Fifty Shades of Gay: Amalia Ziv Explains Why Her Son Calls Her 'Dad'

Since becoming a parent, leading Israeli scholar of queer theory and feminism, has seen the gender steam roller in full throttle.

Tsafi Saar
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Tsafi Saar

Amalia Ziv arrives at the Tel Aviv cafe after dropping off her son at kindergarten, and the first exchange between us is about him: which kindergarten he goes to, how old he is (six). Such a conversation is hardly self-evident when you are dealing with a prominent Israeli scholar of sexuality and queer theory. But since the topic of women’s sexual fantasies soon comes up, the dissonance is not too jarring. This is merely one of the many riveting subjects Dr. Ziv discusses in her new book, “Mahshavot Miniyot” (“Sexual Thoughts,” Resling Press; in Hebrew).

Ziv, 48, a revered figure in the lesbian and queer community, is a lecturer in the gender studies program at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and in the literature department of Tel Aviv University. She grew up in Ramat Aviv and was among the founders of the GLBT monthly Hazman Havarod (Pink Time). After returning from graduate school in the United States in the 1990s, she established a gay, lesbian and queer study group. Later on she co-founded the annual “Sex Acher” conference, and co-edited the anthology of articles “Beyond Sexuality” (Hakibbutz Hameuchad; in Hebrew).

Her new book, subtitled “Queer Theory, Pornography, and the Politics of Sexuality,” includes a selection of her articles and lectures starting with a 1996 magazine column about gay and lesbian bar culture, through an article that made waves in 1999 about transsexual singer Dana International, and up to lectures delivered in recent years on the queer domain, on the feminist philosopher Judith Butler, queer sex, lesbian pornography and other topics. Here is an opportunity to ascertain from her what queer is, in fact, and the difference between it and run-of-the-mill gay.

“That question has various answers,” Ziv says. “The simplest is that queer is a category of identity in the LGBT context that is more up-to-date than ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian.’ Moreover, those categories relate to a sexual orientation, and along with it, to membership in a community as well. But because ‘queer’ is a term that originally served as a derogatory description of sexual and gender anomalies, which activists began adopting some 20 years ago it also signifies defiance against heteronormativity: i.e., it attacks the acceptance of heterosexuality as the norm and the ways in which heterosexuality is built into a culture. The queer position is: We are not going to change ourselves, we are different and we want you to accept us with our difference.

“What is interesting about ‘queer’ is also that the term does not denote sexual orientation: If someone says, ‘I am queer,’ this does not automatically tell us what that person does in bed. There is also the category of ‘genderqueer,’ with which quite a few people identify.”

How do you define genderqueer?

“There isn’t one definition, but genderqueers are people who are opposed to gender normativity, and generally distinguish themselves from transgender people. Transgender people usually define themselves in terms of passage ‘trans’: that is, from the identity I am perceived as having today to an identity by which I want to be perceived. Genderqueers, in contrast, conceive of themselves as being beyond the categories of man or woman, beyond gender binarism. They are interested in creating an admixture, confusing people, appearing both this and that, speaking this way and that.”

What tidings does queerness bear for heterosexuals, in your view?

“The main message perhaps is that if you are heterosexual, that does not mean you have to be heteronormative. Straights don’t have to be one thing all the time either. And even if you are straight in terms of sexual preference, that need not say anything about your sexuality, your fantasies or your politics. Straights can take from this both something about themselves and also about non-straight identities, because in Israel today gays and lesbians have already become a type of domesticated pet, exactly like all the rest, and then it’s really comfortable to accept. But acceptance shouldn’t come solely on the basis of resemblance to the ideal standard. The demand being made is for a much deeper and meaningful acceptance. The idea of queer is identification beyond the boundaries of identity. It is the possibility of being not only who you are, but of creating profound identification also with human beings who belong to very different categories.”

Thus Ziv writes in her book, for example, about the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who was a heterosexual woman who defined herself as gay, and also about sex between gays and lesbians.

Can you explain?

