Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Blogs To Watch Out For

One of my favorite bloggers, Ms. Crip Chick, has just updated her blog, Cripchick's Weblog, to a new page which looks stunning. You should check out her new look!

Also, I added the blog Media Dis&Dat to my sidebar, but wanted to point out the post “Thanks for the word change at Logo online”. Ba was contacted by Logo after a critique of the language used to describe the character Chuck on Logo’s Rick & Steve. This is excellent grassroots activism because words do make a difference and so do bloggers!

I'm trying to figure out my sidebars...there are so many fantastic blogs out there but I don’t want to overwhelm people with too many options. Nor do I want to categorize blogs as “LGBT” “disability” etc. as so many of these blogs are wonderful because they recognize that these identities and issues and interwoven. You might see some changes, then, as I try to reconfigure.

Translating Terminology: Int'l Women's Day

International Women’s Day was almost a month ago, and I managed to let it slip by without an entry! Many of the blogs I read picked up on it, however, so even though I am out of the college activist celebrations I still had some interesting things to read about.

This article is going to substitute, however, for my lack of discussion and is motivated both by my work and by a book I just finished reading called Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. The book fluctuates between some amazing and still relevant essays on queer identity and language and articles that are clearly along the lines of sexuality 101 for linguists back in the early 90s. My favorite so far has been “Lexical Variation in the Deaf Community Relating to Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Signs” by Mala S. Kleinfeld and Noni Warner because it has spurred me to think about the art of translating.

I didn’t hear the term “gloss” until I took courses in ASL where we often read ASL gloss sentences and had to sign them. Gloss is the term for writing one language with another, when you aren’t translating but instead are writing down sign for sign or word for word. In ASL the benefit of writing in gloss is that some of the true intentions of the signer are more visible. For example, if they choose to describe a man using effeminate versus homosexual versus fag all of which could be translated into the English “gay” when really the signer was implying something more. When faced with the reality that one could sign multiple signs for one single English word I began to think about other issues of translating, especially a discussion I had in a class with the amazing Scott Morgensen.

Our class had just watched the film Woubi Cheri set in Abidjan. The film is narrated in French and subtitled in English. Many of the terms used are not directly translated but are translated as near to the actual meaning of the word as possible (for instance woubi is not the synonym for gay). Our class was focusing on intersex and transgender identities and many people in the class, myself included, wanted to have an exact translation of woubi. Are woubis effeminate men or are they cross-dressing men? Are they transgender women? Eventually our inability to discuss more important aspects of the film because of our fixation on definitions caused Scott to give us a lecture on terminology politics.

What he said, which is echoed by many grass-roots organizers internationally, is that translating identities into English, or any “universal” language, denies them their culture, history, and individuality. We were still thinking from a place of medical truth – that there are men and women, transgender people and intersex people and every person in the world can fall into those categories. Scott reminded us that every country, culture, and geographic region has a different history in relation to bodies and that therefore terms such as transwomen simply don’t always translate cross-culturally. When international LGBT organizers scoff at people abroad who say “there are no transgender/gay/bisexual/lesbian people here” the international organizers are ignoring that in many places there literally aren’t LGBT folks. There may be hijras, or same-sex loving couples, or okana and onabe but those terms imply something of cultural meaning that “gay” simply doesn’t cover. The term “gay” is Western, and so long as Western is synonymous with capitalism, cultural appropriation, and violent governmental overthrows people will resist any terminology we try to use as an umbrella term.

This relates to International Women’s Day because of the number of women who make up transgender communities but it also relates to the way organizers have to walk a line between uniting international movements and denying difference. Being aware and helpful in other people’s movements is important. We shouldn’t pretend that transgender organizers don’t exist in Tokyo, the ASL-using communities, or Abidjan but we should make sure that issues of privilege don’t overwhelm collaboration.

I was going to use this discussion of translating terminology to jump into issues of femme identity, but I worry that this is now too long so I’ll save that for another day. All of my colleagues seem to be chatting away about what “femme” means so I’m excited to join the discussion soon. In the meantime, my friend and co-worker contributes to The Femme Show, which people should check out!

Friday, March 14, 2008

White People & Racism: Speak Up!

