Saturday, March 6, 2010

Responding to cissexualism in a feminist magazine

Note: The following is a letter I wrote to the editor of F Word, a feminist magazine published at the University of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately the article to which I am responding is available at their website (

Dear Anusha,

My name is Sonia Horan; we met (briefly) at the Penn campus as you were distributing copies of F Word. As I told you then, I’m generally very pleased to see a free feminist magazine available at a university campus—I wish my university had similarly made feminist ideas so readily accessible. However, as I also told you, I did take issue with Daniella Malekan’s analysis of Boys Don’t Cry. It’s ironic that in your own editor’s note you say, “Feminism isn’t an oppressive sight, sound, or symbol,” yet Malekan’s essay (regardless of her intentions) is, indeed, oppressive. Granted, I don’t want to presume that Malekan set out to erase Brandon’s identity, and I hope she did not intended to focus on sexuality at the exclusion of gender identity; nonetheless, her piece is highly problematic insofar as it undermines Brandon’s gender identity and, in so doing, also undermines the very point Malekan is trying to get across, namely that normative restrictions on identity marginalize queer identities and often produce violent (and at least produce oppressive) responses to “non-normative” identities.

In the GLAAD media resource guide ( and the AP Stylebook, New York Time and Washington Post media reference guides ( there are clearly outlined rules for discussing transgender people. In particular, they include a review of problematic and defamatory language and directions for pronoun and name usages. Throughout her essay, Malekan uses female pronouns (she/her) for Brandon despite Brandon’s clear identification as male/masculine. Indeed, Malekan also refers to Brandon not by his chosen name, but as “Teena/Brandon.” Let me be frank: Malekan’s piece did not respect Brandon’s preferred name or his preferred pronouns and therefore did not respect his identity. At best, the way in which Brandon’s gender was treated in this essay was highly inappropriate, and overall none of Malekan’s references to Brandon were in keeping with any of the above-mentioned style guides. As an author in a feminist magazine I would hope Malekan would be aware of these issues, and as an editor I hoped you would require submitted works to adhere to the guidelines of the GLAAD media resource guide—or at the very least the AP Stylebook.

Beyond merely being insensitive to Brandon’s identity, however, Malekan’s analysis of Boys Don’t Cry also has a most curious usage of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work. It is painfully ironic that Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet is used in an essay that, in effect, forces Brandon back into the closet. Malekan doesn’t seem to understand the factors surrounding Brandon’s rape and murder; she focuses entirely on Brandon’s sexuality without examining Brandon’s gender identity, and she doesn’t seem to acknowledge that a major factor in his murder was transphobia. In ignoring these critical details, Malekan misses the significance of Brandon’s murder—and further misses the point of Boys Don’t Cry. Indeed, Malekan’s essay takes a transsexual narrative, strips it of transgender substance, and repackages it purely as a gay narrative. She has reconstructed the transgender closet and forced any discourse of transphobia and transsexuality back inside, out of sight and out of mind.

To be frank once more: Malekan’s essay oozes cissexualism. Speaking as a transsexual, reading Malekan’s essay was particularly painful for me. It hurts, and it is offensive to see Brandon and other transgender victims of hate crimes co-opted into gay narratives at the expense of their identities. I really don’t think Malekan intended to offend, and I don’t think you intended to publish any oppressive literature—and I certainly don’t think either of you meant to silence trans voices. I’m hoping that this email does not put you or Daniella Malekan in a defensive position; if anything, I hope this correspondence has been able to raise awareness of implicit cissexualism/cisgenderism present in this particular essay and I hope that you and the voices represented in F Word will accurately and respectfully represent transgender identities in the future.

Thank you very much for your time. I hope to someday revisit the Penn campus, and when I do I will be interested to see how F Word has evolved.

Best wishes,

Sonia Horan

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Feeling a little dumber all the time.

It’s certainly not a common phenomenon, but I do (from time to time) find myself thinking that my intensive studies in genetics and cell biology have left me “less intelligent”—and by that I mean that I am, ultimately, not well-read and my knowledge and experience are severely narrow. My thinking has been shaped such that instead of being able to readily access deep philosophical theory or enter fluently into meaningful social/cultural/theoretical/historical discourse, I’m more equipped to understand life on a microscopic level (as opposed to a macro- level; indeed, it seems perverse that, to me, issues of individual performativity are “macro-“ in scope). I guess this is (somewhat) to be expected, as most scientists don’t sit around reading J.S. Mill or the essays of George Orwell—most geneticists have no clue who Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick or Judith Butler are. Perhaps this shared ignorance should make me feel less like an intellectual outsider, as I only recently learned who Mill is and just found out that Orwell wrote prose in addition to his famous novels (although this is hardly surprising). However, when I find myself seated in the audience at one of Judith Butler’s lectures, surrounded primarily by students in the humanities, I find little comfort in my extensive knowledge of meiosis and genetic sex determination.
Indeed, I end up feeling more or less stupid. It’s not that I can’t follow Dr. Butler’s lecture—I can (and found it to be most enlightening). It’s in that moment when the lecture has ended, and audience members have time to ask questions of the esteemed professor—in that instant when opposing ideas of philosopher who, evidently, are well-known in the humanities (but completely obscure to me), I feel my usually sharp intellect is dulled. I guess it’s a cop-out to blame this on my science background, though I certainly feel that majoring in the sciences has largely contributed to my lagging knowledge of philosophies in the humanities. I am aware that I could have read more before college, and that I did choose to major in the genetics instead of double (or triple) majoring and expanding the breadth of my education. I regret this, though. Perhaps this is an artefact of having friends who, for the most part, are studying in the humanities while I am one of a very small number delving into genetics.
It’s somewhat disturbing to me to realize that some do consider me to be well-read. I end up quoting Camus or reference Kafka and suddenly I’m looked at (by some) as being a giant geek who’s over-intellectualizing everything. That kind of attitude, evidently, pisses people off, as they don’t seem to want to analyse everything or be berated by references to authors who (to them) are obscure. Clearly, I understand this as I feel something analogous in these lectures—although my frustration lies more with my inadequacies as a student/thinker and less with the person referencing foreign ideas. Conclusively, I hate feeling out of the loop and inadequately read. In a related (but different) sense, I also hate discussing my current academic studies with strangers:

Stranger: So, what do you study?
Me: I study genetics.
Stranger [looking dumbfounded]: Really? Wow. And what do you do there? Study cancer or...
Me: I’m researching meiotic recombination events in monotremes.
Stranger [looking discombobulated]: ...
Me: Crossing over in platypus and echidna. See...there are paternal and maternal chromosomes and...
Stranger [clearly not listening/understanding, but nodding along]
Me: when mammals make sperm these chromosomes have to physically exchange genetic material before segregating into different cells. I study that process in platypus. [thinking: Shit, you clearly don’t give a fuck.]

I think that the problem ultimately comes down to two things: 1) most scientists I know are fairly vanilla/straight-edge and are therefore not terribly alternative/counter-culture (like most of my friends and I are), and 2) I find myself being more and more intellectually interested/attracted in the humanities while I’m largely bored with science (although I still do find some of science to be extremely engaging). Being interested in both disciplines is problematic as I find people who can participate in my scientific discourses to often be too normative/narrow to properly engage me, while my own limitations (due in large part to my own high focus in science and ignorance of many social theorists) partly alienates me from feeling like I am qualified to participate in more philosophical discourses.