Monday, March 30, 2009

Accessing NYC

For some reason this weekend seems to be my weekend to notice and be affected by accessibility differences. This started out by encountering a wheelchair-using man calling 311 to complain about an inaccessible building on 14th street. As I walked by I heard him say "I can't even reach the buzzer to let them know they're jack asses". The idea that a place is so inaccessible that one can't even complain that it's inaccessible was a fairly ridiculous concept to me. It makes it impossible for those who are disenfranchised to make their disenfranchisement visible through traditional (ie the system) means.

Yesterday my partner and I went to a gallery showing Philip Lorca-Dicorcia's work. 1,000 Polaroids were organized on shelves hitting about 5 feet off the ground. As we finished touring the photos I turned to look at the gallery to take in all 1,000 at once and notices a person using crutches who had to constantly stop and reposition herself in front of each Polaroid in order to see it. I'm not sure what else the gallery could have done - perhaps arrange them on some kind of swiveling shelf? The five-foot marker wasn't accessible to most viewers - my partner and I both left the gallery rubbing our necks from hunching over the photos for such a long period. I'm not decrying the gallery as inaccessible, nor am I trying to speak for the woman I saw - after all I didn't even bother to ask if she was comfortable or not viewing the photos on her crutches. But I imagine stopping 1,000 times in order to see a gallery exhibit and I wonder if there was a way that could be avoided - a way to become more aware.

Leaving the gallery I noticed an ad for a TV show on the History Channel called Ax Men. The ad prominently featured the prosthetic arm of a logger working alongside the arms of other unseen men, all with their biological arms. Immediately images of danger, hardship, masculinity came into play in my mind. The ad was culturally coded disability, subtly giving blue-collar workers with disabilities an exceptional identity (to borrow from Ruth Garland-Thomas).

The entire weekend experience was capped off by a final event. As I transferred this morning at Suthphin Boulevard to the LIRR I noticed two people with disabilities crossing a busy and inaccessible street in Queens. The two people, a female little person and a wheelchair using man, gave each other a brief little head-bob and wave as they crossed paths. My morning commute was filled with thoughts on this. They may have known each other from any various disability movement or social group (should they be a part of one, not all folks with disabilities are!), or they might be friends or co-workers...maybe even ex-lovers. But what I thought was the most exciting possibility was that they could be two people who have never met before but they saw each other and acknowledged each others existence. They took time out of whatever else was on their mind or in their schedules to simply say "I see you". I see you in a way that the majority of people refuse to see you - as a vital, important, and meaningful contributor to the city. Given the three other examples of disability awareness I saw this weekend I am prone to supporting this conclusion. It gives me hope.

Another thing that gives me hope is the disTHIS! film series. And tonight they will be screening Naked on the Inside an amazing movie about people's relationships to their bodies. The film will start at 7pm but doors open at 6:30 suggested donation of $5.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gather: lesbian community under one roof

This Sunday I had a surprise treat when I was asked to sit in on a panel about The L Word. The panel is part of an event called "Gather" which happens every few months. I specifically talked about gender identity - and the event was awesome! Below is the amazing poster for the event - look for more posts about Gather in the future and check out the founder's blog, also named Gather.

All in all, I think a major conclusion about The L Word was that it brought queer folks together physically (in bars, one person's home, viewing parties) in a new way, and it meant we never had awkward pauses when meeting new people. Asking about The L Word was an easy way to begin any conversation!

Monday, March 23, 2009

LSATs and Class

I recently took a free Kaplan LSAT test where I was promised that my score could improve tremendously if I took their course that costs between $1299 and $1499. Now I was already indulging in a free service and I am thankful for the opportunity to test my skills, but the means to acheive a "competitive score" infuriates me. A 166-180 is considered competitive and the LSAT is not a test one can study for in the traditional sense. If a student has the time to spend taking classes and to pay $1299 or more they are guaranteed to improve. If a student is working full time, low income, supporting family, etc they have to find other ways to improve - like studying an outdated library book between jobs or when the baby is asleep. To summarize: having expendable money and time guarantees success. This means that law school applicants at top colleges will continue to be privileged at least in terms of class. All of us know that class is directly tied to multiple other gender identities so that a very particular type of lawyer is consistently produced.

Moreover, the cost of law school is such that students invested in working for public interest, governmental, or non-profit ventures won't be able to do so and live a comfortable life-style (more abut my idea of comfort here).* After ranking up debt in the 100s of thousands it's hard to remind yourself that a job that pays $40,000 defending immigrant rights is the moral choice over the $160,000 a year job defending folks like Bernie Madoff.

Therefore, it is very difficult to produce lawyers who are going to relate any kind of class background difference or any kind of specific interest in legal work as it pertains to social justice and not money-profiteering. As I write this, though, I have to acknowledge that both of my brothers are lawyers - and while we were not always low income, we did emerge from a low income family. So of course working class people become lawyers everyday. It happens - but it's not an equal process, and for every lawyer interested in defending those on Death Row there are 100 interested in increasing the profits of the Prison Industrial Complex.

