On subversivism

This has been crossposted to A Trivial Knot.

“Subversivism”, according to Julia Serano, is

the practice of extolling certain gender and sexual expressions and identities simply because they are unconventional or nonconforming. In the parlance of subversivism, these atypical genders and sexualities are “good” because they “transgress” or “subvert” oppressive binary gender norms.

Serano criticizes subversivism because it creates a double-standard, where people who are perceived as having less transgressive experiences are excluded or othered.

Subversivism was established in Serano’s book, Whipping Girl, and further discussed in Excluded. Although, I admit that I have not read these books, and have instead gotten the short version from Serano’s blog. I refer to subversivism often enough that it seems useful to write up my own thinking about it, and discuss its applications to my own area of activism.

Subversivism and trans women

Subversivism is a concept that emerges from Serano’s decades of experience as a trans activist, so we can make our first illustration by discussing that context.

In feminist spaces, it used to be (or still is?) common for people to criticize trans women because they allegedly put on extreme performances of femininity. I’ll briefly mention a few counterarguments: trans women have adopted these expressions because it was necessary to be seen as valid by society and the medical establishment; trans women aren’t necessarily performing femininity any more than cis women, but the image of a hyperfeminine trans women is remembered and criticized much more.

But today we are not interested in the counterarguments, we are interested in the logic of the initial criticism. Many feminists find feminine gender expression to be constraining and oppressive. Thus, they celebrate the subversion of feminine gender norms. It is all well and good for people to subvert gender norms, but unfortunately the next step is to exclude and criticize people who are perceived to reinforce gender norms.

I say trans women are “perceived” to reinforce gender norms, because that’s all it is: a perception. These perceptions depend entirely on the context—some feminist spaces may instead celebrate the transgressive power of feminine expression.

But what’s seen as transgressive or not transgressive isn’t the core problem. Transgression is only an instrumental good, insofar as it helps us lead our best lives. Excluding people perceived as insufficiently transgressive does not help us lead our best lives. This is most egregious when applied to aspects of our lives that we have no control over, but can be equally oppressive when it’s something we could change but really don’t want to (like gender expression).

One final observation, is that the perpetrators of subversivism aren’t the dominant group, but progressive activists and communities of marginalized people. Some say that since it’s not an expression of the patriarchy it’s not a serious problem. It’s just so convenient when feminism or whatever means dodging responsibility and ignoring harms to marginalized groups.

Subversivism and asexuality

Subversivism has some obvious applications to asexuality, most notably in that flame war commonly known as Ace Discourse. The idea is that asexuals are invaders of LGBTQ spaces because LGBTQ spaces are supposedly built around same gender attraction, which some asexuals don’t even have. Same gender attraction is perceived to be the fundamental social transgression, and anyone who doesn’t have it isn’t transgressive enough to deserve a social media presence in the vicinity of LGBTQ people, or something.

But let me also give several other examples, highlighting the arbitrary and contextual nature of what is or isn’t considered transgressive.

1. I used to be involved in atheist activism. Among atheist activists, the subversive thing is rejection of religion. So one sticking point, was the belief that Christians love asexuality. It’s highly questionable if this is true, but more to the point, we don’t exist just to serve as your rhetorical ammunition.

2. One of the most shocking trends I have ever witnessed as an ace activist, was the explosion of “awareness” of aces who have sex, circa 2014. I put “awareness” in scare quotes because there was awareness that this was a possibility, but little awareness of how relatively uncommon it was, or the diverse narratives that might accompany the experience. And this came at the expense of sex-repulsed aces, who were presumed to be a small minority (despite statistical evidence to the contrary), and held to be a secret that we try not to talk about.

For me, that was a major wake up call, because that’s subversivism writ large. For whatever reason, possibly due to influence from sex-positivity on Tumblr, some aces collectively decided that sex-having aces are especially good for subverting expectations, and therefore should be highlighted and amplified at every opportunity. This was made possible by the popularity of bland PSAs and positivity posting, which allow the amplification of possible experiences detached from the actual frequency of such experiences, or any complexities in how they are experienced. While sex-favorable narratives are worth highlighting, I encourage people to have a sense of proportion and be reflective about who is left out.

3. A queerplatonic relationship is a “significant non-romantic partnered relationship that complicates the concept of being ‘just’ platonic friends.” It’s a term that emerged from a context where aces were commonly classified as aromantic or (allo)romantic, which left little room for people who had to ask: but what even is romance? What about relationships that are ambiguously romantic, but remained outside the bounds of what society generally considers acceptable for friendships? This has become a popular topic in ace and aro spaces.

