Sunday, September 30, 2012

I don't go by "Lady" anymore

This is a new decision, one I find myself talking about with increasing frequency and length. It first popped in a previous post as an innocuous, itchy declaration that edged on subconscious. It's since been growing.

There is a lot of cultural expectation attached to the term "lady".

I am beginning to recognize it as a coded term for compulsory femininity and consumption. The easiest and most apparent way to recognize this is to think about traditional femininity. It's easy for most people who've grown up in highly gendered western culture to conjure up a vision of a lady as someone living in a different time; a role played by Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe. We think of lace and poise. The word dainty comes to mind. There is a level of control, artifice, and illusion (corsets and make up) with which the traditional lady presents her body. While I see nothing inherently wrong with these things, I personally don't make it a habit to treat my body the way a traditional lady would.

The manifestation of "lady" in modern times is definitely built off of these old forms and habits of ladyhood in the form of casual slut shaming & agency discouraging aphorisms: a lady always crosses her legs; a lady always waits for the third date; a lady waits to be courted etc. But these days there are many more confusing and often contradictory standards about being a lady one must appear "ladylike" (aka expressing sexuality) at all times but neither be "too forward" (AKA sexually available on her OWN explicitly specified) terms). The habits surrounding ladyhood have expanded (from corsets to shapewear & eradicating pubic hair) and been branded as "liberating" choice, but women's compulsion to participate in lady culture has remained constant.

There is a set of consumer habits a "lady" is expected to engage in. This is particularly apparent in not just beauty magazines but in places where women gather online like the r/twoXchromosome on reddit or on pintrest. Where lots of cool discussion happens and also a ton of posts about hair, crafting, design, & menstrual cycles. I don't want to discourage women from posting things they like and are proud of, but one of the most common words included in the title and content of such of posts is the word "ladies". Much of the time in this context "lady" is meant to be a call to attention for all of those folks who engage in the consumer and social habits of being of stereotypically feminine and usually heterosexual.

The one thing both that traditional and modern sense of "lady" share is their commitment to deference & to being dependent on men's expectations. The traditional "lady" is extremely direct about this. Whereas the modern "lady" brands her deference and dependence as an empowering "choice" to present in ways that are in line with cultural beauty standards defined by the male gaze.

In a pamphlet put out recently at a GOP event attended by Paul Ryan women were explicitly instructed to be modest, responsive, and gentle in spirit:

All women, whether married or single, are to model femininity in their various relationships, by exhibiting a distinctive modesty, responsiveness, and gentleness of spirit.

The term lady is least often coded as meaning these things so strictly and explicitly, but it still happens all the freaking time in mandates as simple and unspoken as "girls can't ask boys out." 

For both the traditional and contemporary lady standards for the consumer and presentation habits are inexorably tied to both class and race. On some levels fitting into the role of lady means completely masking your  racial and/or socio-economic background. The humor commonplace around a working class dinner table would be deemed "too dirty" or "lowbrow"; The way you learned to eat (with your hands, talking while eating) may be deemed gross or unladylike.  The ladylike women in our fairy tales are valued for being "fair". 

In the past I too have longed to fit this mold, to have an effortless air of "elegance". One of my previous partners used to work in politics. When we'd go to formal dinners we would comment unknowingly about how some of the women at these fancy functions just seemed "better suited" to elegance how I wanted to be a lady like them. Neither of us knew then that the coded language of lady was at work there, telling me I was too "rough" too "unsophisticated".

For me being a lady often means suffering clothes my body does not know how to wear without wrinkling or itching. It means smudging goop on my face. It means apologizing for and suppressing my burps. I means pretending I don't poop or fart. Conforming to such habits usually means being uncomfortable and pretending to like it. 

I used to feel shame about both my gender and my socioeconomic background because of the expectation that I be a lady or else be undesirable. I'm working to no longer feel this way. Crucial to this is no longer being called a lady when I am not asking to be called one. 

Dressing up and behaving like a lady feels like a costume to me on so many levels. It can be fun sometimes, I do like pretending and trying on ways of being and presenting that aren't necessarily comfortable or natural to me (it often opens my mind in awesome ways!) but I refuse to move through the world in a way that feels foreign to me and have others say that it is natural or the way I prefer to be. I can take on the role of "lady" and I can have fun with it and be proud while I am doing it but unless I have explicitly said otherwise I would prefer to no longer be called a lady.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Just a thought.

