I need to remember to nominate Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" the next time someone asks.
It may not have a giant billboard sign on it proclaiming it to be relevant to gender inversion and being genderqueer, but that's where my head went when I first heard it, and how I interpret any time I've heard it since. "If only I could", Kate sings, "I'd make a deal with God and I'd get him to swap our places". Many of my trans friends, who have often plaintively wished that the transgender women who didn't want their penises could donate them to the transgender men who did, and receive a uterus and fallopian tubes and vagina in exchange, should be able to relate.
But that's not quite how Kate came to wish for the exchange of positions, to be sure. Her angle of approach has more to do with a concern specific to sexuality of the non-same-sex variety: "It doesn't hurt me; do you want to feel how it feels? Do you want to know that it doesn't hurt me?" Not every listener seems to immediately think that the "it" she speaks of is sex, but that's totally where my head went. She's conversing with a male lover who is concerned about how this is for her. Because he doesn't know, never having been female.
My feminist women friends are ready to hoot in derision. "Men don't spend much time worrying about whether any sex practice hurts women. They think that's what we're there for. And that whatever gets done to us must be hot for us if they find it hot, whether it's the joy of gagging on a dick or being raped and choked or just the everyday joy of being objectified and catcalled to by strangers, men never try to put themselves in our position and imagine what it must be like to be us. Or if they do, they have pathetically impaired imaginations!"
But not everyone who is male of body is a man, and not all sexuality involving a male person and a female person is heterosexuality. Because heterosexuality is an institution, one that is defined by and depends on seeing the sexual partner as Other, as utterly alien, one whose feelings and thoughts can't be approached by imagining what it would be like, because, well, because It's Different For Them. Because They're Different. And reciprocally, for people whose interactions and attractions are not defined around that alienating difference, there is likely to be that fervent wish to understand, to know what it's like.
"Let's exchange the experience", Kate says. That's intimacy. It's empathy.
Our current social politics often teaches us that empathy isn't real, that it's illusory. "Don't speak for them. You aren't them and you don't know what it's like". It is entirely valid to say "You should not speak for people when they can speak for themselves, especially if they've been kept voiceless by their marginalization". I agree with that. But some go on to say "Don't think that you know what it's like. You don't. You can't. It is arrogant of you to think that you do. You aren't them". It's not a nuanced position, as stated; and if it discourages people from thinking it possible to know what it's like, it can turn away their inclination to try. To imagine, to wonder, to watch from the outside and attempt to conjure up an awareness of what it must be like from the inside.
We can't even identify as part of a group without empathy. Transgender feminist author Julia Serano acknowledges the legitimacy of the statement that some have made to her: "How do you know you are 'a woman'? How do you know that who you are is the person that women are? You've never been one, you've only been yourself!" Serano agrees that she's never been anyone but herself, but, well, that's true for the person directing the question. How does a cisgender woman know she's a woman in the sense of having an identity in common with other women? She's never been any of those other women either, how does she know what it's like to be any of them, and to claim a commonality of identity? Only by observation from the outside. Which is how Serano knows the same thing. It's how I know I'm a femme; it's how I knew I was one of the girls (despite being male) when I was in grade school. It's empathy. The power to look across the divide and bridge the gaps and recognize and relate.
"We both matter, don't we?", Kate Bush asks.
Yeah, we do.
You're secluded in quarantine, and all the performances and events have been cancelled, so it's a good time to read a book!
My book, GenderQueer: A Story From a Different Closet, has been published by Sunstone Press. It is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback and ebook, and as ebook only from Apple, Kobo, and directly from Sunstone Press themselves.
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