Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Architecture of Femme: femme identity, drag, and the bois

[Image Description: on the left is Mik Danger with the Dazzling Diamond. This image is a close-up of only our faces. Both have black bangs hanging over heavily made-up eyes, the Dazzling Diamond has a dyed blond streak in her hair. The Dazzling Diamond is Korean American, Mik is white. Both are pouting at the camera with sparkly lips. On the right there is a snapshot of the TransFormers performing. A handful of audience heads can be seen in the foreground. The three of us are in various poses. On the far left is Dickie Van Dyke in a blue skirt and neon blue tights making cat-like motions at the audience. In the center is Mik Danger in black with neon pink tights throwing her hands up, and on the far right is the Dazzling Diamond also throwing her hands up at the audience wearing red neon tights and a red and black ensemble. It is a simple community-theatre like stage, very bare. There are red lights. ]
I returned two Sundays ago from the Femme Collective’s “The Architecture of Femme” where my troupe and I performed on Saturday night. For a non-femme identified person the conference was an amazing opportunity to discuss femininity and the way I ally to it all while in the presence of learning and listening from members of various femme communities. I submitted my drag troupe, the TransFormers, (drag is primarily how I publicly discuss identity issues) in the hopes that one of our pieces could meet the mark required for the Saturday Night Cabaret performance. Luckily, we were accepted and despite some concern over the expense of travel and the inability of one of our members to come, my fellow dragsters (minus one) and I made it to Chicago in time to see some of the conference and perform.

Our piece was “I Don’t Need a Man” is a PussyCat Dolls song which can be interpreted many ways with lyrics as amorphous as “Let me break it down/I can get off when you ain’t around” and “I don’t need a ring around my finger/to make me feel complete”. We could be talking about sex, or we could be talking about seeing women as complete human beings. Our pieces tend to have some level of minor choreography to them, but this one is unique in being completely choreographed. Like a good collective, we switch off on who lip synchs which parts and where we stand on the stage. We perform “I Don’t Need a Man” in miniskirts and sexy tops with knee-high neon stockings, and we make liberal use of folding chairs. I add a wig and a tucked away penis to my outfit and pad my bra. By doing this I both conform to fit the typical image of a drag queen (as many people still assume all drag queens are cisgender men), but I also diversify the women we represent by being read as a potential no-surgeries transwoman. What is critical for me on a personal level is that I know no one will mistake me for someone with a stable female gender identity once they take in all the various gender clues I am presenting.

Despite my belief that our piece is a strong affirmation of sexy femininity, I felt incredibly nervous as the time for our performance rolled closer. Here I was, a decidedly not femme-identified man about to take the stage in front of a group of femme women wearing a wig, a slightly bulging mini skirt, and a sports bra that had been noticeably padded. The questions that Drag Queens pose about femininity and female identity were overflowing and I became sincerely concerned that my fellow Queens and I would be seen as mocking femininity, instead of celebrating it. To my great and immense relief, we temporarily stole the show (we were followed by Glenn Marla, who simply can not be beat).

Having only one member of the TransFormers being femme-identified I was also nervous that my presence as an ally might be misread. I can’t give someone my entire gender identity history in one night - in any night - and while I know that participants at the Femme Conference would be less likely to judge a person’s gender identity, the possibility of such judgment can be confusing and paralyzing. In the workshops and keynotes we attended the discussions were so closely focused on femmes that allies often were relegated to sitting and listening: which is exactly what allies should be doing 80% of the time. However, there are always times when workshops or lectures are really meant for the self-identifying members of the audience and not for allies or family members/significant others. I don’t believe in “safe space” but I strongly believe in “safer space”, and it can be hard to tell when a lecture or workshop might be more easily received and understood if the attendees all belonged to that one identity group.