(xposted from my tumblr)

Talking about what constitues "real work" is as broken as talking about how "real women have curves" or how "real men don't buy girls".

It implies illegitimacy. And that the legitimacy of your definitions can only come from an outside source. You're a man if YOU say you are. You're a woman if YOU say you are. What you do is work if YOU say it is. Regardless of compensation, or whatever others may say to delegitimize your work.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Branding & Activism

Part 1: An Introduction
"I am done with the labels. I am resisting the labels of the communities I am choosing. I ask to be part of community action, but to name my own politics"

- excerpt from a freewrite earlier this month. 

I'm not a marketing, content strategy guru, nor do I consider myself a seasoned activist, but as a writer & editor committed to compassionate communication and a former “outsider” to activist causes I have noticed a thing or two about branding in the activist community that just don't work for me. I have in fact refused to hitch my direct support to causes that I've seen doing good work but have used branding language in a way that frustrates me greatly. This post signifies the start of a series. Each entry will include either a specific example of activist banding I see as ineffective and/or problematic or further revelations about activism and branding as a whole.

Before I start to do that I need to outline what I interpret and believe to be the goals of activist branding. And why those activist goals are important.

Activism for me at it's core is about opening people's minds to more human ways of  being in the world-- ways they'd never noticed or had not thought possible beforehand. Outside of any political philosophies and habits I have, I believe this truly and completely that: If we, as members of the human race, communicated better, we would hurt each other less.

Before I can "make change" as an activist my first job is to communicate. This is why I write, this is why I am passionate about consent dialogue and consensus. This is why I am constantly looking for ways to be a better writer and communicator. The most important activism work to me is seated in language and how we talk and package our messages.

In both ad campaigns and my politics I like simple questions that have complicated intuitive answers. The challenge here is to let go of the idea that your audience will think what you want them to think. They won't. What this means for activist groups: before we do outreach to general audiences activists must accept the reality that people's definitions are valid cultural context even though those definitions and ideals differ from our intended definitions. 

Its important to meet people where they are at. This is a philosophy I've tutored under and written under for a long time. Respecting your audience's current context and definitions extends the first line of compassion. It gives something to your audience, welcomes them in your message.

I'm not saying that all activists should be courteous about every topic at all times or that outcries of rage and disgust are ineffective or unnecessary, but that our first contact with an audience outside our group of activists should avoid this. It should come from a place of understanding and invitation. An invitation that comes with an angry yell and a proclamation about everything that is wrong and problematic may feel and be absolutely true to the speaker, but to the audience, to the listener, it can be scary. It can be confusing. Expressions of anger are valuable and useful in many ways and more specific contexts but when used as content and slogan of wide scale branding they often alienate.

If we want people the choose to stand with our cause then we have to make sure that they know we won't devalue them as humans for choosing otherwise What holds true for ethical sex/romance also holds true for content strategy: Your audience can't fully choose to join your cause unless they have the option to refuse without consequence.

Movements should not seem compulsory (that's the kyriarchy's job!). Outreach content should not accuse its audience of having the wrong definitions. We want people to choose to see words and concepts in ways that resemble how we see them. This is what learning is. Educating others is not a simple transfer of information (because then proclamatory re-defining approaches would work). Radical education makes space and invites others too chose and create ideas new to them

The bombastic, downright pushy ways (stay tuned for specific examples!) I've seen activists promote important information completely ignores their audience's learning role in the process of radical education. Quite frankly in some ways it reminds me of a mean, authoritatian teacher.

The thing that separates activist branding from branding at large, what makes it radical, is that the activist's goal in branding should be to incite critical thinking in their audience. Calling folks to participate in their community and culture critically. There's a recent and apt approach in marketing bourn out of web 2.0. It takes advantage of its audience's enjoyment of interactive internet features. This approach often includes showing users the effects of their interactions. It invites its audience to feel that their input is welcome and appreciated. If participants in a survey get a notification telling them how their answers assisted their organization they can see clearly how their critical input is valuable & welcome. As activists we too should invite the audience to pool their critical thinking with ours.

