The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Erasure (Not the Band)

When we first set up The Lady Garden and we were adding “you should probably read this” links, I couldn’t find a good piece on erasure. So just a few short months later, I’m doing what anyone would do in that position, and fucking writing one.

It should be noted that yes, this is a 101 piece. I think sometimes we all benefit from going back and examining something from first principles. Nonetheless, this doesn’t make any other post on TLG by any other author any more or less 101, okay?

The thing about erasure is that by its very nature it’s incredibly hard to spot. You’re looking for something that’s not there. Consider John Ansell’s entire career of madness: it’s more or less defined by actually saying mad shit out loud. But what if ACT never mentioned Maori? Like, not ever. How long would it take for people to notice that?

Here’s a wee test. Watch this: it’s a lovely clip discussing the cross-over between mental health and sexual orientation issues. Now, what’s wrong with it?

Three times, this phrase is used: “gay, lesbian and trans people”. WTF?

Now, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt. My assumption is that this is accidental, that they do care about these issues in regard to bisexual people as well, they just forgot to say so.

It’s slightly trickier because of the history of gay and lesbian groups being erasive of bisexuals, of revisionist histories claiming any man who had a wife and kids and a male lover as “gay”. Sometimes it’s not accidental, or lazy, sometimes it’s a particularly  passive-aggressive form of malice.

But most of the time it isn’t, which makes pointing out erasure very difficult. If you jump down someone’s throat every time they use a phrase like “gay or straight”, or “men and women” or “gay marriage” (rather than same-sex marriage, which is inclusive of bisexuals) we risk alienating and hurting allies.

And yes, erasure ties in with privilege. In a very non-controversial example, you know those green plastic security screens on money machines, on the card slot and the keypad? They’re designed to make the machine perfectly easy to use – as long as you’re right-handed. If you are right-handed, you’ve probably never noticed just how fucking inconvenient they are for left-handed people. And somehow, those got all the way through design and implementation without anyone pointing this out.

But at least I can still use the money machine. See the braille bumps on the keys? Now, how do blind people use the on-screen buttons?

So the further you are from the mainstream, the more likely your interests, difficulties, or mere existence are to be erased, because the more people simple cannot see them. My focus has always been on bisexual and kink erasure*, but I’m learning to see it in terms of disability, gender, polyamory and asexuality. If there’s going to be a sexuality question on the census (and I think there should be) it must have a write-in option. Like the gender question should, because those two stark tick-boxes? Are erasive.

It’s very easy to see when someone is being a bigoted twatcock a la John Ansell. It’s much harder to spot when someone is being erasive, but erasure is still profoundly hurtful. And it’s not helpful when people say things like, “Oh, but they didn’t say [group] doesn’t exist,” or “Man, y’know, not everything is about you!”

We try not to be erasive. We’re not always going to succeed. Everyone cocks it up sometimes. Our very language is heavily coded to be sneakily discriminatory. Taking that into account, I think we need to learn to point things out, rather than call people out. We need all the friends we can get.

*”Bisexual erasure? I used to have one of those. One end was gray and rubbed out pen…”

42 responses to “Erasure (Not the Band)

  1. tallulahspankhead July 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    One of the things I found immensely frustrating in all the SlutWalk talk, was how often people talked about women being raped. As if women are the only people ever attacked. And I tried really hard to weed it out of everything I wrote, and I am not sure I succeeded.

    I know I am often guilty of erasure in terms of a gender binary, and I try really hard to stop doing that. One of the problems I have is trying to be inclusive, but fit that in with my writing style, and it’s an ongoing battle.

    The other thing is, and I am about to show my privilege, is I _joke_. A glib, throwaway line, like yesterday’s column, where I wrote “the gays don’t exist”. I was making a point, and hoping ‘the gays’ would be seen as a catch-all for what I really meant, but of course, it’s not.

    • Isabel July 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm

      I think that’s an enormous challenge – to write in an inclusive fashion without developing a prose style which is a terribly earnest series of careful lists.

      • tallulahspankhead July 12, 2011 at 2:01 pm

        This is the thing. At some point, if you’re including everyone, the sentence becomes meaningless.

