Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Historic Happenings for Transfolk!

Tomorrow will be two very significant events in transgender history! The first (and more positive event) is the historic House Hearings on Transgender Workplace Discrimination. The hearing is titled: "An Examination of Discrimination Against Transgender Americans in the Workplace". It will be heard in the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions subcommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor. It marks the first congressional hearing to focus solely on transgender issues.

The hearing is not specific to any particular legislation, but is focused on educating congressional representatives and house representatives. Several prominent advocates for transgender equality are being called as witnesses (Diego Sanchez, Diane Schorer etc), and of course the amazing Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality will be present.

In other news tomorrow will be the day that Montgomery County decides whether the ballot initiative to strike gender identity non-discrimination from the county law will be on the ballot come November.

And, of course, tomorrow is the day before the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots!

Queer Identities

I usually don’t comment about media on this blog because I get enough of analyzing and responding to media during the workweek. However, there’s a very interesting Associated Press story that is slowly circulating. A couple in Richmond Virginia has confused all forms of stalwart guardians on the borders of gender and sexuality.

In brief, a couple that were both assigned a male sex at birth got married in Virginia. The individual who registered under “bride” was also having a name change from a traditionally male name to a traditionally female name. However, it’s completely unclear if that name change is corresponding with a sex or gender identity change or if the name change is simply a name change. Given the particulars of the story - that the individual whose gender identity is creating a conundrum has yet to publicly ID (and they shouldn’t be forced to either) – I thought the story was handled with a lot of tact.

The story has begun a small but steady circulation (holding my breath until it appears only to be bashed on FOX) and has of course landed on some prominent queer websites. Some of these sites have chosen to attack the story claiming that the individual in question should be identified as “she”. They go on to say that this individual is clearly a transgender woman and the story is insulting to suggest that the individual is male. Now, it’s true that there are a lot of clues leading towards a female identity (the name change, registering as a bride, dressing in historically female clothes etc.) but none of these necessitate a female identity. Men can dress in historically female clothes and have historically female names. Men can even call themselves brides if that makes them happy. Also, of course this individual could identify as anything else from gender non-conforming to genderqueer, gender variant…or any other number of various identities. Moreover, it is this individual's right to not identify. No one should be forced to continuously out themselves, although this is the paradigm most of the U.S. accepts as normal.

One of the least supportive things we can do as transgender and gender non-conforming allies is to demand an identity, or a compliance with a prescribed identity, based on our personal ideas of how he, or she, or ze should identify. What the AP story did well, and what the entire ambiguity of the situation brings to light, is how precariously balanced the U.S. idea of marriage is. That this marriage is a blight upon the world if it is two men, but that the marriage is legal should the second individual be female is absurd. It also highlighted the intriguing reliance our society has on visual identification clues and the extreme pressure we place on legal and medical recognition of identity.

Part of me almost hopes that this marriage was a demonstration. Two brave Virginians out to make a point about the way we categorize what is and is not legal and moral.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Love and...everything else

I have been trying recently to write about partnerships love. As in, for the last four days I have sat down and typed out long winding convoluted sentences that politely try to ask the question: “how do you sustain a relationship”? Eventually I realized that my attempts to cover this main question with flowery phrases and clever quotes had me as confused as any reader would be.

But the more I think about my love for my partner, and the more I realize how visible we are as interracial and queer, the more afraid I become, Not afraid of discrimination or violence, but of the fact that no matter where I go to look for answers about my life I can not find myself. I find queer couples or straight interracial couples, I find long-lasting friendships between white men and Black women, I find steamy hot but ultimately broken relationships between white women and Black women. I find narratives about the universality of love and memoirs by white mothers of Black children. But I never see us.

And then I wonder why I need to see us. If I ever did come across a documentary or memoir about a white Midwest transman and a mixed Black genderqueer lady…would I even like it? I’d critique it to death! I don’t need any affirmation that our love is real or right or legitimate. I feel that every day. I don’t need any affirmation that our couples have always existed. Our lives are clouded and secret, they are oral histories and art projects. Our lives exist in old photographs and sideways glances on subways. We are the stuff of weekend retreats and college thesises. We make our lives from scratch, we build them slowly, and like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s castle - they are built precariously upon the sand.

