Archives for category: Embodied Specificities

Throughout his book, “Imagining Transgender,” David Valentine takes the reader on his journey to find the meaning of the word “transgender.” Whether one enjoys his style of doing so, his attempt to understand a category is interesting. While it makes sense to further explore a category such as “transgender” because there are various institutional benefits and implications, it would nonetheless be just as fruitful a pursuit to begin to “imagine heterosexuality.”

Of course, the “heterosexual culture” is, in a way, being constantly studied since it almost exclusively appears in the media and in pop culture. But, using Valentine’s lens on this phenomenon too could be informative, and is certain to be entertaining.

As soon as he realizes that “transgender” needs to be examined as a category, Valentine goes to various queer-populated places. Now, where could one go to do the same research on straight people? Hmmm… anywhere really. But I guess people don’t really do this research since it’s too easy; they’re not riding their bike all over the sketchy parts of NYC.

While talking to some of the women Valentine feels would fit the category “transgender,” they quickly make it clear to him that his own status as a gay man doesn’t automatically make him fit in with them even though they identify as gay too. If there ever were such a thing as an official heterosexual support group (keeping in mind that most of the U.S. is one big hetero support group in itself), I doubt anyone who had been divorced, was single, or had children out of wedlock would be denied participation. That’s not to say that everyone would have everything in common, but nobody would be shunned because their sexual orientation manifested itself in variant ways.

One of Valentine’s underlying missions is to better understand the category “transgender” so that he (and in turn the social services agencies with which he is affiliated) can provide better support for them. In essence, he’s trying to come up with ways to alleviate the problems they face. So, what heterosexual problems could we fix if we thought about things a little differently? (Now, I know this is hard to think about since being straight, married, and living in the burbs is of course everyone’s ideal existence, but just work with me here.)

Maybe we could do something about the 50+% divorce rate in the U.S. Or, what if millions of children didn’t go hungry every night because their single working class mother couldn’t feed them adequately? Wouldn’t it be nice if all men took responsibility for the children they fathered?

Obviously heterosexuality isn’t the sole culprit in any of these problems, but phenomena like these just make one wonder how different things would be if we didn’t just study the categories on the fringes of society and took a closer look at the ones in the center.

-Mika Baugh

While listening to Eric Sawyer (co-founder of ACT UP and AIDS activist), I couldn’t help but think that the whole situation was strikingly similar to the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. There wasn’t a movement to actually imprison people with HIV/AIDS, but the social and political ostracism wasn’t much different. Unfortunately, people in our society tend to point fingers without a second’s hesitation. If you’re not sure exactly where the hasty unlawful imprisonment of thousands of American citizens got us the last time, check out Koramatsu v. United States.

Basically, the U.S. argued that forcing thousands of people (the vast majority of whom were American citizens!) with Japanese heritage into concentration camps was “OK” since the safety of many was more important than the dignity and rights of the few. Nevermind the fact that this violated the Bill of Rights: we were at war with Japan at the time, so I guess they figured that anyone who even looked Asian was probably going to go on a random killing spree in the name of Japan. Great logic at work here…

 Sounds a lot like the AIDS epidemic, doesn’t it? After all, only the worst of our society (gay men, drug users, Haitians) were at risk, so addressing the rapid spread of the disease was obviously not on the priority list. Better yet, why not blame these people? They probably deserved it anyway… Same stellar logic…

In 1990, the Supreme Court ordered that monetary reparations be paid to the survivors (and families) of the Japanese internment. So, not only did the U.S. government look terrible, they were now out millions of dollars, too. Again, the parallels are clear. While nobody has stepped up thus far and made reparations to the victims of the refusal to attack the HIV virus, there is at least a general consensus that the government’s actions (or lack thereof) were awful.  

They say history repeats itself, and it seems they’re right. The AIDS epidemic broke out 40 years after the Japanese internment, and now 30 years after the initial outbreak we’re still not past the stigma and treating those with HIV/AIDS with dignity and respect. When are we ever going to learn?

-Mika Baugh

“One is not born a woman” What a fantastic quote. However, I did not find it easy to understand. My first thought was “uhhhh, yes your are” but I have come to realize that this subject is not as black and white as it initially seemed.

The most important aspect of this quote, to me, is the expression of individuality. One becomes a woman by fitting the stereotypical norms of society and giving up on all of the individualistic and expressive things about their personality. The biggest accomplishment in a “woman”s life is giving birth. This is not a case of individualism, but rather of mass conformity. If this truth was the truth for every single female in america there would be much less diversity, individuality and expression of self.

I became fully aware of the meaning behind “one is not born a woman” from this quote: “For once one has acknowledged oppression, one needs to know and experience the fact that one can constitute oneself as a subject, that one can become someone in spite of oppression, that one has one’s own identity.”

This is a little thick, but I believe that the gist of it is what is important. It is basically saying that “one”, any given person, can be themselves despite “oppression” or societal rules or norms. It is important that the oppression is identified in order for this to happen though. This is actually key.


The only thing I can compare it to where the identification aspect of the “oppression must be identified” is homosexuality. The reason being that many homosexuals conform to heterosexual lifestyles because they are oppressed and never think to act on their desires. This complacency is giving in to the oppression of society and giving up part of the individuality that each person contains.