On Wednesday my partner and I both experienced incredibly stressful days. I spent mine trying to educate people who should know better about transgender inclusion. She spent the day hearing racist remarks.

Now, it is my job to educate people and frankly there are very few cigender people whom I would feel at ease with were they to be in my shoes. So while I may moan about the ignorance of my community, I am happy that I have the opportunity to speak. However, it is not my partner’s job to educate people about race. As a Black woman the constant education of white folks does not fall onto her shoulders, even though it appears that most white folks believe it should.

I feel some need to protect this student’s anonymity and there is no need to repeat ignorance or “scientific” racism so I will not tell the story in full. So that this post makes sense, however, I will say that my partner was sitting in a class where she is one of only a few students of color watching a film about a photographer famous for his blatantly fetishistic photos of Black women. A white student made a side-comment on the realism of the photographs that went unchallenged.

When my partner told me her story I was mortified. I was not appalled at the white student who blatantly said racist things about Black women and body type but at the countless other white students sitting nearby who did not call the student out. These comments have been made before and will continue to be made so this student’s individual belief in racist stereotypes rooted in the science of eugenics isn’t shocking. What is shocking is that other white people let the comment slide by. Perhaps because my partner was sitting so near them these students assumed she was going to speak up. Or perhaps because the comment was made while watching a film they thought it rude to interrupt the film to discuss the comment.

White people – we have to be responsible for each other. Institutionally, no one is teaching us how to be antiracist and no one is telling us how to tackle our own white privilege. This knowledge has to be passed on from person to person; we have to educate ourselves if schools refuse to do so. When you see something or hear something you have to say something. This is our duty as white people – to educate and challenge ourselves and to then challenge and educate other white folks.

I have been guilty of not speaking up. I have been guilty of perpetuating stereotypes and not noticing when a publication, class, party, or whatever was rooted in white privilege and benefited from racism. So when I call on white people to speak up I am also calling on white people to challenge me. In previous posts I have said that the most important thing when challenging racism is communication, and I still believe that. When I was first realizing my white privilege I often felt silenced by reprimands on my racism. I became mortified of my statements and afraid that no one would ever take my comments on any other subject seriously. While doubtless some people took longer to like me because of past comments my commitment to anti-racism work allowed them to trust in me and continue to support me. Further, while I sometimes wish comments could have been delivered with less force, I am sure that students of color in the class (and white students) were grateful to have me be quiet so that they could participate in school without hearing racist comments and questions all the time. So I am grateful to the people who spoke up and challenged me, as they were the people who caused me to commit to exploring my whiteness and challenging my privilege.

It is tiring challenging racism. It is tiring trying to fit one’s mind around the myriad ways we have been privileged and it can seem hopeless because so few people have gone the route of white anti-racism before. Challenging good friends can be incredibly difficult, challenging bosses or professors can bring consequences, and being challenged can bring about extreme feelings of shame, defensiveness, and guilt.

None of that truly matters as long as we speak from the heart and we speak respectfully. If our goal is to eliminate and illuminate racism and white privilege (and not to show off before people of color) then all of this is worth it.

Letting Go

A few weeks ago the Lesbian Sex Mafia of NYC repealed their bio-penis standards to allow people with biological penises to attend play parties with their penises uncovered. The debate and the subsequent decision have rattling about in my head for a while, and this article just gave me the extra “umph”: Curve Magazine Interview with Julia Serano and Helen Boyd.

This is an amazing, and incredibly important change. The history of transgender women being discriminated against and excluded in queer and/or LGB spaces is ridiculous and has been occurring for far too long. When I first heard that the LSM was putting their bylaws to a vote I became incredibly interested in the debate process of why and how that discussion came to fruition. In reading blogs and on-line writings about the bylaws one of the most striking arguments was comparing the forced coverage of bio-penises to the celebration of dildos and other penetrative devices as well as the terms penetrating partners can use for whatever it is they’re penetrating with (for example, a dildo can be called “my cock” or a transman may wish to refer to his genitalia as his penis). Authors of the argument argued that if members were to instill so much meaning into the penis then meaning should be instilled into the penises of transman, butch women, or anyone else who claims one. Denying that identity effectively denies transman to be men while it reinforces the idea that transwomen who have penises are not, in fact, women. As the authors surmise, that logic is demeaning, steeped in patriarchal privilege and goes against any progressive politics. I am glad that transwomen are able to come and be fully at ease in these surroundings.