But once the dust settles, it’s difficult not to notice that when we’re talking about queerplatonic relationships, we’re still ultimately talking about partnered relationships. And so, more than once, queerplatonic relationships have been accused of being amatonormative. And I regret to say that I have made such a remark myself in the past. This is problematic because people aren’t going to transform how they do relationships just to make sure our political messaging is just so.

One could argue endlessly about whether queerplatonic relationships are subversive or not, and obviously I’m not going to resolve this one with a link to famed trans activist Julia Serano, but I would like to suggest that we’re asking the wrong questions. It isn’t about vying for the position of most transgressive, it’s about leading our best lives.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in Articles, asexual politics. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to On subversivism

  1. Sara K. says:

    ” And so, more than once, queerplatonic relationships have been accused of being amatonormative.”

    Could you give an example (at least your own previous remark, if you don’t want to link to other people’s remarks)?

    This old post by Queenie also seems relevant: https://queenieofaces.tumblr.com/post/24745888704/the-relationship-hierarchy-or-an-excuse-for

    • Siggy says:

      Here’s a link to my own remark:

      There’s also a distinct whiff of assimilationism to all the emphasis on strong QP relationships, as if people are trying to buff up the image to appeal to amatonormative expectations.

      This sentiment is also occasionally found on arocalypse:

      But I believe QPR’s are not immune to amatonormativity.

      I feel like sometime , we present QPR’s as “more than friends”. Peoples say “well, i would never do that for a friend but i would for my QPP” and frankly? I hear the same thing… from alloros and their romantic crush.

      Apparently having a relationship where you do things that you would not do for friends is amatonormative.

  2. Rachel says:

    Oh my god, yes. Thank you. The politics of edginess and more-radical-than-thou is a breeding- ground for toxicity and infighting, and that is why I have lost most of my patience for the back-and-forth arguments that it fuels (sex-repulsed vs sex-favorable aces, alloros vs aros, and now QPRs).

  3. Sara K. says:

    I’ve delayed responding to this because I wanted to look up some sources and think about it (and I appreciate you giving me some examples to follow up).

    However, I’ve still come to the conclusion that I disagree with the part of this post which discusses ‘subversism’ against people in or seeking QPRs. Either that, or I am actually subversivist.

    Granted, I don’t follow tumblr, twitter, AVEN or Arocalypse, so I really might be missing something. But in all of the examples I could find, including the ones you listed, it seemed pretty clear that the people in question weren’t opposed to QPRs, but a way of framing QPRs as being ‘romance lite’ or ‘more than friends’ rather than ‘other than friendship’. And some of these comments from people who are in or want QPRs (even in the Arocalypse thread you linked, one of the people who replied wants a QPR and still agrees that the framework discussed is amantanormative). In fact, the longest piece of writing in this vein that I’ve found, https://rotten-zucchinis.tumblr.com/post/118893889250/qp-relationships-are-not-romance-light-and is by someone who has been very involved in QPRs (incidently, re-reading that reminded me that some QPRs are *non-partnered* so if “we’re still ultimately talking about partnered relationships” then we are excluding some QPRs from the discussion). It makes sense that some people involved in QPRs are the most resistant to framing QPRs as a substitute for romantic relationships because they are personally invested in having QPRs represented in a way which matches their life experiences.

    I’ve made comments about framing QPRs as a substitute for romance for aro people in this post https://thenoteswhichdonotfit.wordpress.com/2019/10/11/aloneness-insecurity/ and I still stand by the comments I made in that post. I myself have (offline – if it were online, I’d link the example) been the target of talk that, since I am ace, I ~must~ pursue dating with aces, oh I’m aro, then I ~must~ pursue QPRs, because not having a life-partner would be so terrible. Maybe it would be better to label that attitude ‘singlist’ rather than ‘amatanormative’ but whatever label I use, I want to critique it. If critiquing it means that I am subversivist, then I’m going to be subversivist, because the alternative is to just shut up when people insist that my non-partnering status is a problem that needs to be fixed by at least getting a QPR as a substitute for a romantic relationship.

    • Siggy says:

      When writing the OP, I looked over these same examples and thought, “these are hella complicated, I don’t want to derail my whole essay by talking about it in great detail”. I’m glad you asked for examples, because I think there’s more to it then I had time/space to develop, and room for more opinions.

