Beer, Queer? Thoughts On Beer and Gender

Scottish self-proclaimed “punk rock” brewery Brewdog has released what it calls “the world’s first transgender beer.” Dubbed “No Label,” the beer is “brewed with hops that have changed sex from female to male flowers prior to harvest,” thus in the minds of Brewdog making it a Statement for Equality and, uh, somehow a symbol of the trans community.

We were also confused.

This new beer has rightfully upset a lot of people who see it as marketing ploy done at the expense of a marginalized group—especially considering Brewdog’s history of bigoted behavior. Trans brewer Julia Astrid Davis wrote a post enumerating her problems with the idea: first, that beer can’t have a gender in the sense that people do, so the whole idea makes no sense; second, that this scheme didn’t involve any input from the people it’s supposed to “support”—the beer was apparently neither conceived nor brewed nor designed nor marketed by anyone from the trans community.

The post spurred an interesting conversation on the Skepchick back channel about gendered objects, queered beer, and whether there’s any situation—say, a good-faith project by people who are actually part of queer/gender variant communities—where such an idea might work. This response is a collaboration between Will Robertson and Julia Burke.

Will: Can objects be gendered?

For me, Davis’ critique is too grounded in biology and doesn’t account enough for culture. Her post ignores the fact that objects are actually often gendered through language and culture. We gender objects all the time! It doesn’t mean objects “have” a gender identity in the same way a person “has” an identity (I would argue we don’t really have identities either; rather, we enact them), but objects have social lives in a different kind of way. Many languages gender objects through grammar, and even though English doesn’t do that, English speakers definitely gender objects in other ways using language and symbolism. In this way, objects do “have” gender in the sense that we assign them gender through our language and culture.

On a slightly more academic tangent, I think many people in transgender studies might actually appreciate what Brewdog are claiming to want to do with No Label—that is, to blur or cross boundaries. One of the central concepts in the nascent field of transgender studies is the idea of “trans-ing.” In a move similar to “queering” something, trans-ing is about taking categories that seem bounded–binaries are a great example—and showing how there is or can be movement between/among them, trans-ing the supposedly stable borders/boundaries. This shift in trans studies is a pretty recent development, so it’s understandable that it hasn’t caught on more widely in non-academic queer/trans circles yet. The idea of “queering” is certainly more well known at this point. Queering is all about questioning/challenging assumptions or opening up normative foundations of phenomena to critical inquiry. We might think of trans-ing as queering’s evil twin; they are closely related but start from different premises. (For anyone interested in seeing what a trans-ing analysis might look like, I highly recommend Clare Sears’ book Arresting Dress, examines the history of crossdressing in 19th century San Francisco.)

When I read Brewdog’s description of No Label as “a beer that blurs boundaries between the binary worlds of lager and ale,” I read that as pretty much in line with what trans and queer theorists are trying to do in contemporary transgender and queer studies. I think the issue is the encroachment on “transgender” as an identity category and its conflation with “non-binary.” I think that’s a valid point, though on the other hand if Davis is going to use the “transgender-as-umbrella-term” definition of transgender and put “non-binary” under that umbrella, it doesn’t make sense to critique people for using the two words interchangeably because under that rubric non-binary people are transgender. In other words, if non-binary people are transgender, they can call themselves transgender, but this does not mean that anyone who calls themselves transgender is non-binary. And I think it is important to point out that this view of non-binary identity is contested and there are many non-binary people who do not identify as transgender.

So, for me, this beer is an interesting object lesson (pun intended) on the intersections of trans and queer theories and politics. If this beer was called “No Label” and it was claiming to “queer” the ideas of lager and ale, would a takedown such as Davis’ be warranted? If it was a “trans” beer in the trans-ing sense rather than a “transgender” beer, would such a takedown still be written?

Julia: Who gets to gender beer?

Will’s point that beer can be and is often already gendered got me thinking, since the unwelcome gendering of beer is a topic of much debate in the craft beer industry. From beers that promote the objectification of women’s bodies like “Tramp Stamp” and rapey beer names like “Panty Dropper” to the marketing of mainstream beer to men and “light beer” or “chick beer” to women, beer gets gendered all the time. Fellow Skepchick Veronica pointed out that there are more innocuous ways beer can be gendered: the Norwegian word for “beer,” for example, is gendered masculine. (It’s classified neuter in German, interestingly. The French bière and the Spanish cerveza are both feminine.)

My first reaction to this idea of a “non-binary beer” was that beer needn’t be gendered at all—that it falls under the category of “unnecessarily gendered products”—simply because when it is gendered it’s usually for the purposes of upholding cisheteronormative stereotypes and anti-feminine ideas.

Will: Should beer have gender? Should any object?

