Julia Serano talks “Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive”

Julia Serano’s Excluded is interdisciplinarity done right. Part personal reflection filtered through postmodernist theory and the life sciences, part feminist manifesto, this collection of essays was born out of the making of her previous, highly celebrated book, Whipping Girl, and encompasses eight years of living, critical thinking and activism.

Along with the October publication of English translation of Beatrice Preciado’s Testo Junkie, Serano’s Excluded is a landmark text that breaks the extant, watered-down theoretical “gender/sex/sexuality” paradigm and offers a more holistic understanding of our “selves”—of our gender, our sex, our sexuality. Unlike Testo Junkie, Excluded is a specifically political, and feminist, text: The objective is to reveal the underlying machinations of sexism that pervade mainstream society, as well as feminist and queer settings, and then, in the second part of the text, to posit a “new framework for thinking about gender, sexuality, sexism, and marginalization.”

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The first two essays (chapters 12 and 13) of Part 2—“The Perversion of ‘The Personal Is Political’” and “Homogenizing Versus Holistic Views of Gender and Sexuality”—are worth the price alone. In Chapter 12, Serano creates the term “gender artifactualization” to describe the commonplace understanding of gender: It is “the tendency to conceptualize and depict gender as being primarily or entirely cultural artifact.” This slightly differs from the more muted theory of “social constructionism,” which proposes that gender “is shaped to some extent by culture.” Serano completely, and wonderfully, demolishes the notion of gender artifactualization in order to give credence to the body, as well as to demonstrate how the idea “that gender is all performance” undergirds a subtle kind of cissexism pervasive through the feminist community.

Utilizing a holistic method situated antithetically to hetero- and cis-sexist forms of marginalization, Serano determines that gender is an amalgam of things, from bodies to behaviors: “biology and biological variation do, on some level, influence our gender and sexuality.” The surface of our body is a canvas presented to the world; it is what is perceived by bodies external to our own that, in turn, “read” or prescribe our gender. In the subsequent chapter Serano, who holds a PhD in biochemistry, explains the role of biology in our gendered bodies in order to flesh out her holistic model of gender:

…while our shared biology and culture may create certain trends (e.g. a preponderance of typical genders and sexualities), we should also expect the variation in our biology and life experiences to help generate diversity in our genders and sexualities…. [B]iological factors do not act deterministically, but rather they contribute to a wide range of outcomes depending upon the genetic, physiological, and environmental background of an individual.

Working from the holistic model of gender and sexuality articulated in the middle chapters, the final chapters of Excluded present new ethical and political models of feminism. Through deconstructing a myriad of double standards, Serano proves that activism, indeed, “is a balancing act.” She advocates public “call outs” in order to counteract exclusion and “to make our spaces free of sexism and marginalization. She also, brilliantly, recommends the strategic moving away from “privilege” as a lynchpin: “If we want to create broad intersectional coalitions, we should stop using privilege as a device to undermine others. The concept of privilege is supposed to be a tool designed to make visible the advantages experienced by people who do not face a particular form of marginalization…. [It] is not okay to dismiss someone solely on the basis that they have’ a particular form of privilege…. [A]ll of us have some forms of privilege that others do not have. So it is hypocritical for us to insist that a person’s experiences, perspectives, or issues are completely invalid solely on the basis that they have (or have had) some form of privilege that we do it.”

It’s impossible to encapsulate all the goodness of Excluded in one short review, and, I have to admit, I’m kind of in love with Serano and her feminist politics. Below is the transcript of a discussion we had about the plethora of issues raised in her book.

AfterEllen.com: Julia, I want to personally thank you for this book. The political project is so vast and seemingly unconquerable, but your holistic model is persuasive and logical. Can you explain to our readers how your personal ethics and life as a transsexual, bisexual, femme woman gave shape to your feminist politics?

Julia Serano: Thanks for the kind words about the book!

A lot of people who are drawn to feminism and queer (i.e., LGBTQ) activism seem to fit right in and are accepted by these movements. Other people are made to feel unwelcome or are excluded from them. Transsexual, bisexual, and femme are three identities that are often deemed suspect within these movements. If I only identified in one of these ways, I probably would have simply petitioned for the inclusion of my specific group. But being a member of all of these groups (in addition to also being a woman) allowed me to notice the many parallels in the ways that these various groups are all marginalized, both in the straight-male-centric mainstream as well as within these movements. It basically led me to think about challenging marginalization and exclusion more generally, rather than focusing on one specific group’s issues.

AE: The concept of “excluded” that undergirds your study seems heavily influenced by Foucault as well as civil rights activists and POC feminists of the late 20th century; I’m thinking particularly of Angela Davis and bell hooks. Who influenced your theory, as well as your holistic model?

JS: I wasn’t directly influenced by Foucault, although his work has obviously informed many of the theorists whose work I have read over the years. Similarly, I am familiar with Angela Davis, but I haven’t read enough of her work to describe her as a direct influence.

Audre Lorde and bell hooks were a huge influence on me, especially when I was working on my first book Whipping Girl. They were my first introduction to intersectionality and thinking about the multiple ways in which a person can be marginalized and excluded from movements in which they have a stake in. I also learned a lot from Alice Echols‘ book Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75, which brought to my attention how many of the debates and instances of exclusion that routinely occur today in feminist and queer movements are almost identical in structure to those that occurred back then. It got me thinking about what the underlying problems are with our movements rather than merely focusing on the specifics any given debate or issue.

There were two additional influences on my thinking that helped lead to Excluded. One was Erving Goffman’s book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. It was one of the first books that I read after writing Whipping Girl. It was written in 1963, so a lot of the language and the way he phrases things would be considered outdated or problematic today. But basically he describes the experiences of various people who are marginalized in different ways (e.g., for being disabled, queer, of color, sex workers, and so on) in order to create a general description of how people are marginalized, and how marginalized individuals react to their situations. It inspired me to look at the parallels that exist between different forms of marginalization and exclusion, both those that I have personally experienced and those that I have come to understand from the work of other activists.

 Around the same time, I became aware of social psychology, which is a field that examines how stereotypes and biases about different social groups arise and play out in everyday life. So I set out to merge some of these latter concepts with many of the ideas that I was already forwarding in Whipping Girl.

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