I have never attended a LSM party but from their description it seems to be a woman-centric space, an area that celebrates female experiences and sexuality. LSM is inclusive of “transsexual and intersexed women who live their daily lives as women, and all female-born transgender people who have a connection to and respect for the women’s community” and this post in no way is to refute their inclusivness, which I applaud and admire. However, as a transgender man I would never attend such a gathering.

I used to attend women-centric spaces but never felt quite at ease with them. For a long time my unease puzzled me as I have always been a supporter of separate spaces. Not permanently separate, but occasionally secluded areas where women, women of color, queers of color, men of color (etc.) can heal and discuss without the privileged presence of white folks, men, etc. Clearly in any separate group there will still be issues of power but the ease that comes from being with folks that share some form of your history and identity is incredibly healing. Eventually, when I came out as genderqueer, I stopped attending women-only spaces as my genderqueer identity was so masculine I felt unwelcome and even more uneasy about my own presence. By the time I fully came out as male I was no longer upset at the women who had made it clear I was unwelcome as I was finally happy to know what had been eating away at me for so long.

With that story as my background, the transmen and the gender non-conforming masculine people who attend female-only spaces puzzle me. If one is incredibly gender non-conforming and can mediate male privilege with the experience of female identity and feelings of in-betweenness or third-gender identity than I have no issue with such a person attending a women-only space. Indeed women who have not examined their own identities often create discomfort at such events: white women who do not give speaking space to women of color, women from academic backgrounds who assume their words have more weight than women who have not attended college, many women even practice and contain misogyny within themselves. However all women, even women who perpetuate patriarchy, experience sexism and that universal is a uniting factor that male-identified people can only speak about in the past tense if at all. I know that I am in no position to determine who should and should not attend, but it seems to me that one of the many purposes of a female-only space is to feel free from patriarchal pressures and male energy. It is disrespectful of transmen to engage in women’s-only spaces while our transsisters are not let inside. Even though I am still not always correctly gendered, so long as I do not open my mouth I experience male privilege. Even though I was raised as a woman and still maintain many attributes of being female my identity as a man and my experiences with masculinity would change the vibe of any space I enter. I came into my transgender identity through queer female-affirming spaces. That connection to women is therefore still incredibly strong in me and I value queer women immensely. I understand that many transgender men have a connection to women’s spaces because our identities emerged out of the safety and acceptance of these communities, but once we decide to transition it is disrespectful of us to continue to enter these spaces.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Gentle Readers of NYC

This is a very brief post in terms of content because I have many things to do but I’d like to give a shout-out to two blogs and advertise two fabulous events.

First off, my amazing partner’s blog has had a complete overhaul and now is looking more gorgeous than ever. So if you want to read brilliant entries on sexuality, race, art, and the pursuit of beauty as well as looking at her inspiring photographs you should check out her webpage: Amanda Morgan.

Secondly, I recently got a beautiful shout out at my friend Rachel’s blog, so I am now giving her a shout-out here. Rachel and I go waaaay back to the horrifying years of middle-school, and I'm happy to say she's now living close to me. Her blog is Atoms Arranged Meaningwise, which discusses philosophy and feminism among other cultural phenomenons. I don’t always understand some of the posts as it centers on feminist philosophy which is an area of feminism I know nothing about, but I like how her posts remind me of the importance of feminism. I often forget, being surrounded by feminist activists, that feminism still isn’t a given. People still operate from a misogynistic and patriarchal grounding, and her fight against that - especially within academic surroundings! - inspire me. So you should check out her blog which is both academic and very pop-culture-now.

Now, if you are in NYC you should check out the following two events. The first is a play that I saw last Thursday, XY(T). There are two more shows, Saturday the 8th at 7pm and Sunday the 9th at 2:30pm. It's $10 and located at Under St. Mark's which is horrible horrible horribly inaccessible - not only for people with physical disabilities but is also a little difficult to maneuver if you're on the larger size. But the play is worth going to see!