      I think what makes subversivism complicated is that there’s usually a seed of good critique somewhere at the core. I think that’s even true of Serano’s examples. The problem is that it gets directed disproportionately at nearby individuals–or at our subculture’s favorite scapegoats–as if they were personally responsible for a larger system.

      You might have noticed that in 2015, I backed off the claim that QPRs are assimilationist (and backed off from the assimilationist/liberationist framework entirely), but didn’t entirely back off from my critique. There is a lot of focus on QPRs and there are some problematic reasons for that. But I think framing QPR discussion as amatonormative doesn’t work, and maybe this isn’t apparent until you start going around and making this claim to people. People take offense because well they want the QPRs they want, they want to talk about them, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything they could realistically do to satisfy your political constraints. I don’t know, maybe a better way to frame it is that amatonormativity silences discussion about non-partnered lives.

      I’d also like to explicitly point out the problem with that arocalypse quote:

      Peoples say “well, i would never do that for a friend but i would for my QPP” and frankly? I hear the same thing… from alloros and their romantic crush.

      What if you have a relationship where it is literally true that there are things you would do for your partner that you would never do for your friends? Is it amatonormative to speak the truth about your relationship, or is it amatonormative to have that relationship in the first place?

      I also take issue with the idea you can criticize QPRs by merely drawing a comparison to things alloromantic people say. Being alloromantic and saying things isn’t bad?

      • Sara K. says:

        I agree that that specific part “well, i would never do that for a friend…” is clumsy, and I have a feeling that if someone were to have pushed against it by pointing out things like “there are things I would never do for a friend, but I would do for an employer paying me money, and that’s not amantonormative” it would have been rephrased (which would be justified). But at least it was not addressed at a specific person in a QPR. It also did not seem like the core point, especially since in the same post there is also “not just for QPR’s i noticed. Can be friendship or familly” which made it clearer that the point they were getting at was not just about QPRs. I also tend to be more generous in interpreting the finer points of language in forum posts than in blog posts, since I have lower expectations for people thinking things through the implications of what they are saying.

        • Siggy says:

          The thread isn’t all bad, and maybe I’m just overly focused on the clumsiest bits.

          I detect more than a whiff of “it’s bad because it’s like romantic relationships”. Which some have pointed out is reductive of QPRs. But I’m also thinking, another thing that’s much more like a romantic relationship, is, you know, a romantic relationship, like the one I have, and those aren’t just about respectability politics. But somehow I feel like that observation wouldn’t fly because romantic relationships are so poisoned, in this context.

          Still, you make a good point that it’s not directed at any specific person in a QPR and it’s likely people would back off if confronted. So maybe this is below the threshold where it’s useful to describe it as subversivist.

    • Coyote says:

      When I read that part, I assumed that Siggy might’ve been referring to remarks like the ones in the Arocalypse thread “Is aromantic vocabulary unconsciously amatonormative?” In that thread, you’ve got Rising Sun asking “What are ‘queerplatonic,’ ‘platonic attraction,’ ‘passionate friendship,’ ‘squish / friend crush’ implying at an unconscious level?” and Paporomantic saying “I feel that this terminology was designed in attempt to prove [something] to amatonormativists” … which makes it sound like they think the term/concept itself is a kind of concession.

      …It could be, for all I know, that they actually meant that a different way: that they’re just objecting to how these terms get used, not that they’re actually saying “queerplatonic” is itself assimilationist. Just saying, though, that that’s not the impression I got from it.

      • Siggy says:

        I never saw that thread before, so maybe it’s too charitable to me to say that’s what I was referring to. If I’m being honest, I included QPRs as an example based on hearsay, and when I went looking for examples, I found the ones cited above, which seemed superficially good enough to me. Maybe this other thread is a much better example–though it is from 2016.

      • Sara K. says:

        I did not read the entire thread, but I did read first dozen or so posts, and it seems in context that the people there understood it as being about how the word is being used, not the word itself, especially since lower down Paparomantic’s comment was paired with another comment “in some ways we dig ourselves into a hole by using these words, but not because of the words themselves, but because of the way we use them”.

        That said, based on what I know about the origin of these words, I don’t think they were originally coined to perform respectability politics.

  4. Pingback: We’re Bad at Understanding Behavior Based on What We’ve Never Experienced | The Asexual Agenda

  5. Coyote says:

    Is the Trivial Knot link broken?

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