All of this is a good segue into a definition of “femme” – a definition one of my readers asked me for almost a year ago but which I have yet to give. I'm afraid I have to bow out a little and say that I don't fully know. However, the femmes I have met tend to be women - cigender, genderqueer, and transgender - who have struggled for a long time to embrace femininity. Their femininity may look like the prototypical 1950s housewife that some second wave feminists worked to diversify (baking, house-dresses, DIY projects, a love of caring for people, high heels, taking primary housekeeping responsibilities) but the difference is in an ability to choose these actions. Some femmes don't wear makeup, don't wear dresses, and don't cook. Some femmes focus more on a feminine spirituality or a butch-feminine identity. Some femmes are men - an identity I look at with some skepticism but with a widening acceptance. I think what ties femme communities together is a common struggle to have what is feminine be accepted and loved and valued. There is also a common tie of trying to find community when outside pressures (be they patriarchal, heteronormative, transphobic or white supremacist) continue to teach a devaluation of femme identity and encourage in-fighting. Femmes, like disability groups and transgender groups, stand at the cusp of redefining community in a way that is incredibly revolutionary and inclusive as many fringe identities can find a home within "femme". From Kate Bornstein's blog:
“Butches can be dominant or submissive, strong or weak, honorable, or complete rats. So can Femmes. Butch and Femme have nothing to do with who makes more money. And no one in real life is a hundred percent butch. No one is a hundred percent femme. Like everything else about our identities, butch and femme are all a matter of degree based on preference, comfort and choice. There’s no perfection in the dance, there’s only the totality of self-expression and how that self-expression dovetails with someone else’s self-expression. When people play with that consciously, it’s wonderful fun. At its best, Butch/Femme becomes an erotic expression of ‘This is how I’m femme, and it makes me really happy that I delight the butch in you.’ And, ‘This is how I’m butch, and it makes me really happy that I delight the femme in you.’”*

I wrote, early on, that my partner would “never be my femme” and a reader was confused about what I meant by the phrase. My comment was in response to a story on a transman where a photo was captioned as “so-n-so and his femme” – a caption that denied his partner her name, and with it any ability to self identify outside of her relationship to him. In “not being my femme” I meant that my partner would never be relegated to an identity that hinged upon mine. First and foremost she will always be the sum of her identities and talents, her accomplishments and aspirations. Moreover, though, my partner doesn’t currently identify as femme. Within queer communities, and outside of us as well, many people love to think and exist within a butch/femme paradigm where a masculine person partnered to a feminine person must be replicating a male and female relationship. My partner, while very feminine in dress and presentation, doesn’t draw her identity from these accoutrement. In fact, most femmes I know don’t draw their identity from how they dress and present themselves. This is confusing to lots of people as gender identities (such as femme and butch, fish, fairy etc) are often linked to the ways in which we present ourselves, and that includes clothing and accessories. Due to her presentation and body type my partner is often read as femme, and this is always very difficult for both of us. Despite being incredibly effeminate my transmale identity often precludes a decision that I must therefore be masculine-identified, and that my partner (ipso facto) is femme. Beyond the fact that y partner doesn’t identify as femme though is the connotation in the caption that femmes are identified by their presence to men or masculine people. Hopefully, our piece reaffirmed that no one needs "a man" to self-define, being that "man" could be anyone who expresses an unwanted and non-consensual dominance.

*Bornstein, Kate. “WALL•E: A Butch/Femme Love Story... or Silly Rabbit! Robots Have No Gender”. Kate Bornstein's Blog for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws. July 9

Monday, August 25, 2008

Call for Papers: IFGE Conference

I saw this call for papers over at Monica's TransGriot blog and thought maybe some readers here would be interested in contributing. The IFGE also publishes "Transgender Tapestry" which is an interesting magazine on many levels. I know these last posts haven't been as interesting as usual, but don't give up on me yet! I have plans for a post concerning interracial relationships (the one I promised y'all way back in June), a post about genderbending on the beach, a post concerning femme identity and the 2008 Femme Confernece, and another about the uses of anger all in the works. Hopefully they'll be up soon although I haven't had as much time as usual to sit and write.