      • Emma July 12, 2011 at 2:24 pm

        Yeah… I think it’s worth trying, but that’s always why I think it’s worth being very forgiving about, because even when you’re thinking about it, it’s just so damn hard. And it doesn’t always matter – I don’t include asexuality when I talk about marriage rights, for instance, but I would when talking about discrimination or mental health.

        • Hugh July 12, 2011 at 3:32 pm

          Some asexual people are interested in marriage, I think.

          • Emma July 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm

            That is absolutely true now I think about it, Hugh. When I first started reading people talking about their asexuality, what I was seeing was no sex drive and no interest in intimate relationships. I’ve since seen asexuals who also identify as gay or bi, and the whole thing is something I’m still struggling to get my head around. It’s the differentiation between sexual desire and romantic love that keeps tripping me up, I think.

          • Jackie Clark July 13, 2011 at 9:03 pm

            Yes. I still have sexual desire but am in a romantically loving relationship that is sexless. Now there’s something that’s looked at askance. It’s so difficult to be nonerasive, because you’re right. If you aren’t of a particular group, or you don’t have life experiences which have ever included a particular group, that you know of, thoughtfulness is required. Not easy. Not easy at all. And I very much like the term erasure. Because that’s what it is.

  2. Max Rose July 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    One thing that intrigues me is the way that sexual self-identification doesn’t always match with the range of people that one sleeps with or is attracted to. I know one woman who sleeps with both men and women but calls herself a lesbian because she “loves to fuck men, but only falls in love with women”. Without googling, I suspect that this might make her bisexual but homoamorous, or something like that. Another woman reacted with revulsion when a particular woman hit on her, saying to me “Ooh, I’m not going to sleep with her, I’m not a lesbian!” When I pointed out to her that she’d slept with my girlfriend, she said “That’s different: she’s hot.”

    So, on a strictly “who are you physically attracted to” level, I suppose both would count as bisexual. But that shouldn’t stop either of them identifying whichever way they choose, as gay and straight respectively. I’m not up on contemporary queer theory, but would it be fair to say that sexuality is as much a culture as a position on the Kinsey scale? And would bisexuality then count as an analogue to cultural hybridity, or is there a distinct “bisexual identity”?

    • Emma July 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm

      “Somewhere” I read that about 2/3 of people who’ve had some same-sex sexual “encounters” indentify as straight, and I’ve got absolutely no problem with that. I think the simplest way of looking at it is that you can be gay, or straight, or bisexual, etc, and be a virgin. I haven’t slept with a woman in nearly twenty years but that doesn’t make me straight.

      I think there must be a bisexual cultural identity because I’m not comfortable identifying as “queer” or “pansexual”. But I don’t understand why I identify so strongly as bi, what might have influenced me in that.

      And yeah, it’s all way more complicated than that, I just chicken out by taking an absolute “it’s all about self-identity” line.

      • Isabel July 12, 2011 at 2:45 pm

        Self identification works beautifully on a day to day basis but there are definitely times when it falls down – eg a public health message about safer sex needs to reach the straight-identifying man-who-sometimes-sleeps-with-men but is less relevant for the gay-identified virgin.

        • Emma July 12, 2011 at 2:51 pm

          But why would it need to reach the straight-identifying man-who-sometimes-sleeps-with-men more than the straight man?

          There is some seriously horrible history of discrimination in sexual health messages, both around AIDS as a “gay disease” and bi men as transmission vectors. The most important message around STIs should be that ANYONE who is sexually active can get them. Even lesbians. Yes, there are differences in infection rates by population, but that doesn’t make any real difference to individuals – especially if those rates and messages lead some groups to be complacent.

          • Isabel July 12, 2011 at 3:16 pm

            Oh yeah -everyone needs the safe sex message. I was more thinking that some campaigns are clearly aimed at certain demographics and care needs to be exercised to ensure it reaches everyone who needs it – ie someone who identifies as straight but has same-sex encounters might feel that neither straight specific not gay specific campaigns apply to them.

      • tallulahspankhead July 12, 2011 at 2:45 pm

        I’ve had “same-sex sexual “encounters” (haven’t I, Emma…), and I completely identify as straight.

