LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX
“I think kids should take the hormones of the opposite sex for three months as part of their high school experience; just so they understand each other’s operating systems.” Anohni, the artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty – who admits she is not a scientist, that this is an idea based on experience as a member of the transgender community – is talking with Dazed about her notion of Future Feminism, a concept that formed a project in collaboration with fellow New York fringe artists Johanna Constantine and Kembra Pfahler.
“The myth is that men and women are mysteriously, unfathomably different from one other”, she continues; “but as a transgender person I’ve realised that it’s like two different software systems that make people behave in different ways. When you flush that chemistry through the brain, different kinds of behaviours and tendencies emerge.” Anohni asserts that capitalism and religion are patriarchal systems built around testosterone-based, military values, and that today – in a world that has enough nuclear weapons to destroy itself 400 times over – we could use a little more emotional intelligence.
The former lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons is first to admit that not all men are evil (nor women angels), but the realisation that the masculine archetypes our world has been built on are no longer serving us well should be clear for even the most clouded minds to recognise. The artist and her fellow future feminists have envisaged a radical proposal for a humanity beyond equality, proffering that the aggressiveness of male decision-making is a failed structure from which to move forward. “That can’t be the climax of feminism”, she tells The Guardian, pointing out that economic equality has been demanded, yet depressingly distant since the 1960s. “It’s like gay rights, as if gay marriage is the end point, as if we just want to be included in these business-as-usual institutions.
A depressing realisation is that the tomorrow contemplated by the future feminists is lightyears away: in its 2017 Global Gender Gap report, the World Economic Forum estimates that equality – political, economic, and in health and education – will take a century to achieve. That’s 17 years more than it predicted in 2016. And that’s just female equality. Had there not been progressive intellectuals such as English sexologist Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), or early gender nonconformists like French artist Claude Cahun (1894-1954), society might not yet have moved forward enough for Anohni’s own transition to be as accepted as it is today.
“There are a whole world of people beyond straight white males who deserve better representation and respect, parity in economic and social issues, and much, much less bigotry slung in their direction”
Thing is, alongside a stagnating push for female equality across the board, there are a whole world of people beyond straight white males who deserve better representation and respect, parity in economic and social issues, and much, much less bigotry slung in their direction. Australia has, astonishingly, only just voted to legalise gay marriage – and even this played out against a backdrop of posters decrying homosexuality as a ‘curse of death’ and urging Australians to ‘stop the fags’. Gay men are being detained illegally and tortured in Chechnya as part of the Russian republic’s ‘gay purge’. Bermuda recently become the first place in the world to repeal same-sex marriage. The Trump administration has universally put progressiveness into reverse.
Paradoxically, this backward-thinking comes at a time when there is a better understanding than ever of the shifting notion of gender – when Caitlyn Jenner has taken trans issues overground, and British department store John Lewis took itself to the frontline of gender politics with a decision to cease the division of children’s clothes by gender. At the same time, Stonewall recently revealed that attacks on LGBTQ+ people in Britain have risen by almost 80 per cent in just four years, and that more than a third of all transgender people were victims of a hate crime in 2017. As inclusiveness reaches new heights, the tiny minds threatened by that are hitting out – there has never been a more important time for increasing awareness, understanding, and action.
“We have a long and proud history of promoting inclusion among our people, our customers and society, including support of indigenous issues, gender parity in business, and marriage equality”, wrote Qantas’ people and culture group executive, Lesley Grant, as the Australian airline launched an initiative to discourage staff from using gender-inappropriate language. In lengthy internal documents, the airline has urged its staff to drop gender-specific words like ‘love’ and ‘guys’, and affirms that terms such as ‘mum and dad’ and ‘husband and wife’ would be better substituted for ‘parents’ or ‘partner’. “Language can make groups of people invisible”, asserts the documentation. “For example, the use of the term ‘chairman’ can reinforce the idea that leaders are always men.”
It might feel like diminutive steps taken in a climate where gay sex can still see you imprisoned for life in a handful of popular tourist destinations, but as Robert Louis Stevenson said: “don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.” In readdressing the language we use, those struggling with their own identity might feel less like the world is against them; in eroding notions of gender as binary, children could thrive for who they are, not what they are. Behind John Lewis’ decision to bring down the walls of gender stereotype, and in Qantas’ push for more inclusive language, a greater picture of neutrality is emerging: where the archaic belief in binary thinking is being dismantled like a decaying edifice ruled unfit for habitation.
“Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neutral is the only gender that always suits me”
– Claude Cahun
“Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine?” wrote Claude Cahun in her autobiography, Disavowals. “It depends on the situation. Neutral is the only gender that always suits me.” Cahun – born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, France – was a pioneer. Beginning to experiment with self-portraiture in 1911, the artist collaborated throughout her life with her lover and stepsister Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe) – the two adopting male pseudonyms as their work explored the fluidity of gender; Cahun defying the conventions of those times by regularly sporting a skinhead. Prominent activists during World War II, their photography and writing was no less revolutionary, going on to influence creatives such as Gillian Wearing, David Bowie, Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin. In January, Cahun was name-checked as an inspiration for Christian Dior’s latest Pre-Fall collection. In times when we have moved way past ‘unisex’ (a concept inherently binary) and female androgyny, Claude Cahun is the muse for a society ridding itself of gendered shackles.
