Featured Philosopher: Grayson Hunt

Grayson 2017.jpg

Grayson Hunt is an assistant professor of philosophy at Western Kentucky University. He earned his PhD in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in 2013. He wrote his dissertation on the moral meaning of resentment as feminist resistance. Grayson’s current work examines trans-feminist and intersectional responses to oppression. Specifically, he writes on the intersection of biphobia and transphobia, and the shared struggle of bisexual and transgender people.

Loving Curiosity: On the Intersection of Bisexual and Transgender Oppression

Grayson Hunt

First I want to acknowledge and thank Dr. Meena Krishnamurthy for creating such an inclusive and exciting philosophy blog. I use the blog entries on this page to teach philosophy. I’ve used Heather Logue’s post, “How you know you’re not in the Matrix” to teach Descartes’s Meditations, and Myisha Cherry’s post, “What Does it Mean to Ask Blacks to Forgive and How Should They Respond?” to teach critical approaches to the philosophy of forgiveness. And every semester, I introduce my students to philosophy and trans* experience by pairing Talia Bettcher’s post, “Other ‘Worldly’ Philosophy” with Plato’s cave allegory. These essays on epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics help me create the kind of classes I enjoy teaching. Thank you Meena for all that you do!

While I’m trained in what we often call Continental philosophy—a tradition rooted in Existential, Phenomenological and Social philosophical approaches—my current work focuses LGBTQ philosophy and oppression. More specifically, whereas I began my philosophical career thinking and writing about the moral, existential, and phenomenological meanings of resentment, particularly in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt, I am today concerned with intersectional analyses of oppression, especially in regard to Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (BTQ) communities.

I’ll proceed by introducing you to my current work on biphobia and transphobia and the possibility for BTQ coalition building. In terms of approach, I am committed to what Audre Lorde calls the “interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences,”[1] a phrase that I translate as a kind of ‘loving curiosity’ towards difference. Intersectional feminism is a politicized first-personal account of oppression. Before intersectionality became a concept in 1989,[2] it was first an experiential account through which Black feminists explained how discrimination and harassment were never fully compartmentalizable into separate categories of oppression. As both a concept and a metaphor, intersectionality enables feminists to describe how people who occupy multiple marginalized social positions experience oppression that is qualitatively (not simply quantitatively) different from those with fewer or different social disadvantages.[3] This is a starting assumption of much of my work on LGBTQ oppression.

But not all forms of curiosity are loving. In fact, I think a lot of philosophy is drawn to a form of morbid curiosity, which Perry Zurn defines as, “fundamentally drawn to pain. It is commonly expressed by an empty gaze, intent on seeing yet without any interest in understanding. Commensurately, it directs its line of sight toward pain and suffering in a fetishistic manner.”[4] Within philosophy, this often entails engaging in the pain of others theoretically without knowing much about that pain experientially or politically. But how we become curious, and how we treat people from that place of curiosity matters; it’s a political and ethical question.

The goal of my work is to engage in loving curiosity about bi and trans oppression and their intersection. I consider this work to be similar to what George Yancy called “high stakes” philosophy,[5] or what Zurn calls politically resistant curiosity that is “from and for the margins.”[6]

Zurn’s work on curiosity helps me figure out how to engage in curiosity about oppression that doesn’t amount to interest without understanding. Unlike morbid curiosity, curiosity driven by and for social justice is “activated in the recording of injustices [and] is primarily driven by pain and only secondarily drawn to pain.”[7] Zurn calls this curiosity painfully honest, in that to be curious in this non-morbid way is to be curious about something one already knows, and to discover it. This politicized curiosity mobilized for social justice “presupposes experience and understanding.”[8] Zurn suggests that because of this lived investment, oppressed persons who are so often the “butt of curiosity” are then able to “stake their claim to curiosity as a vibrant, collective practice of self-love and political resistance.”[9] My work is provoked by an invested curiosity in the lives of transgender and bisexual people, as a transgender bisexual person.

I use intersectionality as a theoretical tool and perspective because it helps me be critically curious about intra-group oppressions. Intersectionality, more than existentialism or phenomenology, is a politicized curiosity about oppression. It refuses to be complacent about power and how it works within liberation movements. For instance, how marginalized people themselves police queer boundaries and access to privilege.

