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The Dos and Don’ts of Protesting

I’m not an expert on anything. I used to be a quasi-expert on usability analysis, and then I left the field and in the meantime, it emerged as its own real subject area with doctorate programs and certifications and I’m far enough back now that I’m not even in the dust. I write books, because I’m somewhat good with words, but I don’t consider myself an expert in writing, per se. I tend to take a commonsense approach to most topics, I try to get involved beyond the standard dabble when the issue resonates with me, and I’m no longer surprised that a Catholic girl raised to be a conservative republican has somehow become instead a progressive man who doesn’t attend any church. What I am pretty good at doing—though again, not an expert—is spotting contradictions in culture and rhetoric, and I think I owe my skill to some badass teachers from my youth, and my own tendency to complain.

marchflyerIIwebSo that said, I am not an expert on protesting. I don’t know the intellectual lexicon of the protest theorist, or whatever they call themselves (all due deference to protest theorists). I’ve been involved in organizing protests for twenty-two years, was taught specific protest tactics and de-escalation techniques by some of the women who invented them, and have personally taught three dozen people how to eat fire. I’ve gone to some of the biggest protests ever seen in Washington, DC, and been one of three people holding signs on a street corner when nobody else cared enough to show up. So along the way I’ve heard some things that are a kind of best practices regarding protests, namely: Read More…

An Open Letter to Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic National Committee

voting box with ballotHonestly, I have a lot of other things to get to this week, and within that, a lot of other pieces to write. But I have been so ubiquitously harassed by national-level Democrats that hey, I’ll take some time out this afternoon to respond to their litany of email.

Dear Representative Pelosi—

Perhaps there was a time in my life when receiving an email from the former Speaker of the House would have been at least a little thrilling, but the bloom is off the rose now. I don’t really even think you care about me, what with all of your messages—which are too many, honestly, it’s getting embarrassing—addressed to me as <FRIEND:VALUE!>. It feels half-hearted, Representative Pelosi. I know you are well networked in the legislative scene over on Capitol Hill. I used to see you around town from time to time when I still lived there. Okay; that’s a lie, it was Dennis Kucinich whom I saw, and mostly at the Greek restaurant on Pennsylvania SE that has sadly closed down. What I don’t understand, however, is how with all of your knowledge and connections and wealthy campaign contacts, you haven’t come across anyone who has mentioned even in passing that the Democratic National Committee’s strategy on getting donations for these midterms is abysmally bad. Here are the subject lines of just a few of the HUNDREDS of messages I’ve received these past few months:

  • painful loss
  • we. fell. short.
  • Friend we’re BEGGING
  • B O E H N E R wins
  • all hope is lost

The content in the actual email isn’t any better. Read More…

How to Ruin Halloween

We're a culture not a costume campaignA few years ago I wrote a blog post about offensive Halloween costumes and how they send the wrong message to children, mocking people who look different or who come from communities on the margins. The commercialization of Halloween, like the commercialization of every American “holiday” is so focused on profit that there is little left to authentically celebrate. But Halloween has seen a surge in popularity in pop culture and it seems like every year the offensiveness quotient is ramped up another notch or two. Despite campaigns against appropriation for Halloween, there are far more instances of using other cultures as dress up or as object of mockery than resistance against such moments.

Halloween also puts pressure on parents to buy the best, most professional costumes possible lest their class status appear too low. A casual glance at children’s costumes on the Web reveals that if one looks for something beyond a plastic costume and mask, prices start in the mid-$30s and range past $100. This puts children in the position of announcing their parents’ financial resources just to participate in the evening’s festivities (unless they’re in a very cold weather region and the costumes are tucked under coats, perhaps).

Then there’s the fear. Trick-or-treating, once the duty and delight of kids when I was a child, has declined due to concerns about tampered candy and nighttime predators. Parents who do let their kids go door to door follow them around on the sidewalk, or children are corralled into events that take place at the local YMCA or city block. And while I may love kids, I cannot handle having 3,000 small costumed children banging into each other and screaming over the last Snickers mini-bar.