“I could get into trouble here with the bisexuals, who will protest that the phenomenon I describe is actually bisexuality. But I insist on speaking about it in terms of sex between gays and lesbians, to retain the dimension of anomaly. Because with bisexuals it is already inherent in the definition, and then everything is simple. But under this roof of queer, even before the term was in circulation, an identity-based affiliation became possible between gays and lesbians, which in certain cases even turned erotic.

“One of the interesting things about queer as an identity category is that it is not gendered. Hebrew does compel us as usual to make a distinction and say: He is kweer and she is kweerit [masculine and feminine suffixes]. But in English ‘queer’ is used for both sexes. So this identity category, which is not gendered, allows for some blurring of the distinctions between gays and lesbians.

“It is also related to a particular cultural moment, primarily in the American context, when lesbians and gays drew closer together in the 1980s in the wake of the AIDS shock. In organizations such as Act Up, gays and lesbians worked together very intensively, and formed a sort of shared identity, political and colorful, that included, among other things, a genderless look of jeans and leather jackets. So all of a sudden a great many gays opened up to lesbians, and lesbians as well could not go on existing within the feminist utopias. Some of the lesbians began creating a lesbian sex culture, and the model they had was the gay sex culture. So all sorts of meeting points emerged, including sexual encounters.

“This leads to an even broader issue concerning the essence of sexual tendency, and why we place so much emphasis precisely on the choice of object. For example, lesbians and gays who share a sexual orientation of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) can find more common ground than a lesbian can with a ‘vanilla’ lesbian (a reference to so-called conventional sex).

“In recent years, the concept that sexual tendency constitutes a person’s primary and permanent identity has been challenged from transgender quarters, when occasionally people who have undergone gender reassignment alter their objects of sexual attraction and switch, for example, from being a lesbian woman to a gay man. In such contexts the role of the sexual body can also become marginal with regard to the person’s gender. You can encounter transgender men today who define themselves as gay, and they are attracted either to born males or to other transgender men. So the question of precisely how the body looks, or how a person is marked from birth, becomes secondary compared to cultural sexual identity.”

In masculine language

A fascinating extension of Ziv’s research on queer issues is a field that now preoccupies her, in academic life as in her personal life: queer parenting. Together with her longtime partner, poet Sharon Haas, she is raising their son.

What does queer parenting mean?

“Ever since my child was born,” Ziv says, “I’ve seen the gender steamroller in action at full throttle, starting with a dichotomy of pink-blue in clothing, from the age of zero and it keeps getting stronger. I see it in kindergarten. In my opinion, it is very important that at a young age there not be a distinction between girls’ toys and boys’ toys. And by the way, I don’t remember such a clear dichotomy from my childhood. But now the girls reach kindergarten like Lolitas.”

This regression, as Ziv sees it, stems from both a backlash, or counter-reaction, to feminism and the development of consumer culture.

“I would like to see a school system and educational institutions that make an effort to blur the gender distinctions in games and social interaction,” she says. “For it not to be a situation where the boys run around and play with cars, and the girls sit and draw. Even if we assume there are certain basic innate tendencies, these should not be reinforced.”

Do you think boys and girls have different tendencies?

“I am more ‘agnostic’ about this today. I won’t say in advance that they do not. I don’t know. I do not rule out completely the possibility that there is some kind of given, built-in element. But I totally see how it gets reinforced. And I see the boys who are already beginning to call each other ‘bro’ or ‘man.’ And the parents, mothers too, saying to 3-year-old boys: ‘What a man.’ That is terrible in my eyes.”

How does the concept of parenting fit in with being queer?

“It is not simple in the least. Ever since my son was born I have been in a kind of cultural shock, which I am trying to process. One of the facets of this experience is to see the gender juggernaut in operation from up close and to try and pose some minuscule resistance, even though it is a fairly lost cause.”

How, for example?

“For instance encourage a range of activities. Let’s say he is very interested in cooking, so he has a toy kitchen. Overall his identity as a boy is already pretty established, but we can try to expand a bit what it means to be a boy, and also make it clear to him that gender is not a dichotomous issue. With me that occurs quite naturally, because at home I speak primarily in the masculine.”

When referring both to yourself and to Sharon?

