, transphobia and biphobia

Tomorrow sees London’s Pride parade, supposedly a celebration of how brilliant things are. Each year, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth, because things are not great. They really, really aren’t, unless you’re one of the lucky ones who yell over the voices that should be heard and dominate our movement.

On a personal level, I wouldn’t feel safe attending the event with either of my partners. For a supposedly inclusive space, Pride in London is peculiarly intolerant of anybody but monosexuals and cis people. Marchers yell “breeders” at bi people, with many overtly expressing that they thing bi people shouldn’t be there.

And then there’s the transphobia, which they say they’ve cleared up, but it doesn’t look like it has. Perhaps “toiletgate”–transmisogyistic barring of trans women from accessing toilet facilities–has been cleared up. but a lot of the trans women I know don’t want to be the guinea pigs in finding this out.

So, even if I went, my friends and partners wouldn’t be there, so what’s the fucking point?

It seems as though a schism is becoming more visible than ever in our community. On one side are the marginalised, the oppressed. On the other are those who don’t give a fuck. This issue was perhaps exemplified in this week’s intervention by Jennicet Gutierrez, and the reaction to it.

Gutierrez is a trans woman and undocumented migrant. At a White House dinner, set up to circlejerk about how very good on LGBT rights Barack Obama is, Gutierrez shouted out truths. She pointed out the violences occurring against LGBT migrants, how they were being detained and deported, facing sexual and physical violence, by Obama’s very own administration. As reward, she was shouted down by the hypocrite she was trying to address, and hauled away by the Secret Service. The audience, who were ostensibly comprised of LGBT people, booed her and showed happiness at her silencing.

Here’s what Gutierrez wanted to say. Read her words, and digest them.

We have little to celebrate, all things considered. Yes, we can get married, and yes, in the US a breakthrough was made where now openly gay people can be killed in combat. Yet these are hardly victories when our siblings are homeless, facing violence, in poverty, in fear.

London’s Pride events ignore all of this. London’s Pride events actively march perpetrators of the violences we face through our streets. There was protest about UKIP marching, but so many more of the marchers are our enemies. The police, Tories, and countless corporations. If you can’t see why it’s inappropriate that they’re there, then you are out of touch with the very real violences which face a lot of us.

We have a lot of work to do, and the Pride parade is like a rainbow flag pinned to a wall covered in cracks. The issues are still there, but it distracts from them, giving the cishet population a feeling of warm fuzzies. Too many LGB people are complicit in distracting from the fights yet to be won: the fights which are barely being fought.

So no, I’m not going, because I know there’s nothing to celebrate, and nothing to be won by being there.


In which I review a book that I read: Tiny Pieces of Skull

Content note: This post touches on transmisogyny, rape and sex work, and contains spoilers for Tiny Pieces of Skull.

Roz Kaveney’s at-least-partially-autobiographical novel, Tiny Pieces Of Skull: Or, A Lesson In Manners, was a long time coming. It was mostly written close to the time it was set, in the late 70s, but did not see the light of day until now. Its publication in the present day, perhaps, marks a shift in attitudes creating the social conditions where such a book actually can be published.

Tiny Pieces Of Skull follows Annabelle, a recently-transitioned trans woman, through a pretty eventful period of her life in London and Chicago, including surgery, sex work, rape, drugs and crimes. With themes like this, one would expect a moralistic lecture, or at the very least a misery memoir, yet the book is anything but.

At its heart, Tiny Pieces Of Skull is a book about women and their complex inner lives. It is a story of learning and growth, and a tale of community, the little spaces carved out by the characters in a world that is against them. Terrible things happen to the characters, and it is made all the more shocking by how completely normal this is treated. Annabelle quickly understands the daily battle of survival, and it swiftly becomes almost like background noise. The title quite adequately portrays the content of the novel: Tiny Pieces Of Skull is a starkly violent phrase reflecting the 70s Chicago underground, while A Lesson In Manners describes Annabelle’s coping strategy: using her wits and charm.

Each event in the novel could form fifty thousand words in and of itself, and yet TPoS tears through everything at an alarming pace. We are barely given time to react to and process one thing, when something else happens. Blink, and you might miss something deeply important. Like the protagonist, we must adapt quickly and never get too comfortable.