There may still be some glory left in what was once a harvest holiday. If neighbors can agree to have some candy and entertain kids for a few hours, one can get to know those neighbors a little better and get to know the neighborhood more. If children are encouraged to share their candy, get out and walk around and laugh with their friends and family, I see a glimmer of fun in the experience. But certainly there is a lot to wade through to get past the hype, blinking skulls, fake spider webbing, and plush DisneyTM/Sesame Street/PowerRangers/Transformers costumes to get to the fun.

And hooray, Columbus Day is next week. Don’t get me started on that one.

Quick Stop to DC, or How I Learned to Anticipate Gentrification

trans character writing panel imageI just jumped into DC this weekend after an absence of a few years, taking a quick flight from Detroit while we’re still on vacation to attend an LGBTQ book festival on U Street. It’s been truly fantastic to see old friends and have the kinds of sincere conversations that are hard to find with people one meets in one’s forties instead of in one’s more vulnerable youth. I suppose we erect sturdy fortresses in the interim, but I’m not sure why or if that’s helpful for us.

The OutWrite festival was successful, and here it is only in its fourth year. It would have been nice to know before I left Walla Walla that I’d be responsible for bringing my own books to sell, because then I’d have had more than my reader’s copy with me. (Crossing fingers the Internet pulls through for me and people shop online to get them.) I was grateful to see so many familiar faces, people I’ve known from when I lived in the District and did earlier activism there, and get to meet some new folks who are doing interesting work in LGBT literature. Read More…

Misinterpretation vs. Post Liberal Disingenuousness

Everyone is finally talking about J. Jack Halberstam, but it’s not because he broke out the coup of academese or wrote a readable deconstruction of language, politics, and identity. Instead, Halberstam waded into the very tired “tranny” debate, and along the way, managed to become the next Dan Savage, Tosh.0, Seth MacFarlane of the LGBT universe. Like a ball of sticky goo (sticky goo being oh so funny, don’t you know), he picked up along the way a raging misreading of lesbian political history, a misunderstanding of stated boundaries, a misappropriation of assault survivor’s lexicon, and a misarticulation of gender performance.

Halberstam, in his piece, basically starts off bemoaning how nobody understands (the Spanish Inquisition) Monty Python anymore, and then delves right into his own lesbian angsty memory:

I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room. People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.

Here are my issues with this paragraph:

  1. I would expect an academic to understand his or her own experience in a political movement as exactly that, one data point. One experience. Extrapolating from one data point? Not an intellectual engagement.
  2. This completely misses the point that in the 1970s and 1980s (and 1990s, let’s get real) lesbians who came together to build a new community often did so under duress, sans love of family, against a culture that was much more weaponized against them than we see in 2014. There were a lot of things to cry about, a lot of broken people trying to make their way through the world with few resources. A lot of women lost their jobs expressly for being gay, and they had no recourse. The closet was a different beast. AIDS was claiming lives and lesbians were often on the front lines. So some of them finally felt that with their energy and input they were creating a space from which they could speak up about their needs (colognes do actually cause allergies), fighting one’s parents and siblings does leave one fatigued, but thanks, Dr. Halberstam, for asserting that these people who thought they were your comrades were messy and unappealing.
  3. This is really ableist. Though according to Halberstam’s critique there’s no room to claim that ableism is bad. I’m just a bad neo-liberal, right?
  4. Camille Paglia better look out because Halberstam’s paragraph reads like it was stolen out of her next manuscript.

Halberstam’s next paragraph pulls out two threads in the 1990s:

Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems. Needless to say, for women of color feminisms, the stakes have always been higher and identity politics always have played out differently. But, in the 1990s, books on neoliberalism, postmodernism, gender performativity and racial capital turned the focus away from the wounded self and we found our enemies and, as we spoke out and observed that neoliberal forms of capitalism were covering over economic exploitation with language of freedom and liberation, it seemed as if we had given up wounded selves for new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes. Of course, I am flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements. But I am willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.

Look, is there a limit to liberal feminism? Yes. Was it too easily fraught with the kind of “Lean In” thinking that furthers capitalism on the backs of more marginalized (read: of color) women? Absolutely. But why is it framed in terms of humor? You know who talks about women who need to “loosen up?” Sexist men, that’s who. “Loosen up,” the very phrase has been used since at least the last mid-century to dismiss women’s needs and boundaries. It doesn’t shock me in the slightest that Halberstam uses it here because he’s making the very same move. Your right to a perfume-free environment is bunk. Your claim that you are hurt is bogus. Loosen up and you’ll see that things won’t bother you as much. This is as clearly an anti-intellectual engagement around women’s boundaries as one can make.

