What does it mean to be cisgender?

In article on Feminist Current, a Canadian Web site, Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the Univ. of Texas Austin, questions his assignment into the category of cisgender:

“…Sex is a question of biologically determined male and female, gender of socially determined masculinity and femininity. The dominant conception of masculinity in U.S. culture asserts that men are naturally competitive and aggressive, and that being a ‘real man’ means struggling for control, conquest, and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants, and takes it. This is sometimes labeled ‘toxic masculinity,’ which implies it is an aberration from some ‘normal’ masculinity. But this understanding of masculinity-as-seeking-dominance is the default setting for most males growing up in patriarchy, especially through the glorification of aggression in the military, sports, and business.

“All that definitional work [Jensen continues] is necessary to explain why I am not cisgender. As a male human, this patriarchal conception of masculinity is not my ‘chosen’ identity, nor do I believe it is my fate. As a short, skinny, effeminate child … I never felt very masculine. As an adult with feminist politics, I reject and struggle to overcome the masculinity norms in patriarchy. If we were someday to transcend patriarchy, would I feel more ‘like a man’? That would depend on how the term was defined, but in the world in which I live, I refuse to embrace the patriarchal gender identity handed to me….

“So [Jensen concludes], I’m not cisgender and I’m not transgender. I am not gender fluid, non-binary, or multi-gender. I self-identify as an adult biological XY male who rejects patriarchal gender norms and works from a radical feminist perspective to eliminate patriarchy….”

While it has some problematic moments, I think Jensen’s essay offers a small but useful addition to the ongoing debate about the term “cisgender.” If you haven’t been following that debate, some have argued that “cisgender” is analogous to the introduction of “heterosexual” as the opposite of “homosexual”; similarly, “cisgender” can help non-trans people realize the extent to which they have the privilege of not having to articulate their gender; therefore it is a necessary term. Arguments against the term include the possibility that setting up such a strong distinction between transgender and cisgender may actually work against a widespread acceptance of transgender as normal; others claim that transgender and cisgender are Western cultural concepts that don’t apply cross-culturally (e.g., Native Americans who reject the identification of the Two-Spirit tradition with transgender).

What Jensen offers to this debate is his personal experience of gender. He does not see himself as typically masculine; therefore, he does not see that his biological sex matches society’s expectations about the gender role he should take on. Yet he does not consider himself transgender, either. There’s an argument to be made that Jensen has cisgender privilege because he’s non-trans, and thus the term is useful; however, I’m not convinced that biological men and boys who are not masculine, but also non-trans, get the same level of privilege as a stereotypically masculine biological male since (depending on how effeminate you are) a straight non-trans non-masculine man will tend to experience some level of bullying and teasing.

The word “cisgender” is not going to go away, and I feel it remains useful in some settings. What Jensen makes me realize is that we should be careful in how we use the term: we shouldn’t use the term “cisgender” in such a way that it reinforces gender stereotypes. For example, we wouldn’t want to reinforce gender stereotypes of masculinity by grouping Robert Jensen together with Donald Trump under the rubric “cisgender men”; Trump is constantly enacting stereotypes of a hyper-masculine gender role (marrying a woman much younger than he, asserting his virility in various ways, putting success above everything else, etc.); Jensen is taking on a significantly different gender role.

So I’ll continue to use “cisgender” as a term for larger groups of people. But I’m going to be disinclined to apply it to a individuals, aware of its cultural assumptions, and careful not to turn it into yet another binary division.

“The perilous whiteness of pumpkins”

Overwork and health issues have kept me away from this blog for a couple of weeks, but I now bring you an important scholarly article just in time for Halloween.

Back in 2015, two scholars published a peer-reviewed article in the academic journal GeoHumanities titled “The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins.” From the abstract: “Pumpkins in popular culture also reveal contemporary racial and class coding of rural versus urban places.” In other words, according to the authors, rural working class white folks dig pumpkins; urban middle class non-white folks, not so much; furthermore, this difference can lead to riots.

This could have been an interesting article, except I got lost in jargon-filled prose like this: “Spaces where actual pumpkins reside differ from spaces in which metaphorical pumpkins are segregated in the social landscape of modern U.S. cultures.” I’m honestly not sure just what that means, although maybe I just don’t get the jargon of the interdisciplinary study of geography and humanities.

But this next sentence I am quite sure I understand: “Actual pumpkins and the ideas of pumpkins intersect; both stay on the page for the remainder of this article.” I saw no actual pumpkins staying on the page for the remainder of the article. Or I suppose if I had seen the intersection of actual pumpkins, and ideas of pumpkins, it would have looked like this:

By the way, you will notice that this Venn diagram stayed on the page for the remainder of the time you were looking at this article. I have come to expect that sort of behavior from Venn diagrams, although to paraphrase Lord Berkeley’s question: If a Venn diagram is on the page, and no one sees it, does it stay on the page for the remainder of the article? The only reason I can indulge in such stupid sophomoric humor is that the authors of this article needed a remedial course in writing good prose.