I want to push back on the idea that the solution is to not gender beer, or any object, at all. I want to push back on this because I want to push back in general to the trend I’ve noticed lately that gender is bad and we should destroy or erase it. I love gender, I love doing gender, I love playing with gender, I love watching other people play with gender. I guess that’s why the idea of queering or trans-ing the gendering of products like beer is intriguing to me, because I think it has the potential to get people thinking about sex/gender in different ways as much as it can change how we think about the products themselves.

Gendering objects provides people with a way of expressing their gender identity. It seems to me the problem arises not in the actual gendering but in the policing of the gendering of objects—”this is for boys!” or “this is for girls!” But this is true for gender in general. The problem isn’t that someone is masculine or feminine, it’s the policing of particular kinds of bodies to try to make them fit into those normative identity boxes and to disallow the existence of any other boxes. Using objects is one way of trans-ing or queering the boundaries, shapes, and foundations of those boxes.

If we take objects that we think exist in a binary or as mutually exclusive, as is the case with lager and ale, and we blur the border between those apparent binary oppositions and begin pushing at the edges of these supposedly bounded categories, this has the potential to open up thinking and conversations about boundaries, categories, and binaries in other areas like sex/gender. As Julia rightly points out, the challenge is to do it well and be attentive to the actors—it matters who is doing the queering or trans-ing.

To me, linking objects to gender and queering and/or trans-ing those gendered objects is interesting and useful because to most people in Euroamerican societies, sex/gender categories are thought of as stable, solid, binary, self-evident, and need no exploration or consideration. Using an everyday object like beer can be a useful way of showing through analogy how the ideas we have about people—or objects—having stable and clearly defined identities, particularly gendered identities, are actually fairly easily broken down.

Julia: How could this be done in a positive way?

My initial thought that beer needn’t be gendered at all is probably, again, a reaction to the fact that in my lived experience beer is always gendered by others—men in marketing departments—and we drinkers don’t get to have any control over what gendering beer to appeal to us looks like, especially those of us who are femme, queer, and/or trans. Imagining a world where that’s not the case—where more people who are trans, queer, non-binary, or even just aware of gender theory are employed in breweries and making and designing beer—is hard to do, but it does allow for much more fun and inclusive possibilities of playing with gender and challenging a cisheteronormative status quo.

The craft beer industry being the largely homogenous field that it is, the answer to me is that such projects must be driven by the perspectives of people from marginalized or underrepresented groups, rather than simply turning their identities into an ad. The beer world can’t be a viable force of social change for people it otherwise ignores.

Featured image: Brewdog

Julia Burke

Julia is a wine educator with an interest in labor and politics in the wine industry. She has also written about fitness and exercise science, mental health, beer, and a variety of other topics for Skepchick. She has been known to drink Amaro Montenegro with PB&J.

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  1. This raised a lot of good questions for me. I like the idea of using beer to queer/trans things up: it’s a noble goal, and honestly I would like a lot more thought and action dedicated to it.

    Being subversive and challenging the status quo are admirable goals, and I think what angered me the most about this was that Brew Dog has a long history of presenting themselves as doing just that while really just being sensationalist. It’s capitalism co-opting social struggle for profit.

    This doesn’t strike me as helping trans people (Davis points out that there’s no guarantee the donated profits will help trans people at all), it’s just a reflection of trans issues becoming more public. It’s a Caitlyn Jenner Halloween costume: “hey, this is a thing! look we did something talking about the thing! money pweeeease!”

    But really, let’s talk about how to queer the shit out of this white dude industry.

    1. TBH, it reminds me of those Che Guevara shirts. Made by underpaid Southeast Asians working twelve-hour workdays in conditions that almost make me think people are going out of their way to make the shop unsafe. And of course, if you wear one, #YourFaveIsProblematic wrt: the Congolese…

      Why actually help people when I can just consume?

  2. Thank you for posting this response! There’s some good criticism in here, and I plan to address it in more detail when I’m not at work. Beer never sleeps, you know. ;) I’m glad to see that this whole thing has sparked some good conversation and thoughtfulness.

  3. Will: Actually, there already is a beer that breaks down the binary between lager and ale. It’s called Steam beer and it’s made with lager yeast fermented at room temperature like an ale. I hope that’s not what this “trans” beer is, because Anchor Brewing already holds the patent on it.

    As for the actual topic at hand, I always find it difficult to criticize somebody for making a clunky good-faith effort, especially if those people have a history of poor-faith ones. I guess I’m just worried about making the perfect the enemy of the good by scaring off potential allies. Does this beer raise awareness of trans issues? Well, “awareness” is a buzzword that gets a lot of bad press these days, but it really shouldn’t be discounted, especially when referring to marginalized (and previously invisible) groups. I think that just the fact that somebody cares enough to come up with such a bad idea is progress. I think we should tread lightly when criticizing this well meaning, but poorly executed attempt at bridge building.

