The Case of the Contaminated Category

by Alice H. Deakins

July 10, 2005

I have been working for over 20 years in the area of gender and language. Recently, as I have seen and experienced, second hand, the increasing force of anger and fear around gays, lesbians, and gay marriage, I have wondered where this fury is coming from. A few verses in Leviticus and from Paul do not seem strong enough to have created this storm. What is going on? My work in gender and language, and over the last few years in mothers and daughters in the West, has exposed me to the deep and sustained negativity about women in the West. And some recent studies of language have suggested a cultural connection between gay men and the feminine. I want to share a bit of this with you this morning, hoping to initiate discussion.

I need to be clear that I am not talking about women and men as we experience them in our lives. Or about the women and men in this room, or any other room with real people in it. I am talking about ideology, the powerful cultural ideas that shape our lives. A brief bit of history will illuminate the gender ideology of the West.


First, powerful women have been almost invisible in Western public culture until recently. But this was not always so. The goddess on the cover of the bulletin represents that. From archeological remains, we can see the female figures that reflect women in powerful public roles. Sadly, from myths and from legal codes found on clay tablets in Mesopotamia, we can trace the removal of women from public space. The priestess’ role was the last one to go. The snakes our figure is raising up help us trace her decline. In the goddess’ hands, the snakes seem to symbolize power. But the snake later appears in the Garden of Eden stories, tempting Eve. Because the snake was associated with the goddess, it was used to represent what we call evil. Yahweh, the male god of the Hebrews, struggled against the goddess. And He was successful. She is gone from public space.

Roger and I tracked this process in Greece last May. We started on the Acropolis in Athens. I emerged from the Acropolis museum amazed at what I found. It is the only public space I have ever been in where there are more images of women than of men. This was the domain of Athena, and her influence is apparent. Then we journeyed to Eleusis, the site of the ancient annual celebration of the Demeter-Persephone story. This goddess ritual was the center of one of the most powerful religions of the ancient world. Unfortunately, we found there the pattern that prevailed elsewhere. The most important space of the archeological site was a temple of Apollo. Only a few images of Demeter remained in the museum.

In Delphi, we found a similar situation. Another temple of Apollo was constructed over what may have been the place of the famous Delphic oracle, the place where, according to tradition, a woman sat on a tripod over mysterious fumes and said mysterious words in answer to questions asked by men. Women were not allowed to ask questions, and the words of the oracle were interpreted by men. On Crete, at the Knossos site called a palace, we found that the information on signs at the site and in most guidebooks misinterpreted what was probably the original function of the buildings: a place for celebration of the agricultural cycle represented by the goddess. The statue on your bulletin was found buried in a chamber under one of the rooms. The powerful goddess from the ancient world was buried. She became invisible.


Secondly, along with invisibly and loss of power came what I call contamination. The female, along with its associated qualities which we call “the feminine,” became devalued and degraded. Notice that there are only two opposing categories that are at play here: female/male, woman/man, feminine/masculine. Aristotle spoke of women as “deformed,” with other translations being “mutilated,” “deviant,” and “defective.” According to Augustine, women are incomplete and an “inferior mix.” Aquinas called us “misbegotten males.” The list of distinguished men in Western culture who have said terrible things about women is long. In the 18th century, Rousseau wrote that women, although capable of some reasoning, have a simpler reasoning faculty compared to men, always remaining children. The assignment of reasoning and culture to men, emotions and nature to women has been particularly devastating. A recent manifestation of the women-have-simpler-reasoning position came this last January from Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, when he suggested that “intrinsic aptitude” may explain why fewer women than men have succeeded in math and science careers. Although President Summers was criticized severely by many professional women, and men, he was speaking out of a well-established tradition about women.

Another piece of evidence of women’s loss of public power has been the inability of the English language to find and sustain a positive word for a publicly powerful woman. The recent candidate is “diva,” but my research shows that although it was originally positive—for a talented singer—it picked up associations of “temperamental” and “difficult” which follow the use of the word into new domains such as “tennis diva” (the Williams sisters) and “domestic diva” (Martha Stewart)..