“Yes. It is something I have come across here and there in heterosexual couples as well, an expression of intimacy. With him, too, I refer to myself in the masculine. And he addresses me in the masculine. It causes a lot of people dismay, but it’s interesting to see how his friends accept it very quickly, a lot simpler than adults.

“Furthermore, I also identify more as a father than as a mother. I can’t manage to fathom myself through the category Mother. It has to do with all sorts of things my gender identity, the way I perceive motherhood, Sharon’s and my relationship. Publicly I fully identify as a woman, but privately it is more complicated. There’s also some significant masculine identification there.

“So my son lives with two parents who are identified from the outside as mothers, while there is some gender difference, which to him is very apparent. In other words, it is also clear that there is a similarity of sorts between him and me, which there is not between him and Sharon, as his mother. So in that sense he is learning about queer gender. He is learning that there is not a complete overlap between sex and gender; that in certain respects Sharon and I are the same gender, and in other respects we are not. He is learning this experientially. And he gets that this is not something that is easy to explain to those around him.

“I see a clash that is far from simple between queerism and parenting, because in parenting there is something inherent that reproduces the social order, even if you don’t mean to.

“You have to socialize your child to this world, as it is, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and with the gender division. But I am trying to convey to him a more complex picture of the world. Obviously without coercing him this isn’t some dogmatic attempt to socialize him differently, but he is being raised in a home that is different in certain respects. I can’t erase all of the insights I have about gender.”

Why would you need to?

“There are people who think that you must set all that aside when it comes to raising children. But how? In any event, if queer parenting has any kind of meaning, it is using our life experience as queer subjects and having that play a part.”

All of this is not self-evident, she points out. “I know gays and lesbians who raise children and still convey to them the message that the normative model is preferable. And that riles me. From their standpoint, the goal is for the children to grow up to be heterosexual.”

The pornographic model

One of the great controversies in which Ziv has been a key player is the issue of pornography. In the feminist debate on this subject, Ziv stands opposed to the feminism that bans pornography. However, in the introduction to her new book she writes: “I must admit that I have moved closer to the anti-pornography feminist position.”

Is this indeed a reversal? Ziv explains that circumstances have changed, because the Internet creates a problem of children’s access to pornography, and in the absence of other sex education it becomes the main source of information that shapes their concept of sexuality. Another problem, she says, is the trickling of pornographic conventions into society and culture: “Nowadays 12-year-old girls are already shaving their pubic hair, which is a practice that comes entirely from there. To my mind, this is disturbing. And yet I still think that anti-pornography feminism does not give thought to alternative porn and the significance it has for sexual and gender minorities. So in that sense I have not abandoned my position,” she clarifies.

In an article in your book on the Marquis de Sade’s novel “Justine” you write, among other things, about women’s masochistic fantasies. How may this be understood?

“I understand masochism not like Freud, who viewed feminine masochism as inherent. He talks about masochism being natural for women because they need to repress their aggression, and from his standpoint it is also clear that the feminine position in sex is passive. I understand women’s masochism as a mechanism that is a reaction to cultural circumstances. A mechanism for coping with political circumstances. In other words, this is the position you have been placed in, and you eroticize it to enjoy it.”

But isn’t the impulse toward the opposite stance? Or not to play the role you have been assigned?

“Yes, but what about women who fantasize about violence, or about humiliation? And that is a sizable share of women’s sexual fantasies. According to the researcher Nancy Friday, because women are so sexually repressed, they have no legitimization for desire, and so the moment their sexual scenario is one of ‘they forced me,’ it grants them the legitimization. It is a possible explanation, I just don’t think it is the only one.

“Feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin understand feminine masochism as internalizing oppression. But we are not talking about enjoying helplessness in reality. In other words, women do not get turned on by not landing a job; at issue is a response to the hierarchy by means of its eroticization. We can dislike these fantasies, but they are cause for distress only when people say, ‘Okay, this is what women really want.’

“This is not what women really want, these are fantasies. And therefore it is important to erect this divider between fantasy and reality. We have a right to fantasies that are very politically incorrect. Women need not think that they can’t be good feminists, or liberated women, if they have such fantasies. They ought to enjoy them.

