Monday, February 3, 2014

What is subversivism?

This is one in a series of blog posts in which I discuss some of the concepts and terminology that I forward in my writings, including my new book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.

So the word “subversivism” pops up a couple of times in Excluded, but I first began using the term in my first book Whipping Girl, specifically Chapter 20, “The Future of Queer/Trans Activism.” While the word had previously existed (Merriam-Webster defines it as “the quality or state of being subversive”), I began using it to describe a form of sexism that is quite prevalent within feminist and queer subcultures, albeit absent from straight mainstream society.

In Whipping Girl, I describe it this way:

Subversivism is the practice of extolling certain gender and sexual expressions and identities simply because they are unconventional or nonconforming. In the parlance of subversivism, these atypical genders and sexualities are “good” because they “transgress” or “subvert” oppressive binary gender norms. The justification for the practice of subversivism has evolved out of a particular reading (although some would call it a misreading) of the work of various influential queer theorists over the last decade and a half. To briefly summarize this popularized account: All forms of sexism arise from the binary gender system. Since this binary gender system is everywhere—in our thoughts, language, traditions, behaviors, etc.—the only way we can overturn it is to actively undermine the system from within. Thus, in order to challenge sexism, people must “perform” their genders in ways that bend, break, and blur all of the imaginary distinctions that exist between male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, and so on, presumably leading to a systemwide binary meltdown. [p.346]

There is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating and praising supposedly “subversive” and “transgressive” expressions of gender and sexuality (although the assumption that such activities undermine the gender binary, or patriarchy, or what have you, seem rather dubious to me for reasons that I discuss throughout the second half of Excluded). However, in practice, subversivism usually winds up creating a new sexist double standard:

On the surface, subversivism gives the appearance of accommodating a seemingly infinite array of genders and sexualities, but this is not quite the case. Subversivism does have very specific boundaries; it has an “other.” By glorifying identities and expressions that appear to subvert or blur gender binaries, subversivism automatically creates a reciprocal category of people whose gender and sexual identities and expressions are by default inherently conservative, even “hegemonic,” because they are seen as reinforcing or naturalizing the binary gender system.

Subversivism doesn’t merely target the heterosexual gender-conforming majority. In Excluded, I discuss how transsexuals (see Chapter 12), femmes (see Chapter 6), and bisexuals (see Chapter 9), in addition to other gender and sexual minorities, regularly face accusations of “reinforcing patriarchy/heteronormativity/the gender binary,” or of “not being queer/feminist enough” because of their appearance, dress, or partner preference. Indeed, subversivism is a common tactic that is used to marginalize and exclude these groups (and others) within these movements.

Anyway, to continue:

To me, the most surreal part of this whole transgressing-versus-reinforcing-gender-norms dialogue in the queer/trans community (and in many gender studies classrooms and books) is the unacknowledged hypocrisy of it all. It is sadly ironic that people who claim to be gender-fucking in the name of “shattering the gender binary,” and who criticize people whose identities fail to adequately challenge our societal notions of femaleness and maleness, cannot see that they have just created a new gender binary, one in which subversive genders are “good” and conservative genders are “bad.” In a sense, this new gender binary isn’t even all that new. It is merely the original oppositional sexist binary flipped upside down. So now, gender-nonconforming folks are on top and gender-normative people are on the bottom—how revolutionary!

Does subversivism truly constitute a form of sexism?

I define sexism as any type of double standard (e.g., an assumption, expectation, stereotype, or value judgment) based on a person’s sex, gender, or sexuality. In Excluded, I make the case that there are myriad double standards—some which are pervasive, and others which are more temporary or fleeting; some of which exist in mainstream society, and others which exist in specific settings or subcultures; some of which we are aware of, and others which we are oblivious to. And I make the case that, as activists, we should work to challenge all double standards, rather than ignoring some and reversing others.

Thus, while subversivism may not be prevalent in mainstream society, we should be concerned by it and we should work to eliminate it.

I have had a couple people challenge me on this. Their argument went something like this: People who are subversivist within feminist and queer settings constitute an oppressed group, and as such, they do not have the institutionalized power with which to oppress other people within their communities. I find such views to be quite short-sighted, as they ignore the very real material benefits that come from being considered a legitimate member of a community or movement.