(Image Description: a black and white photo of two white hands. The right hand holds a small bottle of testosterone and the left hand is inserting a syringe into the top of the testosterone bottle)

Kestryl Lowrey, the performer, explores transitioning in all its aspects - physical, mental, emotional, and social. This show would be especially fantastic if you’re someone beginning to transition or thinking of transitioning as it touches on so many of the fears people may have at the beginning of discovering their gender identity. Also, friends and family of someone who has begun to transition might find this play comforting and still challenging.

Finally, in April my partner and some other fierce and fabulous women will be performing at Zami Like Me: Queer Womyn of Color CipHER. The creator, Cleopatra N. LaMothe, is having an open call for submissions to the event. Poetry and prose, art submissions and performance pieces are all welcome. You should e-mail zamilikeme@gmail.com for submission guidelines and other information. As the event approaches I'll post this again so that people can attend.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Disability & Sexuality

“Very often subtle desexualization of people who are disabled or seriously ill occurs. Who wants to be confronted with the possibility of pain and the reminders of mortality when engaged in talk or activity having to do with sex, the ultimate pleasure? And lack of appeal becomes lack of entitlement eventually in many people’s minds. I remember this happening quite early after becoming diabetic.” – Finding the Real Me

Recently, themes of disability and sexuality have been creeping into my life. For starters, I received Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory and the GLQ Journal Desiring Disability in the mail. Both of these texts were key in my undergraduate capstone, but they were checked out from the library. The only material objects I have capitalist desires to own are books and shiny clothing items, so I’m excited to finally own these critical works.

On a much more accessible level, my partner’s recent fascination with the TV Show Nip/Tuck has finally yielded something fascinating for me – a love story between the “sexy” white, male, able-bodied, sex-addict plastic surgeon and a “formerly beautiful” Southern white female who lost her lower legs to Diabetes. Well, I say “love story” but it really involves them reminiscing over a one-night fling they had 20 years ago, getting drunk, and then a very brief sex scene with the male doctor on top. In the morning, she asks him to make her face look like how she felt the previous night. I’m left wondering what exactly that means, but pleased that she specifically said her face, and that throughout the episode she showed no shame for being in a wheelchair, or indeed for being a sexual woman with disabilities.

My partner downloaded the episode so that I could re-watch the scenes concerning their relationship, and I have to say that I am smitten with this, my first time to see people with disabilities portrayed as sexual. There has been a rise of Deaf actors appearing on TV recently (Weeds, The L Word) where white women portray sexy, independent minded and brilliant Deaf academics/artists. I read on the comments of another person’s blog (sadly lost now) that the scene was gratuitous, sensational, and clearly seeking only male pleasure. Now I agree that people with vaginas aren’t only sexually pleased through penetrative sex, however there is nothing wrong with desiring or receiving pleasure from penetrative sex. As for the shot showing her legs…well how else would they film it? She has upper legs and in order to do the traditional sex-scene pan-up of her body it would have looked ridiculous if she was under the covers or otherwise hiding. Why should she cover her legs anyway? I thought it was sexy, and my only disappointment was on finding out that the actress is not physically disabled herself.

In a bizarre similarity, the last episode from The L Word has a sex scene that is also long overdue in its acceptance of transgender bodies as desirable and sexual. Max finally (finally! finally!) had sex as a man. True, he and Alan Cumming had a few hot scenes, but nothing like this. After a disappointing beginning to the fifth season where Max would appear for a grand total of five seconds in order to act as transphobic Alice’s technology pro he has finally had (incredibly hot) sex with artist and ASL interpreter, Tom. Perhaps The L Word has acknowledged that transgender people are part of the LGB community…and that sometimes that means the LGBT community is squiggly around the edges when it comes to identity politics. The rest of the plot of The L Word is about as interesting as a root canal, but I was surprised, and a bit turned on, to see Tom and Max passionately kiss each other and then to watch in amazement as Tom and Max had penetrative sex (with a lovely placement of a condom). As my partner and I watched I turned to her and said, “Look! This is like when we have sex!” For the very first time since I can remember I saw as close a representation of our sexuality and gender identities as I can recall. This episode acted to me as a much over-due apology letter to transgender folks who have been bashed left and right by The L Word. I don’t mind having Alice or Bette, or anyone else, say transphobic things provided Max or Grace, or someone else, is able to counter them. If there’s a dialogue on transgender identity then I am excited to participate but for far too long this show was one sided.