        I think (and I am literally thinking about this as I type), that it’s because while I have, and would, sleep with women, I don’t live my life as lesbian, or bi. Because I am, overwhelmingly straight, and so to call myself bi on the basis of a couple of encounters, feels a little like appropriation. I’m not fighting those battles.

        • Max Rose July 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm

          That’s interesting. An ex of mine has had sexual encounters and longer-term relationships with both men and women, though mostly with men. If someone called her “bi” I don’t think she would object, and if she was asked if she was straight she might qualify that, but I don’t think she would consciously go out of her way to call herself either, and she’s never mentioned any particular angst or soul-searching about her sexual identity.

          I guess this has a lot to do with privilege and social context. As a twenty-something educated woman mixing in a cosmopolitan, liberal crowd of irreligious hedonist lefties of various sexual orientations, there’s no stigma about being gay or bi. In fact, I sometimes get surprised when a woman in our circle doesn’t sleep with women. We also tend to either have liberal parents or not have a lot to do with them, and aren’t considering marriage or children, so we don’t tend to have the same social, religious or legal battles that other LGBTIA people might run into.

          She’s also rather feminine, so wouldn’t attract any of the usual male prejudice against “dykes”. In fact, in popular bloke culture as long as a woman conforms to male demands for attractiveness and femininity, bisexuality is a definite bonus. And that opens up a whole can of butch/femme, top/bottom and Dom/sub worms to complicate the sexual orientation picture…

          • tallulahspankhead July 12, 2011 at 7:14 pm

            It’s not at all that I would care if _someone else_ called me bi. Lesbian I probably would, just because it would be completely not true.

            And yeah, I could not care less that any perceived bisexuality is a ‘bonus’.

          • Emma July 12, 2011 at 7:26 pm

            Being Out in a big city is certainly a whole different proposition from being Out in a small town. But even then… when I made that transition I went from experiencing prejudice from straight people to experiencing prejudice from gay people. But having lived in a small town in my teens is probably one of the reasons my bi identity is so important to me, because it was so hard.

            Also, the “bonus”? I know how you mean this, and in what context, but I’ve experienced being fetishised by a man because of my sexuality and it was incredibly unpleasant. It’s part of the stereotype of bi people that we’re all happily egotistical and have good self-image (even if we’re also promiscuous and axe-crazy), and maybe that’s why we got left out of that mental health awareness piece, even though we have a higher suicide rate than gays and lesbians.

      • Max Rose July 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm

        Have you found the Klein Sexuality Grid at all useful? When I first heard of it I thought it might be a more inclusive multidimensional approach to sexuality, but it really just seems like a spreadsheet of every possible combination rather than an organising tool which produces new insights (unlike the Kinsey Scale, which I imagine was utterly groundbreaking at the time).

        • Emma July 12, 2011 at 3:28 pm

          One thing I’ve never understood about the Klein grid. What’s the question about who you prefer to socialise with doing there? How does that relate to sexuality?

          • Max Rose July 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm

            I’ve heard terms like “homosocial” and “heterosocial” used, mainly relating to phases of adolescent social development. Even though it’s not about your sexuality per se, the relationship between your sexuality and the gender(s) you like to socialise with might be very enlightening about the role that sex and sexual attraction play in your wider life and attitudes.

            For instance, look at the stereotypical 1950s Kiwi bloke: staunchly heterosexual, yet spending most non-family leisure time “with the lads”. Whereas there are probably a lot of straight men these days (myself included) who would have a lot of female platonic friends, ranging from drinking buddies to close confidantes. What would it say about a person if they want to have sex and/or romantic relationships with a person of particular gender, but don’t want to hang out with them?

        • Luxated July 12, 2011 at 6:32 pm

          I was thinking about this and I the problem seems to be trying to fit too many different types of data into one image. The way I see it you need at least four 3D plots to do it. The four plots would be sexual, romantic love, non-romantic love, social.

          The axes for each plot would probably be:

          X: Sex preferred.
          Y: Level of desire for that relationship type.
          Z: Gender preferred.

          Although I’m sure if I thought about it more I would have found I missed some subset of society. But it does cover most possibilities (I hope).

