Boundary crossing creative experiments

On Saturday a small group of trans, queer and gender-diverse people met to workshop creative ways of challenging binary gender categories. If you're getting this update via email it's probably because we've done work like this together or I've cited you, or you've expressed an interest in hearing more about it...

This is a description of our workshop time together, starting out with an overview of the Code-Switching Identities project and its origins in Stories Beyond Gender, an initiative that took place over 18 months in Adelaide back in 2016-17. During this time a group of us experimented with a variety of forms of creative expression, from twitter haiku to panoramic images that captured our fluidity and multiplicity to digital art and short videos. We worked across a variety of platforms including Facebook and Tumblr and our own web-space. We produced enough material for an exhibition which we mounted twice, once during the annual Feast Festival and a second time in a community centre. On both occasions we engaged with audience, discussing our experiences of being gender-diverse in body, heart and mind, and the ways that our identities are regulated at the thresholds of public bathrooms, at national borders and in data sets ranging from Census to administrative and legal documents like birth certificates and passports.

When I moved to Melbourne early in 2018, we expanded our frontiers and began to focus more on the ways that we code-switch across multiple ways of being, in different spaces and with different people. The idea of 'code-switching' emerges from the field of linguistics and studies that highlight the way (mostly) people of colour may modify the way they speak according to their social contexts. You can read more about that in these articles - 'Code-switching and social identity', 'How can you tell?' and 'I code-switch to celebrate my identity'.

Rather than accepting social injunctions to be singular and whole, in this workshop we discussed our capacity to blend in with and/or stand out from the groups of people that we connect with. We called attention to our ‘incoherence’ in a world that expects us to fit neatly into ‘male’ or ‘female’ categorisation. I've written some things on that subject in 'Between fire-fighting and flaming'. We also talked about how, in reality, these experiences are actually commonly shared and experienced by anyone who has ever uploaded profile pictures to a digital platform. It’s kind of obvious that we present different aspects of ourselves on Linked In, compared with a hook-up app, or messages shared with a private facebook group – and why would that be a bad thing?

The ‘art’ that we produce of ourselves and our lives will be curated in an exhibition – this time mostly online. We’ll gather together in person for a half day Symposium during Midsumma 2020 to discuss the tensions between our gender-diversity and the necessities of data collection. For example, the good folk at Switchboard or the Department of Premier and Cabinet can use numeric estimates of our population size (and remember if we are only measured in binary terms, we become invisible) to leverage funding and service provision for our specific health and education needs. Further, if building codes and public spaces are made to be accommodating of gender creativity, we hope to move more safely through the world. Simona Castricum writes about empathetic architecture here. Rather than being measured via estimates of suicidality, homelessness, and mental illness, gender-diverse folk may be seen as exemplars of as colourful resilience.

In terms of activities, our Saturday workshop moved between the ‘green light’ of comfortable exercises towards the orange light of adventure and experimentation. We practiced using our wallet sized laminated colour cards to sign to one another our feelings of safety and fear. This negotiation of the trickiness of ‘safe space’ - that can become unsafe or triggering at any time – was an explicit attempt to move away from words and defensive explanation towards easy transition across our personal boundaries. These strategies for facilitating safe-ish collective collaborations are something I’m writing about in a book, with the working title of ‘Holding Queer Space: safe or suspect?’.

Another exercise was a variation on the ‘values walk’. We all stand in a line. When he hear a word we respond by giving it a binary gender. We step backwards if our word association is masculine (because patriarchy) and forwards if our association is feminine. Starting with easily gendered words like male and female, we consider movements like skipping or stomping, feelings like rage and behaviours like flirting before considering how the oceans and mountains might be linked with gender. This exercise makes apparent the ways that our neural pathways make abstract connections when, in most cases, ideas or objects actually have no gender. It also reveals all the constricting things that we know about binary gender already – like pink is for girls and that being bossy or assertive are attached to gender according to the power and status that we are allocated in society. A man might be conceived of as a leader rather than bossy, while a woman only needs to be assertive if her needs and capacity are not being acknowledged. This game also highlights that, even among a small group of gender-articulate people, our associations of gender are rarely universal. When we are struggling to assign gender to an abstract entity like the ocean, we draw on our own embodied experiences to determine which category is most appropriate.

A small 7-minute excerpt of a gender-diverse yoga class - 'Strand of Beauty' instructed by Sparkle Thornton, embedded below - also helped us to understand how we limit our own range of movements out of fear of how we may be judged and labelled by those around us. Being on our hands and knees in cat and cow pose made some of us feel vulnerable because we may be seen as stiff or downright silly.

