Gender Trouble

Jessica Clark

How far can identity politics really take us?

The latest evidence of their success is all around us. From the Supreme Court decision on homosexual privacy to the “metrosexual” makeovers of straight guys by the five queens from Bravo’s Queer Eye, America is undergoing what The Daily Show terms a “gaysplosion.”

And yet, for years, the movements for women’s and lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered rights have been experiencing empty nest syndrome. Members of previously oppressed populations have benefited from social reforms, only to turn their backs on the coalitions that won them new freedoms. Too often, shared struggles have disintegrated into shared product tastes and therapeutic constructs.

These movements have also lost momentum by regularly performing their own purges, shedding members that they find ideologically distasteful, and generating ever-more-narrowly defined special interest groups in their wake. Focused on policing their boundaries and warding off bigots, feminists and queer activists have often missed the chance to connect acceptance of a wide range of behaviors and styles to larger struggles for equality and tolerance.

To attract and retain a new generation of activists, progressive movements need to learn to bend with gender—both to serve as a safe haven and to provide a strong platform for those fighting for less-restrictive roles for both men and women.

While homosexuality is one of the most visible gender-bending behaviors, it’s by no means the only route to social disapproval. In the past decade alone, the media has propagated wave after wave of gender panic, reporting on riot grrls and Fight Club boys, lesbian and then geek chic, soccer hooligans and moms, trenchcoated school bullies, and female high-school hazers. Each of these media moments picks a point from the continuum of expected behavior for members of each gender and subjects those people who deviate too far from the mean to unflattering scrutiny.

Many campus radicals are ready for a new framework. As Riki Wilchins explains in the recent anthology GenderQueer, young transgender activists see the struggle for freedom from gender constraints as the next civil rights battle.

“Gender itself remains invisible as a progressive issue,” Wilchins writes. “ Maybe it’s time to acknowledge gender stereotypes as a problem we all share, a central concern, a way to come together: a human rights issue for us all.”

In this issue, we explore some current frontiers for women’s and queer rights activists. Silja J.A. Talvi writes about women who are finding strength in previously-stigmatized identities; Elizabeth Ehrenberg writes about new sex-positive groups on college campuses and Peter Dreier asks when the United States will see openly gay men in Major League Baseball.

But questions remain. Will the gender pioneers who explore and tame these frontiers experience their success as personal victories, rather than political ones? Can “identity politics” motivate and connect those who no longer conceive of themselves as victims? And can progressives find ways to re-engage the country’s political imagination by espousing a new “hetero” politics: an activism that agitates for heterogeneous, not homogenous, communities?

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Jessica Clark is a writer, editor and researcher, with more than 15 years of experience spanning commercial, educational, independent and public media production. Currently she is the Research Director for American University’s Center for Social Media. She also writes a monthly column for PBS’ MediaShift on new directions in public media. She is the author, with Tracy Van Slyke, of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (2010, New Press).
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