Take people who fall under the bisexual umbrella as an example. Such people are often not fully accepted within queer movements and communities, in part, due to subversivist attitudes that malign bisexuality as inherently conservative and heteronormative. As I point out in Excluded:

This lack of community has had a devastating effect on [bisexual] folks. For instance, even though we outnumber exclusively homosexual people, we have poorer health outcomes and higher poverty rates than gays and lesbians, and we are generally not acknowledged or served by LGBTQIA+ organizations, even the ones that have “B” in the name. [Excluded, p. 85. In a footnote, I cite references for this: San Francisco Human Rights Commission, “Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations”; Shiri Eisner, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, pp. 59-93; Massachusetts Department of Public Health, “The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Persons in Massachusetts”]

Similarly, as I discuss in Whipping Girl, within many feminist and queer women’s settings, the embrace of trans male/masculine folks and reluctance to accept trans female/feminine folks is largely driven by subversivism, in that the former are seen as “bold,” “rebellious,” and “dangerous,” whereas the latter are dismissed as “timid,” “conventional,” and “safe.” I can tell you first-hand that not having a community or movement that accepts you—whether it’s due to blatant monosexism or trans-misogyny, or occurs indirectly via subversivism—has a very real impact on one’s life and ability to survive in a world where we are already marginalized by mainstream society to begin with.

You don’t use the term subversivism that often in Excluded. Why not?

When I first used the term in Whipping Girl, I used it to describe how subversivist attitudes play out in contemporary queer/trans spaces, wherein trans male/masculine identities are viewed as more subversive than trans female/feminine ones, and where gender-blurring identities and expressions (e.g., drag, genderqueer) are viewed as more subversive than binary ones (e.g., transsexual women and men).

However, different activist movements and communities may deem different identities and expressions to be more (or less) subversive than others. So for instances, trans-exclusive radical feminists tend to view drag performers, genderqueers, transsexuals, and other transgender spectrum identities as equally conservative (as we all supposedly “reinforce patriarchal gender roles” in their eyes). Such feminists also tend to view BDSM and porn as inherently conservative, whereas in more sex-positive/sex-radical circles those same expressions may be celebrated as subversive and liberating.

So subversivism doesn’t function in the same way that we are used to thinking about “isms,” as it does not target a specific group of people. Rather, subversivism is perhaps better thought of as a mindset that often arises within activist movements, and which provides a convenient excuse for either perpetuating hierarchies that already exist within society, or to create newfangled hierarchies within that specific movement. Given this, I thought that it would be more fruitful to highlight the arbitrary nature of these subversivist hierarchies more generally—I do this in multiple chapters of Excluded, especially Chapter 12, ‘The Perversion of “The Personal Is Political”’ and Chapter 16, “Fixed Versus Holistic Perspectives.”

[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]


  1. I don't really have anything coherent to say here, just that I am intrigued by this idea.

    A thing that I often think quietly to myself is "Femininity is subversive" -- not always, but that it can be, and that it often doesn't get enough 'credit' for that. Or that women, specifically, often don't get enough credit for the ways in which they have taken some of the expectations imposed on them and made them into something new. Like there can be a kind of furtive resistance to power in many expressions of femininity, or something.

    But.. I'm not sure about that. Anyway, it's kind of interesting and weird to me to think about this in the context of subversvism, so thanks for that :)

  2. I've been in online communities where nonbinary people look down on trans men for not having subversive identities (although these same people love the idea of trans women because they reject masculinity). I would say that subversivism describes what I've experienced.

    I don't want to be a subversive "in your face" type of queer. I'm a modest and shy person in real life. I'm terrified of people sneering at me behind my back for being "one of those" people. I'm gender conforming but it's because I want to dress in a way that makes me comfortable. But I guess that's not a neutral way of being.

    1. what you've experienced is the polar opposite of what I experienced a decade ago, when people in my queer/trans circles saw trans male/masculine folks as subversive & trans female/feminine folks as conservative & inferior.

      Just goes to show how arbitrary (and problematic) these sorts of hierarchies are...