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Presenting at elite universities: a guilty pleasure? And introduction to my next piece on borderlands of gender

Date: March 18, 2010

I just came home from my trip to Providence to speak at Brown University for the second time. My last visit there was in April 2007, which you can read about here.

The title of my presentation (workshop) was “Transgender Inclusion, or Demilitarizing the Borderlands of Binary Gender System.” It is a critique of “inclusion” model of transgender activism, which promotes individuals’ rights to self-define who they are while leaving the larger structure of binary gender system mostly intact, only creating rooms for minor “exceptions.” While self-determination is an important goal, the promotion of individual choice and responsibility in the absence of justice and equity is the hallmark of the neoliberal ideology and needs to be challenged.

As the title suggests, the workshop also introduced the concept of borderlands, which Gloria Anzaldúa describes as “vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” In the book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Anzaldúa presents a parallel view of borderlands in the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the borderlands created by the boundaries of race, gender and sexuality. I’ve been using the metaphor of borderlands to talk about transgender issues for a long time, but I have not been able to present it in a way that was easy for people to understand, but preparing for this workshop helped me to think through how to go about writing a piece that centers on this idea. In other words: stay tuned.

I actually did this workshop at the National MEChA conference at University of Oregon a while back, but that was an audience that was already familiar with issues around borders, borderlands, and immigration. But the highly privileged Brown University crowd would have a very different backgrounds, and I worried that I might not be able to convey my ideas very well.

To my surprise, though, everything went fine. In fact, it turned out great. I have given workshops and lectures at many universities around the country, but speaking at an elite school like Brown (other schools in this category that I’ve visited include University of Chicago, Cornell, Columbia, and Yale) is actually very enjoyable and stimulating for me. Students are bright, of course, but they also possess the cultural capital that affords them the luxury of abstract critical thinking and complexity. And at the same time, I feel certain level of resentment at their highly privileged existence and prospect–these are the people who would join companies like Goldman Sachs and get huge bonuses while the rest of us suffer from unemployment and increasingly hostile labour market.

When talking about the binary gender system, people sometimes jump to the conclusion that we should simply “deconstruct” genders so that everyone is free to be who they are. I’ve been told over and over (by bunch of graduate students, scholars, and some highly educated trans activists) that the intersex movement should work on challenging the binary gender system because that is where the oppression of intersex people stem from. I have nothing against that proposal, except for the fact that intersex children are being harmed by the society’s intolerance of their variance every day and need more immediate, practical help now.

I did not want Brown students to go home only with the critique of identity-based argument for transgender “inclusion,” or with a simple understanding that “deconstructing” binary gender system (however long it would take, and however many trans and intersex people would continue to suffer until that magical day) was the way to go. My call for “demilitarizing the borderlands of binary gender system” is distinct from simply “deconstructing” the binary: it starts with an acknowledgement that trans and intersex people live in the borderlands, and take concrete steps to demilitarise their environment that is the consequences of the society’s attempt to draw a clear and unambiguous boundaries where none naturally exists.

More on that coming soon…

By the way, out of 16-18 students who came to my presentation, not one of them has ever read anything by Gloria Anzaldúa! WTF!?

1 Comment »

  1. Hi, Emi. You’re brilliant, this is great, would love to read your full talk.

    I’m thinking about the borderlands of the binary gender system and wondering what you think about the idea that it’s not just folks who identify as trans and intersex that exist on those borderlands. There are lots of signals of gender non-conformity, no? For example, would “effeminate” cismen, “butch” ciswomen, also exist on the borderlands? Or given the ways in which race, class, and skin color shape the way one’s gender is read, and if one can even conform to gender norm expectations given the those expectations are colored, raced, and classed, can other ciswomen also be considered to exist on those borderlands? For example, would we consider Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman as negotiating those gender borderlands as well? (To be honest, it seems incoherent to think of Saartjie as “cis,” although she’s also not defined as “trans.”)

    I guess I’m trying to imagine expansively what demilitarization would entail in many different spaces…

    Comment by tghi — April 11, 2010 @ 11:09 pm

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