No, I don’t crave affirmation or historical records. I think what I crave for is an elder who can give me guidance on behavior. I want to see examples of how white men earn their keep in interracial relationships.

One of the most surprising things that I should have known but didn’t see coming when I threw my entire being into this couple, is that my white privilege will always be present. Things that I might not think of as racially motivated will appear so because of my history, my background, my constant privilege. Phrases that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in an all white circle (“what are you people doing?”) suddenly seem racially charged. My extreme shyness, which often causes me to back into corners and keep my eyes plastered to the ground seems to be motivate by being surrounded by educated and opinionated Black women, as opposed to a ridiculous inability to meet strangers. And at the same time…there is a deeply rooted racist reason for my actions, a reason that I can take control of and try to own, and a reason that ultimately I know I will never completely overcome. That knowledge is incredibly painful and at times the pain of it doesn’t allow me to carry forward in any positive way.

Like bell hooks suggests in “all about love” there is an inexcusable lack of representation of long-lasting (queer, interracial) love in the majority of our lives. I can’t find examples of queer couples where one partner is white who make their race, class, ability, and queerness a constant part of their lives. I know some couples, and perhaps I should schedule a time to sit down and hash out exactly how they negotiate their identities…but I’ve yet to hear or see or read an honest account. Audre Lorde discusses her relationship with her white (Irish? Italian? I can’t recall) love Muriel in “ZAMI”, and Cherrie Moraga notes her relationship with her white Irish partner in many of her works especially “Waiting in the Wings”. I have read a few accounts of white mothers raising children of color – most amazingly Jane Lazarre’s “Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness”. But there are few complete accounts that I can draw upon.

There are a million small things that have amazed me since falling in love. That someone scratching their nose during sex doesn’t mean they are bored, it means their nose itches (sometimes it means they’re bored too). Not crying doesn’t mean you’re not hurt, crying doesn’t man you are hurt. Making love after fighting doesn’t mean you’re codependent, it means there aren’t any more words left. If you can laugh while you eat leftovers, it tastes like a whole new meal. And as much as I try, my white privilege will always be here.

But it is how I negotiate the last one, how we respond and react to each other that will ensure just how much impact that last fact has in our lives. And now that I’ve finally written down all the things that kept me from addressing it…I think my next blog post will be specifically on ways I try and address my whiteness in the relationship, and ways I feel I fail at addressing it. Which, eventually, will be posted here.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

On Drag and Consciousness

[pictured: the four Transformers on a minimal stage with red lighting. On the far left there is me, Mik Danger, as a bad-ass priest all in black, and on the far right an androgynous and sexy sinner in red booty shorts, a red tie and a black tank top is either masturbating or repenting. Between us two apostles in white robes are beginning a sensual dance. This photo is from the Miltown Kings spring of 2007. We are performing to the Eurythmics "Missionary Man".]

For the last two years I have been performing drag. One could also argue that I have been performing drag my whole life, but that’s a bit of a simplification of Judith Butler’s gender definitions and gives me too much credit. Drag has to be conscious, and until I knowingly stepped on a stage I didn’t understand the full complications of gender play. Dolly Parton, as an example, is a type of drag queen as she is extremely conscious of how she is presenting an over-the-top, ridiculous and amazing form of femininity. She is acutley aware of how her presentation reflects on women as a whole, and rural working-class white women in particular.

My drag was formed in the company of three amazing and talented close friends in the late spring of 2006. Over time we would become the drag troupe The TransFormers, performing bi-monthly with Dykes Do Drag and occasionally at the Twin Cities bar The Townhouse. But our development as a drag troupe wasn’t immediate. I had performed onstage before (and specifically as a man) but until 2006 my drag didn’t have a conscious. As our troupe became well known in the Midwest it was because we attempted to tackle issues of whiteness, capitalism, heteronormativity, and patriarchy. We celebrated fey men and transwomen, femmes and genderqueer transitions. We achieved this through the support of fantastic shows such as Dykes Do Drag and conferences such as the International Drag King (community) Extravaganza. we read Butler and Judith Halberstram, and by searching ourselves for the messages we wanted to convey.

