Massachusetts voted a couple of day ago to allow a proposed (state) constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage to proceed, thereby setting in motion a legal process which might eventually (after several legal hurdles) make it illegal in MA (currently the only state to permit same-sex marriage) for two individuals of the same sex to marry each other. The only way around such amendment, should it succeed, would be the fairly drastic measure of having one of the individuals legally have his or her sex changed. Of course, a proposal two months ago by New York City’s Board of Health would have made that latter process significantly easier (at least for New Yorkers). The proposal, which was withdrawn a month later, would have “created a new standard for certifying a change of gender,” effectively allowing transgendered individuals to alter the sex specified on their birth certificates even without necessarily having undergone surgery and/or hormone therapy (though applicants would still have needed “reliable documented evidence from a licensed physician and a mental health professional that they had completed the transition from one gender to the other and intended to permanently remain in their acquired gender.”) Meanwhile, a reminder of the traction which various forms of sexual determinancy continues to carry in the contemporary world, together with the potential divergences of gender and a slippery notion of biological “sex,” is provided by the announcement a couple of weeks ago that Santhi Soundararajan, a top Indian woman athlete, might be stripped of her silver medal at the recent Asian Games in Doha on account of having failed a “gender test” (given that “gender,” in contemporary usage, is usually understood as referring to a socio-cultural construct, presumably what the Asian Olympics officials meant was a “sex test,” though Judith Butler, among others, has argued persuasively that the notion of a rigid boundary between socio-cultural “gender” and biological “sex” is, itself, a socio-cultural construct).
These issues of the social and biological “realities” of sex and gender, meanwhile, also carry over in interesting ways into the virtual world. Although one sometimes gets the impression that the web constitutes a fluid space in which it is possible to adopt a range of alternate identities (for instance, the image of gay men adopting the personas of teenage girl in order to flirt with horny heterosexual boys/men), in practice, though, it seems that in some respects on-line identities are not as fluid as they might be. For instance, the influential and intelligent pseudonymous female blogger Bitch Ph.D. suggested on the last day of last week’s MLA convention (according to a summary provided by another blogger) that, based on her informal polls, "most pseudonymous bloggers are who they say they are; if they say they are women, they are." Coincidentally, the very next day another influential and intelligent pseudonymous female blogger, Bitch|Lab (no relation), appeared to come out of the virtual closet as being actually a “queer dewd.”
Bitch|Lab’s end-of-year sexual transfiguration can be traced back to an unfortunate incident two weeks earlier on the feminist blog, " Blame the Patriarchy." A short post quoting a few sentences from Sheila Jeffreys' Beauty and Misogyny on societal expectations with respect to female grooming (the passage was ostensibly chosen at random) elicited a virtual tsunami of responses which, on the whole, became increasingly hateful and “transphobic” (with a handful of particularly vociferous commenters opining that transgendered men were essentially poaching off the feminism’s political advances—ironically falling back onto a biological essentialism which was not only disavowed by mainstream feminism a century ago, but further has been also been disavowed by the majority of the US legal establishment). This discussion thread then elicited a flurry of angry responses from other feminist bloggers (see Feministe for a summary, and IBTP for a response), which then resulted in series of back and forth’s between Bitch|Lab’s author “K” and other feminist bloggers over issues of feminist taxonomy and other concerns (for a blow-by-blow summary of this bloggy soap opera, see here).
As a result, on December 31st, K abruptly redesigned her blog’s template and (putative) authorial identity, writing now under the persona of “Gay Dewd formerly known as (): where feminists can suck my delicate, feminine cock”—creating the initial impression that the putatively female author of Bitch|Lab had, all along, been a gay man impersonating a woman; or, alternatively, was a woman who was now impersonating a gay man). Either way, the blog would appear to present a counter-example to Bitch Ph.D.’s generalization about the gendered identities of pseudonymous bloggers in Philadelphia the preceding morning.
Actually, Bitch|Lab’s template change did not reflect a change in authorial gender, strictly speaking, but instead, as K explained a few days later took a cue from Janet Halley’s Split Decisions: How and why to take a break from feminism by assuming the voice of a gay man in order to underscore some of the limitations of contemporary feminisms:
What Halley means by that is more complicated than I can explain in comments. Basically, she thinks that feminism has a “convergentist” problem.
In its more progressive modes, it tries to speak to all women, no longer by using white, middle class women as the ground of feminism, but instead, by trying to embrace every possible mode of oppression: race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, class, ability, etc.
It tries to develop some overarching theory to account for all oppression. In its cultural feminist and radical feminist modes, it tends to make the ground gender oppression and it tends toward what Duncan Kennedy calls “paranoid structuralism”. […]
In her lectures and writing, Halley refers to ‘taking a break’ as her taking on the persona of a Gay Man.
Of course, in K’s case this “persona” was a more or less transparent one—as she made explicit in an interesting (and presumptively genuine) autobiographical note the day after her blog’s transmutation:
I wasn’t a woman. Because women didn’t have sex like we had. She reserved real, respectable sex for women: her kind. I was young enough and smart enough to get out, but to silence because no one discussed violence among women then. The first time I spoke of it, I was treated to contempt. I shut up after that.
So, you see, who I am cannot be disentangled from that history. I’m not poor. I’m not white. I’m not a woman. I’m not queer. I’m a poor, white, queer woman. They are bound up together. This history is also why I found it offensive when issues surrounding sex and gender were and continue to be dismissed as “white mainstream feminist” fluff.
More generally, the issue which K is illustrating in this little bloggy thought experiment, therefore concerns the way in which not only are we all, as individuals, intimately bound up with specific personal histories which have helped shape us, but furthermore intellectual and ideology movements are frequently shaped, at various levels, by the collective social identities of their primary proponents. In an era of increasingly ubiquitous identity politics, an era which many scholars and activists increasingly find it useful to preface their arguments and analyses with (sometimes detailed) autobiographical statements of authorial identity, the act of developing a position under an assumed identity becomes, arguably, not an obfuscation, but rather a gesture of intellectual honesty—an openness to the question of whether the arguments being advanced can be disassociated from the presumptive voice that is ostensibly advancing them). This act of assuming a new authorial persona and positionality becomes, in a sense, the intellectual and ideological equivalent of the NYC BOH's recently rejected proposal regarding "changes of gender."