Gender and Identity in the Vanishing Half
By the Monroe County Community College Gender & Sexuality Alliance
The Vanishing Half sparks opportunities to experience life through others’ perspectives and through other bodies we could not otherwise inhabit. Although collectively we represent diverse backgrounds regarding characteristics like gender and sexuality as well as race, ethnicity, ability status, class, religion, each one of us has a perspective informed and limited by our own unique social location. As a student club, the Monroe County Community College Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA) experienced the world through some new and some familiar eyes while reading The Vanishing Half together.
One of the most exciting aspects about The Vanishing Half is the thematic spaces the author allows us to freely explore. However, the author constantly presents scenes, which question and put into conversation assumptions we bring with us. As GSA members, the relationship between Jude and Reese was intriguing. We rarely experience books, and other media, representing a fully developed character who is transgender. The authentic representation of Reese in The Vanishing Half was a welcome exception to our experience. Within the character of Reese, we experience a character who is part of the story not just because his gender is intriguing, but because being transgender is part of him being a whole and interesting person. For those of us who are transgender or gender diverse or who have been in relationships with transgender or gender diverse persons, we were curious to see parts of ourselves reflected and to see new reflections, too.
What did you see in The Vanishing Half and who helped you see it? What does it reveal about how you see yourself?
Jude’s relationship with Reese seemed like a natural progression of the story. Like other characters, their relationship was also a way for each of them to grow more into themselves than they could have alone. Jude seemed to think Reese’s “rules'' for sharing his body were new and strange to her, and some of us thought the rules of her ex-boyfriend seemed less startling to her. Jude’s first romantic experience, in which she is respected for the valuable, beautiful person she is, is with Reese, and it is in sharp contrast to her former boyfriend, Lonnie, who would only see her at night and hid their relationship while making fun of Jude, taunting her when others were around. This mistreatment felt normalized and familiar because Jude has been given so many messages her dark skin is inherently unattractive. These messages are rooted in negative, racist, and colorist ideals reinforced most notably by Mallard.
How does Jude’s experiences with racism and being rejected because of colorism relate to her embrace of Reese’s true self?
We feel like Jude’s development, including her romantic attractions, are revealed naturally. It is not overexplained and it does not take us out of her story; instead, it feels familiar like so many times we witness someone meeting a new romantic interest and figuring out how one connects to another. At the same time, we see Jude share herself and her sexual orientation in some ways with friends and Reese, and we see her hold back from disclosing everything with her mother.
What did it feel like to read about Jude’s relationships without a discussion of her sexual orientation?
Reese seems to have lost his family because of anti-transgender bias or cissexism, and he practices seeing the world through his camera - choosing his lenses. He appears to those around him as a cisgender man, and at the same time, he is a part of Queer culture where gender and identity are acknowledged as fluid and the quality of the person does not need to be defined by their gender presentation. He understands the systems of power influencing not only gender and sexuality but also race, as he gently reminds Jude of how racism was likely to impact her relationship with Kennedy.
How does Reese’s experiences with being rejected by his family and embracing Queer culture help him see the beauty in Jude, including, not despite of, Jude’s deep black skin?
What about Reese’s “rules”? These were about his body, his comfort level, and his autonomy as well as managing stigma about his identity and perhaps dysphoria. What about Reese’s rules feel familiar and normal to you? Does making decisions about how you want to integrate your own body in sexual and romantic relationships feel “normal”? What does Reese exhibit you may wish for yourself?
Did you notice this contrast in Jude’s relationships with Lonnie and Reese? When some of us did, it was a reminder of how “normal” concepts of racism, heterosexism, sexism, and cissexism can feel. Perhaps Jude’s relationship with Reese provides one of many ways to see how the characters navigate their struggles with racism and oppression with each other. Even though so much of the novel was about vanishing, we also see how everyone is deeply involved in uncovering and discerning who they were told they are from their true selves.