In doing this, we discovered that not all drag is a positive reclamation of identity. Not all drag is done in the spirit of queer liberation with the reckless abandon of mocking institutions while in glittery booty shorts. Many drag performers perform with no knowledge of how their representations of femininity, masculinity, and androgyny affect their message. Indeed, most white drag performers appropriate the lyrics and dance moves of famous Black and Latin@ performers without questioning their use of a modern version of Black/Brown Face. Drag Kings have a history of using femme performers as silent props, and too often a drag king will perform as a masculine straight man.

The TransFormers were by no means the end-all be-all of conscious drag (or as we called it “post-drag drag”). Our piece on U.S. Imperialism (set to “Macho Man”) failed in the first few dress rehearsals, and to this day I have a great fear of appearing as anything but a queer man on stage. But the TransFormers were attempting to talk about queer values – interlinked oppressions, a love for all bodies, a consciousness about identity, and the joy of performing and we did so in a way that was both funny and engaging. Even as a soloist it became incredibly difficult to find songs by white men that can be “queered” to discuss sexuality, class, ability, and other identity issues. Which is why I’m excited that tonight I will be performing a solo at the Brooklyn Pride After-Party!!

I performed once in late March with the amazing group Switch n’ Play, but tonight I will be performing at the Transy House as a benefit for Sylvia Rivera Law Project. My piece, my favorite of the handful of solos I have cultivated, is about being proud of identity, and moreover of an expanding definition of feminism and feminists. You can catch be sometime between 9pm and 1am at 214 16th Street in Park Slope (between 5th & 6th Ave). There will be many other amazing performers there and it's only a suggested donation of $10!!

More of this tonight at 9PM!

[pictured: This is a still of my ass from my March performance. In stonewash jeans and back leather chaps with a dollar bill sticking out of the waistline. Picture taken by Switch n’ Play.]

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

NewFest and Performing Outside the Box

A short update to inform NYC Readers about NewFest! NewFest is in its 20th year of providing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movies in its annual film festival. I have been going almost every single night and for a student/senior discount of $7 it’s half the cost of a mainstream movie.

The highlights I have noticed that I STRONGLY urge people to watch out for are below. I may write more specifically about these films later, but I just want to make sure people have the chance to watch them either now, or later when they replay at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the International Film Center in August. There are so many amazing films I did not see – so I urge everyone to go these next couple of nights and support artists that represent a new vision of the world! The theatre is accessible for wheelchair users and people with movement impairments; they also have “hearing devices” at the front desk. I don’t know what they are or if they’re useful. But, there you go.

The World Unseen

U People

Tal Como Somos/Just As We Are

Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Project

Also, NewFest has ballots at the end of each film. I enjoy writing things like “yay film directed by Black women!” or “yay bilingual film!” when I want to highlight something I think they should be focusing on. I should warn readers that the festival as a whole has a huge gap in representation for bisexual people, transgender and gender variant people, and bilingual films. While I have seen some HIV+ characters visible disability is also underrepresented.

However, you can get some great images of people with disabilities discussing and performing sexuality and disability at Outside the Box: Performing Disability. This is the ending event of the Society for Disability Studies 2008 Conference this June 20th! Featuring internationally known artists such as Mat Frazer (“Seal Boy”), Excerpts from "GIMP" choreographed by Heidi Latsky, featuring Jeffery Freeze, Lawrence Carter-Long (my new favorite person!) and Catherine Long. Also present: Four Wheel City, Krip Hop, Honi Harlow & Mystique presents Bawdville Deaf burlesque, Nancy Ostrovsky, performance painting, and Theatrical Readings staged by Carrie Sandahl (one of the contributors to “Desiring Disability”) and Vicki Lewis, and many other amazing and talented people.

It should be amazing, and I’m hoping to go as well. Yay for a sexually healthy, body affirming event that is only $18 a person! The event will begin at 8 p.m at the Eisner and Lubin Auditorium in the NYU Kimmel Center, 60 Washington Square South, in New York City.