Should we examine institutions for their role in perpetuating oppression differentially across race, class, gender, and other intersections of power? Yes! But can we take a step back and remember that we all have a lived experience inside of these institutions and forces and that people are situated in different places in culture? Sometimes their situatedness means that they experience a lot of pain and understand that pain as emotionally exhausting. Sometimes they find themselves the survivors of violence and those moments radicalize them such that they begin to make new inquiries into the world around them. Locating ourselves within this postcolonial/neocolonial world is an honest means of making revolutionary critique, it does not take away from it. And if we are lucky enough to have escaped “harm and trauma” then a critique with integrity would identify that as a site of privilege. Which means that when Halberstam is calling a “rhetoric of harm and trauma” problematic in that it is divisive, Halberstam is bing a privileged individual telling those with a different history that they need to be silent.

It is in this way that I read Halberstam’s piece as silencing, as not in solidarity with people who have made requests of us, the other people on the broad Left who have said at one point or another that we are all in this together. And when I get to that interpretation of Halberstam, the rest of his piece makes sense, in an internal consistency sort of way. It is actually antithetical to an emancipatory politic. Here is why.

Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place!

It’s not surprising that Halberstam glosses over what “these debates” are about—because he misses their point entirely. The history here is that some trans women, most of them under 30 and representing a younger generation of trans women, have said for at least the last decade, that they want everyone in the LGBT umbrella (because we’re a political coalition, at least in the eyes of the Family Research Council), to stop using the word “tranny.” For them, they’ve stated plainly, the word has been used against them during violent attacks, during personal attacks, in the act of refusing trans women housing, employment, and education. It’s been deployed to alienate them, disempower them, and yes, kill them. To not even bring to light WHY trans women have asked us to stop using the term is to once again dismiss the request. I’ve heard all sorts of defenses for continued use of the T-word, from loyalty, a sense of nostalgia (usually among gay men), a pseudo-academic argument for free speech (which even SCOTUS understands as different from hate speech), and some misguided sense of entitlement (you can’t tell me what to say!). But I’ve never seen anyone make the case, until Bond’s and Halberstam’s essays, that getting rid of the word would perpetuate transphobia.

And that idea, frankly, is preposterous. It would mean that mainstream (read: non-LGBT) individuals would come across the word and think, wow, I love transgender people. Look how cool Justin Vivian Bond is! Check out that Ru Paul! If they say it, I can say it, and it will mean I love trans women everywhere. It would mean that in the greater context of people bashing trans women and using the very same word that it’s the moment of drag frivolity (or what Halberstam would say is humor) that would transcend as the stronger signified, such that what, eventually if we just scream “tranny” often enough nobody will think of using it against trans women anymore?

No. I say no. Not only is this implausible, it means withholding material reality that trans women of color are the single most abused group in the FBI’s hate crime statistics. It would mean making invisible serious, authentic requests that women have made in order to keep a fucking word in the community. It would mean that there is no linkage between an epithet and a bigoted attitude toward a group. It means nothing less than the justification, rhetorically, of demeaning trans women in a larger community that has already demoted their political, social, sexual, and economic needs and that still will call up a sister and ask her to sit on the Pride planning committee so it can have a token trans woman in the room. It is nothing more than the lazy, anti-intellectual side-talking history that has worked against real change for LGBT people since we came together as a community during the Stonewall riots. During which transgender people and gay men fought side by side, by the way.

Saying that requests not to use a pejorative term or to put a “trigger warning” on a text of some kind are the kind of neo-liberal mushy (sorry, “messy, disintegrating”) inquiries that are limiting the movement is to erase the reality that for many people under the LGBT umbrella, we are broken and hurting and looking for support. Is it funny and humorous? No. Should a political movement use humor as one of its methods for liberation of its people? Sure, but Halberstam is making fun of ourselves, and the target ought to be those systems of oppression Halberstam says we should be focusing on.

