On violence, hate and gender non-conformity

*Trigger warning*

The first time I was the target of anti-transgender violence I didn’t know I was transgender.

I heard the three guys coming up behind me, talking, even laughing a little. I know they chose me specifically to jump, and I know it was about how I was perceived. My clothes, the way I walked, even the shape of my body at the time, in the throes of an eating disorder, expressed a failure to fit into my prescribed gender box. If asked I imagine the three guys would have said I was a fag, but what they were seeing had nothing in actuality to do with who I was or wasn’t fucking and everything to do with my gender performance.

Photo of Anthony Collao from MyspaceAnti-queer and trans violence is about the attacker’s perception of their target. The recent death of Anthony Collao is receiving attention partially because he was reportedly straight but the apparent victim of an anti-gay hate crime. From the New York Daily News:

[Collao's attackers] came uninvited to the Woodhaven party – advertised on Facebook – and refused to pay a $7 cover charge. They stormed the 90th St. home, busting windows and picking fights, witnesses said…

The crashers flashed gang signs, yelled anti-gay slurs and scrawled epithets in red marker on the walls, the two party hosts said.

“They called us homos and all kinds of stuff,” said one of the men, who was celebrating his 20th birthday.

Sensing trouble, Collao left with a friend and was chased, sources said. The gang caught up to him, pinned him against a car and “beat him to within an inch of his life,” a source said.

Collao died in the hospital.

We don’t know why Collao was targeted with the brunt of his attacker’s hate. Simply his presence at the party may have been enough to be gay by association. As Amanda Hess wrote about reactions to Collao’s murder:

When a straight person falls victim to an anti-gay hate crime, those same [homophobes] who blame gay victims for “flaunting their sexuality” will also search for clues that a straight victim was not straight enough, and therefore complicit in the attack. Perhaps the victim was hanging out with gay people; maybe he did not act, dress, or talk “straight” enough. These crimes reveal a culture of homophobia where it’s not enough that a person be not-gay. He must be not-anything-like-gay. Ideally, he must be anti-gay. In this hierarchy, straight people are punished for not being gay enough—and not hating gays enough—thus perpetuating anti-gay violence.

Exactly. It’s not enough to not be gay – you must fit perfectly into the straight box. No one actually does fit perfectly into everyone’s perception of what straightness should look like. Queer and trans folks are the most likely to be perceived as failing, but anyone can fall outside a homophobe’s idea of what’s acceptable and experience the worst of what this hate can lead to, as happened to Collao.

In social justice circles we make a point of separating sex (fucking) and gender (male, female, etc). But in our culture the two are incredibly intertwined. The gender binary tells people who is in the group they should be sexually attracted to and who isn’t. Gay folks are such a problem to homophobes because they challenge this supposedly clear system. Gay sex breaks the rules of the binary and throws a system that is fundamental to a homophobe’s sense of self into chaos. Trans and gender non-conforming folks pose a similar problem. We break the rules of how the homophobe understands the categories of attraction, again complicating the system by which they understand their own identity.

Homophobia and transphobia both stem from the compulsory gender binary. Homophobic violence and bullying is more about perceived gender non-conformity than someone’s actual lived identity. The attacker sees something that tells them: this person isn’t fitting right into the gendered order of things. To maintain their own sense of self within the gender hierarchy they lash out, targeting the aberration and attempting to put that person “in their place.”

Anti-gay bullying is again about perception. Someone doesn’t have to be gay to be bullied as such – the bully just has to perceive something that threatens their gender/sexuality construct. When young folks are anywhere near puberty, where their bodies are constantly betraying them, this can be pretty much anything. This sucks for everyone, even if the target is straight. The psychic pain may be greater when the bully perceives things somewhat accurately, when the person being targeted is gay or trans, or is questioning their identity. I remember standing naked in front of a mirror in middle school, looking at the bruises covering my body after a particularly bad run-in with a bully. The sensitive, discolored blotches all over me spoke more honestly about the turmoil I was experiencing inside than my body had ever been able to before. It seemed as if my attacker knew better than I did who I really was. Since at the time I was sure whatever was going on inside me was horribly wrong this somehow made sense – I should appear grotesque, I thought.

