Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Straight-jacket problem

Oh no, I sense illness on the horizon. Hope I don't fall sick.

By the way, for those who are interested, I am writing 2 papers at the moment. The first is on representation (in media). The second is about a particular discourse in transgenderism in Singapore, namely the medical categorisation of transgenderism. For my Masters thesis, I am (and hope to be) researching transgender representations in Singapore. Am not yet decided as to whether I should do a sociological or an discursive analysis approach.

I sometimes wonder to myself, "What's the point of doing all this?" Sure, my wife wants to retire early, and that will make me the sole breadwinner by being a teacher/researcher some time in the future. Gender norm eh?

I also harbour the dream to retire early. It is our integration into and dependence on the economic system that forces us to engage it. If it weren't for these variables/properties, most of us would have been disengaged (although "planting rice is never fun" hahaha).

On the other hand, it is an intention of mine (and to an extent, some degree of norm-breaking 'mischief') to spread greater awareness on gender and sexuality issues. Awareness is not merely about knowing something, but the desire to ask simple questions, such as "why is this like that?" Of course, this leads to far more political questions such as "who benefits from this?"

A simple group like the queer-straight alliance, SinQSA, poses huge philosophical challenges (to me). We support the idea of an integrated society, regardless of gender identity and sexuality (and gender behaviour and sexual identity, two slightly different terms from the ones mentioned). I feel, for the moment, the banner under which this integration can be championed is a bit limiting, so much so SinQSA can be mistaken for "one of those" sexual minority rights advocate groups.

While the sexual minority rights movement/campaign require such support and strength in numbers, and a wider diversity of support, I believe SinQSA cannot participate fully in the movement as the idea of SinQSA concerns not only sexual minorities, but "sexual minorities" who do not identify as sexual minorities as well as people who identify as straight. SinQSA is about Singaporean men and women in general(duh?).

Gay-straight alliances and queer-straight alliances in high schools and colleges in the United States address school/peer-based discrimination and bullying, very specific issues. However, the politics (if you want to call it) of SinQSA is about sensitising, on top of raising awareness, people to the some/often-times oppressive nature that is heterocentrism/normality/sexism.

I personally believe that Singaporeans should be sensitive and sensitised to issues on gender identity and sexuality, before they willingly don the mass produced straight-jackets of gendered society. In essence, transparency and the access to new/alternative sets of knowledge should be created for ourselves by ourselves, through the raising of this form of awareness.

What does it mean/take to be man/woman? What does it mean/take to be gay/straight/bisexual/pansexual/asexual/etc? What does it mean/take to identify as or be transgendered?

Are you a masculinist masculine male man?

There is another tension that exists, one that I have far greater difficulty in communicating. I am weary of the culture of "political correctness" that might shroud such a campaign/movement, taking into consideration SinQSA strives for social integration. The paradox is there for all of us to see when we become intolerant, forceful and righteous in our attempts to fight these very same properties.

To avoid that, I propose the "politically correct" use of terminology. A gay is not gay. He/she is someone who identifies as gay. At the same time, "homosexual" should be an adjective rather than a noun, the latter implying some simplistic reductionism of a person's identity. This linguistic/grammatical strategy is problematic too, as some members of the sexual minority community are still oriented towards the previous discourse of identification.

SinQSA is also stranded between liberal and radical politics. The whole discourse on "integration" signals liberal intent, but the intent to re-configure language and ways of thinking/assumptions are radical.

SinQSA also seeks to invalidate the polarisation of our society. I think the recommendations of "more dialogue" implicitly (and ironically) suggests that people should start listening, rather than talking. However, the problem with listening is that the ears with which we hear/listen are moulded by existing hardy socialised pre-conceptions of what right/wrong should be, of what society should be, and with that, the singular direction of a moral compass we believe to exist universally. How then can you communicate?

Members of the sexual minority community are, (un)knowingly, complicit in perpetuating heterosexist discourses on sexual minority rights/liberation/etc. It is not fault of theirs, as society is not ready for new radical/subversive discourses and challenges to pre-existing ideologies. For example, the usage of "gay" or "homosexual" as a noun.

At the same time, while we (myself included) have diligently sought to debunk gender norms as socially constructed, we have returned to biological essentialism to legitimise the queer sexual identity. There is also a turn towards pathologisation, medicalisation and medical categorisation to legitimise the transgender identity, for instance, the identification with "gender identity disorder" in transsexualism.

Society has defended itself so well from suggestions and charges that it may be the one that is "ill" or "wrong". In the end, we all bite the same bait, whether queer, pro-queer or anti-queer.

The fight against categorical conflation and straight-jacketing of specific sexual minority identities/groups somehow requires another level of conflation. I see it not as a synthesis, but rather a standardisation of ideas, ideals and identities to pursue a cause. Heard about the homogeneous homosexual?

Is there a way to go beyond this? Is there another tactic? Or does this tactic still figure in the grand scheme, the grand strategy (de Certeau haha) of things?

