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Proposal (Kind of...): Gendered Silence

smalina's picture

As of right now, I’m a little stuck with my proposal—I have a couple threads that I’m really passionate about braiding together, and I’m not yet entirely sure of how to do so (in part because I think I need some confirmation that I can use these threads in the first place).

First thread: In her piece “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” Adrienne Rich claims that women have been trained and conditioned for generations to be deceitful, to lie—frequently through omission, as they are placed in the role of the nurturing listener, who puts others’ voices before their own. She goes on to argue that women have a responsibility—to themselves and to each other—to tell the truth, always (even when a “safe space” does not yet exist in which to hold those truths, as the truth-telling itself is what constructs a safe space). 

Second thread: I’m brought back to a conversation I had with a friend about her two moms and their friends, another middle-class, white, lesbian couple. The group got into a discussion about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a popular festival that ended after 40 year this past August, in part due to the bad press it received surrounding the hateful exclusion of trans women from the premises. This quickly turned into a larger conversation about transgender identity, and eventually focused around trans men. One of the older women expressed an opinion that is not uncommon within the lesbian community: that trans men deserve to be frowned upon and generally rejected from the community by lesbians because they have let lesbians down—this is founded upon the idea that they have intentionally and actively left “lesbianism” and womanhood behind to gain male privilege. Many lesbians (and many women, generally speaking) feel silenced by men; the idea that men “take up too much space” is not simply a reflection on their physical size or posture, but also refers to the notion that they take up space vocally, more literally silencing women’s words and attempts at self-expression. We get from this the idea that in transitioning, trans men are silencing the very women with whom they once “identified”—as well as the idea that trans men are not even truly finding their voice/inner truth when they transition, as there is the assumption that transitioning is the “easy way out” of coping with the oppression women experience on a day to day basis. Clearly, this topic is full of complicated and conflicting ideas surrounding silence, voice, truth, and lies. 

Third thread: I am struck (to say the least) by a recent attempt by certain lesbian, gay, and bisexual communities to “Drop the T” from LGBT. Here is a link to the petition started about three weeks ago and signed by over 2,000:

In the petition, certain factions of the LGBTQQIA+ community call for the exclusion of “T” from the acronym for a number of reasons: the most relevant being the idea that trans people stifle the freedom, identities, and voices of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people; in other words, they silence them, and prevent them from telling their truths. The petition lists a number of ways in which this silencing (whether actively hostile or not) takes place between transgender people and other queer people. (Particularly interesting to me is the idea that transgender people inherently silence other queer people in that “whereas feminists and gay men/women advocate for expanding and re-defining gender concepts, the trans movement is regressive, insisting upon re-asserting and codifying classic gender concepts of what is masculine and what is feminine”). Finally, the writers of the petition insist that these issues must be talked about, as they “for too long are being suppressed and censored”—another layer of silencing!

Fourth thread: Rich speaks directly to the idea of the closet, expanding upon the ideas she has already laid out regarding the silencing institution of heterosexuality. She argues that those in the closet have a responsibility, like everyone else, to be 100% truthful (apparently whatever the cost): 

“Does a life ‘in the closet’—lying, perhaps of necessity, about ourselves to bosses, landlords, clients, colleagues, family, because the law and public opinion are founded on a lie—does this, can it, spread into private life, so that lying (described as discretion) becomes an easy way to avoid conflict or complication? can it become a strategy so ingrained that it is used even with close friends and lovers?” (Rich 190) 

Evidently, Rich is a proponent of everyone being “out”—in fact, she demands it, insisting that “discretion” or “self-protection” are just the same as lying in this situation. This is an interesting thread to pull towards the others—on the one hand, it certainly seems applicable to transgender identities, as the claims she make about lying “described as discretion" seem to be universal in nature. However, how might her emphasis on the “truth” that is lesbianism lend itself to conversations (like those between my friends’ moms and their friends, and the one led by the writers of the “Drop the T” petition) that essentially reject the validity of a transgender identity? 

Toward a claim:

I guess a lot of what I am getting at here is the (perhaps too evident) idea that the claims of the older lesbians in my friend’s life are inherently flawed—though there is no lack of validity in feeling silenced by the male privilege around them, it is unjust to respond by silencing the voices and truths of those who may have never identified fully with womanhood or lesbianism to begin with. I could use Rich’s claims about our responsibility as those socialized into womanhood to tell the truth always, and go on to complicate (as I have already hinted at doing) her claims surrounding the ultimate truth of erotic feelings between women and lies “described as discretion.” But it’s feeling like there are too many separate braids here! Am I wrong?

Thoughts about texts:

  1. My first issue (beyond the huge jumble of muddled thoughts that I have already put out here) lies in the fact that I don’t have a single piece of writing that is clearly my “text” to be examined through the lens of Rich. I had thought about the possibility of interviewing one of my friends’ moms or one of their lesbian friends. However, if this could count as a “text,” I might still confront the fact that many lesbians (especially in the company of younger queer people who are vocal about their non-binary gender identities) are hesitant to share their strong negative opinions of transmasculinity. Still, if I did confront this, there would be another layer of silence to unpack—in the form of self-censoring. 
  2. I could, alternatively, abandon the idea of the conversation between these women, or look at it only in moments within the paper, as a secondary text. Could the petition count as my text?
  3. Looking at the prompt again, I see the inclusion of the term “literary texts.” I’ve been trying over the last few days to come up with a book or film that addressed these issues, and I haven’t been able to think of one—however, this seems to speak to the fact that this conversation is often addressed only within “the community”—as representation in media for transgender people in general is so lacking. Is this reason enough to step away from the “literary” part of the prompt, if I am able to do a close reading of the petition or an interview still using a lens text?


Anne Dalke's picture

Wow; what a tangled web you’re weaving here…lots of layers and threads!

The first reaction I have is that you are tracing a generational shift, from the feminists of *my era* who saw transgender as a betrayal of complex womanhood, a reinscription of the binary of male-and-female, and the feminists of yours, who (as you yourself have already so powerfully written about) see trans identity as far more complex, not @ all binary.

I’m not sure, however, that a claim that the views of women of my generation are “inherently flawed” is quite the way to land here, since each generation speaks from its own experience (see the advice Joie got: "Don’t ever let any older queer person, make you feel like your struggles are less than theirs").

You know that Susan Stryker’s speaking on campus this coming week, on "Histories and Futures of Trans* Life Now"? I’m wondering if the trajectory of her work, from her early "Words to Victor Frankenstein" to what she’s doing now, might help you broker this generational divide.

My *other* thought is that Elizabeth Ellsworth might be helpful to you. Ellsworth, who works with psychoanalysis and performance studies in her book on Teaching Positions, describes the world of dreaming that all of us bring w/ us into classrooms, which prevents us from ever fully understanding either ourselves or others. Bottom line for Ellsworth is to keep w/ the talking, the questioning, the critiquing--while knowing all the while that there are caverns unexplored and unexplorable, which exceed our knowing. Her denial of the capacity of any of us to fully know the “truth” about ourselves (as Rich posits our knowing and speaking it), might also give you a hand up here.

As far as the matter of texts goes, I have been insisting that this project needs to be the close reading of something ‘literary,’ but you’ve already shown me, several times, that you know how to do such work. So I’m fine with your opening up the category ‘text” to encompass a conversation, an interview, a film, an event. As you decide what to ‘read’ through Rich’s lens (or what to use to push back against Rich’s text) other possibilities include the on-line debates about what the presence of trans folks means for women’s colleges. Are you familiar with the conversation between two BMC alums, Monica Potts and Greta LaFleur?