But whether the violence and hate speaks to anything accurate about a person’s identity doesn’t matter much when a life is lost. It doesn’t really matter that Collao wasn’t gay because the violence wasn’t about it if he was really gay – he was perceived as somehow breaking the rules of gender conformity, and to his attackers this was enough reason to take his life. Of course queer and trans folks experience the vast majority of this sort of violence, since we are the groups of people most likely to live in a way that’s both on our own terms and breaks the rules of gender conformity. But Collao’s death is a terrible reminder that anyone who does anything that can be perceived as straying from the compulsory gender binary can experience the worst violence and hate from the guardians of gender conformity who feel a need to maintain the system.

Another recent attack on a straight man has received attention because he was called a “fucking faggot” while he was being beaten. Did his attacker actually think he was gay? We don’t know. Hate speech like “faggot” gets thrown around all the time, often without connection to an assumption of gay-ness. This sort of epithet maintains its popularity because our system of gender is hierarchical, so one man calling another man a faggot is a way of declaring a relationship of power. “Fucking faggot” says, “I am above you, better than you, and you are less than.”

This understanding of gendered violence and hate speech extends to a form of speech the attacker doesn’t consider hateful: cat-calling. I experience two forms of street harassment on a regular basis: cat-calls and trans bashing. As Vanessa wrote, street harassment is about power. Cat-calls are saying, “I know your place in the gender hierarchy. You belong below me and I have power over you.” Trans bashing is saying the same thing. One is about perceiving me as fitting in the woman box, the other about seeing me as an outlier. One is about saying I conform to the rules of the inferior gender, female, the other about saying I fail to fit at all. But both are about declaring gendered power over me.

Anti-gay violence and speech, anti-trans violence and speech, the use of homophobic and transphobic epithets, cat-calling and gay and trans bashing, are all about putting another person in their place in the gender hierarchy so the attacker can reaffirm their own power and position.

Everyone who experiences this broad range of attacks is being told they fail to conform to the gender identity at the top. I believe this understanding is crucial to battling all these forms of physical and verbal violence. While simultaneously challenging, for example, anti-gay sentiments, we can do the most to combat all these problems by going after the root: compulsory conformity to a binary gender hierarchy. This is why I believe so strongly in politics that put those in the margins, those experiencing the brunt of a particular system of oppression, in the center. Trans and gender non-conforming folks may experience hate and violence that is most obviously about gender non-conformity, but the understanding and experience that comes from this can benefit everyone who is harmed by this oppressive system, even raising the consciousness of those who are so psychically hurt they would turn to horrific violence to maintain this order.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted March 22, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post, Jos.

    I benefit from the fact that I am physically large of stature. Because of this, I can usually bluff or discourage men who might otherwise wish to harm me. When I began a steady exercise routine complete with weight lifting, I did so partially out of a desire for protection. However, this does paradoxically contradict the way I believe my body image ought to look. As is true with many other areas in my life, I feel conflicted.

    The homophobic remarks I have gotten from my own family have been the most hurtful, but I have gotten a few others from the outside. The shame I feel from being rejected by my parents is why I am so hesitant now to leave the closet and consider myself only selectively out. But I do know that other people have had it and still have it worse than me. I have the ability to pass competently, and others are not quite so fortunate.

  2. Posted March 22, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    What a spectacular piece. I am always at a loss for trying to figure out how to eloquently explain the connection between these things. It is very frustrating. There are so many factors and it is so complicated. You have done a great job bringing it all together gracefully. I will pass this on to those I gave up trying to explain it to.

  3. Posted March 22, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant, Jos.

    It is so hard to make our work include everyone. When we’re speaking as marginalized people, it’s even harder to include those with some kind of privilege over us. Well, friend, I learned it with you: When in doubt, do the harder thing. Thank you. I will be reposting this a lot.

  4. Posted March 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this. Ugh. Made me cry…

    And, please don’t be pissed, but it’s ‘throes’ not ‘throws’.

    Ob- com spelling freak, out.

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