Editor’s Note: The following is the 2nd post to a two-part series on the connections between heterosexism and sexualized violence by Stephanie Krehbiel. To see Part 1, click here. In this series Stephanie stresses why we cannot ignore race, class, or homosexuality in the conversation about sexualized violence. – RH
Yesterday I explained how the umbrella term sexualized violence applies to the discrimination and injustice that people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and/or queer routinely experience. I included the definitions of terms such as misogyny and gender complementarity, and explained how deeply racialized and class-dependent they are. Today I address how we can change the violence we continue to perpetuate in our churches and communities.
Gender as we live it in this society is extraordinarily dependent on what many gender scholars and lgbtq justice advocates call gender policing. By this, I mean all of the things we do to protect our enshrined gender roles.
We need both the good cops and the bad cops to pull it off successfully, and all the gradations in between. I’m not talking exclusively about literal policing here, although literal policing is definitely involved, often brutally, and directed particularly at people of color. Gendered and sexualized police violence against people of color is one of the most unacknowledged forms of violence in American society.
But I’m also referring to the other ways in which we keep ourselves and each other in check. We begin with our children, particularly our boys, who are so often terrorized out of any personal expression that might be associated with femininity.
We see it in public restrooms, where people whose gender is ambiguous are so often shamed, harassed, and even assaulted.
It happens in airports: if a TSA employee thinks you don’t look enough like the gender on your ID, you are at their mercy.
And of course it happens endlessly through language; words like “bitch,” “slut,” and “fag” are useful because we monitor our behavior to avoid being their targets. (Listen to the way teenaged boys use the word “fag” around each other and you will see exactly what I’m talking about.) Often these words carry the implicit threat of physical violence, or at least carry the echoes of physical violence that was done with them in the past.
We have names for women with too much power (bossy, bitch, cunt, dyke) for men who are subject to female authority (pussy-whipped), for men who cry (sissy, wimpish), for women who don’t smile (cold bitch, ice queen, frigid), for boys and girls who play with the wrong kinds of toys (tomboy, he throws like a girl). Not every usage of every one of these terms or phrases is necessarily violent, but their ubiquity is revealing.
Gender policing can be medical. Since the 1950s, the standard approach to infants born with what a doctor deems to be ambiguous genitalia has been genital “normalizing” surgery, despite mounting evidence of the harm this approach causes.
Gender policing can be nationalist*. The United States, for instance, has a long history of restricting or denying citizenship to people of ambiguous gender expression. Gender policing maintains the arbitrary borders of the nation just as it maintains the arbitrary borders of “male” and “female.”
(*If this interests you, check out The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America by Margot Canaday (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011). And another related (if dense) read on this subject is Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times by Jasbir Puar (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).)
This policing can also be more subtle. I see it, for instance, in Mennonite church statements and editorial pieces in which the writers refer to the “the issue of homosexuality,” despite the fact that people who are lgbtq have been pointing out for years how this language objectifies and dehumanizes them. Jennifer Yoder calls out this behavior succinctly in her recent blog post, asking for “human-first language” instead.
Of course, it’s also true that once upon a time there was no lgbtq acronym. “Queer” was itself a brutal and gender-policing insult, and many people, if they were at all out of the closet, referred to themselves unironically as homosexuals. The early newsletters of the Brethren Mennonite Council on LGBT Interests are full of references to “the issue of homosexuality.”
But this is part of the history of identity formation: when people who are marginalized organize around identity and resist their collective objectification, their language for naming themselves will evolve. Sometimes derogatory language is reappropriated, as “queer” has been, not only as an umbrella term for non-conforming gender and sexuality but as a political orientation that sheds light on the essential fragility of everything we call normal.
Because of this evolution, it’s easy to mess up language, and we all do it sometimes. When you refer to someone who lived through sexual assault as a victim and they say to you, “Please call me a survivor instead,” you honor that, because to honor that request is to honor their humanity. If a person who identifies as queer asks you to refer to them that way, doing as they ask sends the message that they are a real person to you, even if the word “queer” makes you uncomfortable. “What’s in a name?” Yoder writes. “In this case, acknowledgment of my humanity is in a name.”
Once you’ve learned how not to mess it up, continuing to shove the people who have educated you out of the frame of the conversation and talk about “the issue of homosexuality” or even just “the issue” in general becomes a way of saying, “People like me are still in charge of this discussion. I will not indulge your desire to name yourself.”
Scolding is another subtle mode of policing that I see frequently in Christian circles. What do I mean by scolding? Scolding is a rhetorical device that aims to neutralize dissent and stop critique by assuming the voice of an all-knowing parent. The goal of the scolder is to make the scoldee look as though their judgment is clouded by excessive emotion or desire, or by a childish outlook. Scolding is not a sincere engagement with ideas. It’s an attempt at silencing through shame, and in the case of discussions about sexuality, it’s often quite effective, because the poison of sexual shame is still so powerful and so deep.
And scolding works well with the kind of social conservatism that has been ascendant in the United States for the past forty years, in which patriarchal authorities seem to know what’s best for everyone, and those who don’t fit into the capitalist, Eurocentric, and heterosexist social order can be spoken of as though they are wayward children, regardless of how old they are. Perhaps it feels less dehumanizing to speak of fellow adults as though they are children than it feels to speak of them as though they are objects. But I’m not sure that it’s ultimately any less damaging.
At the heart of all this gender policing is a denial of reality. Human beings are not, in fact, a species made up of males and females. We aren’t a species made up of heterosexuals and homosexuals. We’re just far more complicated than all of that. Somehow, somewhere along the way, we seem to have figured out how much power there is in ideas about gender and sexuality that reduce that complexity to serve our particular interests. We saw how much potential these ideas have to control and hurt people, and how easily and profitably these ideas could be exploited.
This analysis can be hard for church people to hear, especially church people who believe in peace, and the defensiveness that this message generates is itself a powerful force for keeping things as they are. People who justify their heterosexism through gender complementarity do not want to hear that their gendered worldview is connected to the violence of rape and sexual abuse. People who still believe in ex-gay “conversion therapy” do not want to hear that such therapies are connected to the suicide epidemic among people who are lgbtq. People who portray the movement for acceptance of lgbtq identities as a white, Western invention do not want to believe that their words are connected to the systemic sexual violation and murder of queer people of color.
Our first line of defense against a systemic critique that implicates us is often outrage. We’re offended by the suggestion that our sincere and heartfelt beliefs, or our everyday practices, could be connected to something so base and brutal as rape or abuse or murder. It’s very understandable. But it breaks my heart, and the hearts and spirits of so many others, when that same defensive outrage derails every attempt at a systemic analysis of sexualized violence and the heterosexist social order that so deeply affects us all.
When it’s done well, there is something profoundly humanizing about a systemic analysis of injustice. A good analysis will call out individual perpetrators and enablers; it doesn’t let people off the hook for abusing, misusing, othering, and violating one another. But when we talk about individuals within violent systems, we come up against the undeniable truth that even the most monstrous acts are not committed by monsters. They’re committed by people who are part of the same human whole as the rest of us.
Many of us are complicit in violence. All of us get to be people.
This, by the way, is not the same thing as saying that we’re all equally culpable in this massive social mess that is sexualized violence. We’re not all equally culpable. Some people are innocent. Some people are definitely guilty. We don’t get to end the discussion by vaguely suggesting that we’re all the same kind of sinner. Not unless we want to keep committing the same kinds of violence unto infinity.
But when this violence touches us, when we ourselves are violated, sometimes the most radical thing we can say is, “Yes, I am a person. And that is a wondrous thing.”