  3. Moz July 12, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    FYI, ATMs should have a headphone jack so that non-sighted people can hear what the screen says. It does work, it’s just funny to see. The really good machines start by saying “do you want me to turn the screen off during this transaction?” Some blind people can’t tell whether there’s a camera overlooking them…

    • Msconduct July 12, 2011 at 5:55 pm

      Thak you for mentioning this, Moz. My visually impaired business partner had no idea these were even available (because how would you find out, if you were blind, if you didn’t know about it already?). Now she does. They aren’t everywhere, but that there are any at all is a big step forward.

  4. Moz July 12, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    I think part of not-erasing is being broad with your descriptors. And if that means saying “non-heterosexuals” then say it, don’t pretend you can list all the alternatives. Which also means having a fair idea of what you are trying to say.

    And being aware of the difference between “I fail to want this” and “I want this not to exist” when saying things like “I don’t want…”.

    One complication is contested terms, and terms where the meaning isn’t clear to the people involved. “am I a woman” ( is a classic example of this. When you say “woman”, what *exactly* do you mean?

    • Isabel July 12, 2011 at 2:38 pm

      “Non-heterosexuals” sets being heterosexual up as the norm though – is in worse to be not mentioned or only mentioned in a way that makes you clearly not normal? Honestly I have no idea – both options suck a bit.

      • Max Rose July 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm

        That’s the pitfall. I think that it’s important to concentrate on what definite aspect unites all the groups in question, where that is relevant to the topic, rather than on what they’re not. For instance, I’ve seen the phrase “Men who have sex with men” as part of a safe sex campaign that was dealing specifically with that aspect of safe sex. A little cumbersome, but without normalising heterosexuality or writing out a laundry list (“gay me, bisexual men, and men who are straight apart from that one time in the dorms”).

        • Moz July 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm

          @Max Rose: I liked that campaign. The term actually resonates with me because I discovered the hard way that I need a partner who’s actually queer for the relationship to work. “straight men who have sex with men” don’t do it for me. In retrospect it’s obvious.

          @Isabel: I’m aware of the label, and the baggage-laden use, but also that it’s the cultural baggage that makes it an uncomfortable word. Otherwise we’d still be using euphemisms like cunt to refer to ladyparts in polite company. So I try to be positive in my use of the term and leave it at that (within limits, I steer clear of those words for groups I’m not part of. Mostly). I don’t think there’s a clear win, not least because of the reclaiming of words making it an ungly thing to satisfy everyone, or even most people. I mean, you only flat with a fag for so long before you say “can’t I just say you’re gay” and get the obvious reply “No. I am not gay. I am also not happy. Do not call me that”.

          It’s like saying “non-asian”. Yes, most people are asian[1]. I am, you are, we are, abnormal. Also wrong. And Bad. The value judgement is what I try to avoid conveying.

          [1] for some senses of the term asian. Asia allegedly extends west as far as Iran, or therabouts, and north to the Arctic Sea. Although the latter doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Mongolia, perhaps, but Siberia? Anyway, most people are asians? Don’t like it? Then have more kids.

    • Curvaceous Dee July 13, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      Hey, thanks for the link out, Moz 🙂

  5. Max Rose July 13, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    “Also, the “bonus”? I know how you mean this, and in what context, but I’ve experienced being fetishised by a man because of my sexuality and it was incredibly unpleasant.”

    I’m certainly not trying to perpetuate that fetishisation, but perhaps I didn’t word it that well. Clearly, it’s pretty mainstream these days in porn and lad culture that a certain sort of bisexuality in women is not just tolerated but almost expected, and looking back at older forms of erotica, it’s obviously not new. It’s often a very voyeuristic parody of bisexuality, though, existing primarily for the titillation of the male viewer. Of course, women would never fantasise about two men, oh let’s say rugby players or LoTR characters, getting it on… **cough**

    Beyond the voyeuristic intent, though, in certain polyamorous contexts bisexuality can be a desirable trait in a lover. Would I be stretching the analogy too far if I suggest that it’s like someone with kinks being happy with a lover who’s vanilla, but getting even more interested if someone shares that kink?

    • Emma July 13, 2011 at 5:24 pm

      I don’t mind “even more interesting”. It’s the “interesting _because_ I’m bisexual” that makes me, to be honest, feel physically ill. Based on that cliche of bisexual (particularly) women as sexually rapacious and amoral. And, yeah, no matter how much slash I might read, I’d never fetishise the actual gay men in my life. Because, y’know, they’re people.

