Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The Gendercator drama, part 2

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | November 06, 2007 9:45 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: assimilation, Catherine Crouch, Frameline Film Festival, gender transgression, identity politics, Jamison Green, lesbian filmmakers, san francisco, susan stryker, transphobia

(For the first part of this exposition, click here)

Okay, the Gendercator event, sponsored by Center Women Present -- I was calling it the drama-fest beforehand -- the big question for me was whether it would be the drama of suffocation or the more productive drama of conflict, critique and accountability. Things got off to a good start for me when I had a surprise opportunity to talk on camera about the drama of getting bashed by the cops at a 2003 protest against Gavin Newsom that took place in front of the Center -- yes, getting bashed as Center staff stood and watched and did nothing to intervene -- ah, the community!

Due to the bashing incident of February 2003 (I and another person were thrown into oncoming traffic then arrested; someone else was hit in the face by a police baton -- literally blood dripping down hir face; a fourth person passed out due to a police chokehold, and was also arrested), I try to avoid entering the Center at all costs, so this venture was immediately emotional. I was ready for trouble while standing in line with dozens of other people -- we were the early ones, but the room wasn’t available until just before the starting time of 6:30 p.m. -- no problem, I had plenty of fun socializing and interpreting the strange typos on the glossary of terms handed out to attendees (an approximate example: "dyke – a lesooShwaxsbian, popular term among xx445kuer generation"). I also met a really fun fellow drama queen while sitting with hir in one of the only comfortable chairs available in the hallway -- if anyone knows “Alithia,” tell hir to contact me at once!

In any case, the event -- it was packed, several hundred people and tense but also festive -- first came intros for the panelists, and I will summarize very briefly a few points they made:

Elana Dykewomon (here I have an exact quote because I asked for her printed statement, everything that's not in quotation marks I'm paraphrasing): “There are times when the far left has gone along with the far right, claiming the ends justified the means. And it represents a fear that lesbians have -- that we are being squeezed into the old gender roles so many of us have fought for so long... where's the fear? What power dynamics are getting played out?"

Jamison Green: I'm profoundly against censorship -- artists have a right to say what they want, but I agree with Frameline’s decision to pull the film -- also, the links between The Gendercator and Janice Raymond's 1979 The Transsexual Empire (below I'm quoting from Susan Stryker on this because her comments are available in print:

The ideas in the film [The Gendercator] echo the rhetoric of Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire (1979), which goes so far as to claim that Nazis invented transsexual surgery, that transsexuals are agents of a patriarchal conspiracy to replace biologically female women, to accuse all transsexuals of being rapists (because they represent an “unwanted penetration” of women’s space), and to argue in a eugenic fashion that transsexuals should be “morally mandated out of existence. Raymond’s book, and the film, engage in the paranoid fantasy that what transsexuals do to their own bodies is somehow a threat to the bodies of nontranssexual women, that the very existence of transsexuals will somehow “force” a nontranssexual woman to have her body violated through some sort of compulsory and unwanted transformation–it’s the same structure of fantasy that imagines that all black men want to rape white women, that gays are predatory pedophiles, that communists are secretly infiltrating our government, that terrorists are swarming across our borders, that drug pushers are constantly trying to hook our kids, and so on ad nauseum. The film projects fear onto an “alien other” and then condemns that other for reflecting back that fear to the person who has projected it there in the first place.
Susan Stryker at the event: two moments of extreme transphobia: the part in the movie when a character says, “the trannies went along with it" (forced gender reassignment) + the end of the film when Sally is being subjected to forced surgery by the authority of a transperson. Also, Susan talked about being sick of transphobic things being said by non-trans lesbians about trans people -- Frameline made the decision to pull the film... I wish they could have created this discussion in June because I think a lot of the controversy has blown over.

Yavanté Thomas-Guess: this movie invalidates the life-long struggles trans people go through and the ways in which we are continually transitioning

Fresh! Encounter: disappointed that Frameline couldn't have a panel discussion, but disturbed by yet another film by a white person with privilege that is divisive instead of seeking to build common ground.