[Pictured: the logo for the night, taken from mediadis&dat. The logo resembles a Matisse-like collage of four black figures outlined in white against a mosaic of blues, greens, and reds. The four figures have various body types and visible disabilities and I believe the far right figure might be a nod to Mat Frazer]
On a side note, my new focus is making sure the few entertainment dollars I have go towards supporting the imagery that reflects my reality. Films made by and staring women, people of color, transgender and gender non-conforming people, people with disabilities, and people who use multiple or non-English languages. So instead of paying for mainstream movies that don’t represent me or the people I love, huge drink tabs that I can’t remember the next day, or club entry fees that explicitly sexist, classist, and ablest I am trying to channel the few extra bucks I make each week toward the people I love. The disTHIS! Film series, NewFest’s films that celebrate women and gender variance as well as national, racial, language, and sexual diversity, Nuyorican poetry slams, and the free art shows of my friends and other queer brown female artists.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Meditative Thoughts on Allying and Self-Love

This will be my third update for today, which is absolutely ridiculous! But I wanted to mention a few things before I go about doing the things I actually need to do (like clean the bathroom…). Before diving into this I want to highlight the nature of my posts to Coffee and Gender. These are as much for myself as they are for anyone else. I often need to write things down in order to understand what I am thinking. The creative process of working through my thoughts gives me clarity and strength. So this post is as much about myself as it is about social movements as a whole. These are things I need to keep in mind.

The first is that I’ve had a lot of thoughts I wanted to write about recently but I was feeling incredibly low and upset. There are a couple of reasons for this, mostly revolving around my job and issues of money. Due to this, I wasn’t writing much, wasn’t sleeping much, and in general wasn’t taking care of my health. When you are fighting for social justice it can be very difficult to take a break for health. But it’s necessary. If you are really invested in social change that consciousness is with you during every aspect of every day. But sometimes individuals (and groups) need to step back and take a deep breath. We need to take a weekend, a summer, a year, to relax, heal ourselves, and refocus. We cannot fight if we don’t love our selves first and foremost. When I saw Cherrie Moraga talk last spring at Macalester College she emphasized the need to respect our bodies and minds and the importance of honoring the choices of our friends and allies. If a friend chooses to not come to a rally or to resign from a leadership position, then we need to support that choice and not stigmatize it as “giving up” or “burning out”. That choice is self-care, and that needs to be respected.

My second topic is spurred from reading comments on a blog generated by a woman of color. In a post she opened up to “allies” of all identities a fight ensued between a white blogger and a blogger of color. In reading their posts from a detached perspective I can see both sides of the debate. The post was generated so that allies could discuss amongst themselves ways of allying. The white blogger took that as an opportunity to ask the bloggers of color for affirmation of the work this blogger was doing. A blogger of color responded calling out the white privilege in walking into a poc forum and demanding affirmation. However, this blogger used sexist language to call out the white privilege. And this was on a post about working together and intersecting identities!

Reading these comments made me think about a conversation I had with my partner after we went to disTHIS!. An audience member had mentioned the film Crash, and then clarified by saying “Cronenberg’s Crash – the real Crash”. My partner said she immediately became upset, after enjoying herself for the whole evening she was suddenly, and unexpectedly, confronted with language that dismissed the racial importance of the 2004 movie Crash. On the subway on the way home she expressed her dismay that the filmgoers, most of who have a high level of understanding when it comes to discussing movies and cinematic techniques couldn’t ally themselves to a film primarily dealing with racism. I couldn’t see the commentator, and I don’t know how they identify racially or disability wise, but there are a fairly large number of people of color who come to the disTHIS! screenings, and I can admit I was surprised by the comment too. However, and I tried to articulate this, I do think that there were many people upset that the 2004 movie would use the same title and some similar imagery (like, you know, cars and bodies that cause conflict). After all, if the writers were clever enough to write that plot and obtain that incredible cast couldn’t they have gotten a better title? But at the same time…I see my partner’s point. Whatever your personal feelings, when you dismiss a film that is one of the few mainstream titles to address racism in an impactful way it can sound like you are dismissing the reality of racism for people in the same room.