Rather than demand our audience correct their ways, activist branding should invite and make space for critical consciousness. It'll take patience for our audience and a lot of questioning. It does NOT require that we let go of the principles about which we feel righteous and real rage, but that we take some focus off the issue and focus on the reality of the humans we are trying to reach out to. If our audience can see we care about them as much we care for our message (which we as compassionate activists should already be doing) they are more likely to care about our messages. The best promotional tool we have available to boost our message is our ability to express care for and invite the critical thinking of those outside our movement.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

My Madison Ruby Story

Last month I attended a tech conference in Wisconsin called Madison Ruby. Now before I talk Madison Ruby it's vital to at least acknowledge the nature of my relationship with technology.

I consider myself to have low tech literacy (relative to my age group & global location). I've only been actively computing for 7 years & I've only recently escaped the notion that I am “one of those people” who just breaks tech devices when I come into contact with them. (I'm further alienated from tech than most of my peers, so why not make up a fantastical story about it). My partner is a former tech writer recently self-taught web developer. For the past year he has been constantly challenging the iterations of “I can't” that circle through my brain and stumble out my mouth when I talk about interacting with tech. Often I still think “I'm not smart/good enough to use x piece of technology”.

My partner and I had talked about whether it would be a good idea for me to accompany him on the 7hr drive to Madison and hang out while he was at the conference. But beyond a strong interest to meet some of his colleagues and internet friends (who sounded cool from the internet!) I thought the trip wouldn't be worth it. I'd have to find some place to be and mill about Madison while he attended the conference panels.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In defense of Questioning: it's the journey that matters

This post was partly inspired by this piece and a very brave (possibly questioning) daughter.

I know, I know, you, dear reader might be thinking something like “Didn't people stop using that term 1998?”, “Isn't 'questioning' for teenagers?” or “Don't we use 'queer' now?”

Well for starters I'll let you know right off the bat I do identify as queer. But I also identify as questioning. We'll have to go back a few years to show how I got to this identity. So here we go.

I've always had an urge to seek out and admit that which I do not know. I registered for advanced classes high school without taking pre-reqs. I didn't mind being confused or getting a lower grade. I was gaining exposure, asking questions that excited me. In college, while studying education I articulated a long standing thought I'd had about schools. I realized they were training students to fear failure and unknowing. Taking risks, and admitting gaps in knowledge are usually punished and rarely rewarded in traditional American education. This punishment/reward system around certainty/uncertainty has been something I've consistently resisted in my life, in and out of schools; in and out of the bedroom. Sure it's more efficient to know for certain, but I'm not always looking for efficiency.

Recently I've come to the conclusion that I'm actually uncomfortable with certainty. I avoid it. Certainty, as counterintuitive as this sounds, makes me nervous. I find unknowing, confusion, and the ritual of questioning incredibly comforting. My intuition tells me it's okay to be confused.

I often talk about being a “late bloomer” sexually. Lately I've been feeling critical of this language, not because I think it is particularly inaccurate, only that it is incomplete. As a bookish teen, I grew up in a loving, crowded family where my only real privacy was inside my skull or between pages. I remember staying up til 2 am just staring at the ceiling, reading, thinking, and imagining. I thought about things a lot, got in good cahoots with my brain. Less so with my body, I was nervously curious, but I had no space or privacy to explore this budding curiosity. There were always footsteps upstairs and you heard every movement though the thin wall between my brother's and my basement “rooms”. In the world of my family there was no such thing as a knock on the door. But more than my nervousness and lack of privacy, I, as a female teenager was taught that my sexuality was only allowed to exist in relation to men. I didn't even know women could masturbate until I was 17. What went through my head during my sparse teenage sexual experiences was something along the lines of “I guess I'll try that.”“Is this what I want?” I knew I wanted sensations but I had no idea what exactly. I was inarticulately curious.

These days things are a bit less murky. I have learned that being explicit matters not just when I share my sexuality with others but that I can have a sexuality independent of a partner and even without having a physical actualization. While things are less murky, there is so much I still don't know. In a lot of ways I am still in a place of questioning an interrogating my sexuality. And honestly, I hope to never stop that ritual of questioning.