“Moreover, being a masochist is precisely not being a victim. It is designing your sexuality, choosing sexual interactions that suit your passion shaping sexual subjectivity. Culturally, masochism appeared first of all as a masculine position, in [Leopold von] Sacher-Masoch, the father of masochism. The moment that women assumed the masochist position that had been created by men and adopted it, with certain modifications, is already an important step toward transforming ourselves into sexual subjects.”

Why, in this context and others, are men the model?

“I don’t necessarily side with Audre Lorde’s famous statement, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ I don’t believe we can act and think from a completely different place. I believe we can use the existing playing pieces and do new things with them.

“It’s not that I think the masculine model is all there is. But what can you do, civilization is masculine. I greatly hope that in 200-300 years from now it will be completely different, and the world will truly belong to women as well. But right now, as Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf wrote in their day and it still holds true history is masculine, literature is masculine, art is masculine, and the past shapes the present. I know how to act only with those same components of ‘masculine’ culture, and I am also unwilling to let men have complete ownership of it. It is my culture too. I feel at home in this culture, and I want to staff it and operate from within it. Not to staff it in the liberal sense, not to play by the rules of the game as they are, but yes to take the pool of existing ideas and representations and see how we can work with it.”

Might this position be related to the fact that you come from a privileged background?

“I have no doubt that it is related. The place I come from is a privileged place, and it is a place that makes it easier for me to be a woman and to be a lesbian. It’s harder to be a Mizrahi lesbian, I have no doubt. And that may also be why I can’t enlist the kind of passion that some of the Mizrahi activists have.”

You write in the book that in alternative pornography a woman can be a subject and not an object. How? What is different about feminist or feminine porn?

“In my opinion the best example of such a woman is Annie Sprinkle. She is powerful and she really does love sex. She designs the interaction, she has fun, so when you see a porn film of hers you don’t feel that objectification took place there. And if there is objectification there, it’s always done with a wink.

“What we are used to seeing in mainstream straight porn is a very particular and very arbitrary scenario. I am talking about the mainstream in the industry; today there is a lot of amateur porn, and this has opened up the pornographic arena to many different body images of women and to many practices.

“The mainstream representation is of women who look the same, and there is something very artificial about their appearance. They will always have silicone in their breasts, very tidy pubic hair, and of course long nails with nail polish, and lipstick. Their expressions will be the same expressions, and the sounds they emit will be the same sounds, and the acts are the same acts that always take place in the same order. Is that what sex necessarily looks like? Since when? Unless people imitate what they see.

“It is possible to make porn in which women look different, behave differently. It is possible to make porn in which women take the initiative, women are active, in which women too penetrate men, use men to satisfy themselves. Today there are several companies that make pornographic movies for feminine consumption. In such porn there are fewer close-ups of penetration, and there is no humiliation of women, but I think it is possible to go much further than that.”


“Further in the sense of the very concept of what heterosexual sex is. Not more ‘foreplay,’ but rather, go ahead and dismantle the whole distinction between ‘foreplay’ and sex. That is something that is built-in with mainstream porn. There is a sexual episode, it ends with the man coming and you can move on to the next episode. So obviously this structures people’s sexual perceptions. Although I frequently encounter heterosexuals who say it is not necessarily like that; it’s not that awful.”

No, it’s not awful at all. It’s very nice.

“Again, I do not have insider information about that, but sources in the know tell me that what really happens between individuals is different from the norm.”

Sometimes in these contexts there is also talk of sex-positive feminism. What does that mean? That there is sex-negative feminism?

“That label of sex-positive really is problematic, but when you read Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon [feminist scholars and activists who led the anti-pornography campaign in the U.S.], there is at the very least a profound suspicion of sex. From their perspective, sex is a highly problematic locus in masculine-feminine relations, and not only in them. In this respect you might term MacKinnon’s feminism sex-negative.