Mary Guzmán: it frightened me when this film got pulled, can't respond to it anymore on its merits as a film except in the context of this decision.

Then, an opening statement from Jenni Olson, former co-director of Frameline (in the early-mid-90s, I don't think this was mentioned), who voiced both respect for Catherine Crouch's work and the dismay that Crouch was suggesting that trans identity is a response to a misogynist culture.

The almost-scandal at the beginning occurred when the DVD skipped over the most frightening line of the movie -- at first I thought perhaps this was a last-minute edit on the part of Crouch, but then, to her credit, she announced that we'd missed the most contentious line. The DVD was rewound but the same thing happened -- luckily, I had already listened to the movie several times, in order to write down that very line! So I ended up getting on stage and giving a dramatic rendition:

It all began with the evangelicals -- you know, one man/one woman and all that -- then the next thing the trannies went along with it... Before long, butches and fairies were forced to make the change -- you have to be a man or a woman, no more in between.
No more in between, indeed. And to think that I only grabbed my notes at the last minute...

Okay, well I'm going to write something much more polished sometime in the relatively near future, but let me try to make some observations. First, about the structure of the event -- three moderators with the panel of six presenters plus Catherine Crouch herself -- unfortunately, audience members were only able to ask questions by writing them down on notecards, which meant that not only did we miss out on much of the emotional resonance, but we got to hear the same question eight times, dammit!

But don't worry -- I was not the only loud queer gasping and cheering and hissing -- love that! What is the point of a drama-fest if we can't have an expressive audience?

Okay, well the question that got asked eight times was more or less about Crouch’s transphobia, whether she thinks that all trans men are really lesbians, and I will say that Crouch was a bit conflicted on this one. She did say that she wasn't interested in making all or none statements, but that she was concerned because of so many butch lesbians transitioning so fast -- and worried that this FTM identity was not arising "from inside," but due to outside pressures and the difficulties of being a lesbian in a misogynist, homophobic culture. She also talked about the increase of elected medical procedures, and stated, "I don't know what's happening right now." When someone asked about Crouch’s equation of trans surgery with mutilation, Crouch declared "I never used that word." Then she declared that she was concerned that surgery was being used to solve the problems of being unsafe as a masculine women. Later, Crouch got wackier when she said that her fear was of the gender binary, of the religious right, and it did seem that she was suggesting that the religious right could actually join with transpeople to take over the world. She didn't say how, but this was one of the moments when I'll admit I was a bit frightened -- Crouch was giving a good performance -- she kept saying how happy she was that these discussions were happening, but still her fears were palpable. This is also indicated in the changes she made to her director's statement, which now reads in part:

This remark is not about transpeople. It is about women. My understanding of transsexuality is that it is a rare condition, a medical condition of gender dysphoria. A person’s exterior body does not match their interior sense of self, causing serious social, sexual, and mental problems. This person is a transsexual, not a woman or a man. My statement was not meant to question the validity of this condition, but to call attention to the increasing number of young women who are taking testosterone or undergoing voluntary mastectomies to enhance their masculinity. These are women who formerly identified, or would be considered by the lesbian community, as butch lesbians.

Keep in mind that this statement is in response to months of controversy, so it's somewhat shocking that Crouch is still relying on a medical/scientific explanation of trans identity that has been used for decades to marginalize and stigmatize transpeople.

But back to the event -- Crouch did make her director's statement "clarification" at the beginning, by the way. Later though, she claimed that she was careful to show transmen who were thrilled with their transition -- these would be the transmen comparing surgery, balding, and potbellies in one scene that is very clearly a critique of conventional norms of masculinity. Crouch insisted that transmen reminded her of the way that women judge each other and compare their parts.
Onto some of the other panelists – Susan Stryker talked about this movie as part of a backlash over the last few years, during which anti-trans comments that wouldn't be tolerated about other groups are suddenly in the mainstream again. I would really like to see an exploration of this resurgence of transphobia.

