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30.10.12

An allegedly polyamorous poster

A Toronto school board recently put up posters proclaiming "Love Has No Gender" as a way of promoting LGBT tolerance. I find the image they chose to illustrate this point very interesting.

image description in text of post

The posters depict a series of overlapping hearts on which various bathroom-sign-symbol couples are depicted, mixing same-sex and opposite-sex pairings. The main controversy over the posters has centered on two hearts which depict three people -- one a man flanked by two women, the other a woman flanked by two men. Parents and other community members were outraged at this apparent endorsement of polyamory. Whether that was the original intention of the sign's makers is not clear. They have not given a definite statement, and some people hypothesize that the threesomes were meant to illustrate bisexuality. This raises several issues:

1. The conflation of polyamory with the LGBT movement. Many LGBT people are quick to condemn polyamory, both for its own sake and as a defense maneuver against attempts to use "slippery slope to polygamy" arguments to deny LGBT rights. At the same time, it's very common for polyamorists -- of all orientations -- to try to draw parallels between themselves and LGBT people, and to appropriate LGBT analyses and concepts for pro-poly uses. The proper relationship between the polyamory movement and the LGBT rights movement is still a very contentious question even among people who support both. (My own position is that polyamory is not in and of itself a form of queerness, nor should straight polyamorists appropriate LGBT ideas and analysis for their own situation, but I'm also not in a position to tell LGBT poly people that they can't see these parts of their lives and identities as inseparably connected.)

2. The visual representation of bisexuality. It has become a cultural commonplace to represent heterosexuality with a picture of a stick man and a stick woman, and thus to represent gay and lesbian relationships as two stick men or two stick women respectively. This framework leaves us with two basic choices for representing bisexuality. On the one hand, since a bisexual monogamous partnered person will be in either a same-sex relationship or an opposite-sex relationship at a given time, they are covered by representations of both of those relationships -- at the cost of erasing any explicit acknowledgement that their orientation is broader than their current specific partner. On the other hand, one could (as some speculate the Toronto poster was trying to do) show a person in two relationships with partners of different sexes. This surely highlights their bisexuality, but in doing so it risks feeding a biphobic narrative that says bisexual people can't make up their minds, or can't be monogamous because they need "one of each" to be satisfied.

But beyond the question of the sign's (alleged) pro-polyamory message, I notice several other issues with the way it represents relationships:

3. The use of bathroom stick figures. The stick man and woman are widely recognizable symbols of maleness and femaleness. But they're also problematic. First, they establish a clear gender binary -- you're either a man or a woman, with no other shades or flavors of gender available. This effectively excludes non-binary people from representation in the very tolerance campaign that ought to be supporting them. The stick figures used in this poster also reinforce the idea of male as an unmarked norm -- the unadorned, basic stick figure is the male, while the modified stick figure (with a dress on) is the female. Men are thus framed as the default or standard human, while women are a variation on the model.

4. "Handicapped" is apparently a gender now. Several of the hearts show a standard male or female figure paired with a stick figure in a wheelchair. This is perhaps understandable as a way of trying to promote diversity, but it ends up backfiring. For one thing, disability is the only other axis of difference that is inserted into the picture -- race is entirely absent, for example, as is class. By making the wheelchair symbol the third type of person in the picture, it separates people with disabilities from the gender system. This is particularly problematic because there are cultural narratives about disabled people being non-sexual and falling short of gender ideals.

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