Rethinking Gender Norms in Politics.

The upcoming 2015 elections are notable for a few reasons. Firstly, because it’s likely we’ll see another hung parliament. No one likes the Tories, Labour is failing to make any sort of sense as an alternative, UKIP’s sudden popularity is wavering (thank Christ), and my own party, the Greens, will sadly as a result of first past the post probably only see two or three new MPs at best. Oh, and there’s this other party led by some bloke who promised something, but I think they’ve given up on politics now. Secondly, this is also the first election where two openly transgender candidates are standing; Labour’s Emily Brothers, and the Green Party’s Charlie Kiss. Most of the media coverage of their candidacies has been positive – and rightly so, because if it wasn’t, then frankly fuck this, I’m moving to Westeros, I hear it’s more progressive there. At the same time, I’ve encountered dark mutterings on the internet – suggestions that the drive by the Greens and other parties to run women in the elections, or the number of openly LGBT candidates is somehow buying into the agenda of feminists or the “gay lobby”, whatever that is, though I imagine it’s some sort of tasteful hotel foyer covered in glitter.

Of course, most of the sources of these comments have been idiots, or UKIP voters, or both. But it does raise an interesting question about the intersection of politics, gender and sexuality. That question is – why do we have a fixation about people of certain genders or sexual orientations standing for public office, and not others? For example – did you know that four out of the five political leaders standing in the general election are *gasp* straight white cisgender men? Oh, what, wait, that’s not news? Why is it not news? What do you mean you’re more worried about Natalie Bennett being a woman? What? Oh, for the love of God, why do I spend half my life having Facebook debates with idiots and then writing columns about them?

The fact of the matter is that far too often in politics, heterosexual masculinity is taken to be the norm; the neutral. We do not feel the need to comment on, or explore the gender and sexuality of someone who happens to be male and straight. I’ve just finished reading American Fascists, an excellent expose of the Christian Right by theologian Chris Hedges. Hedges maps the often terrifying gender politics of evangelism in the Republican and Tea Party movements. Male figures, such as pastors, pro-gun senators and congressmen, play off a narrative of a supreme, pure masculinity as part of their electoral tactics. They represent a traditional return to the domestication of women (no jobs or abortion rights for you!), stand against the “gay agenda”, and use tactics more commonly seen in the promotion of action films (dramatic videos, photo-ops with guns) in order to weaponize their masculinity and fit in with conservative political narratives. Fearful of gender and sexuality differences? Vote for the man who embodies, under patriarchy, all that is familiar.

Even outside of the extremes of the American far right, the neutrality of maleness in politics is evident by the fact that it is never spoken about. Consider how in media interviews with female politicians questions about balancing work and career come to the fore. This presumes a set gender role: that women, regardless of their jobs or careers, are always the primary caregiver in the home. How many times are male politicians quizzed on their family commitments? Perhaps a question of this sort might arise in a somewhat cursory way, but societal narratives about gender roles mean that paternal responsibilities are less concerning than maternal ones.

Part of my comission for writing this column was to explore whether or not bringing sexuality or gender identity into politics, as openly trans candidates like Brothers and Kiss do, is a positive or negative thing. Obviously, I think it is a positive thing. However, what I’m trying to suggest is that within politics we still only ask questions about gender and sexuality when a candidate stands before us who deviates from the norm – that is, is not the “neutral” cis male heterosexual we have come to implicitly assume is the political leader. Ultimately, it comes back to the fact that societal is patriarchal. As Kate Millet once put it, “sex is a status category with political implications.” The implication and privilege of heterosexual masculinity under patriarchy is that it is perceived as normal, as requiring neither questioning nor fascination.

Thus when someone like Emily Brothers doesn’t fit that scheme, patriarchal logic suggests we can legitimately imply that suddenly sexuality and gender identity should not be factors in politics, it’s all too emotional, it’s all too personal. Whatever. That would only work as a way of viewing the world if we lived in a work of total gender neutrality, a world without gender, where gender and sexuality did not function as a category for discrimination. But we don’t live in that world, and our world does have hierarchies of gender and sex. Understanding those hierarchies and perceiving them in our everyday lives, especially our political lives, is a step towards building a more equal society. I wish both Kiss and Brothers the best of luck in May.


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