2009 IFGE Conference Call for Presenters

The International Foundation for Gender Education is requesting presentation and workshop proposals for its upcoming 2009 IFGE Conference. The event will be held February 4-7, 2009 at the Alexandria Hilton at Mark Center, in Alexandria VA, and is being hosted by the Transgender Education Association (TGEA) of Washington DC, in coalition with other groups in the mid Atlantic region. The theme for this year's gathering is: "Working Together for Change."

This year are giving priority to presentations on the following themes:

* Issues impacting Transgender Youth, and Children of Trans Parents
* Issues impacting Transgender Elders
* Issues and concerns of FTMs (We are reserving a full track for FTMs)
* Issues and concerns of Crossdressers
* Transgender Health, Medicine and Legal Concerns
* TGs in Relationships - for Significant Others, Couples & Individuals with or without partners
* Changing the perception of Transgender People through Education.
* Creating unity in the Transgender Community

New ideas, new topics and new faces are also of strong interest. We will be holding special panel discussions for the benefit of students, researchers and educators to learn more about the trans community. Presenters and panel moderators will receive a $100 discount on any conference registration package. Registration information is available online at http://www.ifge.org/register/ (Student registrations rates will be available.)

If you are interested in presenting, please submit your proposal as soon as possible to insure space and schedule availability, but no later than September 30, 2008. Use the online Program Proposal Form on our web site http://www.ifge.org/conference or fill out the attached form and mail it to us.

Your proposal must include a short biography and any A/V needs. If it is for a panel, the moderator should submit the proposal and list the names and pertinent information (as to addresses, etc.), and provide bios for the other panel members. If this panel information is omitted from this initial proposal it may not be included in the program book.

If you have additional questions regarding your proposal, please contact Alison Laing by email at programs@ifge.org, or by writing:

IFGE Programs
P.O. Box 540229
Waltham MA 02454-0229

Thursday, August 21, 2008

NYC Events: Black & LGBT, protests of "Tropic Thunder"

Update: the link to listen to the WBAI interview is right here. It's about an hour long, but if you want to jump right to the Tropic Thunder protests, they're about 2/3 of the way through. This is worth the listen-to. I was agreeing with the protests for very surface-level reasons (I agree that "retard" is a very hurtful and insulting word) and this interview made me see some much deeper sides to the argument against the use of the term, and the treatment of characters with developmental diabilities within the film. One of my favorite parts is the discussion that a basic tenant of civil rights is the ability to name oneself. When people decide for you what you are to be called, it strips a person of their civil liberties. Amazing.

Last night I saw Aurin Squire’s new play “Submerged from All Sides…” for FREE at South Oxford Space. His play, which will be on tonight at 7pm as well, is part of the Freedom Train Productions’ 3-week festival “Fire!” which focused on new political plays featuring Black LGBT protagonists and playwrights.

[Image Description: The playbill for “fire!”. It is a long sheet of white paper with black and red lettering. “Fire” is in bright red with the exclamation mark in black, the word is centered on the top of the page. Underneath it, in red “Plays in development that matter” and in black below that “3 plays 3 black LGBT s/heroes All Free!” beneath that information on the space and times are in black and red. At the bottom of the flyer is a jumbled pile of the letters that spell “fire” in various fonts.]
I urge readers in the NYC area to see “Submerged” tonight! It was wonderful and free, with a 6-person case who really energized the room with their talent. What we saw were excerpts of a 3-hour(!) play which focuses on the character Me, a young Black gay man who is an aspiring writer. Surprisingly, the play was complex enough that throughout the reading I found myself both annoyed and pissed at the protagonist and chuckling with him as he bitterly joked through his encounters. Especially his encounters with drunk white frat boys and his double-faced agent. That said, I could have really used a bathroom break and I think perhaps another excerpt between the first and second halves of the play which seemed to somehow jar against each other a bit. Regardless, the play was very impressive and the energy of the audience was invigorating. Tonight there will be a talkback with Kai Wright, author of Drifting Toward Love and interim editor at Colorlines. I’m a little jealous that I’m not seeing this talkback myself.

