Maybe it’s no surprise that I’m becoming a Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart fan. She is one of the regular writers on queer/gender issues for Slate, and I’m part of the liberal-educated-gentrifier demographic that finds in Slate a pretty much direct expression of our subconscious. So I start off on her side, but she then goes on to win me over. Urquhart doesn’t try to be funny, but will land on funny in a natural and unforced way. (cf. The long term goal of the LGBTQ movement is “the annexation of every letter of the alphabet”.†) She is plain-spoken and trenchant, and even though she doesn’t find anything new to say about gender issues (because that is impossible), her personal spin on them–often informed by her identity as a butch lesbian–is refreshingly novel.
There in the em-dashed aside of the preceding sentence is a clue as to what I find appealing about Urquhart. Whenever I hear the phrase “her identity as a butch lesbian” I instinctively cringe. It’s not an aversion to lesbians that provokes this reaction, but an aversion to cliché. A string of code words like that presents itself and I immediately assume I know the direction the conversation will go. There will be a dissection of familiar inequities. Some cultural artifact will be located on the empowering-to-problematic spectrum. The interactions between male and heterosexual privilege will be minutely parsed. The notion of privilege itself will be held up to withering scrutiny. We will treat it the way Christians treat their notion of sin–as the defining flaw that lies at the heart of who we are, a thing to be acknowledged and condemned, both in ourselves and (perhaps slightly more so) in others.
Now in many cases my allegiance with the American left is more a matter of tribal affinity than political conviction, but when it comes to gender issues I’m a believer. I’m a capital-F Feminist because any movement that seeks to improve the lot of half the human race is targeting the right bang-to-buck ratio. I want the culture to embrace a rich taxonomy of sexual identities on general it-makes-life-more-interesting grounds. I believe that transhumanism is the theory, and transgender is the practice. Even the modern academic concept of gender as a cultural construct rather than a direct expression of biological dimorphism (it’s a performance, see?) appeals to the Saussurean linguist in me. I buy this world view as something deep and important, and want to be able to discuss it without being hobbled by the language of a freshman dorm sensitivity orientation.‡
That said, you’d think an essay entitled “I’m a Butch Woman. Do I Have Cis Privilege?” would have me screaming for the hills, but Urquhart delights. I’m not going to summarize her argument–the piece is short, so just read it yourself–but the quick version is that the answer to the rhetorical question posed in the headline is “Yes”, but not in a ritual ablution kind of way. Instead she locates herself in a complex web of power interactions, acknowledging what is troubling about it, without making that diagnosis the point. “A Lesbian Dilemma: All My Heroes Are Men Who Hated Women” addresses a similar issue in the arena of writing. Urquhart’s literary heroes are men like Ernest Hemingway or Christopher Hitchens for whom a blithe dismissal of women is a flaw inextricable from the bull-headed contentiousness that appeals to Urquhart in the first place. Her finding them “problematic” is only one aspect of a complicated relationship with their work. Gender is an issue in itself, but also an inroad to the tricky business of admiration.
Urquhart is a feminist and a lesbian, and has the cultural left affinities that tend to go along with this, but she is also butch, which means she sees herself as masculine and thinks of this as a positive thing. The aspects of masculinity she embraces–“aggressive, competitive, logical”–are certainly not the sole province of men, but it strikes me as reasonable to collect them around a pole of masculine behavior that may tug at us all. Hers is a sympathetic point of view for those of us who believe that gender differences are a complexity that enriches life, rather than a problem to be solved.
† Apropos of nothing, I always thought it would be great if a campus LGBTQ organization hosted a meet-and-greet barbecue event just so they could call it the LGBTQ BBQ.
‡–Aha! So you’ve just latched onto Urquhart as a female stalking horse for your political correctness concern trolling.
–Yes. That is exactly what I’m doing. May I continue?