Now, do I really think they’re going to change? No. It’s TV. Earlier in the exact same episode Alice “apologized” to Max and other transgender people for excluding them from her website, however as the scene was being videotaped by Shane the camera continued to bounce all over the screen completely obliterating the incredibly important conversation they were having. Luckily, one still moment occurred when Alice mentioned the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a group that has recently been at the forefront of battling for the rights of transgender women and men. I hope that the cigender lesbians and bisexuals who may have had some transphobia will hear that a lesbian rights group fights for transgender people and therefore rethink some of their fear.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Feminism is Funny

In my previous life, back in Minnesota when I was a server, I experienced some very sexist behavior while I was at work.

Often, this came from the customers. Because I only bound and lowered my voice half the time I often encountered patronization, physical intimidation, and sex-specific sarcasm when i was presenting as female. At times, jokes and comments from my co-workers bordered on sexism as well but because we were all underpaid and exhausted I never cared too much. Days before my final shift at work, however, I heard of a sexist statement that my manager had made. Now, the owner of the restaurant comes in often but the manager is really the main dude at this place. So when i heard through a female and a male co-worker about a sexist joke the manager had made I was very angry. If I hadn't been leaving soon I probably wouldn't have reported the joke to my owner, but the thought that no one could hurt me because I was already gone gave me the guts to report the joke.

Now, here's the joke: "I might as well throw all these applications away, they're all from women. I'm not going to hire any more women, they're too flighty."

So...the joke is not really scandalous. It's not huge. But it is hurtful. It's hurtful to say it to a male employee in jest, and then to think it's so funny that you repeat it to a female employee. It's hurtful to repeat stereotypes that your employees struggle against everyday. It's hurtful to think that because you're a gay man you can get away with misogyny because you too experience oppression.

When I told the owner he became very angry when he thought the comment was serious even though I specified that the comment was in jest. Once the owner found out through our manager that the comment was a joke, he lost his concern. It was a joke, lighten up. Don't burn your bra.

I seriously believe the only reason they took me seriously is because I was a vocal lesbian female employee (in their eyes) and they didn't want me spreading this news. The reason i want to post about this (almost three months after the incident) is because of the way it was handled and the level of fear I felt while I was trying to get an improvement of behavior out of my manager. My manager apologized that "I took the comment that way" and he said "I love women!" Which, as my female co-worker and I said to each other "what the hell does that mean? That doesn't mean anything." What's more, I took a sexist comment as being sexist? Of course I did, it was sexist - there was no other way to take the comment.

The reason i felt so afraid is because the idea of feminists having no sense of humor is a stereotype we fight against everyday. Now, if the joke had been funny I might have said nothing. But it wasn't clever, the reason he attacked women was to say something "shocking" but repeating myths about women isn't shocking, we hear shit like this all the time. Moreover, at a small place like that people who got on the wrong side of management often found their schedules being changed so that they received poor shift assignments, so that they worked all weekend or only evenings. People had hours cut from their paycheck all the time because management hoped that no one would notice. When female supervisors said we would bring in the outside tables early for closing because we didn't want to be outside alone late at night the management told us our fears were unfounded. When female supervisors complained that we always worked the low-tip evenings while the men worked the high-tip weekends and mornings, we were told it was a compliment to our work ethic. So there was years of sexism (as well as classism and racism) present at this restaurant. Encountering it is terrifying. As a supervisor I knew it was my job to report the sexist remarks, but I still wish someone else had done so.

From then on whenever I, or any other co-worker messed up at work, out of the range of our manager or owner, someone would say "it's because you're so flighty" or "at least you're not a flighty female". Those jokes were funny because it was the underpaid workers of the restaurant using harassment to create a better environment.

The most fucked up part is that everyone apologized to me. Not to my female co-worker or even my male co-worker who had the comments made directly to them. But to me, the supervisor who received the complaint. Clearly my male co-worker didn't feel the hurt of the remark as much as my female co-worker did, but sexism does hurt everyone. He should have received an apology as well, but I bet he and she are still waiting because I know that my former manager still doesn't get why that joke was inappropriate.