Riki Wilchins is so amazing. So acessible and approachable, humorous, totally spot on. So real and down-to-earth. Just incredible.
When I was just beginning to explore the idea of gender beyond the binary, and what it meant to be trans, one of the books that most influenced by thinking was GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary, edited by Riki Wilchins, Clare Howell, and Joan Nestle. In particular, Wilchins’ four essays in the beginning of the anthology made an enormous impact on me, personally and academically. They were the perfect example of kind of trans that was forming in my mind — a trans concept very different from the classic narrative — and I relied on them heavily as I began thinking about, and writing, my thesis.
Wilchins spoke at Loyola on Thursday, along with Judy Shepard (mother of Matthew Shepard). She is a well-known and highly respected trans activist and author and was a founding member of the Transexual Menace, Camp Trans, and GenderPAC. Wilchins began by inviting us to be “gender Jedi” with her, continuting on into quick trans and intersex 101s.
She then emphasized the need for a gender-transformative approach to teaching kids — to actually acknowledge issues of gender, to teach kids to think about gender issues, and to challenge kids to think critically about internalied norms of traditional masculinity and feminity and how those norms might hurt them.
Wilchins explained that when young kids bully other young kids for being “gay,” it’s really about gender policing. When a nine-year-old boy is bullied for being gay, it’s usually because he’s not “masculine” enough — he’s sweet, or wears pink, or likes to dance or sing. Young guys generally get taunted for “being gay” because they’re too “girly,” not because their bullies actually think they’re involved with other young guys.
It’s something I’ve been saying for ages — people generally make assumptions of gayness based on gender, not sexual orientation (although I think I actually first got the idea from one of Wilchins’ essays). The impeccably dressed, Broadway-loving, Barbra Streisand-listening, male theatre major — the flannel-wearing, softball-playing, short hair-rocking girl who loves Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls — both would generally be assumed to be gay. But that’s gender; none of that actually has anything to do with who they’re interested in. I know guys and girls who’ve had to repeatedly come out as straight because they fit the gay stereotype. As Riki Wilchins put in, “gaydar is about gender*.”
Wilchins even referenced Eminem, who apparently said that he calls people “fag” to take away their manhood, not because he actually thinks they’re gay. Most of the little kids called “fag” are straight — Wilchins mentioned a study that found some absurdly high number of young boys (90%, I believe) had been called “fag.” Unless you argue that 90% of the population is gay, that leaves a whole lot of little straight boys being called “fag.” Wilchins argues that we need to address the overall attitudes of gender policing (and intolerance regarding sexual orientation), not just the specific names that are being used, if we actually want this kind of bully to lessen.
In closing, she left us with the following thought: “The biggest weapon in the gender system is not violence; it’s shame.”
*I’m fully aware I may now be blasted by people who say that they can, in fact, tell if someone’s gay or queer, and it’s not just about gender. Yes, that may be so (for example, if you’re queer, and you can tell someone’s checking you out. Sure), but in a larger societal sense, it’s totally more about gender. Take Jack from Will & Grace, or Kurt from Glee — even before viewers found out about the whole “I’m in love with a boy” thing, they “knew” Kurt was gay.