​However, when I think of my spine as being a series of interlocking bones, each representing a way I’ve done gender differently at different stages of my life, there are logical connections that afford flexibility and mobility. If I think of my pelvis as being, not the site of gendered genitalia, but a bowl-shaped bone from which my gender emerges, again I am inclined to stretch my range of movement. When I reach towards the sky, I think of all the possibilities of doing gender that are unlimited and capacious.

From this verging-on-amber exercise we stepped it up a little more. But not before some snacks, coffee and shared reflections that restored a healthy ‘green light’.

We divided into two groups, one who would be travellers and one who would be border patrol officers. Travelling while transgender is a vexed question for many reasons (as Samantha Allen explores here). In our game, the travellers chose dress-ups that were intentionally confusing and gender-ambiguous. The border-patrol officers were given blue and pink cards. As we approached them, just as we do when experiencing immigration zones in the US, they make a visual assessment of our gender-presentation and pick a card/button with which our body is expected to match. In real life the body scanners detect our anatomical alignments and, if our body does NOT match with the gender that’s been assigned us, border patrol officers have a legal right to scrutinise our bodies further, with a pat down and verbal interrogation. And this is where the silliness of the system reveals itself…

There is no universal agreement on what my body as a non-binary person with an ‘X’ representing my gender in my passport should look like. I am therefore explicitly positioned as a risky citizen, posing a threat of terror. And of course, any gender-diverse person will have numerous examples of how their gender-transgressions have terrified various people in their lives…

Find out more about your rights when travelling in this guide from the US based National Centre for Transgender Equality. They also link to this TSA travel card that alerts border patrol officers to our rights to elect our own mode of surveillance. While this puts aside the whole argument about linking gender/sex to confirmation of legal identity, it may nevertheless be useful.

Our game has a somewhat happier ending. As travellers, if we’re unhappy with the gender assigned by a border patrol officer, they will work with us to elect some categories of our own choosing. We thought through what data we’d LIKE to offer in the various spaces we move in – education, bathrooms, health etc. – and distinguished between categories that are useful ‘for them’ compared with those that are useful ‘for me’.

One of the findings that emerges from this embodied experiment is around ‘best practice’ for data collectors. Sally from TGV offered the following (and I paraphrase) when I asked how they decide what questions to ask of their community members.

We think very carefully about why we need the information and therefore ask whether we need to ask a question, whether that be gender, socio-economic details, levels of education or anything. For example, linking gender-diversity to poor levels of social participation allows us to make a case for funding programs that redress inequities. We believe good practice is to state our intentions, and some detail in questions, with the people that are offering their information. We also always offer open-fields so that people can clarify their intentions and nominate their own meaningful categories.

The definitions of data categories, whether they be an X in a passport or an Instagram Selfie representing non-binary gender, need to be agreed and shared if they are to be of any use. What meanings will we be making of the information contained within the frame? How will this information serve the needs of the person who is sharing their self-identification?

Please enjoy some of our playful, intentionally 'gender-ambiguous' passport photos!

This discussion, between data collecting agencies and the people who offer their information, seems foundational to ethical best practice.

It’s the kind of sharing of meanings that we’re hoping for in our Midsumma 2020 mini-symposium on the ‘Crisis of Categories’.

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References:

‘Airport Security’. National Center for Transgender Equality. Accessed 14 May 2019. https://transequality.org/know-your-rights/airport-security.

Allen, Samantha. ‘The Freedom—and Fear—of Traveling While Transgender’. The Daily Beast, 11 November 2018. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-freedomand-fearof-traveling-while-transgender.

Auer, Peter. ‘A Postscript: Code-Switching and Social Identity’. Conversational Code-Switching 37, no. 3 (1 March 2005): 403–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2004.10.010.

Harris, Josh. ‘Simona Castricum: Finding a Place for Empathy in Architecture’. Professional magazine/website. ArchitectureAU, 14 February 2018. https://architectureau.com/articles/simona-castricum-finding-a-place-for-empathy-in-architecture/.

Mujumdar, Vaidehi. ‘I Don’t “code-Switch” to Hide My Identity. I “Code-Switch” to Celebrate It | Vaidehi Mujumdar’. The Guardian, 31 March 2015, sec. Opinion. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/31/i-dont-code-switch-to-hide-my-identity-i-code-switch-to-celebrate-it.

Vivienne, Son. ‘Between Firefighting and Flaming: Collective and Personal Trans* and Gender-Diverse Social Media’. In Digital Intimate Publics and Social Media, edited by Brady Robards, Amy Dobson, and Nic Carah. London, U.K: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Wei, Li. ‘“How Can You Tell?”: Towards a Common Sense Explanation of Conversational Code-Switching’. Conversational Code-Switching 37, no. 3 (1 March 2005): 375–89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2004.10.008.

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