“There is the wonderful article by Gayle Rubin, ‘Thinking Sex,’ in which she characterizes the Western concept of sex as problematic and in need of justifications. In the religious world view, the justification is ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ Sex is evil, but for the purpose of ‘be fruitful and multiply’ it’s fine. Then came the romantic ideology that says: Sex for its own sake is mundane, but sex as an expression of love is good and noble and beautiful. And then along came the feminism that said essentially sex is very, very problematic, unless it is completely egalitarian and in keeping with an agenda of reforming the world. And Rubin says Notice that feminism actually adopted this anti-sex baggage.”

Only the justifications are different.

“Exactly. But the basic premise is that sex is suspect. And I think that a lot of feminists adopted this construct without noticing. It is true that in feminine-masculine relations sex is an arena that is shaped by a masculine ideology, masculine interests, and I accept much of the analysis of heterosexual sex as expressive of humiliation, subordination, and so forth. But that leads to a monolithic analysis, which views this locus as the root of all evil and the central matter feminism should focus on, to the point where other arenas are neglected. To be sex-positive is not to say that sex is always and necessarily good, even if it is forced and degrading. That is the criticism you hear directed against the sex-positive position, but it superficializes this position.”

MacKinnon and Dworkin, Ziv says, “reproduce the patriarchal construct in the sense that sex is supposedly the province of men. They want sex, enjoy sex, profit from sex, whereas women lose in sex, something is taken from them, they need to defend themselves.”

And of course there are the women for whom sex does not include men. Among them are some who always knew they were lesbians and others who turned to lesbianism as a political choice.

“I have students who find this very bewildering: how can this be? We live with a mindset that desire is something determined, primeval. I think it is a lot simpler to understand this if you begin from a continuum mindset. In my opinion, in practice we all express only a small part of our sexual potential. Myself too. I am not incapable of sleeping with men, I have slept with men, and it wasn’t a dreadful experience, but at some point it was more convenient for me to restrict my sexual potential and limit it only to this channel of women. For many reasons: because it creates a more coherent identity, because it is more economical in terms of energy. In my view those people are rare who are absolutely and exclusively capable of being attracted only to men or to women. I think that a large share of heterosexuals as well can, under certain circumstances, find themselves being attracted to a member of the same sex.”

But that terrifies them.

“True, usually. It frightens men more, by the way.”

You yourself live with a partner. How many years has it been?

“We realized suddenly this year that it has been 24 years. Incredible. I never wanted to get married, and we never held any ceremony. Over the years the relationship was put to the test again and again, including difficult tests. It is a choice you continue to make anew every day.”

You write in the book about gender performance. Aren’t all our gender performances, or maybe a majority, based on oppressive models, or on models that someone determined?

“Yes, but again, we can only work with the models that exist. In this connection we can go back, for example, to the lesbian feminist critique of butches, which contends that butches reproduce oppressive constructs of masculinity.

“So first of all, butches are women who oppose the social dictates of femininity and challenge them in a manner that has high visibility and therefore can also exact a heavy price. And second, when a woman does masculinity, it’s not the same thing as when a man does masculinity. Which is to say, something different, hybrid, is created here. These are women who conduct a non-standard revision of a masculine norm. And non-standard revisions beget a new form.”

You refer in your book to the debate over a “homosexual gene.” Is there such a thing?

“So far the search hasn’t yielded ‘the homosexual gene’ and I also do not believe it will ever be found. Because being gay is a very complex profile of emotions, practices, cultural preferences, and this profile is unique to our culture, modern Western culture. To define yourself today as gay is very different to give the classic example from being an older man in Ancient Greece who courts adolescent boys and wants to sleep with them and falls in love with them and writes them poems.

“A gay man today generally thinks of himself in terms that are fairly analogous to heterosexuals. He is attracted to men, and usually also wants to share his life with a man, live with him, have kids with him. Whereas being a pederast in Ancient Greece was to be a married man who fulfills his duties as a married man and sleeps with his wife at least to produce heirs, perhaps also enjoys it, and besides that woos teenage boys. A man like that in classical Athens would never have thought to pursue a man of his own age and station. So what does that say? What do we do with the homosexual gene? Did that man in Athens have it? Not have it? And if some of the men had this gene and some of the men did not, what meaning does it even have?

“Today society encourages us, not to say compels us, to understand ourselves in terms of exclusive sexual preference, homosexual or heterosexual. Bisexuals, although their standing has improved in the past decade, are still pretty much taken as suspect and problematic, immature, etc.”