All Halberstam’s piece does is give more life to a debate that is taking time and energy away from the real work we need to do. If a sexual assault survivor asks to be told up front if the content she’s about to see is violent, it is no skin off of Halberstam’s nose to tell her. Just as it is no loss to let the T-word fall to the way side, the way we have let many, many other words do in the last forty years. That Halberstam would pen this piece and offer nothing else for trans women in coalition with LGB interests, political, artistic, or other, tells me that he’s not really interested in trans women’s interests. And that is the sign of a disingenuous argument.

Of course we have made strides in the last two generations. That’s the point! It’s not the fault of younger trans people that they have come into a world that has the slightest grasp of what transgender identity is or can be. And even if an individual trans youth comes into a slightly more understanding culture, it doesn’t mean they face a more supportive immediate climate. Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT, according to a recent survey. An unimaginably high percentage of trans people have attempted suicide. Saying:

These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for “safe space.”

is as disingenuous as it gets. Not only should we be proud that the culture in the rightward-moving US has gay-straight alliances in some areas, we should not use it to dismiss requests for safer space. I may agree that there is no such thing as a safe space, and I may agree that left-wing policing can be used against in-community people to their detriment, but the problem isn’t in the call for safe space, and it’s certainly not the case that we ought to curtail any space that is more supportive than in decades past. This is just nonsensical. And I don’t see, once again, a good argument made here around gentrification. (For that, turn to Samuel Delany and Sarah Schulman.)

Halberstam then makes a leap from trigger warnings and the T-word and safe space to this:

…as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.

Actually, no. Some segments of the community have set boundaries around specific issues of sexual violence, violence, and individual terms, and some segments of the community have tried to open a dialogue about safety. Our safety is of paramount concern to our political agenda (the one that deals with institutions and stuff, remember). In the past week I’ve seen at least four articles about Black trans women murdered, missing, or attacked. If we can’t talk about safety being a top priority, we’re pretty safe, in all probability. If we can’t talk about intersectionality because we’re afraid someone will claim we’re starting an oppression Olympics, then we can’t talk for very long. And if we’re concerned about policing, then what the hell is Jack Halberstam doing in this piece? Because it reads like a ship ton of policing to me.

Notes from the Writing Trans Genres Conference

I like to write up my thoughts as I’m attending a conference or just after I walk away from it, while the plethora of conversations are still swirling around in my brain. It’s a little reminiscent of how I studied in primary school, by taking in as much of the school day as  Icould and then writing up my notes later. Maybe I need to move my fingers around to set the thoughts in place, I’m not sure.

I just finished up my participation in the Writing Trans Genres conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There were at least four generations of trans authors and thinkers there, maybe 250 of us, roughly. At least it felt like a quarter of a thousand. I didn’t do a head count and I didn’t ask the organizers. I didn’t want to miss even a moment of it—unlike truly humongous conferences like the Popular Cultural Association Conference or the BookExpo, where there is no hope of going to every panel, this was more intimate and almost comprehensible in scope, until people started talking. At that point there were so many ideas all in one animated stream that it took a lot of energy on my part to keep up with the conversation and concepts. But maybe I’m just an exhausted parent of two kids under the age of three. This conference was marked by several laudable characteristics not commonly found at conferences: Read More…

All the Things I’ll Miss About Cristina Yang

Sandra Oh from Grey's AnatomyOne of the biggest badass characters on television is leaving next week and I couldn’t be more heartbroken about it. It’s not just that Sandra Oh is arguably the best actor on Grey’s Anatomy (or broadcast television for that matter), it’s that the character she plays, Cristina Yang, has been an unsung feminist presence in a series often marked by obsession about heterosexual relationships and the men that inhabit them. Dr. Yang had been through bad relationships, abandonment at the altar (“It’s not that Burke broke up with me, it’s how he broke up with me.”), and an on-again, off-again affair with the chief of surgery, but she leaves the narrative at the top of her game, prioritizing her own needs, and inspiring other surgeons in her field. But let me get more specific about the aspects of Cristina that I adore so much, and thus the reasons I’ll miss seeing her around the hospital.