One thing I AM beginning to feel certain about is owning my uncertainty. Regardless of the consequences. I AM still questioning. And I really mean this in the good old fashioned teenage questioning. I'd be willing to bet more people than just me identify at least their adolescent sexuality as including more questioning than they felt allowed to say at the time. But questioning is not recognized as a valid sexual state to be in. It's looked at as being inbetween, less than.

The idea of being “sexually confused” holds such a strongly negative connotation in our culture that it's often used to invalidate the actual certainty of folks expressing not-straight attractions. I find this disgusting on two levels. First of course that it seeks to define and disparage another person's experience, but secondly that “sexual confusion” is seen as a temporary or transitional state. My sexuality confuses me all the fucking time and I welcome it. I don't want that to stop. Opening to it's uncertainty is what feels natural to me.

Now, just because I am happily confused, doesn't mean I don't believe other people are exactly what they say they are. I do. I deeply respect the expressed sexual certainty of others. Hell I occasionally envy it. It takes time and energy to figure myself out all the freaking time, but it works for me. I often end up feeling like I'm behind that I have to catch up with folks more certain than myself. It's not easy to know when to chase after certainty, but like any protagonist knows, it's not the destination (certainty) that really matters, it's the journey. My journeys into that which I do not know (sexually or otherwise) make me feel like me. I am questioning.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Continuing the Project

The text on these stickers read: 
Be advised: this is a anti-choice organization. 
They will not present you will all your legal & medical options.
Call Planned Parenthood instead: 1-800-230-7526

I started this project in Seattle back in June with 50 stickers I'd bought with my own money. I passed them out to my pro-choice bus-commuting buds (who gave a few bucks if they could) and we got down to business.

These ads (and the stickers) have now been replaced by new ads for a Crisis Pregnancy Center in Snohomish. I currently have no spare money to buy new stickers. I'm feeling out what starting a kickstarter of this might look like and if it is acceptable within kickstarter guidelines and if it is even worthwhile for such a small amount.

I'm also considering hosting a dinner fundraiser. If you've hosted such fundraisers could you tell me about it and leave tips and pointers in the comments?

If you're interested in purchasing and using these stickers yourself (this is considered graffiti/defacing so use your own discretion) you can use this template (remember to look up and replace the # with your local Planned Parenthood’s #).

This poem was my inspiration for the project.

Unfortunately the only listing of CPCs in WA I could find was put out by an anti-choice org, but it is a comprehensive list. I know that had a great list but their site appears to be down. If anyone has a better resource for this please let me know.

Monday, September 3, 2012

My Big Bad Gender

This X-posted from modernpoly as part of a series of personal stories about Poly and Gender. Thanks go out to all the modernpoly folks for inspiring me to write this all down!

I became a gender non-conformist after discovering polyamory, and delighting in its demand for explicit communication about feelings and relationships. I soon adopted that level of communication in my relationship with myself; in many ways, polyamory inspired and fueled the more conscious exploration of my identity which followed. That journey eventually led to regularly choosing and redefining my gender. In this sense, I've tossed off the traditional role of “woman” that my culture has assigned me, and have been creating new ways of being a woman that I can call entirely my own.

I approach romantic relationships with the goal of staying open to possibilities of deep, flexible, and varied connections. This is also how I approach my relationship with my gender. I have a lot of traditionally “butch” qualities, but that doesn't mean I need to find “femme” in my partners or in any place outside myself. I feel lucky to have a wide range of potential partners and roles to explore, and a relationship model that demands I voice my choices explicitly. These factors create repeated opportunities to challenge false absolutes of gender: I don't just get to choose my partners explicitly and enthusiastically, I also get to choose how I present myself! I get to choose what I'll call this combination of qualities I exhibit, regardless of how it compares to others' placement on the “gender spectrum”.

Being the woman I am pushes at the boundaries of who people have leaned to call a “woman” a bit. I let my body take up all the space it wants without apology. The wide shoulders I flaunt rather than conceal make me no less girly. I don't like being called a “chick” or “bitch”. I can't stand being “baby,” and I am decidedly not a “lady”. But I am not a tomboy; Being into machines and beer and sweat does not make me one of the guys.