“Submerged from All Sides...”
by Aurin Squire

138 South Oxf
ord Street, Brooklyn
The space and bathrooms are accessible
I don’t believe the subway stop is

(off of the C or the N,Q,R)

The night before, I randomly found about a reading at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture featuring Dr. LaMonda Horton-Stallings, Kimberly Q, and Dr. Herukhuti. Dr. Horton-Stallings was particularly amazing, and her book “Mutha is half a word” promises to be every bit as articulate and insightful as she is, while still being accessible. The reading was posted at the New York public library’s not-often-updated blog LGBT@NYPL which has great events…when they happen. The reading is part of an effort from the Black Gay and Lesbian Archives to showcase Black LGBT, Same Gender Loving, queer, questioning, and in the life writers’ voices, every three months there will be two back-to-back readings…so check out the blog in October for readings coming up! I hate to use the phrase again, but the energy in a room filled with Black Queers and allies is a force to be reckoned with, it’s overwhelming while incredibly comforting. I’m looking forward to the next in this series.

Finally, in a list of New York-centric things, the New York Disabilities Network’s own Lawrence Carter-Long appeared on WBAI Pacifica Radio (99.5FM) this morning to address the protests against “Tropic Thunder”. Also with Lawrence were Tim Shriver of the Special Olympics and Peter Bern from the ARC as well as representatives of the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State. I haven’t listened yet but I understand you can tune in on their website to listen to the show. People are protesting internationally, and I’ve heard conversations about the protests everywhere from my office to the subway so this is really becoming something big! I'm looking forward to what Lawrence has to say on the subject.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Gender, Sexuality, and the Fluidity of Identity

Anyone who has an opinion about anything has an opinion about labels. Most people vehemently hate them, and will tell anyone who listens all about it. While I share a distrust of labels, I also understand why labels are important. Everyone needs labels, even when we claim that we dislike them. We cling to our own with a ridiculous obsession. I have fought very hard for my label as a transman, and I have struggled a long time to understand my whiteness. These labels mean a lot to me – they let me know where I have come from and where I hope to go. They remind me of privilege and oppression.

Despite my own belief that labels can and do serve a purpose, I do also believe in advocating for the eradication of the ridiculous amount of meaning we apply to them, and the lack of fluidity that exists between them. Considering how many people I have known who have changed from Hispanic to Latina to Chicana or from Catholic to atheist to Quaker, I find the inability of institutions and individuals to keep up with identity changes amusing at best. Most folks don’t easily allow for these changes, especially when it comes to sexuality – which might be why intentionally fluid labels such as queer, genderqueer, and bisexual can be perceived as frightening. Many of my friends have demonstrated to me the importance of a lack of labels, and recently one of my closest friends has illustrated her struggle with labels incredibly clearly. My friend is a cigender woman who has a history of being attracted to and dating cigender men. However, she refuses to allow that history to define her sexuality. Despite the fact that most would label her as straight she has always remained open to the possibility that a man she loves could transition to being a woman, or that she could fall in love with a woman or a transgender or gender variant man. The more we talk on these issues the more she has admitted that these possibilities seem slim to her, yet despite that she doesn’t want to slip into a straight label and suffer from the lack of breathing space.

Her refusal to conform her identity into a straight label shouldn't be taken as an example of a non-queer person attempting to appropriate a culture they don't identify with or refusing to acknowledge the heterosexual privilege she receives. There is always the possibility that anyone who wants to embrace an identity they don’t fully participate in could enjoy all the wonderful aspects of that culture without the difficulties of low self-esteem, discrimination and violence that many folks who are always read as being part of that culture may feel. But my friend manages her identity with a true consciousness, keeping an incredibly diverse circle of friends around her that are constantly reminding her of how her identity is perceived.