      I guess it’s the difference between being interested in a bi person – or a Dom, etc – and being interested in ANY person with that label, reducing them to that label. It’s very much a gut instinct thing when someone is doing that. Though not so much when they find out ‘what’ you are and basically start humping the table…

      • Hugh July 14, 2011 at 2:58 am

        no matter how much slash I might read, I’d never fetishise the actual gay men in my life. Because, y’know, they’re people.

        I’ve got no reason to disbelieve that, Emma, but I can’t help but wonder if a man who said something similar about enjoying girl/girl porn and bisexual/lesbian women in his life he might get more scoffing than you would.

        • Emma July 14, 2011 at 10:13 am

          From me? Absolutely not. One of the things I keep saying (or, more accurately, ‘yelling’) is that porn is about fantasy. Because someone likes to watch a particular thing doesn’t mean they actually want to DO it for real.

          In general, from “society”? I’m not even supposed to have sexual imaginings, because I’m a girl. So yes, probably, but not for any non-bullshit reason.

      • Max Rose July 14, 2011 at 9:23 am

        Does fantasising about one’s friends count as fetishising? It’s pretty common (perhaps even “normal”, though I hate the term) to fantasise about the people that you know and are attracted to. I’ll readily admit to fantasising about some of my bisexual female friends getting together, but then again they’d be the ones that I’d fantasise about anyway. But is it not fetishisation as long as you fancy them anyway for who they are, rather than just because of their sexuality?

        • Moz July 14, 2011 at 10:08 am

          Max, if fantasising about my friends counts as fetishising, I have so many fetishes it’s amazing I get anything done. Unless I’m fetishising friendship itself.

          On a related note, one of the more disappointing bubble-bursting moments I had in my youth was coming into contact with actual porn stars, and discovering that many of them are dumber than a sack of rocks. Which totally put me off porn for, oh, weeks. Well, days. Am I the only one who fantasises that the people in porn clips are university bstudents making money on the side, rather than people with no/few other options?

          • Max Rose July 14, 2011 at 10:41 am

            “Am I the only one who fantasises that the people in porn clips are university bstudents making money on the side, rather than people with no/few other options?”

            I think this about sex workers, because I might actually interact with them. But people in porn clips are performers, and as long as the performance, ahem, does the job, then I don’t think about what they’re like in real life. Similarly, while I might like to think that my favourite actors and musicians are lovely, thoughtful people in real life, what really matters is their acting or their music.

        • Emma July 14, 2011 at 10:18 am

          I suspect I’m using “fetishise” to mean “objectify”, which is a word I’ve never been particularly comfortable with. So yeah, as long as you give a damn about what makes them tick… and you have to be genuinely interested in them as people, because otherwise they wouldn’t be your friends, right?

          I… am not comfortable having sexual thoughts about my friends. Even the ones I am attracted to. Starting at uni, I had this hard-set “inner circle” that were absolutely off-limits – because if I slept with one of them, all the others would get pissy and jealous. So the ‘would you’ questions actually make my brain instinctively recoil. I know this is weird.

          • Max Rose July 14, 2011 at 10:46 am

            “I had this hard-set “inner circle” that were absolutely off-limits”

            Hmm, I’d have to say that there’s no-one who’s really off-limits for me when it comes to fantasies and daydreams. Friends, colleagues, bar staff, random people on the street… if they’re hot, they’re hot, and fantasy is fantasy. It’s when those fantasies come true that things get interesting.

            “because if I slept with one of them, all the others would get pissy and jealous.”

            I think I’m well past worrying about that.

    • Curvaceous Dee July 13, 2011 at 5:36 pm

      ‘Would I be stretching the analogy too far if I suggest that it’s like someone with kinks being happy with a lover who’s vanilla, but getting even more interested if someone shares that kink?’

      Maybe. As someone with vanilla and kinky partners, it’s not that I’m more interested if someone shares a kink, it’s that there is an intersection of commonality. I get just as interested if we share an adoration of comics, or writing, or can debate deeply about Buffy and the meanings and metaphors of same.

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