Jamison Green made a good point about how transitioning doesn't help you to escape the problems of the female body, and I like what he said about "possibilities to create a new kind of masculinity that respects femininity."

I forgot to mention that I really appreciated people who were getting emotional -- Susan at the beginning looked like she was going to cry when talking about the transphobia in the movie, Jenni Olson was similarly on the verge of tears when talking about her appreciation for Crouch’s work and her discomfort with the violence it contains. Fresh! Encounter talked emotionally at one point about the strictures of 1970s "lesbian feminist fascists," and this opened up a really interesting dialogue with Elana Dykewomon, who personalized this assessment and responded that she wouldn't use the word fascism – “the root of fascism is ‘penis-loving’,” then added, “I was self-righteous, I may still be self-righteous.” Dykewomon continued that she had never understood masculinity or femininity, but that the excitement and flamboyance of trans cultures actually reminded her of the excitement of 1970s feminism. She finished, "when I think of transpeople transforming lesbian communities, I get hopeful." I was really excited by this historical analogy, and by Elana's apparent openness. But even her preparation and analysis couldn't prevent a vocabulary mishap, when she mentioned that there were no femme lesbians on the panel (“What about Susan,” I said, and Susan smiled and put her hands up in the air like “hello!”) Elana corrected herself: "I mean no non-trans lesbians."

I want to pause at this moment because the panelists averted tension with apparent ease, but it's these exact identity and vocabulary questions that sometimes cause heated animosity. The Gendercator focuses repeatedly on certain words and phrases popular in certain trans communities, such as "presenting," as in: "Do you realize that you're intentionally presenting ‘male’?”

While I, and many other transpeople, genderqueers and gender malcontents delight in such linguistic innovations, I do think it's important to realize that we all use different languages, and to have some understanding for errors of analysis due to linguistic interpretations. Of course, I'm not suggesting that someone who repeatedly insists on addressing someone as anything other than hir preferred pronoun/identity/experience should be excused -- but I think sometimes there’s a rush to judgment that creates unnecessary hierarchies.

There was a lot of talk on the panel, and in the audience, about division, divisiveness, and I was impressed by Elana’s response: "We are divided. We have to keep finding language for it.” I would add, of course, that if we don't explore our divisions we’ll never find any commonalities.

Oh -- another one of my favorite moments was when people were making necessary critiques of Frameline, and Jennifer Morris, the Director of Programming at Frameline (who was in the audience), got all flustered and stood up and said something completely incoherent -- I'm guessing that Frameline was approached to be on the panel, and declined, so this was a bit silly. Crouch responded with one my favorite quotes of the night: "gay film festivals are like Pride, they're not interested in representing different points of view." I was screaming at that one -- I'm aware that a few people in the audience may have been upset at that loud bitchy queen, but remember what I said about the drama of suffocation? If I hadn’t expressed myself, I certainly would have passed out.

Towards the end of the event, there was an interesting exploration of the possibilities of transition. Yavante Thomas-Guess said that "everybody transitions, that just means you're growing," and, in response to Crouch’s statement that transgender people are changing their bodies instead of changing the world, Fresh! Encounter asked, "how is nonconformity not changing the world?" There was also a discussion of whether transitioning to male is a trend in communities of queer women. This was one of the most ripe parts of the event, and I think this could be a whole other discussion. Mary Guzmán talked about working at a club that is mostly queers of color, age 18-21, who, according to Guzmán, who is in her 40s "look like me, they act like me, but they won't identify as anything female, and this concerns me in a misogynist world." This was very emotional for Guzmán to say, she mentioned the feeling that it's something she can't talk about, or else she's seen as transphobic, people say it's not "your issue." I felt like the audience was really ready for this painful topic, ready to hear Guzmán and ready to talk about the beauty and possibility and ruptures and pain of transitions in queer, lesbian, dyke and trans cultures. But Guzmán needed to leave for work, and the event ended just a few minutes later.

I liked the gesture the organizers made to read the remaining questions aloud, there were a couple good ones about the connections between transphobia and homophobia, and a very astute comment about how the forced transition in the Gendercator is reminiscent of the treatment of intersex kids, and not the deliberated choice of transpeople.

