the philosophactivist

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Decolonizing Gender in Our QPOC/POC Community- Reclaiming Oldways Starting with Concepts of Gender

Well, well. It's been quite some time. I've been on the grind working on submitting plays, applications to programs, finishing a novel and anthology, “organizing” in the community for food justice, food sovereignty, economic and health justice, among many, many other things. I've got a lot to talk about but today I feel drawn to talk about queer people of color and views on gender.

I came across some posts a few weeks ago about the way that certain masculine of center folks want to be addressed by male pronouns or to their children as dad or to their friends as bro/brother. There seemed to be consensus on this particular thread that this wasn't ok and that these “MOC's” were “trying” to be something they weren't or that they needed to “try” harder if they couldn't pass with others. Lots of policing around gender expression happens in the queer community. I used to think that because we were queer or identified as LGBT that we had this innate ability to be more understanding about variance in our community. But, this was and continues to be a detrimental assumption. After all, what is the queer community but a microcosm of society with all (and maybe even more of) the same ailments of the community at large (of course with some variation and nuances). Sometimes queer people of color can be the least forgiving. Not all the time, but sometimes. Especially when it comes to gender. Perhaps if we knew a little bit more about how our conception of gender came about and our true history, we'd let go of rigid western european views and embrace a more comprehensive view of ourselves, as our ancestors did.

First, let's get on the same page. This is from good old Wiki and good enough for our purposes, I guess:

A gender role is a set of social and behavioral norms that are generally considered appropriate for either a man or a woman in a social or interpersonal relationship. There are differences of opinion as to which observed differences in behavior and personality between genders are entirely due to innate personality of the person and which are due to cultural or social factors, and are therefore the product of socialization, or to what extent gender differences are due to biological and physiological differences.Gender roles differ according to cultural-historical context, and while most cultures express two genders, some express more. (Androgyny, for example, has been proposed as a third gender. Other societies have been claimed to have more than five genders,and some non-Western societies have three genders –man, woman and third gender.)Gender expression refers to the external manifestation of one's gender identity, through "masculine," "feminine," or gender-variant or gender neutral behavior, clothing, hairstyles, or body characteristics.

Our (Hir)story

The way our community views gender today is not rooted in our (read: POC) traditions. During colonization our traditions were repressed and during slavery, western patriarchal notions reigned supreme. Men were supposed to keep their women in line. Men were to have power over women in all spheres. Especially the “public spheres.” Westerners believe whatever gender is predominant in/controls the public sphere (i.e. business and trade, etc.) has the most power. Many have pointed out that this isn't true when applied to pre-colonial African society. Though anthropologists argue that power and authority are vested in, or come from, who controls the public domain, in African society women are involved in both the public and private domain. In pre-colonial Africa women had a role in business as well as were revered in the home. Their voice in decision-making for their communities was extremely important. Though we see remnants of this today, it seems that our society is caught up with certain types of power being “masculine” or “feminine.” Masculine power trumping feminine of course.

Our ancestors, before and during slavery, functioned with the complementarity of gender roles, meaning they "shared power" while complementing one another's  roles.

Combining in such a way as to enhance or emphasize each others qualities.

Though there was hierarchy in male and female roles in both the public and private sphere and some hierarchy between the sexes in some aspects of African life, it wasn't the same as the uneven balance of power in relationships between males and females in western society. We've got to abandon the colonizer's mentality and focus more on the significance of the complementary roles that our ancestors had. (This is not only true for Africa but also true in Mexico, Central and South America- and most colonized lands).

Women had the dopest roles of all as healers. In some parts of Africa, women were seen as more intuitive and closer to nature and nature is extremely important in African cosmology and spirituality. You see, Nature is respected not only because of its association with the Supreme but also because of its relevance to humankind. Imagine that! So, the fact that a woman is thought to be more attuned to nature points to her significance to the tribe as a powerful mediator and channel of the Supreme Being in a healing capacity.

So, for our ancestors, the relationships between males and females was different. Gender expression and roles were completely different. Not rigid and suffocating. Our ancestors weren't invested in the same kinds of ways that westerners/ the colonizers are in gender determining your role. There were societies in which women took on “male roles” and “maleness,” becoming “male” for certain social or spiritual reasons. There were certain Native American societies where men lived as women and women as men. Two-spirited. And this was honored and respected. People weren't expected to be polarized on either side of the spectrum for the sake of defining roles and knowing what pronouns to use.