So my second thought is the importance of understanding intersecting identities and supporting your fellow revolutionaries. I often don’t. I know many people often don’t consider the importance of thinking beyond a single identity, but when you attack a person engaged in racism with sexism, or when you work against an ableist culture but dismiss the anti-racist work of another you’re undermining your own cause. There’s much more to write, but I think I’m going to keep it simple and as I clean my bathroom I will be meditating on these three points:

Take care of yourself.

Support the work of others.

Think in multiples and intersections.

disTHIS!: using disability to talk about ability

Last Wednesday was yet another fabulous night of diTHIS! where my partner and I went to see the feature-length film Quid Pro Quo. This film advertises itself as exploring the identities of people with Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), through the fictional plot of a wheelchair-using public radio employee trying to interview people with BIID. BIID is, roughly, a mental identity where you believe yourself to have (and perhaps you do have) a physical disability despite the fact that you do not appear to have a physical disability. Some BIID people may try to acquire that identity through surgery, some may not. This website, TransAbled, is run by people with various forms of BIID, so I trust it for accurateness in case you want more info.

However, the movie never did talk about BIID, or what it would mean for a person with a physical disability to interview a person who wants – or has the need to have – a physical disability. Instead the movie used the theme of obtaining a physical disability to discuss issues of revenge, grief, and shame. Physical disabilities became the trope through which mental struggles were discussed. Luckily, I am reading a fantastic journal right now and found a great quote in the essay Audre Lorde and the Power of Touch, to describe my anger. In an essay discussing Audre Lorde’s identity with vision impairment, Sarah E. Chinn quotes Naomi Schor on the use of blindness as a trope in Western culture:

“…Western culture has leaned on the “myth of the moral blindness of the sighted…[and]the moral superiority of the physically blind upon the sighted.” a myth that turns disability into a convenient metaphor for the sighted and refuses the complex meanings (let alone the day-to-day ramifications) of blindness for blind people themselves.”
Quid Pro Quo turned physical disability – specifically paralysis and wheelchair use – into metaphors for mental disabilities such as BIID and the physical ramifications of extreme guilt. By doing this, the film undermined the reality of mental disability while ignoring the “complex meanings and day-to-day ramifications” of wheelchair use for wheelchair users themselves. An extreme guilt that results in physical trauma, or the intense desire to be disabled are real disability identities that deserve the same standards of care that any identity deserves. Being someone who is diagnosed as having Gender Identity Disorder who is also diagnosed as bi-polar and has previously had eating disorders I take mental disability and wellness very seriously. So when I see a mental disability displayed as something universal in the old “you need to just buck up and have a stiff upper lip” mode, I get upset. For my friends and co-workers with physical disabilities I can only imagine the reaction to a film that portrays physical disability as a trope to explore universal human identities. As an audience member put it, this movie is for able-bodied people. It has no complex understanding of physical disability identity, and is incredibly harmful for people with any form of mental disability.

I am going to turn to a quote that I relied on for much of my college work to finish up this discussion of disability as a means to reach universal themes. In his essay, As Good As it Gets: Queer Theory and Critical Disability, Robert McRuer dissects the film As Good As It Gets. The main character, Melvin, is a white wealthy man with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as well as a nasty personality where he is constantly racist, homophobic, and sexist. The film ends with Melvin being "cured" by taking prescribed medication. As he chooses to take this medication he also "wins" by finding friends and a romantic partner (white and female). McRuer has this to say:
“the assumption is that overcoming his disability would improve his character: his sexism, ableism, homophobia, and racism can be treated with a pill. By representing Melvin’s disability, or “ailment” as his character flaw, the [movie] positions his story firmly in already pervasive cultural discourses of disability.”
So Quid Pro Quo was unfortunate. But I would have never seen it had it not been for the space of disTHIS! where I could not only see the film for a song ($5 yo!) but also engage in a wonderful talk-back, a privilege most viewers of this film will not receive. After all, how many cinemas are actually accessible? How many people with physical or mental disabilities will be able to truly see this film in theater? Without a talkback session I fear many able bodied viewers will continue to see disability as a thematic trope and not as a lived reality.