I left the event feeling drained, but also emotionally engaged and inspired -- filled with ideas and analysis. A few things that were hinted at but not directly addressed in the panel: class divisions in queer/genderqueer/dyke/trans/lesbian communities, and how these impact vocabulary, experience, and access; the prioritization of masculinity across the board in queer cultures; the increased privilege and visibility of highly-educated, privileged transmen in environments where transwomen are mostly unwelcome. These are all areas for more conversation and analysis – yes, more conversation and analysis!

But I want to step back for a moment and talk about my own personal history -- my first queer world of inspiration and innovation and challenge and transformation and heartbreak was San Francisco in the early ‘90s, centering around Mission dyke cultures that nurtured and scarred me -- it's where I learned what community could mean, how to dream of home and create it in the same breath, and where are I also learned how the illusion of community, even or especially among malcontents, could create a false sense of security sheltering violence. I could be more specific, but instead let me say that I learned from dykes (and a few fags) who were incest survivors, whores, outcast kids, vegans, runaways, dropouts, anarchists, activists drug addicts and other types of social misfits trying not to disappear without first attempting to challenge power in every way we could imagine -- this was the feminist politic that we embraced, what drew us together.

Now, if these cultures also betrayed me in every way possible, that does not mean that they also did not make me. I'm offering this glimpse so that I can talk about returning to San Francisco at the end of 2000 after a six-year absence (except for eight months at the end of 1995/beginning of 1996, when I'd returned after my best friend had died more or less because she was kicking heroin and SF General refused her healthcare). In 2000, I returned from New York to a San Francisco genderqueer and trans explosion that blew my head off with the possibilities of self-expression and transgression. Now, getting your head blown off is not always the most comfortable experience, so I'll admit that at first I was confused by this embrace of masculinity -- as someone assigned the label "male" at birth who has struggled my whole life against compulsory masculinity, my instinct was fright. To be sure, I did watch certain transguys formerly politicized by feminism perform a grotesque chauvinism as if it was a birthright, and I gasped in horror and disbelief as a certain notoriously misogynist, femme-phobic, racist leather bar was suddenly seen as part of the "dyke and trans community."

But what also happened, in the transmasculine explosion, is that I witnessed the emergence of so many complicated, critical, defiant and liberatory identities that yes, my head was blown off because I needed to make room for so many more delicious possibilities -- the conscious, negotiated, deliberated, critical and engaged exploration of masculinities was different than anything I had ever imagined. Oh, the possibilities for flamboyance and transgression -- not just the embrace of a politicized, feminist masculinity, but the exploration of masculine femininities, feminine masculinities, femininity through masculinity, transfaggotries and all the other explosive combinations that emerged -- all I can say is that my mind could not contain all of the opportunities for analysis and intrigue, and I am so grateful.

But I will say one more thing -- there have been hushed conversations about the more problematic and unquestioning transitions into masculine privilege, within genderqueer, trans and dyke cultures (mostly, in my experience, among femmes and faggots). To be sure, these discussions have also taken place in certain public events like Michelle Tea's Transforming Community and books like my own anthology Nobody Passes, but these are the exception rather than the rule. The fact that these conversations have mostly remained muted has made it possible for far less nuanced, complicated, loving or inspiring critiques (and even, perhaps, more layers of transphobia) to emerge -- critiques like that of The Gendercator. I'm hoping that the response to this movie will make the rest of us more vocal.

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Mattilda, thank you for an informative and well-thought-out piece on this controversial subject. I greatly appreciate your ability to engage in civil and rational discourse while encouraging others to do the same.

'm guessing that Frameline was approached to be on the panel, and declined, so this was a bit silly. Crouch responded with one my favorite quotes of the night: "gay film festivals are like Pride,

This extends to most venues in GLBT culture and it's much worse in the TG/TS communities.
This the Bilerico Project happens to be one of the VERY FEW places where such discussion can take place without the thought police swooping in and ether, banning anyone who attempts to question the group think or simply disallows them to post their thoughts and stimulate discussion.