  4. The biggest thing I want to address about this article is to clarify a point addressed by Robertson: The fact that I brought up and addressed biology in my critique. The reason I brought up biology was to address the fact that Brewdog assigns transgender and non-binary properties to purely physical phenomena in beer, and in its speech effectively reduces trans identities *to* purely physical phenomena. In doing so, Brewdog perpetuates negative stereotypes and perceptions of trans people, and conflates the struggles of living in our gender identities and bodies with the biological phenomena of plants and fungi. It speaks to a lack of knowledge of the lived experiences of transgender people, and it feels like they tried to shoehorn trans and non-binary language into beer traits.

    I am in agreement with Burke’s assertions that this beer falls into the category of “unnecessarily gendered” objects, and that such projects should be driven by – or at least include – the people addressed in such projects. What Brewdog’s project resembles to me is Julia Serano’s notion of “ungendering” – using the identities of trans and non-binary people to bring conventional notions of gender into question while erasing them and taking agency away from transgender people. In not consulting transgender people about the language and purpose of this project, Brewdog robs them of the ability to speak for and about themselves, and reduces them to marketing tools. Part of the reason I addressed the issue of the Jester hops is that I’ve BEEN called a “hermaphrodite” before as a pejorative. It wasn’t pleasant. Had Brewdog done their due diligence, they might have avoided calling me a hermaphrodite again.

    This is not to dismiss Robertson’s argument, as I didn’t address the cultural gendering of objects in my argument. Honestly, that would take a whole separate article! (which I should write at some point) I sincerely appreciate and welcome all of your critiques of my writing. I am especially thankful to Burke for the last two paragraphs she wrote, as she elegantly summed up and addressed the crux of my concerns. I hope that we can continue this conversation, and that Brewdog is willing to become a part of it.

    1. Thanks for responding! By the way, you can call me Will. ;)

      The fact that I brought up and addressed biology in my critique. The reason I brought up biology was to address the fact that Brewdog assigns transgender and non-binary properties to purely physical phenomena in beer, and in its speech effectively reduces trans identities *to* purely physical phenomena.

      That’s honestly not how I read their statement. For example, this does not strike me as reducing trans identities to purely physical phenomena:

      “The beer draws parallels with individuals who identify themselves in a similar ‘non-binary’ way, as neither exclusively male nor female – a community of people that is still largely under-acknowledged by society.”

      That strikes me as thoroughly sociocultural. It’s about identities and communities, not about biologies or physicalities. Also, I should note for the record that I do not identify as trans but I do identify as genderqueer (or non-binary if you will, though that’s not a label I use for myself).

      Brewdog perpetuates negative stereotypes and perceptions of trans people, and conflates the struggles of living in our gender identities and bodies with the biological phenomena of plants and fungi.

      There’s a number of people in trans studies who do this sort of thing, though perhaps in a slightly different way than what you’re getting at here. For example, there was an entire special issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly, titled Tranimalities, devoted to exploring the issue of human/nonhuman boundaries as relevant to trans phenomena.

      It speaks to a lack of knowledge of the lived experiences of transgender people, and it feels like they tried to shoehorn trans and non-binary language into beer traits.

      Agreed. And I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to defend Brew Dog’s actions in particular (even though you and I have somewhat different readings of their announcement), but I did want to raise the issue of the potential benefits of gendering objects and push back against the idea that it’s always wrong to do so (not something you necessarily argue, but something that came up on the backchannel discussion).

  5. I should also clarify that I don’t intend to ascribe ill will or malice to Brewdog’s actions. I believe that they’re being sincere, but are also acting in haste and in ignorance. Actions committed in well-meaning ignorance can be every bit as damaging as actions committed in malice, though, and my intent with the article wasn’t academic: It was to prevent damage to the perception and lives of the transgender community. And the misuse of language, the reduction of trans lives to physical terms, and the lack of being included as a voice in this project, all have the potential to harm. To quote Burke: “The beer world can’t be a viable force of social change for people it otherwise ignores.” If our voices are ignored and misrepresented, then “visibility” and “representation” can do more harm than good.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Julia, and for taking the time to comment! I also think Brewdog is probably trying to do some good here, but I firmly agree with you––and this is to @drken’s point––that an action taken in ignorance can be as damaging as an action taken with bad intentions. An “ally” who acts without listening and dismisses criticism isn’t an ally at all, and I do hope Brewdog considers a thoughtful response.

      1. I understand that intent is not magic. Although, I believe Brewdog was working with a Trans activist group when they did this, so this wasn’t done entirely without listening. But, it’s very easy these days for somebody in their position to double down on the offensive behavior while dismissing criticism (which I don’t believe they have done) as coming from “hypersensitive SJWs”, so I’m giving them credit for at least not doing that. Sure, it’s the soft bigotry of low expectations, but not everybody is fluent in the language of social justice and sometimes you have to give credit for just making an effort. Hopefully, their next attempt will be a bit better. If they regress, I’ll be there to condemn them with you, but let’s wait to see how this plays out before getting out the pitchforks and torches.

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