* The essays I quote from were found for about $13 on (although I usually urge readers not to buy corporate…) GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Special Edition: Desiring Disability: Queer Theory Meets Disability Studies. 9.1-2 (2003).

Gender Non-Conforming Histories

At the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference - which was amazing and invigorating and simply overwhelmingly good - I attended a conference on "Celebrating the Nontraditional Narrative". That workshop was in the last bracket before the closing keynote, ensuring that everyone was too tired to tell their "narratives" again. However it brought up a lot of thoughts for me, most of them around the difficulty I found of being not only a transgender man, but a transgender man who was consistently effeminate. This disturbing and horrifying interview on NPR brought me back to my childhood activities and I began thinking about my gender non-conforming narrative. A much truncated version:

I have always loved the color pink. When I was young my room was filled with stuffed animals and dolls, and because my favorite animal was - and is – a pig, the majority of my room was a pink shade. Add to that my pink comforter and flying-pig curtains and you have my room in a color-coded nutshell.

When I was in the second grade the mother of a friend of mine looked into my room and declared “oh! It’s a typical girl’s room!” and walked away. I, so proud of my defiant feminist nature and tomboy attitude was appalled to see myself stereotyped by a woman who didn’t even glance at my Rosie the Riveter poster or my collection of Great Women Author playing cards.

So my room changed. I re-hung yellow curtains stolen from my mother’s fabric collection, used my brother’s discarded blue comforter and I stashed all but a few choice pigs and dolls into cardboard boxes under my bed. For years I would take a hard-core anti-pink stance, so much so that I briefly convinced myself that I, too, hated pink.

Days after I came out as queer my sophomore year I showed up at a party with a glittery pink scarf wrapped around my neck. Every single person commented on that scarf, usually with the ending line “I would never think you’d wear pink!” I worried that my coming out had become too compromised by that pink scarf. After all, I came out as “wanting to date girls now” a decidedly not-lesbian-identifying statement, and there was campus-wide knowledge that I was “still” a virgin. Wanting to be taken seriously, still suffering from the shock of coming out as queer, and clearly not confident enough to come out as a pink-lover, I put that beautiful scarf aside and eventually sold it at a used clothing store.

The following year, as I was grappling with my gender identity these incidents came back to me. After all, most people assumed I was butch-identified and in the baggy clothes I wore to cover my female body I certainly fit the stereotype. But, a butch man who loves pink? A butch man who shakes his ass as he dances alone in his room and practices a mincing step when no one can see him? Even I couldn’t get my head around that. I briefly tried to be a femme, believing my mincing and ass-shaking meant I wanted to let my femininity out. I did. But I wanted to rock it with tight jeans, muscle-Ts, and grinding with the boys on the dance floor. I wanted to shake it in the men’s room.

I wish I could point to a specific instance when I realized I was an effeminate man but there is no single date. That realization is interwoven into all these snapshots of my past. I was a tomboy who never really wanted to destroy things or annoy people like the other tomboys did. I was a woman who dated women who hated any touch to my chest and who felt like an outsider in women’s spaces. Since the time that I claimed an effiminite male identity I have been called sensitive, vulnerable, and delicate, as if to emphasize how pronounced any display of femininity becomes when exhibited in men. I was never called these things before, although I am certain i acted in the exact same way.

I must have known all of who I was when I finally approached my therapist last September. I went to her so that I could access surgery, and for no other reason. When she asked me about feeling like a boy when I was little I told her that when I said “I want to be a boy” as a young girl, I was talking about sexism. I didn’t want to play baseball, or go to horror movies, or be allowed to watch adult movies. I didn’t want to participate in a patriarchal cult, I just wanted the same choices my brothers had. I wanted to be asked "do you want to go?" so that I could say "no". I wanted to be allowed to play roughly and loudly, to run fast and climb trees. And when I did so I didn't want to be told "you do that well for a girl". But those feelings are not about being transgender. Those feeligns are about sexism. So I didn’t want to be male as a young girl, and I am glad most misogynistic cigender men still don’t think of me as male now. I don’t want to be part of that masculine ridiculousness. All I want is the right to shake my ass on the dance floor in a glittery pink scarf.