Oh Well
Thanks George for the warning, some of us have heeded it.

Take care
Susan Robins

I am so sick of the "changing their bodies instead of changing the world" line.

As if transpeople had some kind of universal moral imperative to be at the front lines of Gender War, pushing every boundary at all times no matter the cost to their own lives.

And as if most allegedly "progressive" gays and lesbians weren't pretty damned conformant themselves.

Transpeople don't owe anything to the community.
They didn't ask to be borne that way, it's all up to transfolk to survive and make a successful go at life.

Speaking for myself i was borne with a birth defect, into the wrong body. Nobody has the right to tell me or anybody else who is going to undergo transition that we are doing a disservice to some community because we want to make our body agree with our mental perspective of who we are.

My life, my body is my business and anything involving the alteration of that body is medical information and nobody's business save for my doctor and my partner.

Take care
Susan Robins

Mattilda -

When did this panel take place, and was there other media coverage of it, perhaps the SF GLBT newspapers?

You wrote some much, it's hard for me comment in a systematic way, so I'll just give some random thoughts.

It seems to me, forcing someone to transition is just as bad as forcing someone to *not* transition; yet only the former is presented as a nightmare.

It's clear the director *still* doesn't get it even after the clarification. By talking about women taking testosterone betrays an extreme ignorance. Women aren't taking it; men who weren't born with testicles, but ovaries, are.

I tell people in our support meetings that we are each the center of our own personal universe. So most everyone seems to view gender dysphoria depending on how it affects them. Crouch seems to fear that she'll be the last living lesbian, as all the other "lesbians" leave her behind when they transition.

I had done it, too. Twenty years ago, I spent three hours talking to an FTM, and came away from the discussion thinking he was just like me: a really butch lesbian. Ten years later, I realized, "Uh oh. He's not like me; I'm like HIM!" Oopsie.

Seriously - has this filmmaker not read Stone Butch Blues? Or anything else about the old butch/femme scene, for that matter? I'm too young to have been there, but from everything I've read and watched, it seems pretty clear to me that transfolk were a part of the women's bar scene decades ago, too, whether they called themselves that or not...

How many butches from that era do you think were actually FTMs without access to the language or support to describe or do anything more about what they were feeling? Not all, certainly, but no doubt some of them fit that bill...

And, how much you wanna bet that Crouch would have been one of the short-sighted 70s feminists who called butches "victims of the patriarchy" and other lovely things because we were just "pretending to be men".


If we forget our history, we are doomed to repeat it...

Yay -- so lovely to see such great comments, I was worried that my post was a little, um... extensive... and people might not make it all the way through. But, oh, the joys of documentation!

Angel, I'm so glad you think I'm engaging in civil, rational discourse!

And Susan, you're right that most "LGBT" venues lacked a certain, um... engagement.

Now, you're right that conformity does brandish it's tantalizing and silencing spectre in so many arenas -- of course I would suggest we resist whenever possible.

Rory come of this event took place on Friday, October 26 -- there is an okay article in the Bay Area Reporter (strangely with a picture of me), but not sure about other press. And absolutely -- I actually find Catherine Crouch's director's statement "clarification" worse than the original because it is so intent on silencing through the systemic violence of "scientific authority." And, well, of course not just transmen but all different types of people of all genders take testosterone for various health-related reasons -- people with HIV or other chronic illnesses, for examples; certain bodybuilders; people looking for an energy boost...

And wjhowell, history is indeed important -- hopefully we're making it now...

I wonder if Crouch has heard of gay and bi FTMs? If so, how do they fit into her transman=butch lesbian model?

I love this discussion and agree that class is as much of a third rail as gender (and race is plain old nitro-glicerine), which is why the discussion of it rarely really opens up.

Here's an idea of mine. (Yes, I've been sitting on this for years waiting for the appropriate interested forum...) It seems possible to me that one of the functions of the lesbian feminist movement in the 70s and 80s was to create a way for middle-class women to come out as lesbians without having to adapt themselves to the heretofore existing lesbian culture in the bars.