Boomer challenges

Most of us who are Baby Boomers are all too aware of the major challenges facing our generation. (Some Boomers are insulated from these challenges, particularly among the socio-economic elites — but that’s always been true for most of the challenges facing humanity, and the elites constitute a small percentage of Boomers anyway, so we can ignore them.)

I’d like to look at three areas where we face major challenges: finances, jobs, and spiritual matters.

Financial challenges first. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as part of the wave of economic conservatism that swept the United States, employer-managed pensions disappeared and were replaced with 401(k) plans. The Boomer generation, particularly the tail-end Boomers like me, are the ones who are the guinea pigs for this radical experiment in economics. And the experiment, to be quite frank, is going badly.

Younger generations, you will want to pay attention to what happens to the Boomers, because you’re stuck in the same flawed retirement system.

I’ve been reading Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Retirement Life, a 2016 book by Elizabeth White that describes in some detail how badly off the Boomer generation is. Continue reading “Boomer challenges”

Boomers and privilege

I’m critical of using the language of privilege in public discourse; what can be a useful tool for analysis among like-minded persons does not always translate well to a wider context. For example, when white people of the professional and upper middle classes gain awareness of how they have personally benefited from structural racism, they may find it helpful when speaking with others who are challenging structural racism to use the phrase “white privilege”; in that context, “white privilege” becomes a useful shorthand way of referring to the specific benefits professional and upper middle class white people get from structural racism. However, when professional and upper middle class white people use the term “white privilege” in public discourse, working class whites can rightfully challenge them on at least two counts: first, the experience of white working class people in accessing the fruits of structural racism is different from that of white people of the professional and upper middle classes; second, white working class people have themselves been the targets of discrimination by white professional and upper middle class people (for one example, see Nancy Isenberg’s analysis of why upper middles class whites embraced eugenics, in her book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America).

A big part of the problem here, I think, is that the nuances of intersectional analysis get lost in public discourse — “white privilege” is a short-hand phrase that sums up a good deal of thoughtful analysis, and short-hand phrases often do not translate well to the public arena. Obviously, the same applies to the phrase “male privilege,” another phrase that is sometimes used in public discourse. Nevertheless, just because I’m critical of using the language of privilege in public discourse, I do find that talking about privilege is helpful when I’m trying to analyze structural inequalities; with the caveat that when you’re dealing with individual people, one individual can experience more than one kind of structural inequality. So it’s important not to reify specific kinds of privilege, e.g., “white privilege” is an abstraction, not an actual thing.

With all that in mind, I’d like to explore the notion that here in the U.S. Baby Boomers have some kind of privilege. “Boomer privilege,” if it exists, arose for a couple of demographic reasons. First, there are large numbers of Boomers, and so it is easy for them to find many others who share a set of life-shaping experiences; because of this, it’s easy for Boomers to assume that their experiences are normative, and then to extend what they perceive as normative to other generations who may have a quite different set of experiences. This perception of what is normative is similar to one of the generating causes of white privilege, dating from when whites comprised the vast majority of the U.S. population: “whiteness” came to be seen by many white people as normative. Continue reading “Boomers and privilege”

Quoted with minimal comment

The historical murder mystery novel The Year of Confusion is set in the final days of Julius Caesar’s reign as emperor of the Roman Empire. At one point, Decius Caecilius Metellus, the narrator, listens to some rich and powerful men complaining about the changes Caesar had made to Rome — and then makes the following comment:

That was the real reason for the resentment of these men. Caesar was frustrating their own ambitions and humbling their pride. Except for Cicero, they were all men from the great families, men who thought high office to be their natural right, inherited from their ancestors. I had been such a man myself, once. When men prate of things like patriotism, you can be sure that self-interest is at the root of it.

You can get away with saying things like that in genre fiction, because no one takes it seriously. “When men prate of things like patriotism, you can be sure that self-interest is at the root of it” — yes indeed.

Harlan Ellison

It’s hard to believe that Harlan Ellison is dead.

If you know anything about science fiction, you know that Harlan Ellison was brilliant. At his best, he was a superb writer; not a writer in the genteel mode of The New Yorker, but a writer of smart, fast-paced pop culture genre fiction with strong plots and strong characters. His 1965 story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” sticks in my memory: the Harlequin, a rebel against a society which enforces strict conformism, is finally brought under control by the uber-enforcer called the Ticktockman; yet at the end of the story, it appears that the Ticktockman may have been nudged into small acts of non-conformism through his interaction with the Harlequin.

In addition to writing science fiction stories, Ellison worked in Hollywood, writing for Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and many other TV shows. He was also, by all accounts, a difficult individual. Take, for example, the best-known manifestation of his difficult character: an anthology he edited called The Last Dangerous Visions. He bought stories from many well-known science fiction authors, the book was supposed to have been published in 1973, but it remained unpublished at his death. This was not merely an extreme case of work avoidance: he retained all rights to all the stories he had received, refused to let anyone else publish the stories, and aggressively pursued legal action when he thought someone he trespassed on his rights as editor.