Another way to get at the negative stereotypes about “femininity” that characterize our public Western culture is to look at the content of “femininity” and “masculinity” scales that have been developed beginning in the early 20th century. Originally, these were bi-polar scales: you belong in one category or the other. In a 1974 scale, which has been used for many years, we can take a look at the continuing stereotypical qualities. (1) The items on this scale give my students fits when they look at them. Some of the traits considered feminine are tender, affectionate, compassionate, gentle. Those sound OK to me. Then we hit cheerful, soft-spoken, does not use harsh language. And of course such a female loves children, which is positive except that she is, in fact childlike herself. Childlike includes the positive-sounding loyal. But that is a slippery slope, leading directly to yielding and then to gullible and flatterable. In contrast, the traits considered masculine sound to us more uniformly positive: athletic; analytical, has leadership abilities; self-reliant, independent; assertive, forceful, dominant, aggressive; willing to take risks; ambitious, competitive; defends own beliefs. Most of us probably want to scramble these lists together, throwing out more of the feminine qualities than the masculine ones. The creator of this scale recognized the problem and created two more categories beyond feminine and masculine: androgynous and undifferentiated. Lots of college women and men come out androgynous, but nobody understands or wants to be undifferentiated.

We laugh at these items and these divisions, as do my students. These qualities do not reflect our various experiences of women and men. But they are still powerful in our culture. Walk through Toys R Us. The binary division is almost total, with attached implications about roles and traits considered appropriate to the roles. Or watch cartoons on Saturday. Or remember the 2004 election. Bush, the Vietnam avoider, was constructed by his handlers as tough and masculine, even though he doesn’t drink beer. Kerry, the battle hero, was constructed by the same folks as feminine. He drinks white wine. And he was afraid to speak French during the campaign. Too feminine. And then there are their wives. Laura fits the feminine stereotype; she wasn’t allowed to talk dirty in public until after the election. Teresa Heinz-Kerry was out of role: too powerful, too pushy, too aggressive. So she got buried along with her husband. And Judy Miller, the New York Times reporter who has just gone to jail for refusing to disclose her sources, was described by a colleague as demanding and bossy, which are not OK for a woman but seem OK for a man. She said about herself, “I do tend to be aggressive, and that does set people off.”

Shared Space

Finally, and here I know I am taking a risk, I want to suggest that gay men occupy the same contaminated cultural space as women do. It is shared space. Although I am pleased and honored to share my space with the gay men here, we need to change the space.

The evidence of the cultural conflation of gays and women comes from several places. The MMPI—Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory—developed in the 1940s-- is a widely used psychological test. It originally included a masculinity/ femininity scale developed to identify “invert males,” i.e. gay men. The psychologists who wrote the items on the scale assumed that gay men could be identified by measuring them on the femininity questions. Significantly, the researchers ended up using only 13 gay men to norm the scale because when they tried to use more, they couldn’t get the result they wanted. The gay population was too diverse, a result that displays the difference between real people and ideology.

Some of the best linguistic evidence available so far for the conflating of girls and gays comes from the language of anger and of insult. In our culture, our most powerful resources to express anger are sexually based: “Screw you.” “Fuck you.” Or the matching gestures with the middle finger or the pumping fist. In each of these, the speaker or gesturer is taking the active, male role with the other in the receptive, female role. And the female role is a degraded one, as we can see in the metaphorical extensions “Sam was fucked.” “Sam was screwed.” Sam was had.” Something bad happened to Sam.

Another linguistic connection between gays and girls is found in the language of insult, particularly in all-male groups. A quote from Arnold Shwarznegger is revealing. When he was trying to be negative about some California legislators, he said, “Don’t be girlie men.” Or, we find in the world of sports: “Don’t play like a girl.” “Don’t be a pussy.” “Stop playing like a fag.” Or in a fraternity hazing, the pledges are referred to as “faggots.” “Faggot” can mean an unpleasant or objectionable woman as well as gay. In all-male social gatherings, if a man refuses another drink, he hears “That’s gay.” Or in the military, in all-male training units, men are called “girls” or “pussies” as a form of humiliation. A military man who works in supply behind the lines rather than in combat is referred to as a RAP, “Rear Area Pussy.” Or in local NYC firehouse culture, we find that a man who worked as a manager at Bloomingdales before becoming a firefighter was referred to as “she” and “her” by his colleagues. Fashion is gay. And in a Staten Island firehouse in January 2004, one man’s remark about the sexual orientation of another led to physical violence, with one firefighter in the hospital. The newspaper discussions about the incident included a defense of the firehouse culture, calling it “razzing,” with implications that the toughness and bravery required for this job are qualities of straight men, not gays or girls.