Fashion, of course, is frequently at the forefront of shifting ideals – and for those exploring their own identities it has the ability to empower: old-fashioned conventions can be subverted; boundaries can be broken. With Selfridges recently experimenting with the unpartitioned set-up made famous by Rei Kawakubo’s lauded Dover Street Market – the store’s creative director Linda Hewson noting that they are looking to “permanently embed its freedom and ideals into the department store format” – the non-binary paradigm of John Lewis’s children’s department may find its way to the adult section sooner than you think. As celebrities like Miley Cyrus (“I feel like I’m everything and nothing all at once”) and Jaden Smith (the first male to model womenswear for Louis Vuitton) have taken notions of gender neutrality mainstream, there is hope that openness and personal expression can help disarm prejudice.
That said, as Alaskans are the latest state to vote on the ‘bathroom bill’; Tory MPs tweet things like, “somebody possessing a penis and pair of testicles is definitely not a woman”; YouTube list Chelsea Manning’s political campaign video as inappropriate; and Trump signs off on a new order to ban transgender troops from serving in the army, that disarming can feel painfully distant.
“At the till I’ve regularly been asked if the clothes I’m buying in mainstream retailers are for my mum or my girlfriend”, writes trans artist Shon Faye in a 2016 feature for Dazed. “When I was 19, two staff members laughed at me as I held up blouses in a mirror.” A year later, fellow artist Travis Alabanza spoke up when they (preferred pronoun) were prevented from using the dressing room of their choice in Topshop, Manchester. The result? The Times columnist Janice Turner publishing a repulsive attack on Alabanza, deliberately misgendering them as ‘he’, and dismissing the artist as wearing dresses ‘to astonish and subvert’. “What Travis isn’t”, spat the privileged white heterosexual, “is a woman.”
Diminutive steps they may seem, but the seeds planted by Qantas’ appraisal of language use – should they be adopted by businesses, brands and individuals the world over – could go some way to diluting this sort of discrimination. What if they, or other airlines, adopted a genderless uniform? What if all hotels followed suit with Durham’s 21c Museum Hotel – the art hotel that flew in the face of North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (preventing transgender individuals from using public bathrooms that match their gender identity) by installing ‘we don’t care’ signs on their resolutely gender neutral toilets? What if nightspots made it safer for trans people to get home safer?
“We’re all interspaced together, arm-in-arm, eyes bright, lungs hollering love for the entire cosmos to hear”
– Ace Hotel’s inclusive pitch
“We’re all interspaced together, arm-in-arm, eyes bright, lungs hollering love for the entire cosmos to hear.” Ace Hotel’s inclusive pitch for their Interspace initiative, an umbrella for LGBTQ+ events at all of their hotels, is typically inspiring for a hospitality brand that is hardwired into the cultural zeitgeist; they, The Standard, and other familiar names in the realm of creative class travel are renowned for their progressive values, but it might be worth noting that token events and rainbow flags are a long way from the sort of institutional overhaul that is needed in 2018. A quick look through forthcoming events at The Hoxton – a brand hailed for its millennial appeal – reveals a product launch for “guys and girls on the go”. Of course, it’s a far cry from the sort of tone-deaf advertising Pepsi or Dove have recently (and rightly) been scorned for, and a turn of phrase we’re all prone to using, but it too serves as a gentle reminder of the constant scrutiny we should be placing on ourselves in order to foster an inclusive and just society.
Let it be heard that this is not an imploration to tiptoe through life saying nothing for want of not upsetting anyone, but a plea to remain mindful of cultivating inclusivity whenever we can. It doesn’t matter how hard you’re fighting the fight of equality: there’s always more that can be done. Take the continuing rise of feminist values: as great as it sounds, the movement has regularly been accused of clumsy footing – whether that be hypocritical bandwagon-jumping like Twitter’s Oscar adverts (extolling its feminist stance whilst millions are abused through their platform daily), or a failure to recognise that not every feminist is a middle class white woman, it’s vital we remember that flying the flag is nowhere near as significant as taking action.
“Right now, I’m really interested in just destroying everything”, Jen Silverman – whose latest play, Collective Rage, is a flagrant celebration of everything it means to be queer, feminist, and intersectional – tells American Theatre. “I think it’s so fucking useful for us as humans to undergo the practice of thinking we know what something is, and then watching that thing be deconstructed in such a way that we no longer can make the assumptions we were making. I think it’s useful for us to do that in theatre, where it’s safe.” Her diverse characters – including a genderqueer, masculine of centre, black lesbian – reject expected notions of femininity and stereotyping, breaking free of pigeonholes prescribed by society.
Building beliefs and abstractions and then tearing them apart is a useful exercise. Perhaps surprisingly, Anohni is far from convinced about the genderless future you might have conjured over the course of this story. “This whole fantasy of this gender-neutral oasis in the middle between the genders has been incredibly disempowering”, she says. “They’ve exchanged the female creative hub of life with this secular gender-neutral lump that we are all staring at and don’t have a relationship to.” Indeed, we are not far from binary thinking in envisaging a gender-neutral catchall for whoever doesn’t slot neatly into one of the two main categories of sex. From agender to two-spirit person, genderfluid to polygender, how someone chooses to identify is their prerogative; it’s up to everyone else to give them respect, to offer support.
We may be far from a future where non-males need not adopt masculine traits to succeed. We might be farther still from a future where emotion and compassion collapse the toxic patriarchal systems that control us. We are, reportedly, a century away from female equality across the board. We could be an aeon from other genders catching up. What must be remembered, though, is that we are all human. “Shuffle the cards”, wrote Claude Cahun. “Masculine? Feminine?” Whoever we are, we can each learn an awful lot from simply understanding each other better.
[This article was published in Beyond: Human, LE Miami’s print magazine, in June 2018.]