What Is Effeminacy and How Can We Celebrate It?

by Jules Gleeson

28 May 2017

Aloyisius, Wikimedia Commons.





Effeminacy is defined as “having traits, tastes, habits, etc., traditionally considered feminine, as softness or delicacy” and is most commonly associated with boyhood. With that said, adult men still live in fear of it, seeing effeminacy as a falling short, or falling out of line with normative gender expectations.

Not just confined to gender, effeminacy straddles many other forms of identity, including class, disability, and race. And with manhood constantly cast as an achievement, there will always, inevitably be those who fall short of it.

Siding with the effeminated means working for the liberation of all who are subjugated, without setting (normative) manhood as a precondition for justifiable emancipation. It means a refusal of liberalism in all its forms, and the development of a terms of survival and being which does not rely on the loaded, anti-black demands of civil society, and the state.

The politics of pro-effeminacy are about embracing this falling short of normative manhood, and celebrating those lives lived beyond the brutalising confines of normative life courses.

Celebrating and cherishing effeminacy is not only a matter for those who directly face stigmatisation as effeminate, but for everyone who encounters gender oppression. This is the obvious progression for the project for completing the promise of queer politics – the word “queer” of course has its origins as a reclaimed slur – and is a political approach that has become increasingly popular in feminist and LGBT writing.

In her new book Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed argues that feminist activists should embrace the moniker “Killjoy”.  Making the case for a new lesbian feminism, Ahmed explores how everyday hate figures such as the “dyke” and the “difficult woman” are used to protect misogynistic environments from feminist resistance. Ahmed argues powerfully for these slurs being wilfully embraced, and reappropriated by a renewed feminist politics. Similarly, radical bisexual Shiri Eisner has argued against a “myth-busting” approach to combatting biphobia, where activists disavow sluttiness, polyamory, etc. as stereotypical.

Sadly, much of mainstream LGBT politics is keen to present campness first and foremost as a stereotype, rather than a perfectly acceptable way of being. Campness has been consistently disavowed, along with blackness, by the politics of respectability, which refers to refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference.

Eve K. Sedgwick was among the earlier theorists to identify this trend in her provocatively titled 1991 piece“How to Bring Your Kids up Gay”.  Sedgwick notes the tendency for masculine gay men to be much more palatable for the heterosexist professional establishment than their effeminate counterparts. The rugged and masculine homosexual who contains their gayness to their sexual activities is lauded, at the expense of the dysfunctional gender-bender.

“Effeminate boys”, Sedgwick warned, threatened to become the “haunting abject of gay thought itself”.  As a result, gay men would come to disavow their own personal histories, which were disproportionately likely to include bullying and ‘correction’ from school peers and family for effeminate behaviour.

Pro-effeminacy politics vs. Masc4Masc aesthetics.

Sedgwick’s concerns back in the 90s proved prescient, as we can see through the rise of“Masc4Masc” erotic aesthetics – gay men who both aspire to be/be with muscular, rugged and unambiguously male, white men. Especially prominent on Grindr, and often twinned with racism (“No blacks no asians… just a preference!”), this new normativity has arisen as a minority of queers are able to access professional employment opportunities, prominent membership of political parties or NGOs, and other bastions of respectability which would previously have demanded them closeting themselves.

The erotics of “straight acting” men participating in gay sex speaks to the disavowal identified by Sedgwick, an increasing investment of gay men in the ever-receding dream of being normal.

Closeted gay men have, of course, always been found regularly in gay spaces. In a recent article, James Cuby makes the distinction between the closeted men he encounters in gay spaces, and the openly camp “faggot”, which these hetero-passing men are in fear of becoming. Queer politics must rally these “faggots” and strive to defend the right of every adult and child to be camp.

The experience of having been a non-normative “boy” haunts much of trans politics too. Certain trans women activists seem overly keen to distance themselves from being seen as “men in dresses”, as if being grouped with transvestites were a dire fate, and have often made crude differentiations between trans and gay identities.

In reality, gay and trans history are merged in the form of the “drag queen”, a term which only recently came to be used primarily to describe cis-gendered male performers. Queer and trans development defies straightforward categorisation, and there are a myriad of boundaries in desire and gender development, each as legitimate as the next (contradicting the claims of reactionary sexologists.) Many trans women go through extended phases of “exploration” prior to living entirely out-in-the-world, either in private homes or spaces where such expression is safer and more welcome.

The rise of “trans liberalism”.

As overt transphobia becomes less acceptable in so-called polite company, with displays of it depicted as an act of daring by the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos and BBC Radio 4’s Jenni Murray, we expect to see a rise both in”Liberal Transphobia”, and what queer activist Nat Raha has termed “Trans Liberalism”. Trans liberalism strives towards rendering trans identities as respectable and presentable, and reduces the struggle of our emancipation to obtaining rights from the state, and fair representation from the media. Although the heavy stigmatisation trans women specifically still face makes it a tenuous matter, as Raha argues this form of politics is forced upon any activists primarily oriented towards the state. Sadly, a minority of mostly white trans women are fully invested in such horizons.  Much as mainstream gays deny campness and try to forget their boyhood, trans liberals want nothing to do with the black sex worker drag queens who rioted against the police to liberate gay spaces.

Even at its best, for those mostly white and wealthy trans women able to fully invest in it, this project of trans liberalism will remain a project of denial; a concealment of the brute conditions of transgression which make trans women unpalatable to the straight order’s defenders.