In my current work, I argue that the oppressions experienced by transgender people and bisexual people are structurally identical insofar as they are premised on accusations of “reinforcing the binary,”[10] an accusation that undermines not only the legitimacy of trans and bi lives, but also the political efficacy of trans and bi activism and coalition building. Given this similarity and the empirical fact that bisexuality is the most common sexual orientation for trans women,[11] there ought to be thriving trans and bi coalitions and more suspicion against attitudes that pit bisexuality against transgender experience. BTQ coalitions don’t seem to exist, and my work attempts to show why.

Within both academic and non-academic queer and feminist communities, pansexual and non-binary identities have recently emerged to offer options “beyond the binary.” The gender binary is a system of gender identification based on a theory of sexual dimorphism according to which humans are taken to be “biologically male or female” (where “biological” might be said to be determined by genetics, hormones, or genitals, or some combination of the three). Because queer[12] theory is generally critical of gender binarism, identities that conform to that binarism are targets of critique. Many bisexuals, for example, have asked themselves or been asked whether the continued use of bisexuality is justifiable given the more inclusive, non-binarist options like pansexual, polysexual, and omnisexual. What I’m curious about is why, with the increased visibility for non-binary identities (non-binary, gender-non-conforming, pansexuality, omnisexual, etc), new scrutiny has been mobilized against bisexual and transgender identities for ’reinforcing the gender binary,’ and not other identities, like gay, straight, and lesbian, all of which also rely on binarist understandings of gender. Is the accusation of reinforcing the binary justified?

Before answering that question, I’ll explain how the “reinforcing the binary” accusation works. There are several “reinforcing the binary tropes” within mainstream understandings of bisexuality. The first and most troubling is the idea that bisexuality is the capacity to be attracted to men and women. This conceptualization misconstrues bisexuality as a matter of gender identity where there are two presumably cisgender options,[13] rather than an orientation towards sameness or difference (which is how we define heterosexuality and same-sex relationships). This conflation of sexual orientation with gender identity is, in my view, responsible for many of the cisnormative assumptions about bisexuality. The second assumption is that bisexuality entails being half straight and half gay, a move that again erases bisexuality as an orientation in its own right. Finally, given these two decidedly binarist understandings of bisexuality, a third assumption can be made, which is that bisexuality ignores or excludes trans and non-binary identities.

There are also several basic “reinforcing the binary tropes” within mainstream understandings of transgender identity. The first is that trans people are “born in the wrong body,” where the ‘wrong body’ is the one a person was ‘born with’ and the ‘right body’ is presumably a body of the opposite gender.[14] While this narrative rings true for many trans people, it is not a narrative avowed by all trans people. (I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with anyone’s body; the problem is the cissexist attitudes that get weaponized against trans people and which prevent or diminish gender satisfaction for trans people.) Nonetheless, this account has become a dominant narrative upheld by non-trans people as a way to understand trans experience. The second ‘reinforcing trope’ leveled against trans people is that we medically transition to become the “opposite gender.” These two binarist assumptions about trans experience culminate with the view that trans erase non-binary identities.

In the case of bisexuals, the “reinforcing the binary” accusation is what leads bisexual people to get accused of maintaining the gender binary by people who think bisexuals only consider men and women desirable (as if trans women and men aren’t women and men).[15] In the case of trans people, the “reinforcing the binary accusation is what leads trans people to get accused of maintaining the gender binary by upholding cisnormative standards of gender by transitioning, a move that is considered harmful to non-binary identities. Are these accusations justifiable?

The lessons of intersectionality tell me that no, this is not justified. These double standards are rooted in two different forms of oppression that stigmatize trans and bisexual people for identities and preferences that are totally acceptable for other groups of people to have. Cissexism is the judgment or belief that all people should align with the gender assigned to them at birth and that trans people are therefore deceitful, confused, and ‘inauthentic’. Cissexism gives rise to transphobia, which is the fear, hatred, and erasure of transgender people. The system of oppression that can account for the reinforcing trope leveled against bisexuals is monosexism. As Eisner, Julia Serano and others have argued,[16] monosexism is the judgment or belief that all people are or should desire in only one way and therefore bisexuals are deceitful, confused, inauthentic, etc. Monosexism gives rise to biphobia, which is the fear, hatred, and erasure of bisexual people. These oppressions are structurally similar, why isn’t there a more robust coaltion between bisexual and transgender people?