If you look at the literature there are some societies with 3 genders, 5 genders, and more. They aren't restricted to this male-female binary which determines almost every aspect of western life. What you're going to wear. Maybe even where you can work or what position you can have. Or how much money you'll make. What bathroom to use, etc,etc. Basically- how much power you're allowed to have and how you should be treated. For better or for worse.

What a shame that people get so stuck on gender presentation and expression that they can't relate with another person. These days it's grounds for isolating people. It's grounds for aggression and injuring or killing others.

Gender Variance and Healing

Two-spirited, gender non-conforming people have a long past as healers. Dig and you'll find this out. (I'd start with Leslie Feinberg's Transgender Warriors- if you've got others, let me know.)
Being between genders- neither male or female or maybe being both, was thought to be a gift in the past, and still is considered sacred in some societies today.

In many shamanic traditions, there was the idea that combining the characteristics of both sexes and both genders could connect one to a transcendent spiritual realm. Two-spirited folks were messengers of the Creator, visionaries, dream interpreters, keepers and teachers of spiritual principles, and medicine people. They were called on to do burials, bless unions and births and perform other ceremonies. Because they embodied both Mother Earth and Father Sky and held both a masculine and feminine heart within their souls (two spirits), they were perceived as having twice the power. They were thought to be more able to be fair and to be able to see into the hearts of males and females. Since they inhabited both masculine and feminine in one body they were thought to be able to “see” with both the eyes of men and women. This made them mediators and bridges. They were also seen as mediators between two worlds- that of Spirit and the human world, as well as between partners, tribe, and nation. In older world religions, the gods and goddesses in-between genders were viewed as whole-gendered and therefore balanced.

In fact, the suppression of our gender expression can be seen as a barrier to our wholeness. Some say that two-spirited people/gender non-conforming folks are an “affirmation of humanity's pre-gendered unity”. We're the representatives of this previous form of solidarity and wholeness that was present before the split of humans into men and women. Put that in your pipe and smoke it genderphobic colonizers.

Decolonizing our Minds

We have got to continue to decolonize our minds. Forget everything we've been taught and search for the oldways. We have got to reclaim our traditions because the “education” we are getting now is not serving us. In order to survive- no, thrive- we've got to begin to care about the constant poisoning of our knowledge-base and the severance of ties to our traditions.

In Amerika, the multicultural melting pot, we are stuck on differences. Some search for commonalities. I'd like us who consider ourselves “radical” or visionary to move past this and connect to the spirits of others and see their humanity. What's truly radical is seeing that we all want happiness and that we all want to avoid suffering. The Dalai Lama once talked about how this was how he was able to relate to so many people from so many walks of life. It's not radical to point out the differences in ideologies, others faults, and why we're better/more educated/more radical than others.

What's radical is holding people within your community accountable for their transphobia, misogyny (internalized and externalized), misandry, xenophobia, racism, fat phobia, etc. Check folks. Call them out. Challenge people. Why is a transwoman funny? Why is someone who has taken estrogen or testosterone or who had had surgery more trans or more legitimate and taken more seriously than a person who hasn't? Why is it taboo for two masculine of center folks to be together? Why is it okay for homophobia to exist within trans circles? Why is it ok for transphobia to exist within the queer community? Why is it ok for a gay male to be a misogynist and why is the patriarchy recreated within the LGBT community? Why do we mostly hear from white trans folks? If trans people of color are the most marginalized and the folks being murdered at a higher rate (an astronomical rate), why is there little discussion and only support one day out of the year?

An elder transwoman on a recent trans panel discussion I was on demonstrated something profound. She took out a Tibetan singing bowl, held it tight with one hand and attempted to strike it to make it sound. There was an ugly clank. She tried again. Same. She let go of the bell and struck it and a it made a beautiful sound that continued to resonate for some time. She said that in society when people deny us our expression we are denied our authenticity and are like that bell that only clanks and isn't given the opportunity to sing. When society allows us to express our true selves and be who we are, we are able to truly sing like when she released the bell and struck it.

What are you saying, Toi?

Simply put: The policing of gender (and other identities), especially in the QPOC community, must STOP. We've got to decolonize our minds. De-assimilate. We need to know our (hir)story and reclaim the oldways. We've got to understand that our ideas on gender are limited and that they are a detriment to our community and the community at large. And we've got to hold others accountable. Including ourselves.

Afro-Genderqueer Street Philosophactivist out...