Trans liberalism must be resisted, because it inevitably forces differentiation between white/trans of colour prospects: wealthy white trans women are able to afford surgeries, voice coaching, tailored powered suits, and other means helpful for accessing professional heterosexuality.

Effeminacy, slavery and race.

Holding effeminacy in contempt is pervasive in many societies, and supports a diverse array of oppressive regimes: slave owners from Ancient Greece to the Deep South referred to male slaves as “boy”. This was one facet of what Orlando Patterson called the “Social Death” slavery necessarily inflicted on its slaves.

This has enjoyed a toxic afterlife in western countries. Black men report often being called “boys” by condescending whites well into adulthood, while young black boys many years from legal adulthood are routinely cast as older and less innocent than their white counterparts in the media. Police in France’s banlieues are notoriously prone to shifting to informal registers usually reserved for children when addressing black subjects. Racism effeminates black men by treating their claims to be human with foundational scepticism, always viewing their bodies and behaviour through the framework of the state’s sovereign role to combat criminality. This alienation of black and Muslim populations from civic life  has produced the need for a new politics, well beyond the remit of the conventional left, and only in the early stages of being understood by communist theory.

Transition offers black trans women no protection from white supremacy. Black trans women are at risk from both transphobic street violence, and incarceration by the state. In her foreword to the new edition of the essay collection Captive Genders, CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman, describes how she was first politicised while imprisoned for killing a neo-Nazi in self-defence.

It therefore seems clear enough that there are many trans women for whom trans liberalism has little or nothing to offer.

We queers can do a lot better than this. Trans liberalism and gay assimilationism means scraping and accomodating our bodies to the existing, heterosexual order. Pro-effeminacy politics is the movement of rejecting the frames whiteness and heterosexuality  try to force our bodies into. It is living beyond and against these confines, in survival through unflinching solidarity.

Means of survival, terms of acceptance.

Survival in this sense will always be both a defiant and creative process. Queerness is defined by this developmental violence, and queer theory has done much to explicitly identify the damage it does to our lives in order for heterosexuality to continue its social dominance as a normative order.

Coming to terms with the damage already done is part of the task for any queer adult earnestly intent on survival. Much work has already been done towards this by queer culture.

Lesbian and queer scenes have, for many years now, fostered identities which deployed aspects of masculinity without (necessarily) laying claim to manhood, with descriptions such as “boi” becoming commonplace alongside butch identities. Other trans men and non-binary queers have enjoyed the ambiguity offered by the gay scene’s ever-proliferating trends and identifiers (twinks, bears, otters…) to explore non-normative manhoods.

Similarly, many practices originally developed in queer S&M scenes have allowed exploration and an overcoming of the damage done to queers as a result of being raised in a heterosexist society. S&M practices are often referred to as “play”, a suggestive framing which is often explicitly fulfilled. Age play, daddy play (now well known among heterosexuals) and the increasingly popular puppy play are among the types of sexual experimentation allowing consenting adults a means to engage fully in moments free from the everyday burdens of life, and decision making that comes with it. S&M provides a means to explore in ludic form the mismatched power dynamics which inevitably characterise development and life under a class society.

The shared practices fostered across S&M scenes have gradually cultivated practices which serve as the necessary preconditions to think of sex as part of the political drive towards human liberation. Above all they have promoted frank and explicit statements of desires, wishes and limits of territory to be explored between sexual partners. As well as being part of the original notion of “safe sex” developed in response to the AIDS crisis, queer S&M practices developed and fed directly into what mixed sexuality feminist groups today tend to call “consent culture”. In an attempt to overcome the shame and damage which usually shrouds sexual interactions, queer S&M is founded on explicitly agreed-upon arrangements between willing and risk-informed participants.

Many participants have reported a transformative impact from integrating these practices into their relationships and hook-ups. While not reducible to a way of processing trauma, returning to childhood, or exposure therapy suitable for surviving in a hostile world, for many queers S&M has served as one or all of these things.

Pro-effeminacy politics vs. the politics of respectability.

In truth, the S&M enthusiast, the boi, the faggot, the dyke, the slutty bisexual, black queers and any other number of widely disparaged, distinctly non-respectable figures have always existed as part of LGBT communities. It is therefore vital that the constant disavowal of them that is required by respectability politics must be resisted.

Indeed, this kind of politics can never lead to anything more than a heterosexist, racist dead end. There seems to be nothing to be gained by attempting to redraw lines originally mapped by the relentless stigmatisation experienced by the effeminate.

If there is to be a queer redemption of manhood, it can only be through its rearticulation. It can no longer be defined through a trite oppositional definition against boyhood. A truly queer manhood won’t cast dehumanising shadows as it takes shape, and won’t be pinned in place through regimes of shame and normative excision (figurative in a psycho-analytic developmental sense, literal in the case of visibly intersex infants, and other victims of normative genital cutting.)

We need to develop a politics which refuses to glorify the existing lopsided balance of power which exists throughout society, or to disavow features taken as unacceptable, frivolous, and outside of the respectable. Pro-effeminacy consciousness refuses to allow manhood to proceed as excision; refuses the subordination of boys to men at the centre of “Masc4Masc”. There is nothing glorious about being a man, just as there is nothing shameful in being (or having been, or never having been) a boy.

With thanks to Anja F for all of her help. 

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