Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Adventures with gender

As one of my femme identities is that of drag queen - emphasising that there is nothing natural about most people's performance of femininity - regardless of what is on their birth certificates, I don't mind not passing as a woman - I do most of the times, but in particular environments (particularly about a decade ago in Adelaide, where dyke spaces were a sea of jeans, waistcoats and short hair), with very big eyelashes, heels and hair, I have had people approach me and tell me that I tuck really well, and ask if I'm on hormones yet.

.... I am going somewhere with this.....

Some of the definitions I've heard for the term woman/ womyn/ wombmoon from separatist feminists leave me out - sometimes the definitions end up being more a list of 'acceptable' sex practices, uniforms and political views, more than anything else. I certainly don't fit those definitions - despite an "F" on my birth certificate, XX chromosomes, a menstruating uterus and other traditionally associated body parts.

Being punched once in 'women's space' (it's a long story) and having a femme ex of my abused for having long hair and a skirt at an International Lesbian Day dance, I long ago decided that 'safe women's space' often wasn't all that safe a space for me. Diversity is occasionally paid lip service to - with perfume-free policies for those with chemical sensitivity, alcohol-free space those with substance use issues, and lip service paid to issues of racism and classism - as long as working class women don't want to work on class issues with working class men, or women of colour don't want to organise with men of colour, homophobia is spoken about but gay men are still men ..... Often women's spaces become hijacked with a particular fundamentalist feminism that is so narrow and prescriptive that it lacks relevance to all but a minority of women.

Those of you that know me well will probably know that I am utterly obsessed with labels. While I am a fan of many aspects of pomo discourse, who gets to call themselves what, and how labels and identity allow us to work together, to unify and to create boundaries are issues I find immensely meaningful. This doesn't have to mean an essentialist world view, with membership of a community being etched in stone - shifting labels and identities are powerful, but I have yet to see affective community development, or activism come from a position of fluidity. Maybe when I do witness thins, I'll stop wearing my many, varied and occasionally contradictory labels on my tee shirts, soap boxes and inked into my skin.

Oh, and don't get me started on the woman-born woman issue! I don't know about you, but I was born a baby. Whoever decided on that F on my documents certainly didn't consult me. Any more that the Catholics that baptised me. Both of them got it equally wrong in my case. If I present gender cues that are consistent with what Western society considers is appropriate with my gender-assignment-at-birth, that actually feels somewhat coincidental. As many femmes who have "M"s on their birth certificate will tell you (not always transwomen, some men, not always gay ID as femmes), this works, it makes sense for us, this is how we feel powerful.

When hideous people like Janice Raymond (who wrote that nasty, mean-spirited piece of trash The Transexual Empire) also started dissing sex workers, it just made the coalition between sex workers, transwomen and to a certain extent femmes as the targets (far more so, often that str8 white, able bodied, cisgender men) of mean spirited fundamentalist feminism, and thus natural allies, on at least some issues. When I was in a long term relationship with a transwoman, I decided to no longer identify as a woman. This wasn't coming from some weird desire to guiltily reject cisgender privilege but more to use labels as an opportunity to create meaningful coalitions - and to reject those that didn't work for me. Being in the same room with a group of transwomen has always felt safer and more affirming than being around anyone with the same views as Janice Raymond, Sheila Jeffreys et al. If anything being in the same space as separatist fundamentalist feminists actually feels oppressive and abusive, as that branch of feminism spends more time critiquing my hair and heel length, my clothes, my sexual practices and my allies and friends than it does doing anything to dismantle institutionalised sexism.

This branch of feminism sees all gendered presentation as oppressive - particularly femininity as it is seen as declaring yourself as sexually available to men, unworthy of equality, fluffy and not to be taken seriously or simply making yourself a rape target. Compulsory androgyny is seen as the acceptable way to present yourself. To this I say - to those that say a binary gender system is oppressive and the way of dismantling sexism is one 'choice' not two is as depressing as that crap song that suggests the end of racism by building a 'great big meltin' pot' and producing 'coffee coloured people by the score'. I am really not resigned to the only chance for equality is when we are all exactly the same.... that isn't harmony or equality to me - it's some creepy fascist fantasy! To me the answer always feels like more choices, not less. A different gender identity and presentation for each person on the planet!

So when I have to fill in a box on forms, I put a W for whore, or - if pressed, an F for femme. I find most of the time official forms that ask people to declare a letter, do it for no purpose whatsoever, simply convention. I encourage you, gentle reader, to ask why the collection of this information is relevant, or to start coming up with your own gender identity - might I suggest wonky (just cause I really like the word) asparagus (as you then have a great opportunity to wear loads of green clothes) or 9..... because it's a really nice number.... my point is that humour, complexity, queering bureaucracy and being wilfully obtuse is more fun, and less oppressive than fundamentalism, and might just change one or two small things.

Quarter of a Million Towards Migrant Sex Worker Rights

Scarlet Alliance funded for sex worker peer education

In October 2007, sex workers around Australia gathered in Kalgoorlie to hear presentations from migrant sex worker colleagues, including Empower Foundation in Thailand. Sex workers at that meeting resolved to take migrant sex worker rights to Canberra. 12 months later, Canberra is listening, and has granted $250,000 to Scarlet Alliance to extend peer education to migrant sex workers in Australia, with the aim of improving working conditions.

"Migrant sex workers are working in legalised, decriminalised and tolerated workplaces in Australia," Elena Jeffreys, President of Scarlet Alliance, said today. "Trafficking is not characteristic of sex work, but it may be characteristic of workplaces that don't have access to the same rights as other people. Prevention is better than prosecution. By improving working conditions, we can prevent trafficking."

The funding was announced by the Hon. Bob Debus, Minister for Home Affairs, on the 23rd of October 2008. Scarlet Alliance acknowledges Mr Debus' long standing support of the sex worker community response to HIV, and welcomes his office as a new funding partner on the issue of trafficking.

"Scarlet Alliance is looking forward to using the announced funds to improve workplace conditions for migrant sex workers in Australia, to co-ordinate policy work that has previously been unresourced, and to assist our diverse membership in Australia to better meet the needs of migrant sex workers through peer education."

"This money by no means will solve all issues for migrant sex workers in Australia," Elena Jeffreys reminded supporters today.

"Scarlet Alliance will continue to lobby for adequate resoucing and policy, but in the mean time are celebrating what a succeful year we have had in 2008. The Rudd Government has done considerably more for trafficking prevention and migrant sex worker rights in 12 short months than the Howard Government achieved in 12 years."

Another new initiative by Mr Debus is a policy roundtable to better inform the Government on trafficking issues. Scarlet Alliance is a member of the roundtable, and has participated in the roundtable sub-committee that has prepared a new set of Guidelines for Non-Government Organisations who work with people who may have been trafficked.

"Scarlet Alliance is committed to working from reliable evidence to promote
migrant sex worker rights and prevent trafficking of sex workers," Elena Jeffreys concluded today. "The next step is to deliver a more equitable, accessible and transparent visa framework for sex workers wishing to travel to Australia, and we are confident that with broad community support, the Rudd Government will deliver."