AGAINST STRUCTURAL DESTINY
May 19, 2016
by Andrea Abi-Karam
How to become a new glitch, a new disruption?
I recently found myself in a deep internet corner looking at pictures of very hip genderqueer models wearing underwear. As I scrolled, I tried not to claw at my miserably itchy post-top-surgery bandages, seeking a distraction within a slew of slick bodies on the slick screen.
I wanted to buy this underwear.
Then I remembered: I’m not transitioning out of gender in order to buy things. This moment encapsulates a classic trajectory: something resistant, whether it’s gender identity, sexual identity, or movement literature, has a moment of antagonism and is then actively absorbed by an institution such as capitalism, an academic institution, the state.
Removing its teeth.
The Year of the Genderqueer // Or What Does That Even Mean
2016 feels like the year of the genderqueer. Or, it feels like public machines are suddenly aware of non-binary identities in a way they never have been before. There is more genderqueer visibility, and language flexibility and gender neutral pronouns are becoming more standard: the American Dialect Society nominated the singular “they” as 2015’s word of the year. Major media corporations such as the Washington Post now allow singular plural pronouns. And there are many genderqueer products to be consumed alongside the public genderqueer body. Some folks in NYC made a “gender is over” design campaign. Zara now has a genderqueer fashion line, along with smaller designers such as Play Out and Proud Animals. These shifts in public perception and language have established a new level of genderqueer visibility and familiarity. But what does this visibility mean, and in what ways is it not enough? What are the tangible desires of non-binary gender rebels?
My own desire for a genderqueer identity goes beyond edgy fashion and more products to consume. I’m working towards putting my actual physical body in resistance against its structural destiny to be fixed, feminized, and fucked. I’m working towards glitching the gender mainframe until it freezes forever.
Announcing that “gender is over” is complicated. It does not erase systemic oppression placed on gendered bodies. Of course not everyone is post-gender, and not everyone wants to be—but the “gender is over” project’s public declaration highlights a desire for something different. A desire to tear down patriarchy, oppression, and gendered violence. A desire for fluidity and autonomy. The slogan is also an expression of a feeling in this current moment, a feeling of exhaustion in light of the structural restrictions placed upon gendered bodies. An exhaustion from fighting to hold on to the one thing that’s supposed to be yours and no one else’s: your body. For me, the phrase also reflects the feeling of being over it. Over hovering outside of my body while watching it enact its state-determined structural destiny.
Genderqueer identity, as it is emerging publicly, feels complex and slippery, and I’m interested in dissecting how genderqueer is showing up, how it is presenting within capitalism, and how masculinity threatens to absorb it. I speak only for myself, writing from a place of being mixed race genderqueer as I think through my own desires to inhabit a disruptive, nonbinary identity and world, with the awareness that this is not an ideal future for everyone. I’m interested in the process of glitching, disruption, and imagining another world.
How to Resist the Institutionalization of Genderqueer Identity
How can we trace the institutionalization of the word queer? Following that, can we predict the institutionalization of the word genderqueer? How will it get sucked up into the nonprofits, the academic institutions, the mainstream, the profitable object? How can we use our visibility as freaks as a form of disruption, instead of consumption?
Mel Chen’s book Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect traces the linguistic lineage of queer. Originally a derogatory slang term, queer was embraced and reclaimed by radical communities with non-normative sexual identities. It was an identity in opposition, as theorist David M. Halperin writes: “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.” Similarly, I feel like my genderqueer identity does not have a tangibility that it’s trying to achieve. It’s more like I’m transitioning out of gender altogether than transitioning to a fixed essence.
Writing in 2012, Chen describes how the term queer feels to her: “I extend and expound on a word now so commonly voiced that it threatens to dissolve into background noise.” When it gets swept up into the everyday lexicon of university departments, fashion magazines, and neoliberal capitalism, queer is no longer a term used solely in resistance, but to denote a recognizable aesthetic.
Manifestations of this process of absorption and pacification present in familiar chants such as: “we’re here, we’re queer, let’s go shopping.” This chant is an instance of queer becoming absorbed into a homonormativity that actively upholds neoliberal structures, as Chen writes: “homonormativity refers to a neoliberalism that has the ability to absorb and indeed deploy homosexuality for its purposes. Within this framework queer consumer capitalism falls neatly in line with (neo-)liberal ideologies and subject formations.”
Queer risks becoming a dead word. And so does genderqueer if it continues along the same trajectory.
Historically and presently, the state, in collusion with pharmaceutical companies, tightly regulate access to sex hormones. The easiest way to get prescribed testosterone is if you’re a cis man who doesn’t feel masculine enough and wants to become more masculine. But the state is totally repulsed at the possibility of giving AFAB folks T, because that would disrupt its plan for a hypergendered heterosexuality.