Yet in spite of his character flaws (and who am I to point out character flaws? heaven knows we all have character flaws), he inspired devotion in many people. In his autobiography I Asimov, Isaac Asimov called him “warm and loving.” According to Asimov, Ellison had a “miserable youth”: “Being always small and being always enormously intelligent, he found that he could easily flay the dimwits by whom he was surrounded. But he could only do so in words, and the dimwits could use their fists…. This embittered him and did not teach him to keep his mouth shut….” Will Shetterly, another science fiction writer, notes some of the things that Ellison did not keep his mouth shut about: Ellison participated in the civil rights march in Selma; he also went to great lengths to show his support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Ellison was a kind of living version of his character, the Harlequin: completely unwilling, maybe even unable to conform to societal norms. But unlike the Harlequin, Ellison never gave in, he was never brought under the control of the Ticktockman.

Brief obituary at Locus; full obit in their August issue.
A 1954 description of Ellison as a science fiction fan.

Home on the Range

I remember a cartoon character — probably in a printed cartoon, not a video cartoon — singing a parody version of “Home on the Range” that goes like this:

Oh give me a home where the butterflies roam
And the dear little cantaloupes play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging bird
And the flies are not crowded all day.

Searching the Web for the first and second lines, using two different search engines, resulted in nothing. Although I did find a video with Bugs Bunny singing a different parody:

Oh give me a home where the millionaires roam
And the oil and the cattlemen play
With their gushing oil wells and their super hotels,
And they count up their money all day.

I know I did not make up the first parody myself. Will I remember where it came from? Will it ever appear on the Web? (Do I really care?) Such is the peculiar anguish of this point of development of the Information Age, when we realize that not all knowledge is available on via the Internet.

Those kids and their phones

BBC reports on a social trend: little kids hate their parents’ use of smart phones. “I don’t like the phone because my parents are on their phone every day. A phone is sometimes a really bad habit” — this child’s comment was reported by a second-grade teacher in Louisiana. Another comment reported by the same teacher: “I hate my mom’s phone and I wish she never had one.”

BBC also reports that one mother said “her teenagers were just as bad, often choosing their phone over family time.” But the teens are simply doing what they see adults do: giving lower priority to their face-to-face interactions than to their phone interactions. It’s just like that old song by Harry Chapin:

“And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
“He’d grown up just like me,
“My boy was just like me.”

I see this all the time as I walk around San Mateo, where we live, and Palo Alto, where I work: the two year old having to amuse itself in the stroller while the parent focuses solely on their smartphone; the elementary age child standing in front of the parent waiting to play catch while the parent texts someone far away; the parent brushing off the young adolescent who tries to get their attention while they’re looking at their phone….

Concord Hymn

Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, April 19, 1836

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
   Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
   And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
   Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
   Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
   We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
   When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
   To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
   The shaft we raise to them and thee.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the better poems Emerson wrote: simple and direct, and more complex than it seems at first; not unlike the five-minute battle which both the poem and the Battle Monument commemorate. The “votive stone” still stands in the same place that it stood when Emerson’s poem was sung to it back in 1836, 182 years ago today.

Above: The monument as it appeared at the 2009 re-enactment of the Battle of the North Bridge

Mindfulness and the elite

From my files: Three years ago, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Virginia Heffernan on the craze for mindfulness (“Mind the Gap,” 19 April 2015, pp. 13-15). Citing a Time magazine cover story that called the craze a “revolution,” Heffernan comments:

“If it’s a revolution, it’s not a grass-roots one. Although mindfulness teachers regularly offer the practice in disenfranchised communities in the United States and abroad, the powerful have really made mindfulness their own, exacting from the delicate idea concrete promises of longer lives and greater productivity. In January [2015], during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, [mindfulness popularizer Jon] Kabat-Zinn led executives and 1 percenters in a mindfulness meditation meant to promote general well-being.” But, notes Heffernan, “what commercial mindfulness may have lost from the most rigorous Buddhist tenets it replaced: the implication that suffering cannot be escaped but must be faced.”

Three years on, mindfulness is even more firmly entrenched among the elites. I recognize that there are serious Buddhist practitioners out there who teach authentic Buddhist mindfulness practices, and I also recognize that there are those who use mindfulness-stripped-of-Buddhism for benign ends. But when I think about how the 1 percenters have adopted mindfulness, I am curious about how it became so widespread among the “cultured despisers of religion.” Is the ongoing craze for mindfulness an example of how consumer capitalism can strip all the authentic weirdness out of religion, turning authentic religious practices into “opiates for the masses”? Or is mindfulness similar to the Christian “Prosperity Gospel,” that is, authentic religious teachings co-opted to promote consumer capitalism? except where the Prosperity Gospel is used to control lower middle class suckers, Prosperity Mindfulness is to control professional class suckers.

I am also curious whether authentic Buddhist mindfulness will survive being co-opted by the 1 percenters and consumer capitalism. What Heffernan calls “commercial mindfulness” really is nothing but an opiate: a pill that numbs us to the stress and horror and absurdity of an increasingly unjust economic system, but doesn’t actually cure the underlying illness of injustice.

To paraphrase Morpheus in the movie The Matrix: “If you swallow the blue pill of mindfulness, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe; but if you take the red pill of skepticism, you can see the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth….”