Okay, I rambled a bit, back to some scholarly material. This argument, that “one is not born a woman, is obviously a step towards constructivism. The identity of a person is constructed by their experiences in life and not by the physical characteristics of their body. A body with a vagina does not “need” to give birth. There is no essential destination or purpose for the body that is imbued within it at its creation. This is what that statement argues.

Altogether, it is important to seek out your inner individuality and to not conform to oppression. This does not mean rebel simply to rebel, it means that you should be your own person despite oppression, whether it happens to fall in line with what they want or not.



After reading and discussing Foucault’s lecture on the “Abnormal,” I wondered about what might constitute the “human monster” in today’s society.  According to Foucault, “what defines the monster is the fact its existence and form is not only a violation of the laws of society but also a violation of the laws of nature” (55-56).  Furthermore, “the monster was also someone with two sexes whom one didn’t know whether to treat as a boy or a girl…”(65).  This particular quote reminded me that those with an undefinable sex are still seen as monstrous in modern society, as people are at odds as how to categorize them.  Specifically, I was reminded of a popular news story from a couple of years ago about a woman runner, Caster Semenya.  Semenya consistently outran her competition, and her muscular, masculine build started raising questions about her “true” sex.  She was forced to undergo medical testing in an attempt to “prove” her female sex, and therefore continue to be allowed to compete in the women’s category.  This medicalization of Semenya’s sex coincides with Foucault’s description of the monster in that he asserts that the monster’s existence “provokes either violence, the will for pure and simple suppression, or medical care or pity” (56, emphasis added).  After some genetics testing, it was realized that Semenya has androgen insensitivity syndrome (or AIS), which we learned about in Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography.  If you remember, AIS means that the individual has X and Y chromosomes with feminized genitalia.  It is very possible that Caster Semenya was completely unaware that she indeed had AIS.  I find it ridiculous that Semenya’s sex was even called into question in the first place, simply based on the idea that she was simply too athletic, too good at running to possibly be a “real” woman.  Don’t even get me started on what I think about the farce of “real” womanhood or manhood, anyway.  Let’s just say I think it’s bullshit.  In the end, it was decided that Caster Semenya can continue to run with the girls.  As it turns out, a lil’ ole Y chromosome doesn’t make you a good runner!  Who would’ve guessed?!  So what was all this medicalization of Semenya’s body really for anyway?  It goes to show that even in today’s “insightful” society, there is an uncontrollable need to categorize sex according to narrow specifications.  We still have a lot to learn.  -Stephanie Halsted

Catherine Opie is one of my biggest, most fanatical art crushes. I encountered her phenomenal portraiture in my first year of graduate school. I was taking a course on modernist art movements and came across the work of Claude Cahun, a queer, genderqueer artist affiliated with the Surrealists who engaged in practices of photographic self-portraiture that played, critically, with sexual ambiguity, androgyny, and the notion of the of the camera as an objective and truth-telling documentary device.

Claude Cahun, from Untitled (I am Training, Don't Kiss Me), 1927-1929

My infatuation with Cahun led me quickly to the oversize books section of my university’s Fine Arts Library, where I encountered Jennifer Blessing’s wonderful tome (and exhibition companion) Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography (Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1997). The title of this exhibition is gleaned from a line of Gertrude Stein’s from Sacred Emily that plays with identity, appearance, seeming and being – get that story here.  Blessing’s work explicitly draws points of queer, feminist connection between the work of Cahun and the work of Catherine Opie.

I’ve selected a detail of a piece by Catherine Opie entitled “Chicken” (1991), from a series of portraits entitled “Being and Having,” as the header for this blog for several reasons. First – it is of a mustache, a hirsute phenomena that’s undergoing a pretty stunning renaissance currently. Head over to etsy, and you can find mustaches on coffee mugs, on ties. JD Samson, formerly of Le Tigre and now of Men (if you haven’t heard them, go now and do so), proudly sports both a mustache as well as a script tattoo on her chest reading ‘Mustache.’ I have too many friends and acquaintances, male and female alike, who are letting the follicles on their upper lips grow out, in a wonderful diversity of forms (some soft fuzz, some full-on handlebar action, others opting for that delightful curlicue, others going straight Chaplin). Mustaches are breaching gender boundaries, appearing all over the place, on all sorts of bodies. Some grown, some sketched on with eyeliner, some artfully constructed with adhesive and bits of hair from other parts of the body (a drag king technique, yes). The mustache, a powerful icon in the pantheon of masculine symbology, is being appropriated in all sorts of fabulous ways.

Catherine Opie, "Chicken", from the Being and Having Series, 1992

Opie loves the mustache, and loves it on all sorts of folks. The gendered loaded-ness of the mustache makes it the perfect sort of trait to appear in this portrait series of Opie’s, “Being and Having,” which documents a collection of queer masculinities and provocatively raises, through the combination of title and image set, questions regarding the status of gender itself, questions we’ll be consistently preoccupied with in this course: is gender something we are or something we have? Is it a set of properties that can be appropriated or eschewed at will (a set of accessories, a tool-kit of sorts), or does it irrevocably constitute our being? Does it, or can it, work in both of these ways at once? Do we have gender, or does it have us?

Consider Opie’s work as a provocation and invitation to mull these questions over.

– Hilary Malatino