This is not to say, then, that she doesn’t face discrimination because of her identity. Her lack of identification frightens and confuses most people, especially potential partners. We have had numerous conversations about whether her continual lack of attraction to women or gender variant folks is a form of internalized homo/transphobia. I don’t think so, as I have faced a similar lack of fluidity in myself. When I first began to acknowledge a lack of female-identity in myself I tried to cultivate a completely fluid gender identity, where I could play up my femininity as much as my masculinity. Whenever I engaged in what is perceived in mainstream US culture as female practice (wearing makeup, skirts, halter or tube tops, dancing according to female codes, using the women’s restroom) I felt nervous and unattractive, I would constantly fidget and avoid eye contact. Playing up my femininity in a female-identified way made me miserable. To this day I still feel some deep shame about the fact that while I can and desire to participate as a feminine man I absolutely can not comfortably go out as a feminine woman. *

I have come to the conclusion that being open to sexual and gender fluidity is amazing, but we shouldn’t be upset when we can’t be completely and 100% fluid in our identity and desires. Neither should we prioritize fluidity above stability (this is particular to a current trend in transgender communities especially). This last sentence is particularly hard for me, as so much of my life has focused around bending and blurring identification lines. I am open to the idea that in my life my gender might change, flow, and become different from what it is today. However, like my friend, I don’t truly see that happening. I do, though, see myself advocating for all types of genders and sexualities and perhaps in that way I am participating in fluidity: by creating so many identities that there can no longer be a prioritization or hierarchy.

While bell hooks wrote this sentence on the prioritization of lesbian sexuality over heterosexual women’s sexuality in certain branches of feminist movement, I believe it is relevant to this discussion too. According to hooks, feminist movement “…should also create a climate in which heterosexual practice is freed from the constraints of heterosexism and can also be affirmed”**. It is possible to have a total identification as male or female, or to have a complete history of straight identity without engaging in heterosexism or transphobia which is, I feel, what my friend is accomplishing through her identity.

*Ironically, as this post was in my editing stage I attended the Femme Conference where Dorothy Allison spoke about her deep shame of never being able to “play boy” in the dyke scene of California, and how her inability to bend her gender was seen as a lack of queerness. In very different spaces and identities we have both struggled with the same lack of fluidity that is currently prized above so many things. It was cathartic to hear her speak.

**hooks, bell. "Ending Female Sexual Oppression". Feminist Theory: from margin to center. South End Press: Cambridge, 2000. p.155

Exciting Updates!

I have three super-exciting updates that are mostly centered around me, but I thought perhaps other people would find them interesting. The least self-centered is that the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a collective legal agency in NYC that focuses on transgender, intersex, and gender non conforming people of color and low income people, is updating their website!! The reason this relates to me is because as a weekly volunteer with SRLP I've been editing and uploading a lot of their content and I've gotten a good preview of the site to come. WOW. It's going to be amazing. All of their resources will be available to download, a huuuuge list of updated community contacts both in the New York area and nationally, and simply a more accessible site are all aspects to look forward to. This new site should be uploaded in the next couple of weeks!!

Going in increasing order of me-centeredness, I was mentioned on the August edition of the BBC Ouch! podcast. I always listen to Ouch! and thoroughly enjoy their sharp and witty attack on disability political-correctedness while being absolutely brilliant. In past podcasts they've discussed the racism and colonialism implicit in discussing national disability news stories, and the hierarchy of oppression present in rating a person's "able-ness". Now, all they really did was read out my name because I filled out a form on how much I loved the show. However they also read part of the form where I mentioned that I am transgender and diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, which technically means that I have a mental disability. As the hosts read out other folks's forms and made their usual biting remarks around them, my form provoked an interesting debate on mental disability which I greatly enjoyed. Later in the show there was a much-needed discussion about whether or not it's OK to ask your Personal Assistant to aid with masturbation, which folks can weigh in on at their message boards. That discussion was unrelated to me, it case you were wondering.