When I engage these two types of oppression from a place of loving curiosity, I find that what drives my research is the desire to reconceptualize oppression in a non-hierarchical way. The “reinforcing tropes” leveled against trans and bi people don’t just reveal oppressive double standards operating within queer and feminist communities, but they pit monosexist oppression against cissexist oppression. But asking ‘what’s worse, the gender binary or the sexual orientation binary?’ is an oppressive question. Lorde’s lesson that there is no hierarchy of oppression,[17] paired with Julia Serano’s insights on inclusive feminism have brought me to see that trans politics is not more important than bi politics, and bi politics isn’t more important than trans politics. Saying that trans politics or bi politics is more important or pressing or real is just an expression of biphobia or transphobia, in that it reinforces the belief that one group deserves less recognition and empowerment and therefore deserves to suffer or wait their turn. But it also does actual harm by erasing the empirical reality that many trans people are bisexual, a move that maintains conditions under which transgender bisexuals can be dismissed, harmed, or even killed. So while a politicized curiosity aimed at oppression is best driven by pain and only secondarily drawn to pain, I hope my work can help create more loving curiosity about the plight of trans bisexuals, particularly the plight of women and femmes who are most harmed by accusations of “reinforcing the binary.”

[1] Audre Lorde. “There is no hierarchy of oppressions.” Bulletin: Homophobia and

Education 14, no. 3/4 (1983): 9.

[2] Although Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1991 article is cited more often in reference to the concept, I find her 1989 article, and notably, her ‘basement’ metaphor,’ decidedly helpful for understanding how oppression gets meted out within and amongst marginalized groups. Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics.” U. Chi. Legal F. (1989): 139 and “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” Stanford law review (1991): 1241-1299.

[3] Grayson Hunt. “Intersectionality: Locating and Critiquing Internal Structures of Oppression within Feminism,” Philosophy: Feminism Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks, forthcoming 2017.

[4] Perry Zurn, “Curiosity: An Affect of Resistance,” Presentation, philoSOPHIA Conference, Boca Raton, FL. April 1, 2017.

[5] George Yancy, “Trayvon Martin, Philosophy, and white spaces,” Presentation, American Philosophical Association, Chicago, IL. December 28, 2014.

[6] Perry Zurn, “Curiosity: An Affect of Resistance,” Presentation, philoSOPHIA Conference, Boca Raton, FL. April 1, 2017.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Julia Serano, Excluded: Making feminist and queer movements more inclusive. Seal Press, 2013, 88.

[11] Transwomen identify more as bi than as any other category of sexual orientation (where the options are same-gender attraction, heterosexual, queer, asexual, and other). Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.” Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011, page 29. http://endtransdiscrimination.org/PDFs/NTDS_Report.pdf Last accessed, May 31, 2017.

[12] I use queer not as an umbrella term for all LGBTQIA+ people, but to refer to queer politics, which values separatism over assimilation, and which disavows what is considered normal, legitimate and dominant by heteronormative standards. See David Halperin (1995). Saint Foucault: Towards a gay hagiography. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, and Halperin, D. (2003). “The normalization of queer theory.” Journal of Homosexuality, 45(2/3/4), 339–343.

[13] Cis and trans are gender identity designations. Cis means “alignment,” where the person’s gender aligns with the gender assigned at birth. Trans means “to cross over,” where the person’s gender does not align with the gender assigned at birth. Cisnormativity is a set of values based on the belief that all people are or should be cisgender. Cisnormativity gives rise to oppressive standards of cissexism (the belief that cis people are morally better or more desirable than trans people) and transphobia (the fear, hatred, and erasure of trans people).

[14] I don’t ascribe to this view of “biological gender,” and believe instead that to be trans is to identify with a gender other than what was assigned at birth, or no gender at all.

[15] Meg John Barker, “Biphobia in the pansexual community” biUK: The UK national organization for bisexual research and activism. Available at bisexualresearch.wordpress.com, last accessed May 31, 2017.

[16] Shiri Eisner, Bi: Notes for a bisexual revolution. Seal Press, 2013 and Julia Serano, Excluded: Making feminist and queer movements more inclusive. Seal Press, 2013. See also Yoshino, Kenji. “The epistemic contract of bisexual erasure.” Stanford Law Review (2000): 353-461.

[17] Lorde, Audre. “There is no hierarchy of oppressions.” Bulletin: Homophobia and Education 14, no. 3/4 (1983): 9.

%d bloggers like this: