On subversivism

This has been crossposted to The Asexual Agenda.

“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. [ETA: This example was disputed by a commenter on my other blog.] 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.


  1. Bruce says

    I think your last paragraph here really gets to the essence.
    The fact is that any gender-related nonconformity is, at the least, inconvenient. Thus, while some people might want to be “transgressive” for one day, as a statement or a performance, in general this will be rare. Many guys might wear a dress for Halloween, but almost none would do so more often than that unless it were part of their inner identity, or living their own best life. Whether it’s a gay or trans issue or something else, few would bother with it unless it is an sincere aspect of how they feel about themselves. I’m cis het, so I wouldn’t do anything like that myself. More to the point, I can’t imagine that anyone cis het would try to fake being anything else for more than a day, because there’s not enough motivation to work at being transgressive. The bottom line to me is that anyone who shows non-conforming aspects should be presumed to be sincere and honest about it. It just makes no sense to imagine that someone would put themselves at risk for any reason other than sincerity. If someone is non-conforming on two different days that aren’t both Halloween, then we don’t really need a psychiatrist to interview them to figure out, yes, they are being sincere and honest.
    The fact that I wouldn’t do it doesn’t mean nobody would do it. It means nobody would fake it long term, and it is for real. People should be taken seriously, especially on topics we wouldn’t fake about. Respecting others shouldn’t require much imagination or empathy, but should be the standard default view.

  2. says

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

    Hmm, ya that sounds like just another conformism.

    Same gender attraction is perceived to be the fundamental social transgression

    Seems easy enough to use “not heterosexual” instead of “same gender attraction”.

  3. says

    @Brian Pansky,

    Seems easy enough to use “not heterosexual” instead of “same gender attraction”.

    Well they could but they just don’t want to.


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