Finally, and most excitingly, I am now on MySpace!!! This is entirley due to my loving and wonderful partner who created my site, uploaded my photos, and generally pushed me towards networking more effectivley. Anyway, the site is gorgeous and I hope you all enoy it!

OK, that's enough about me, I promise that my next update will focus on something much le narcisistic.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Learning from Audre Lorde: ways to address white supremacy

My last post concerning ways of discussing racist or white supremacist actions came full-circle for me recently. I have been reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, a collection of her essays I should have read in college but never finished, and came upon her open letter to Mary Daly. I actually read this about four years ago in This Bridge Called My Back, but I hadn’t understood it through the lenses that I now posses.

An Open Letter to Mary Daly is the perfect model for addressing racism among ones peers. Reading it in line at the grocery store I had a revelation that I should copy the pages and post them all over my workspace so that I am constantly reminded of how to approach colleagues on these issues. Mary Daly is a very prominent feminist of the second-wave set who identified as a Radical Feminist, and brought a significant amount of light to the oppression of women in the US, especially through her writings on pornography, religion, and medicine. However, she also excluded a lot of women from her writings and tended to generalize on the collective experiences of women. Audre Lorde’s essay is in response to the lack of women of color represented in Mary Daly’s prominent book Gyn/Ecology. Lorde also addressed the restrictive view through which the few women of color are seen, in a chapter on genital cutting.

Lorde’s essay (in my mind I call her Audre, but part of me feels unequal to that) is written friend-to-friend, indeed she calls upon Daly’s language, using “hag” ‘Radical/Feminist” and other words more in Daly’s vocabulary to establish a connection. She writes that her open letter is due to the amount of work Daly has done to advance women and she closes her letter saying, “This letter is in repayment”. The entire nature of the correspondence is one of a true sisterhood, where identities are being pushed and questioned out of a profound sense of love and friendship. This letter is a template for the way that one must approach individuals on their racist behavior: drawing upon similarities such as a respect and reverence for women and feminism, while laying out exactly how hurtful and unforgivable such language can be:
"...in order to come together we must recognize each other. Yet I feel that since you have so completely un-recognized me, perhaps I have been in error concerning you and no longer recognize you"
Although many people engaged in work against racism and white supremacy maintain that Lorde’s approach (and by no means is this letter her only approach) is only one piece of the puzzle, I do feel that it is the most successful when you are discussing issues of oppression with a person who you will be continuing contact with over a long period of time. Her method of confrontation, which is strong and fierce while still maintaining a bond of love, strikes me as the most effective method.

Her ending line “this letter is in repayment” touched me deeply. There are so many people who have taught me extensively about specific subjects, and I owe it to them and their legacy of speaking truth to power to speak up when I see them engaged in racist, or any other oppressive, behavior. I shouldn’t underestimate my friends’ individual commitment to eradicating white supremacy and other oppressive modes of thought. When I address them it is only proper to mention how much they have and are contributing to causes concerning feminism, queer rights etc. as it is possible to speak out well on a specific issue without fully understanding all issues (I strongly include myself here). To clarify, it is better for Mary Daly to have written Gyn/Ecology, received Audre Lorde’s letter, and fixed the writing to reflect a new understanding of race then for Mary Daly to have never written Gyn/Ecology. Now, I know that Daly never did publicly respond to Lorde's letter or incorporate Lorde's critique into any of her other work. All the same her book is still important, and this exchange between them is even more important. Whenever I speak out against a person or organization for a lack of inclusion or understanding of oppressions, I want to always make sure I thank them for the work they have done. It’s not OK, and it’s not right for a person discussing transgender folks, for instance, to speak about us as if we’re all white and middle class. But the act of a transgender person speaking about transgender folks still takes a tremendous amount of courage, and that should never go ignored. Borrowing from Lorde, I don’t want to force people (including myself, here) into silence because we don’t know how to address every individual identity and complex relationship. I want, instead, to encourage growth and a more varied understanding by holding people accountable for their actions while remembering all that they have previously contributed.