A Holistic Approach to Combating Exclusionary Acts in “Excluded” and “The Argonauts”

In Julia Serano’s Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, there are concerns about language and about the specificity of any given experience, and how these relate to queerness. In Serano’s book, her specific concerns are with how feminist and queer activist movements have a tendency to exclude certain identities, particularly trans women like herself. Her examination of this exclusion has led her to create a broader definition of sexism, and a critique of the dominant ways of thinking within queer communities regarding sex and gender, which she characterizes as homogeneous rather than holistic. Nelson’s The Argonauts deals with her own concerns about language and personal experience as it relates to her role as a wife to a genderfluid individual, their stepson, and to her newborn son.

In many ways, these two books complement one another; while both deal with the intersection between personal experience and theory, Serano’s Excluded deals more explicitly with theory, with her personal experiences coming forward to buffer her observations, while Nelson is primarily concerned with her experiences, supplemented by theory. Reading the two side-by-side, I feel almost as if The Argonauts was written as a response to Excluded’s ideas, as the application of theory to life. Ultimately that is what both books are: applied queer theory. Serano’s concerns may ultimately be more theoretical, but she nonetheless applies her ideas to her life and to how others ought to live. Serano broadens the scope of sexism in order to best convey how individuals like herself, a transsexual tomboy-femme bisexual woman, find themselves excluded from communities to which they feel most drawn to. Despite her identification as a woman, individuals within lesbian feminist communities do not seem to accept her for a variety of reasons, and Serano’s status as trans also brings her into conflict with other queer communities as well as the more heteronormative community at large. Everything winds up boiling down to what society takes, implicitly and explicitly, as genuine and natural, and what society takes as false and unnatural. In Serano’s theory, sexism is an attitude which finds certain traits, behaviors, and identities as being less “real” than others, and the kinds of exclusion which women like her and other marginalized people face are derived from sexism. There is, for instance, transmisogyny and cissexism, rooted in the belief that those who do not conform to their birth sex in their gender expression as being less genuine, which finds itself being expressed in the queer community as a “perversion of the ‘personal-as-political’” which attempts to police identities of those who are specifically marginalized. Individuals like Serano are, hypocritically, accused of upholding and reinforcing the gender binary while gay men, lesbians, and heterosexual and cisgender individuals do not face the same accusations. There is also, as another example, monosexism, that those who are attracted either to the opposite gender or to the same gender are taken as more genuine and real than those who experience attraction to multiple genders. Serano’s suggestion for countering sexism as such involves what she calls taking a holistic approach to gender and identity rather than a homogeneous one — rather than creating strict categories of identity and then seeking to explain away exceptions, we ought to instead be willing to embrace the myriad individual fluctuations of how people see themselves and express themselves. Serano argues that we ought to reject not just the notion that biology determines everything we do and everything we are, but also that we ought to reject the notion that culture seeks to do the same, and that gender expression and sexual identity comes from a complex interaction of factors that we may never quite fully understand. There is both a biological and social basis in how individuals become who they are, and adhering to only accounts which are based entirely in biology or socialization leads to the kinds of exclusion which Serano opposes.

Serano ultimately writes from a position that looks back at her experience and crafts theory based off it and other information in order to better convey how she feels we ought to live and ought to treat each other. Nelson does the inverse in The Argonauts — one feels while reading this book that we are observing the process of writing it, and that feels exactly like the point Nelson wants to convey. At the beginning of the book, Nelson characterizes her approach to language as using words which are “good enough,” because words cannot quite convey what it is we seek to express (“I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained — inexpressibly! — in the expressed.”) However, meeting Harry and his son, and having a child with Harry and coming into the experience of motherhood and domesticity leads Nelson to consider and reconsider her notions about such things, as such institutions as marriage and domesticity have often been taken by queer activists as anathema to queer living. Where Serano creates theory in response to her lived experience, Nelson re-evaluates theory as it applies to her life in the process of writing about both, and so Nelson’s experiences serve as an examination of, and argument for, finding queerer aspects in seemingly anti-queer settings like the home and the nuclear family. To Nelson, a woman’s pregnancy, the changes in hormones and the bulging of her belly, can be taken as queer just as much as a trans individual’s decision to transition with the use of hormones and surgery. Even the act of breastfeeding can be taken as queer: citing The Baby Book’s reassurances that sexual feelings during breastfeeding are normal and constitute a “mix-up,” Nelson writes:

But how can it be a mix-up, if it’s the same hormones? How does one go about partitioning one sexual feeling off from another, presumably more “real” sexual feeling? Or, more to the point, why the partition? It isn’t like a love affair. It is a love affair.
Or, rather, it is romantic, erotic, and consuming … Even if I do feel turned on while I’m breast-feeding or rocking him to sleep, I don’t feel the need to do anything about it (and if I did, it wouldn’t be with him).

But ultimately, Nelson’s account of her newfound family and her role in it as mother and stepmother affirms the kind of holistic approach which Serano outlines — everyone, even those who are not ostensibly queer, is to be accepted for who they feel they ought to be, wherever they happen to be in their lives. It is this holistic approach which leads her to question the sort of shaming of femininity or the maternal in academic spaces, such as when, at a presentation, Rosalind Krauss tears apart Jane Gallop’s photographs of herself and her child as “mediocre,” “naive,’ and “soft-minded,” as though her photographs were offensively and inherently without value. Nelson also sees in so-called radical thought a kind of conservative rejection of trans identities and artificial insemination, finding embarrassment in Baudrillard, Zizek, and Badiou’s insistence that sex would lose all meaning when decoupled from procreation, that love would become masturbatory, “masturbathon,” when capital-d Difference, so-called “transcendental,” is seemingly eliminated by sex-change operations. “These are the voices that pass for radicality in our times. Let us leave them to their love, their event proper,” writes Nelson, because she knows with certainty that she has found the radical in the traditional, and the traditional in the radical: queerness in domesticity, love and fulfillment in queerness.

Through their writing in Excluded and The Argonauts, Julia Serano and Maggie Nelson locate through their own applications of theory the ways in which difference either ceases to matter or makes all the difference. Their holistic approach is meant to accommodate truly everyone and not just specific subsets of queer identity, because every individual has a different notion of how it feels to be at home in their own bodies and how it feels to pursue one kind of relationship or another — or even a lack of a relationship altogether. By welcoming all, exclusion based in worn-out sexism can be eliminated, allowing for us to find the identities, families, and communities to which we feel we most belong.