An academic study found several situations connecting gays with the feminine. When a man refused alcohol, he was told, “Come on, you big homo. You can have one beer.” Or when a young man said he wanted to study: “Don’t be a fag. You can study any time.” Or when a man on a quiet residential street yelled at a driver to slow down because of kids playing in the area. The driver backed up and responded, “Fuck you, you faggot.” The connections here are between stereotypically feminine behavior—being weak, indecisive, sober, studious, concerned about children--with homosexuality. Boys are teaching boys what it means to be a real man: don’t do anything considered feminine because that’s gay.


I have been trying to understand why in our culture there is so much antipathy for gays. Where does it come from? In my work with women and language, I have found, on the level of ideology, a deep and ancient antipathy for women and for the feminine as it is traditionally defined. And being feminine and being gay seem to be connected in modern popular ideology. Is this where some of the hatred of gays comes from? Is it, on a deep level, fear of the feminine? I have no definitive answer, no last word, but I think it is worth thinking about.

Everyone here, I think, is battling our cultural stereotypes about gender. We all know they are false and limiting. We all fight gender dualism: there are many more than two gender identities. Lesbians have been on the barricades for a long time, challenging restrictive roles. Bisexual and transgender people deny with their lives the simplicity of the categories. But the religious right is busy reinforcing gender polarity, sending educated women back home to home school their children, trying to roll back gay rights. We need to keep breaking down these categories in every way that we can. Support uppity, pushy, “bitchy” women. Support gentle, kind, “wimpy” men. Create and use a new word for kind, gentle men, which many of you are. We already support women in pants. How about men in skirts? Are you guys ready? Next Sunday? Or, like the reading from Pretty Shield, is it too scary to be identified with women? With the feminine? You see the problem. And for the women. Stop smiling. It is part of our assigned role. Don’t do it for a few days or for even a few hours, and see how the people around you respond.

Finally, back to the readings for the ancient testimony. Jesus liked women. Women were visible to him, and they were not contaminated. He liked all kinds of women: women who followed him and supported him with their resources, women who were sick, women who were sad, women who were Gentiles and outsiders, women who were sexually active outside of marriage, women who wanted to listen and learn. His love for women was important to me as a child, when the world I was growing into offered few public roles for me. There were women around Jesus. And God was somehow with him and in him. Thank you, Jesus.

1. This scale, called the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) was developed by Sandra Bem, a psychologist at Cornell University.

2. Armstrong, J.D. (1997). Homophobic slang as coercive discourse among college students. In A. Livia and K. Hall (Eds.), Queerly phrased: Language, gender, and sexuality (pp. 326-334). New York: Oxford University Press.



Pretty Shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows

Leaning toward me Pretty-shield asked in a half whisper, “Did the men ever tell you anything about a woman who fought with Three-stars on the Rosebud?”

“No,” I replied, wondering.

“Ahh, they do not like to tell of it,” she chuckled. “But I will tell you about it. We crows all know about it. I shall not be stealing anything from the men by telling the truth.

“Yes, a Crow woman fought with Three-stars on the Rosebud, two of them did, for that matter; but one of them was neither a man nor a woman. She looked like a man, and yet she wore woman’s clothing; and she had the heart of a woman. Besides, she did a woman’s work. Her name was Finds-them-and-kills-them. She was not a man, and yet not a woman…. She was not as strong as a man, and yet she was wiser than a woman.

“The other woman…was a wild one who had no man of her own. She was both bad and brave, this one. Her name was The-other-magpie; and she was pretty…

“During the fight on the Rosebud both these women did brave deeds. When Bull-snake fell from his horse, badly wounded, Finds-them-and-kills-them dashed up to him, got down from her horse, and stood over him, shooting at the Lacota as rapidly as she could load her gun and fire. The-other-magpie rode round and round them, singing her war-song and waving her coup-stick, the only weapon she had. When the Lacota, seeing Bull-snake on the ground, charged to take his scalp, The-other-magpie rode straight at them, waving her coup-stick. Her medicine was so strong that the Lacota turned and rode away; and Bull-snake was saved. All the men saw these things, and yet they have never told you about them.

“Both these women expected death that day. Finds-them-and-kills-them, afraid to have the Lacota find her dead with woman-clothing on her, changed them to a man’s before the fighting commenced, so that if killed the Lacota would not laugh at her, lying there with a woman’s clothes on her. She did not want the Lacota to believe that she was a Crow man hiding in a woman’s dress, you see.

“Yes, Sign-talker, there was a woman and a half-woman who fought on the Rosebud with Three-stars.”

From Frank. B. Linderman, Pretty Shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows (originally published as Red Mother). Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press: 1932.


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