Preciado’s Gender Hacking
At this moment it feels important to introduce the concept of gender hacking, an idea I encountered while reading Paul Preciado’s Testo Junkie. Preciado describes being part of a group of people who consider themselves gender hackers. Gender hackers believe that hormones should not be regulated by the state or big pharma. They use black market sex hormones to hack their genders. By glitching and hacking their own bodies, they throw themselves into biological resistance to a state that wishes to hypergenderize people’s assigned sex.
In Testo Junkie, Preciado works to understand a contemporary society filled with bodies whose genders, bioprocesses, and techno processes are tightly controlled by the “pharmacopornographic industry’” (capitalism, big pharma, and the state), and also looks at how these bodies are not only produced but also disseminated through technology (mass media, internet). Preciado writes that contemporary society is inhabited by toxic-pornographic subjectivities: “subjectivities defined by the substance (or substances) that supply their metabolism, by the cybernetic prostheses and various types of pharmacopornographic desires that feed the subject’s actions and through which they turn into agents.”
How bodies are produced by the state.
How bodies are produced by capitalism.
Taking black market T, Preciado hacks the economically desired body with their own body; for Preciado, political power doesn’t exist without control over production and distribution of hormones and surgery that currently exists in the hands of the state, big pharma, and the medical-industrial complex. Gender glitching becomes possible through the use, or misuse, of substances originally intended by the state and big pharma to create hyper-cisgendered subjects.
How can we mutate the masters’ tools for the purpose of gender hacking? How to mutate the masters’ tools to hack academic, institutional poetry? How are all of our bodies already deeply enmeshed in all of these forces? “Technobodies are either not-yet-alive or already-dead,” Preciado writes. “We are half fetuses, half zombies. Thus the politics of resistance is a monster politics…the individual body functions like an extension of global technologies of communication.” How do we distort the technologies that our bodies are enmeshed in?
How to glitch the cis-tem?
How to transition out of gender and still resist masculinity?
Personally, I have no interest in tapping into masculine forms of power, and I am often frustrated when genderqueer aesthetics slant away from androgyny, towards a more masculine presentation. It can so often feel like genderqueer identity is a stepping stone on the way to a masculine identity, and that genderqueer identity is not taken seriously, or is difficult to extract from default masculinity. For me, a post-gender future would look like a bunch of glam freaks and gender hackers, creating their own escape from gender instead of tapping into masculine forms of power on their way out of a structurally destined hypergender.
The End or the Post-Gender Future
My solution for resisting this pattern is to throw my own body into public space for the purpose of glitching. To force others to double take. To be confused. Compelling others to consider alternate trajectories for their own bodies that are not predetermined by the state or by big pharma.
I’m finding this strategy is more difficult than I anticipated. I recently got top surgery, but I’m not currently taking T, and I had thought that afterwards, going out in public would mean being seen by strangers as a freak instead of somewhere inside the gender binary. About a week after surgery, in a grocery store parking lot, someone rolled down their car window and addressed me as “Miss,” which felt like such an extreme hypergendering, considering I’m not fourteen and I’m topless. It felt especially hilarious because earlier that morning I had filed away a letter from my surgeon officially stating that I was now “biologically male” and I can apply for state documents as such. I don’t plan to follow through with this, as I’m trying to get myself out of the state approved body, not back into it. Transformations for me are not about seeking the state’s validations, they’re about building my body piece by piece into what I want. They’re about resisting the state’s desires and embracing my own.
Internalized systems run pretty fucking deep.
The post-gender future is not fixed. It’s the body in flux. I was definitely terrified the first time I took a shower after top surgery, concerned that my nipples would fall off and my scars would just tear open if the water was too hard or if I reached too far. It was a true body horror moment.
The transition out of gender is both body horror and body autonomy. It’s desiring control of the body beyond the technopolitical. It’s about desire. It’s about desire that the state can’t hold. It’s about the desire to destroy masculine forms of power. It’s about destroying the state’s and big pharma’s obsession with a hyper-cisgendered world. It’s embracing glam and not being afraid of femme. It’s glitching. It’s disrupting. It’s failing to compute.
Andrea Abi-Karam is a mixed race genderqueer punk poet writing on the art of killing bros, the intricacies of cyborg bodies, trauma & delayed healing. They are writing against how patriarchy and US militarism produce the hypergendered subject. Andrea is about to graduate Mills College with an MFA in poetry with the Community Engagement Fellowship. You can find them on tour this summer with their band Spray Tan.
Image by Addelle McCauley
“Glitch The Cis-tem” is from our FUTURES Issue (spring 2016).