While TPoS may be mostly thirty years old, I was struck by how much is still relevant to discussions happening today. Its unflinching yet non-judgmental attitudes towards being trans and being a sex worker is a masterclass in writing trans and sex worker characters: their circumstances are important, and yet it is not these things that define them–they are rounded people outside of this. While the word “trans” does not even feature in the novel, it is abundantly apparent that this shapes the characters’ experiences. Instead, the word “sister” is used, because that’s what TPoS is about: sisterhood.

Like with blood sisters, there are bonds between the women, even when they absolutely detest each other. They gossip, they bitch, they cut up faces and yet they are united against external threats: cis men–rapists and the police. They come through for one another in the face of fundamentalist Christians and men who prey on vulnerable women.

While many of the specifics in TPoS have changed over time: the spectre of the AIDS epidemic had yet to rear its head at the time it is set, so it is therefore not a threat to the characters, for example, it is still highly relevant to all women. The villains–cis men with power–remain the same to women of all circumstances even today, yet we must acknowledge that still trans women and sex workers are more at risk from this brutality.

It’s the sort of short novel you can tear through in an afternoon, but it will stay with you. Personally, I’m planning on reading it again pretty damn soon.


Solidarity with Aderonke Apata

Content note: This post discusses lesbophobia and treatment of migrant women

Aderonke Apata is a lesbian woman who was born in Nigeria. There, she faced absolute horrors. She was tortured by police, three members of her family were murdered, her girlfriend of 20 years was murdered. Aderonke herself was sentenced to death by stoning by a Sharia court, and due to a homophobic law passed in Nigeria, she faces 14 years in prison if she returns. What happened to Aderonke–and what could happen to her–happened because she is a lesbian woman in a world that would rather lesbian women were dead.

Over here in the UK, the Home Office too would rather send Aderonke to face–at the very least–prison and the very real threat of being killed. They’ve refused to grant Aderonke asylum, a decision which Aderonke is challenging. They refused, even after Aderonke was forced into all sorts of degrading things to “prove” she is a lesbian, such as submitting a DVD and intimate photos of her sex life.

Their reason? Aderonke has children, and had previously been in heterosexual relationships. They are playing on lesbophobic tropes to try to send this vulnerable woman into danger, because they know that society at large thinks horrible things about queer women.

The issue of “provability” is in and of itself a lesbophobic trope. Under heterosexual patriarchy, sex doesn’t actually count unless a man is involved. In terms of “proving” that she is gay, Aderonke must fight a losing battle, because she is trying to battle against a world that doesn’t believe in lesbians anyway.

Aderonke’s relationships with men, many years ago, are unduly weighted as her “real” relationships, negating her true identity as a lesbian and devaluing her relationships with women.

Unfortunately, the definition of “lesbian” is kind of baffling to most people who aren’t queer women who have given this some thought. There is a demand for a “gold star”, for lesbian women to have never even kissed a man, let alone had sex with one. “You can’t be a heterosexual one day and a lesbian the next day. Just as you can’t change your race,” said the barrister against Aderonke, summing up this ridiculous societal attitude pretty fucking well, by accident.

Under heterosexual patriarchy, women are expected to have sex with men. Wanting that is presented as a norm, a default. A hell of a lot of lesbians have had sex and relationships with men, simply because it is expected (and often, because men feel entitled). When there’s a norm presented, most people will at least have a pop at living the normative way. This is even the case in countries where homophobia is nominally, legally Not A Thing, the sort of countries where gays can marry.

The “gold star” drivel has sadly been internalised by some lesbians. It’s used to devalue lesbians and queer women who haven’t managed to figure it all out early, or those of us who are bi. The myth of the gold star is something we desperately need to destroy.

The other thing, of course, that needs smashing, is the idea lesbians are incapable of reproduction. That’s really not the case. A lesbian couple can reproduce all by themselves.

The sad thing in regard to Aderonke’s case is this is not abnormal for the Home Office. The Home Office is where misogyny, homophobia and racism come together to crush women like Aderonke. Ultimately, we’ll stop seeing cases like Aderonke’s only after we have ground that repulsive institution and the ideologies that underpin it into dust.

But in the meantime, there’s some things you can do to help and support Aderonke. You can sign a petition. You can follow the Facebook page for updates about actions in the meatspace and what’s going on with her case. And finally, there’s this beautiful photo project for queer women and femmes to show solidarity. Please help Aderonke, and help women like her by rejecting the structural lesbophobia and racism coming wafting out of the Home Office.

 


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