From Whipping Girl: http://juliaserano.blogspot.com/2013/10/considering-trans-and-queer.html
October 1, 2013
Within the activist circles I run in, I routinely hear people accuse others of appropriation, or claim that certain behaviors or endeavors are appropriative. I myself have written about how certain people (e.g., cisgender academics and media producers) sometimes appropriate transgender identities and experiences (discussed more below). So I am certainly sympathetic to the concept.
At the same time, however, I have seen the concept of appropriation used (or misused) in order to undermine marginalized groups as well. For instance, cisgender feminists have long accused trans women of “appropriating female dress” or “appropriating women’s identities”—indeed, if you click the link you will see that this was part of the justification for why Sylvia Rivera was kicked off the stage at a 1973 Pride rally in New York City. On Cathy Brennan’s anti-trans-dyke website “Pretendbians” (which I refuse to link to), the byline at the top of the webpage says: “We don’t hate you, we hate appropriation”—the implication being that trans women cannot ever be actual lesbians, but rather we can only appropriate lesbian identities and culture.
Recently, on several occasions, I have heard trans people claim that cisgender people who perform drag, or who crossdress as part of a Halloween costume, appropriate trans people’s identities and culture. Such statements surprised me, in part, because they are so eerily similar to the aforementioned accusations of appropriation that trans-exclusive radical feminists have levied against us. But what struck me even more was how such claims represent a complete about face from the direction that transgender activism had been taking during the ’90s and early ’00s. During that era, we tended to celebrate binary-shattering activities. Trans activists didn’t merely discuss our own gender-non-conformity, but we emphasized the fact that most of us (whether trans or not) transgress gender norms at some points in our lives. Indeed, trans activists often encouraged forms of gender transgression in the cisgender majority, as it was generally believed that such expressions would help undermine binary gender norms throughout society.
And suddenly now in 2013, some trans people are essentially taking the exact opposite approach by discouraging cisgender people from transgressing gender norms (via accusations that such actions represent an appropriation of transgender identities and culture).
In the wake of all these claims, I have done a lot of thinking about appropriation over the last year. And I have come to the conclusion that the issue is way more complicated than the cut-and-dried “appropriation-is-always-bad” perspective that seems to predominate in activist settings. While we should be concerned about appropriation (especially certain manifestations of it), we should also be cognizant of some of the negative ramifications that can arise from the indiscriminate or overzealous use of the concept. In this essay, I will share some of my thoughts on this matter.
For the record, my main focus here will be accusations of appropriation with regards to gender and sexuality, and what they mean for transgender and queer (e.g., LGBTQIA+) communities and activism. Some of what I say may have import for thinking about other instances of cultural appropriation (e.g., with regards to ethnicity, class, religion, nationality, etc.). However, LGBTQIA+ identities and cultures are unique in a number of ways (which I will address toward the end of the piece), and this may limit the usefulness of applying what I say here to other such instances of appropriation.
What is “appropriation,” and why (or perhaps when) is it bad?
In the most general sense, appropriation occurs when we take something that somebody else has created and use it for our own purposes. For example, I can appropriate a certain chord progression others have previously used in order to create a new song. Or I could appropriate another person’s theory and apply it to a new problem. If I like your fashion-sense, I may appropriate your style. Humans beings are highly social animals: We are imitators, and we learn language, fashion, traditions, expressions, and ideas from one another. As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. Almost everything we create has its origins elsewhere—we are constantly adopting, adapting, and repurposing other people’s past creations and reconstructing them in novel ways. So appropriation—in the most general sense—is an everyday part of human life.
Within social justice movements, we typically use the word “appropriation” in a more specific sense: to describe instances where a dominant and/or majority group takes up some tangible or intangible aspect of a marginalized and/or minority community. Sometimes it is the marginalized/minority group’s identity that gets appropriated—for instance, members of the dominant/majority group may claim that identity for themselves, or create their own depictions of members of that group (which typically resemble the dominant/majority group’s assumptions and stereotypes rather than the marginalized/minority group’s lived realities). Other times, it is the minority group’s culture (e.g., their language, art, beliefs, religions, traditions, rituals, and fashions) that gets appropriated. Often cited examples include when Western countries appropriate art and artifacts from nations they have colonized, or appropriate their spiritual practices and traditions (as seen with the popularity of Yoga and Buddhism here in the U.S.). Or in how white America has historically appropriated musical styles that had their origins in African-American communities (e.g., jazz, rock-n-roll, hip-hop). And so on.
So if appropriation (in the most general sense) is a basic human tendency, why is it considered to be bad when dominant/majority groups appropriate from marginalized/minority groups? I would argue that there are at least three non-mutually-exclusive reasons why this is so:
Continue reading at: http://juliaserano.blogspot.com/2013/10/considering-trans-and-queer.html