There are the polyamours, those who maintain significant romantic attachments to several people at a time.

“Yes. Polyamourous people can be bisexual and can also not be. It’s interesting that polyamory has become an identity and a lifestyle. I am very envious of those who have the capacity for it.

Something that’s not there

Among the columns reprinted in “Sexual Thoughts” is one about lesbian prose or more precisely, its absence in Israel. Ziv wrote the column in 1995, and it starts off with an amusing description of how she was asked at a feminist conference to sit on a panel about women in local literature, in the name of the feminist Quarters System, which requires representation of Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, Arab, and lesbian women. “My first response, having unwillingly consented, was to hurl vigorous curses at the sacred quarters principle, in whose name I must represent something that is not there,” she writes.

About the Quarters System, Ziv says: “It is a practical solution to a problem that is much deeper, of course. I felt funny at the time that they invited me as the token lesbian quarter to discuss lesbian literature. There was nothing to discuss. There was no lesbian literature. So I had to talk about the lack thereof. Frequently this sort of politics of representation gives rise to funny decisions like that.”

On the one hand it is funny, on the other hand you did speak about the lack. In other words, the lack was placed on the table.

“Correct. So in that sense it was productive.”

What happened to lesbian literature in the ensuing years?

“Very gradually, story collections appeared, novels too not major literature, but yes, literature that is written from a lesbian point of departure. This is very important.”

Ziv cites among others the book “Mizvadot” (“Suitcases”), by her former student Il-il Kofler, which is about teenage lesbian love and also incorporates the character of a 10-year-old transgender boy.

The meeting with Ziv took place shortly before the Knesset elections.

What chance does a queer identity have in a conservative society like Israel’s?

“Paradoxically, the community is doing pretty well today,” she replies. “Israel embraces the community because it serves as a political fig leaf, what is known as pinkwashing [using gay rights as propaganda to buff Israel’s image]. So in that sense there is also tolerance of queers. Except that this tolerance runs out when queer identity, or queer politics, melds with politics against the occupation.

“And in Israel, people who define themselves as queer are nearly always on the left side of the map. It’s connected to the aspect of identification beyond the boundaries of identity. But since the early 1990s the community has grown more than tenfold, and most of the people rather enjoy the embrace of the consensus.

“Today the queer segment of the community is more or less akin to the leftist segment of the Israeli public. It’s a minority, a minority that is also an elite, but a threatened elite.”

In addition to her broad range of activities, Ziv also wrote three songs for Carmela Gross Wagner, Eran Zur’s wonderful band: “Tmuna Impressyonistit,” “Nashim Kotvot Shira,” and “Edut.”

When will you go back to writing songs for Eran Zur?

“I greatly fear that will not happen again,” she replies with a grin. “I didn’t actually write the songs for Eran. Those are poems I wrote at 17. Thanks to them my students truly appreciate me.”

Apropos students, Ziv is an object of adoration for many female students. How does she cope with that?

“Seems to me it happens a little less today,” she asserts. “When I was younger in academia, I didn’t know as well how to handle it. It really stressed me out. It is very important to me to maintain boundaries. Infatuation is a projection. It’s a bit like transference in therapy. I get it, because I too was infatuated with [female] lecturers when I was a student. And in at least one case it subsequently grew into a significant friendship.”

The object of her infatuation, it turns out, was Yael Schwartz. “She is known mainly as the graphic designer of the Hasifria Hahadasha imprint,” Ziv says. “I met her as a lecturer in the English department at Tel Aviv University, when I was doing a bachelor’s degree. She was an amazing woman in every way. She died a few years ago. As a student I was sort of obsessed with her, but she had the wisdom to transform it into a friendship.”

After the conversation about infatuations of various kinds continues, Ziv says: “Loves are an embarrassing thing sometimes. You know who I was in love with as an adolescent? It doesn’t get any more embarrassing than this with Woody Allen. I had a crush on him.”

Dr. Ziv! Have you no shame?

“Eros is blind."

Amalia ZivCredit: Noa Yafe