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Cisgender is “a term used to describe a person whose gender identity aligns with those typically associated with the sex assigned to them at birth” (Human Rights Campaign). For example, someone assigned female at birth identifies as a girl/woman.
Cissexism refers to “the belief or assumption that cis people’s gender identities, expressions, and embodiments are more natural and legitimate than those of trans people” according to Julia Serano. This term is also often used to describe the many ways this assumption shows up in our institutions and culture, for example, using biological features like XX and XY chromosomes to define or restrict gender.
Colorism refers to “the social marginalization and systemic oppression of people with darker skin tones and the privileging of people with lighter skin tones” according to Sarah L. Webb at colorismhealing.com who has also collected definitions such as Alice Walker’s, which is “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”
Gender diversity “refers to the extent to which a person’s gender identity, role, or expression differs from the cultural norms prescribed for people of a particular sex. This term is becoming more popular as a way to describe people without reference to a particular cultural norm, in a manner that is more affirming and potentially less stigmatizing than gender nonconformity” (Gender Spectrum as used by the American Psychological Association’s Key Terms and Concepts in Understanding Gender Diversity and Sexual Orientation Among Students).
Gender Dysphoria means, “when referring to people who identify as transgender,… a person feels immense stress because their innate gender identity does not match up to the gender they were assigned at birth” (PinkNews.com).
Gender expression is “how we present our gender in the world and how society, culture, community, and family perceive, interact with, and try to shape our gender. Gender expression is also related to gender roles and how society uses those roles to try to enforce conformity to current gender norms” (genderspectrum.org).
Heterosexism refers to “the assumption that all people are or should be heterosexual. Heterosexism excludes the needs, concerns, and life experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer people while it gives advantages to heterosexual people. It is often a subtle form of oppression, which reinforces realities of silence and invisibility” (UCSF LGBT Resource Center).
Oppression refers to “Systems of power and privilege, based on bias, which benefit some social groups over others. Oppression can 1) take many forms, including ideological, institutional, interpersonal and internalized; 2) be intentional and unintentional; 3) be conscious and unconscious; and, 4) be visible and invisible. Oppression prevents the oppressed groups and individuals from being free and equal. Many people face oppression based on more than one of their identities, creating a unique complexity of challenges and resilience” (GLSEN.org).
Queer is “a term used by some LGBTQ+ people to describe themselves and/or their community. Reclaimed from its earlier negative use—and valued by some for its defiance—the term is also considered by some to be inclusive of the entire community, and by others who find it to be an appropriate term to describe their more fluid identities. Traditionally a negative or pejorative term for people who are LGBTQ+, some people within the community dislike the term. Due to its varying meanings, use this word only when self-identifying or quoting someone who self-identifies as queer” (PGLAG).
Racism “is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices” as summarized by Racial Equity Tools from the Dismantling Racism Workbook.
Sexual orientation refers to “the desire one has for emotional, romantic, and/or sexual relationships with others based on their gender expression, gender identity, and/or sex. Many people choose to label their sexual orientation, while others do not” according to the It Gets Better Project. Everyone has a sexual orientation and may refer to themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, heterosexual, asexual, pansexual, or use other terms.
Stigma refers to “negative stereotypes and social status of a person or group based on perceived characteristics that separate that person or group from other members of a society” (The Fenway Institute).
Transgender refers to “an umbrella term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Many transgender people will transition to align their gender expression with their gender identity, however, you do not have to transition in order to be transgender” according to the Trevor Project.
MCCC Gender & Sexuality Alliance
The mission of the MCCC Gender & Sexuality Alliance is to provide a strong, supportive community on campus to increase awareness and acceptance, as well as to provide resources regarding LGBTQ issues and culture.
The club will attempt to provide a discussion forum about topics relevant to LGBTQ students and allies. The club will host events and activities to provide an outlet for current students, staff and community.
The club aims to strengthen the links between the college and the local community with regards to LGBTQ issues. Our intent is to encourage support through positive exposure and increased visibility of LGBTQ residents of Monroe County.