My clothing and behavior choices have never comfortably fit within the traditional definitions of the feminine. For now, as a feminist vagina-haver comfortable being called a “woman”, I've taken it on as my personal project to be a woman in ways that are unexpected & unapologetic. I want to make the social construct of what a woman is bigger. Not just for me (although I do like taking up space); if I can get folks to see and respect that I am a (hairy, loud, greasy) woman, maybe it'll be easier for other unconventional women to be seen and respected. To that end, I always expect that people I interact with recognize that I am what I say I am when I say it.

I am extraordinarily lucky; this usually goes over pretty well. I've never had anyone say, “Oh really?” or question my womanhood outright. This privilege has made my life as a woman much easier. But I have had men balk, disgusted at my “manly” pit hair or other 'less womanly' attributes. I've witnessed incredulity on people's faces when I've expressed an attraction to men or put on a pretty dress. It's as if being recognized as a tough woman requires me to look and behave like a butch lesbian at all times. In some ways, I totally look like the “butch lesbian” they assume I am. I love looking and acting this way, but I am more complex than what people think I look or act like. Everyone is.

I choose my womanhood to be big: big enough to be both vulnerable and tough. This isn't something categorically female at all; It's just most comfortable for me to call myself a woman while navigating the bigness of my identity. I claim all my chosen actions as female; when someone insinuates that I or my actions are anything but, it disrupts my comfort.

This bigness isn't always easy to carry, either. The challenges I face in balancing and expressing my womanhood are usually small, but are damn insidious and pervasive. I live in constant denial and critique of the roles being thrust on women by society. They come from a lot of places, but especially from ad culture. I regularly question my clothing & presentation choices. I spend a significant amount of energy trying to make sure what I put on and into my body are things I really want, and not just echoes of the ad industry or my gendered upbringing.

Unfortunately, messages about my womanhood being too big are also buried deeply in my relationships. I can't deny that I get a self-righteous rise out of living in a way that combats ideas that I'm personally & politically opposed to, but I'd be telling a half-truth if I didn't confess that it wears me down. My mother wrinkles her nose and tells me that the pubic hair taking up sparse residence outside the reach of my swimsuit is “embarrassing.” My father touches my stomach and suggests I “get rid of” the bulging belly I've come to love. I love my parents, and we have a great relationship. This is just how close it gets.

The way my gender identity stacks up in my romantic relationships is much more rewarding. I live with one of my male partners, and we usually take about the same amount of time to get ready before going out. He spends more time on his hair than me; he uses product. I don't. I love the outdoors, while he prefers the outdoors “stay out there.” He's wonderfully fussy and detail oriented (which makes him a fabulous editor). I sometimes refer to him as “princess.” This isn't an insult at all, between us; he is beautiful, high maintenance, and far more likely to wear glitter. And I like getting to be prince charming, whether it's for him or someone else.

To be clear, this sort of gender playfulness is just that–play. My partner and I both like playing with gender. Neither of us like that the divisions of binary gender have been made so mandatory in our culture. In my ideal future, the social construct of gender would disintegrate into nothing more than a massive roleplaying game (AKA gender anarchy). But I figure,before that can happen, a strategic vagina-having human like me should start setting their sites on making the boundaries between genders bulge and swell. I want to distend perceptions of gender. I want to show people that the stories they've been taught about “real” men and “real” women are completely made up.

I'd like to think I bring a healthy, important uncertainty to the choices I make about my gender identity and presentation. But sometimes the divisive doubts of the outside world do press into my skin. In the secret holds of my subconscious, the doubts mix into the uncertainty I use to daily choose my feminine self. I sometimes begin to believe I am ugly, fat, or unworthy; that I am not “doing enough” to deserve to be who I say I am; that all I'm doing is forcing my selfish fuss onto others. This often ends in a bawling heap of an anxiety attack.

This isn't every day (or even most days). I'm getting better at recovering back into my own cycles of choosing. More importantly, I'm learning how to tell off folks (men mostly) who try to shove me into their box of compliant, smooth, nurturing, and pretty woman. It's not that any of those words are ones I don't like to be from time to time (I am a world class nurturer, for one), but they are not the qualities I want defining me indefinitely.

I'm much bigger than that. I'm a woman.