1. Her self confidence has never wavered—She started as an intern with the others, but came out of the gate maximizing her procedures hours and stating what kind of surgeon she would be. Maybe Izzy floated around not knowing which sub-specialty to take up and maybe George was trying to listen to his heart to figure himself out and maybe Meredith was fighting the shadow of her eponymous mother, but Cristina was all focus, all the time. Read More…

After Transition, Try Not to Become Insufferable

In a country that has as its national mantra, “I’m special,” it can be difficult to see the overlaps and similarities we have with other people. We mark our sense of style as unique to each of us, even as we shop at the same globally positioned clothiers, or second hand shops that sell the mass-manufactured fashions of thirty years ago. We rail against the evil of larger systems from our seats in the college auditorium. We complain about nasty customers as we daydream about spitting into their food that we’re trying to prepare for them. We lament the oligarchs even though there are so many of us who loathe them that we could theoretically do something about their power if only we banded together about it. Instead of maybe standing in our fierce independentness. But I digress. My point is that we may have distinct DNA and unparalleled lived experience, but we have great similarity to our families (chosen or not), our friends, and even to strangers.

Being a parent for thirty-two months is not much of a history, I know, but it’s enough to realize that many other people have had experiences near the ones I live through these days. Even though I am singularly located in my own place and time and history. There are so many parents out there that I see every day, bargaining with their children, looking joyful or exhausted or proud or revolted (“BOOGER, Daddy!”), sharing a scoop of ice cream or just trying to fucking get their kid into the car because they needed to leave five minutes ago. They are everywhere, parents. There’s no denying it, no hearings on Capitol Hill about whether they exist or not, even as we walk away from broad access to contraception and family planning and free breakfasts for poor kids and welfare to help support families through hard times. Nobody says we can convert parents into being non-parents. The head of Jelly Belly isn’t shelling out five million samoleans to prevent parents from existing in California. We parents know we are something of an entity, even if we don’t go around calling ourselves a “community” per se. Read More…

Questions Nobody Asks Me About My Novel

cover for TUTTOne of the reasons I enjoy interviews about my writing (other than the most ridiculous ego-tripping reasons, of course) is because it gives me insight into how people are interpreting my work, which is often something new or that I wasn’t creating intentionally. Sometimes an interview veers in an unexpected direction, and then I’m joyful as I get caught up talking about texts and narrative and form and extrapolating into popular culture more generally. But often there are pieces of the story that I think are glaring for readers but that never come up in conversation. So for my love of talking about textuality and literature, I thought I’d go over a few aspects of The Unintentional Time Traveler that haven’t come up in any of my Q&As.

The protagonist’s name(s)—I could answer this self-imposed question in a few different ways. First, “Jackson” is an intentional play on patrilineage, which the character winds up disrupting by choosing at the end to spend a lot of time as Jacqueline instead of in the time of Jackson’s actual life. But more important to me was the iconic use of the name “Jack” as it appears in scads of children’s literature: nursery rhymes, Jack & Jill, Jack & the Beanstalk, Jack Frost, Jack Sprat, etc. It’s almost at the level of generic marker for boys. So I wanted to create a narrative that took the mainstay name and immersed it in a novel that was focused on LGBT themes and characters. I want to see our stories and our lives within this greater mythology and literature, not apart from it. Jack was the perfect moniker to use to make this kind of a statement. And Inman is the name of a family I know from Washington, DC, but it’s also a great double entredre.  Read More…

On Male Privilege

Today’s post is guest authored by my old friend Shiloh Stark.

I know male privilege because I went from not having it, to having it.

At different points in my life, I’ve been perceived as a girl, perceived as a boy, perceived as in-between. As straight, as lesbian, and as a gay male. I’ve always been the same person, but the Rubik’s cube of my life was extra jumbled up there for a while. Each different setting, though, uncovered a new lesson in how gender works.

When people perceived me as a straight, white, heterosexual teenage girl, every time I took a walk alone, in the back of my head, a part of me worried that I might be raped. It was more present than a fear of being mugged, and carried more dread. I don’t know if all women feel that, or if it gets better over time — I just know that it was the kind of feeling you actively try to discredit, and can forget about for stretches of time, but that you can’t shake.

When I cut my hair shorter and donned more gender neutral clothes, people saw me as a lesbian. Occasionally a man would shout “dykes” when I walked down the street with a girl. I still worried about being sexually assaulted, but the tenor changed: the concern was that some straight man would feel compelled to “teach me a lesson.”  Read More…

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