Manifesto and Soft Sell
The Apartheid of Sex, A manifesto on the freedom of gender by Martine Rothblatt (1995) CROWN
S/HE by Minnie Bruce Pratt (1995) FIREBRAND BOOKS
Everywhere you look there is GENDER AGENDA and there are so many different ways to look at it. Minnie Bruce Pratt gently takes us on a very poetic journey. It's very moving and amazingly honest. Martine Rothblatt passionately argues that gender is a cultural millstone that is used to discriminate and control; all decent citizens should fight for it's abolition and she... (STOP! What am I doing? I just used a gendered pronoun. ... uhm! a? .. I know!) .... and then concludes with a Bill of Gender Rights. I found it interesting that both books compare race and gender and examine transgender as transgression.
Why do I feel S/HE is gentle when it is so powerful? It's both. Minnie Bruce Pratt uses 70 short stories, "vignettes of daily life, the delicate twining of forbidden words, the way sex and gender and sexuality spread their tendrils through our lives and wrench us open, like the kudzu vine that heaves up asphalt from the road or pulls strands of barbed wire from the fencepost". I laughed and cried, felt very angry, proud, sexually aroused and I felt her love of Leslie Feinberg. It was the structure, language, vulnerability and approachability I found gentle.
Leslie wrote "Stone Butch Blues", a book I also found very moving and I felt honoured to get such an insight into Leslie, a person searching for their own gender. Minnie to Leslie; "Perhaps twenty years ago I could not have loved you through all the complications of sex and gender, from woman to man to in-between. But if not, I would have been foolish, to lose you for the sake of such a little difference, the wavering line between light and shade."
At the March on Washington the man sitting next to Minnie asks of Leslie "Is he your husband?" "I hesitate over my answer. Finally I reply "Yes, she is". Then, femme to femme he says: "He is perfect. If I ever wanted a women it would be someone like her.""
One thing that intrigued me in the early stories, when she was still married and she was just starting to discover feminism and lesbianism, was that it was only the women that seemed real and her husband and children, with whom she spent most of her time, who seemed dreamlike.
The stories stand on their own and together give a rich view. Why, in one of those the vignettes, "Steam Heat", I can just so clearly hear those drawly Southern accents at the Great Southeast Lesbian Conference down in Atlanta, Georgia. Minnie was learning to be lesbian, watching butches and femmes miming and cracking bullwhips. Can you be a radical lesbian and a femme? What do I say to a husband who has found my love letters to women. How should a lesbian dress? How do we finance the revolution? How does a lesbian bring up a boy child? Will a lesbian win custody of her children?
I cried most of the way through the story of Minnie's friend, Vera, an African- American dyke, who died very painfully of asbestosis. Minnie used simple language and very strong visual images to describe Vera's last days. We heard of her child, her dreams, her pain, her job as a construction worker, her determination to feed her lover and child.
Femme to femme: "Do you and your lover play at sex?" "Tie her ankles and hands with ribbons, then tease. They have to maintain so much control. They want to give up but they don't know how." "This looks like power and domination from the outside, but that's not what it is from the inside." "No , everything looks different from the inside." Butch, femme, lipstick, fucking, biting, cock, dildo, camisole, clitoris, sugar tit; I was moved, informed, inspired and motivated. In the world of S/HE gender seemed to a very remote vague concept, something out there, something that got in the way of happy healthy living.
The Apartheid of Sex has a very different feel, outrage! Outrage that such an arbitrary construction as gender should so intricately control our lives. Martine is the vice chair of the Bioethics Subcommittee of the International Bar Association, involved in law reform, bringing education, health and global music into developing countries via satellite.
She looks at scientific and legal arguments why we shouldn't be classified by gender and argues that binary gender doesn't exist in any essential way but it is a social tool to divide us into two groups. These groups can never be equal; the false differences are used to oppress.
On many occasions she draws analogies between racism and sexism. For example she argues that with race there are not two types, black and white but a continuum from light to dark; and there is a continuum of gender types not two types. In fact if we were not restricted by gender apartheid then there would be an individual gender for every person. She points out that the binary gender theories do not explain the gender diversity in the real world. But a sexual continuism model can explain such glaring problems as the non existence of absolute "male or female brain" as proven by the existence of transgenderism.
And if we embrace the continuism of gender we need a new vocabulary to describe sexual identity. She (without justification) proposes that sexual identity consists of three elements: activeness/aggression, passiveness/nurturing and eroticism/ sex drive. She assigns them the colours yellow, green and red and subtractivly mixes them to give results such as; Green, a non sexual equally aggressive and nurturing person. So instead of describing someone as masculine or feminine you could describe them as teal blue, green or orange. It brings a whole new meaning to the concept of "mixed" marriages doesn't it. I really like the idea of their being a rainbow of identities; but as a metaphor rather than trying to limit sexual identity to three parameters and a formula to describe us. And since these characteristics reflect on our whole lives, why limit our self to sexual identities when we could have identities. Also on language she calls for the use of non-gendered language but calls herself a woman in some parts of the book and at other times a transperson. I started to wonder if language changes can lead to cultural change or does the cultural change have to happen before the language can change.
Again comparing gender to race she believes there are important legal milestones that will indicate social progress; the elimination of sex on all legal documents including birth certificates and marriage contracts and the elimination of segregated public facilities such as toilets. She quotes "The International Bill of Gender Rights". It demands the rights for individuals to define and express their own gender identity, take control and change of their own bodies and have the competent medical treatment to do so, the right to sexual expression, enter relationships, be a parent and freedom from Psychiatric diagnosis or treatment. I felt this Bill of Rights was worded with assumptions of gender built into it rather than in terms of the transcendence of gender.
The Apartheid of Sex debunks the concept of the biological determinism of gender in a very clear way. It a good introductory review of these ideas. I very much appreciated many of her ideas such as the removal of sex from all documentation and the concept of their being as many genders as people in the world. But why not go further and just say people have identities not gender identities. Martine believes we all should be encouraged to find our full potential, "evolving from wise man, Homo sapiens, to creative person, Persona creatus and unleash at long last the full, unbridled power of human diversity on our planet's prolific problems. The outcome of this gender awakening will be a new species, a new humanity: one that has as its fundamental purpose the assurance of a healthy and fulfilling lifetime as a birth-right for all."
Minnie and Martine certainly approached the subject of gender very differently; neither have just dreamed of utopian futures they have made it happen in their lives. Don't dream it be it.
© Copyright Julie Peters 1995