(I did an oral history project in graduate school with women who had been lesbian activists in the early 70s in Montreal.)

Lesbians were visible, known entities in Quebec through the bar culture, but middle-class lesbians were fundamentally alienated from this identity. The bars were working-class, physically dangerous places and the visible lesbian culture there was based on deeply binary butch and femme roles.

Middle-class lesbians in the 50s and 60s (in Quebec at least) had extreme constraints on their lives. They lived independently from men through professional jobs as teachers, nurses and social workers-jobs they could lose in a heartbeat if they were seen at mob-run bars or the bar's prostitution. Neither could they openly adopt a sexualized persona like butch and femme women did and maintain their jobs/independence.

Many of the women I spoke to recalled with real horror their pre-movement idea of a lesbian - a masculine woman who 'attacked' other women, conflating the real threats in these spaces: police raids and constant gay bashing, with the audacious affront of the butch's overt sexuality (don't you love to think about that part?).

They didn't want to have to be THAT butch or femme any more than they wanted to be a man's wife. The lesbian feminist identity forged by the movement didn't just reject men's ideas of what women were, it let them renounce the very specific, working-class lesbian role systems that were incompatible with their own lives.

It's not surprising, then that the middle-class lesbian feminism that emerged in this period abhorred gender roles and struggled over censorship of overt sexuality (as well as being called out on classism on a regular basis). I feel like this could help explain the powerful reactions against trans-men in the nineties even after the butch/femme renaissance softened the ground in the late 80s/early 90s.

Crouch was asked this question, but I don't remember her response -- I think something about how she wasn’t making either/or statements, hmm…

And Andrea, thanks for this well-reasoned, super-thoughtful comment (and research!) -- I especially like this part:

“Many of the women I spoke to recalled with real horror their pre-movement idea of a lesbian - a masculine woman who 'attacked' other women, conflating the real threats in these spaces: police raids and constant gay bashing, with the audacious affront of the butch's overt sexuality (don't you love to think about that part?).”

And this:
“They didn't want to have to be THAT butch or femme any more than they wanted to be a man's wife. The lesbian feminist identity forged by the movement didn't just reject men's ideas of what women were, it let them renounce the very specific, working-class lesbian role systems that were incompatible with their own lives. “

With the reaction against transmen, I think it's a bit messier (at least from a class perspective) because part of Crouch’s fear is that butch identity will be erased, and that overt female masculinities will disappear due to pressures to assimilate into "manhood." From Crouch's point of view, this demand for assimilation come from the pressure to escape misogyny, but I can't pretend that her points don't swing in several convoluted and contradictory directions -- this is just one of those directions...

I was out as a lesbian in the 70's, and was aware of how negatively anything that resembled role playing was viewed. But it was never discussed as a class issue in my world. It was about being woman-positive, and not mimicking heterosexual relationships. That feminism gave women the power of choice of not having to conform to gender roles. And to be stone butch was to imitate our male oppressors.

Of course, by penalizing role playing, it was taking one choice away from lesbians who might wanted to have pursued it. It wasn't until the 80's that the cutting edge in lefty-cool became being politically *incorrect*, which then gave permission to at least address the historic role that butches and femmes played. But even then, the mini-resurgence seemed limited only to those identifying as femmes.

Another instance of the suspicion accorded to butches was visible in personal adds which described everyone as "soft butches". Yeah, right... my ass.

In any case, fast forward to present day. I transitioned FTM almost ten years ago. In retrospect of my experience having spent 25 years in the GLBT community, probably 75% of the dykes I knew are most likely FTMs. That's my opinion for anyone who wants to take offense at that.

Which leads us to our friend, the director, and other fearful lesbians. I think they realize the same thing, and that's the source of their fear. They're afraid of losing the lesbian culture. That's a fear that most FTMs have, as well, but for themselves.

In fact, I think a certain number of these fearful lesbians are afraid if they look into this gender business too deeply, they will have to question their own identity. And that would really suck.