I look at accounts of trans-gender individuals (as in transcending the gender binary) wherein the subversion of societal gender norms/binary is furthered by the re-configuration of language. New pronouns such as "hir" and "zhe" are a couple of many examples in which these persons have chosen to identify themselves. They figure not as deviant or challenges to established codes and norms, but as a commentary, as an exposure that we live in a society not only of constraints and limitations, but also of possibilities. There is a possibility we can change. However, most of us can only conceive of a change that is linear, it "progresses" or "regresses", it "upgrades" or "downgrades"; and this idea of 'change' still exists within a binary.

Watching the movie "Short Bus" and meeting queer individuals have got me to wonder, "what is right/wrong with a consensual and happy relationship of three persons?" Beyond the point that society is culturally, economically and legally unable to accommodate this phenomenon, what is it that prevents us from accepting this?

I think SinQSA also fights for the idea that we should each have the freedom to define ourselves. Once people come to understand and respect this idea, we may ponder over the validity of "straight-ness".

There should be a freedom of one to identify with a gender/sexuality continuum, or a model of fluidity, or even something so transcendental/transgressive it cannot be categorised.

You are a biological male. You identify as heterosexual, which means you like females, but of a certain aesthetic/shape/behaviour. What about biological males that identify as women or become a woman (according to cultural standards)? Will your heterosexuality accommodate this woman?

This biological male of yours may identify as (culturally) masculine, but may not exhibit or perform all the masculine traits as consistent with the majority of societal expectations. So how man is that? How "straight" is that?

I don't think we should be nihilists and say that everything is arbitrary (although most of the time I think that way), as this will not do good for any kind of politics. You cannot mobilise people around an idea of nothingness or the idea that everything is meaningless (unless we have a organisation of anarchists, rather oxymoronic). We should instead explore and be open to the idea that it is time for people to become persons, to decide to "label" ourselves, but not merely with the existing terms and conditions given to us.

My tennis coach, a devout Catholic, joked about me being "a voice in the wilderness" (has biblical connotations, as I found out later). The thing is, if everyone has a freedom to decide his/her/its identity, I believe we will have a new system/paradigm/"wilderness" to accommodate these different voices. Of course, we still live in a world/mindset that the business of pleasing everyone and having everyone fulfill their potential/capabilities is problematic and impossible. Who knows, even the "emancipation" of queer identities will (paradoxically) take place under the continued oppression of biological females. Funny things can happen.

And again (as usual), where will we go from there? For the moment, a simple SinQSA won't hurt. I am so eager to figure out the potential challenges and problems that it faces and will confront, but am limited by knowledge, ideology, language and logic (and a bit of personal beliefs because I sometimes question the need to form associations, as it figures as functional to pre-existing systems).

Apparently, thinking is not enough; we have got to start questioning.


kc said...


i used to love reading your posts - they're witty and informative

however, with this entry, your blog has reached 'too long, didn't read' status. i gave up after the second paragraph

it's tempting to write everything and anything that comes to mind (feels like a waste when one has an idea, but no chance to write it, eh?)

but perhaps its best to sacrifice some content for brevity, if that is what the audience prefers

Sam Ho said...

hello, haha, yes that happens quite often!

most of the times, i use the space to practise writing and expressing (immediately) what comes to my mind. sometimes, i just rattle on and on, not knowing that i have already made a point. but it feels fun pouring out what one thinks into writing.

like for example, the use of "/" and brackets to show what i'm thinking as i'm discussing something. very cathartic, considering i have to be brief and to the point when i do other things in real life (e.g. talk to people, fill up forms, write essays). so doing it here is kinda fun.

"epic fail" in the area of brevity here though haha. the shorter posts will probably be around 400 words, which is what the Straits Times Forum will want.

don't need to read everything la haha.

Agagooga said...

The paradox is there for all of us to see when we become intolerant, forceful and righteous in our attempts to fight these very same properties.

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." - C.S. Lewis

Agagooga said...

I think a lot of this is semantics. Especially the noun/adjective thing.

I think of myself, to varying degrees, as a human, secular humanist, atheist, purveyor of weird shit, longhair, male, heterosexual, epicurean etc etc.

Just because I am an atheist (noun) does not mean I cannot also be a purveyor of weird shit (noun)

If you wonder "what is right/wrong with a consensual and happy relationship of three persons?", do you also wonder "what is right/wrong with a consensual and happy relationship between family members?"

Sam Ho said...

damn, i'm very grateful for that quote by c.s. lewis (cos i'm not well read enough). thanks!

yes, now that we're on that topic, i wonder if incest is wrong.

if we invoked the issue of unequal power relations, that might somehow invalidate 'confucian' relationships (older man + younger woman; powerful kings + random sexy bitch).

if we invoked the issue of consent, it also gets a bit sticky. what about consensual incest? maybe i can look at the issue another time. quite interesting, if we look at it from an ethical perspective. consensual incest may not necessarily be wrong in some ethical perspectives.

Agagooga said...

There're power inequities in every relationship, for the simple reason that it is impossible to find 2 people who are exactly the same.

And if you invoke unequal power relations that nixes a lot of normal relationships too.

I don't think you can consistently endorse homosexual sex while condemning incest or polygamy.