This isn't an issue specific to lawyers. Doctors, environmental advocates, non-profit executives...many jobs are held by those who had the time and monetary means to achieve their positions and due to debt and the process of normalized ethics that occurs in any academic institution, they often lose any radical vision. That said, the lawyer-specific point is particularly irksome to me not only because I have decided to go into the law but because I decided to go into the law for the ability to assist those historically under served (screwed over) in the justice process. I want to focus on gender identity law and work for an organization such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project which puts people of color and low-income people first. It irritates me that the law - something I find potentially radical and exciting - could be used as the means to become greedy and rich. We all know this - the majority of us grew up with lawyer jokes - but for me this becomes a very personal message.

Through my work in various non-profits I've decided that the lack of understanding of the law and a fear of such legal processes is what directly influences many people to not act out for their liberation. Which is why I find the law exciting. We can use it to create radical social change when we become lawyers and educators, and our own advocates. But tests and expenses like those above deliberately reduce the possibility that advocates for radical social change access these services. Which is why I study every day on my subway and train ride - I want to make sure that there will be at least one law student who wants to see justice for all people. So despite my inability to pay $1499 and to spend my weekends in a classroom near the NYU campus, I am still determined to do well and attend in order to create radical social change.

*In addition to what I previously wrote about "comfort" being considered bourgeois...I volunteered with a woman recently who is self-employed in NYC doing odd jobs and she was talking about how so many people "say no to money" but she wants "to say yes to money" - which the majority of people who have lived in working class conditions not by choice would agree with. The majority of us who have experienced hardships are aware of how difficult it can be to climb out of a non-chosen poverty.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Angie Zapata: ensuring forms of justice!

This email comes from the amazing staff of the Colorado Anti-Violence Project. I'm reproducing parts of it here so that folks can help ensure that an accurate and loving memory of Angie Zapata is preserved. Justice is clearly a tricky issue (how often do prison sentences actually correspond to a recreation of a less-violent more understanding self?) but Angie's memory and her family's right to respectful media coverage and supportive community can not be overlooked. Moreover, while I do have concerns for whether Andrade will ever understand his crime - I am more concerned about whether communities in Colorado and around the world will understand that our lives are beautiful and have value, and that our communities are powerful.

I worked with the staff of CAVP directly after Angie's horrific murder, and I'd like to talk more about that experience when I'm able. For now, however, here are tips on how to let the Zapata family know that Angie is in all of our hearts. What I love about these is that they work at every level. No matter where you are in the world, what your financial situation is, you can find an action that will help preserve her memory and is do-able in your current situation. Really, there are no excuses:
  • Respond to Media Coverage of the Trial
    • Join the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's (GLAAD)
      Rapid Response Team. A Media Essentials training will be scheduled soon for the last full week of March. GLAAD's regional representative will send out more information soon. Contact CAVP if you'd like to be notified. E-mail CAVP
    • Write letters to editor of local and national papers during trial coverage.
  • Offer carpool rides from Denver to Greeley Courthouse during the trial
    • The eight day trial of Andrade will begin on April 14, 2009 and takes place in Courtroom 11 of the Weld County Courts at 901 9th Ave in Greeley. We would like to provide as much community support to Angie Zapata's family and friends as possible by packing the courthouse during those days.
    • If you are need a ride or would like to offer a ride to Greeley from the Denver-Metro area, please contact Kate Bowman at 303-202-6466 (work), 303-798-0790 (cell) or by e-mail.
  • Donate and/or prepare healthy snacks, food and drinks for community members attending the trial
    • Contact Andy Stoll at the Lambda Community Center 970-221-3247 or by e-mail if you would like to make a donation.
  • Join the Colorado Anti-Violence Program for evenings of discussion, meditation and dinner
    • In an effort to support our community members in maintaining a positive and healthy emotional and mental space around the trial, CAVP will be hosting two evenings of discussion, meditation and dinner. Discussion will be facilitated by CAVP staff and meditation by Marti Engelmann.
    • March 18th from 6-8:30 pm
      April 7th from 6-8:30 pm
      • Dinner provided March 18th.
      • April 7th, please bring a potluck dish if you plan to attend
    • For more info or to RSVP contact Crystal Middlestadt at 303-839-5204 or by e-mail.
    • We encourage you to participate if you are even slightly considering attending any trial dates, you would like to find other ways to support people going to the trial or you have an interest in participating in creating this type of space regardless of your involvement with this case.

      Make a Financial Contribution

      Mail a check to:
      Colorado Anti-Violence Program
      P.O. Box 181085
      Denver, CO 80218

      Give online through the Colorado Non-Profit Development Center
      Donate now!
      Please be sure to designate the donation to "CAVP".

      • $25 provides one hour of court accompaniment for a survivor of domestic violence.
      • $100 provides one night of safe shelter and food for a victim of partner abuse.
      • $250 provides for a daylong training on hate crimes against the LGBT community for service providers.
      • $500 provides training for 150 students and faculty to makes schools safer for youth of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
      • $1000 keeps the statewide crisis hotline available to victims of hate violence, sexual assault, random violence and partner abuse for 3 months.

      2009 Volunteer Training Schedule

      Currently, CAVP is looking for new volunteers to become a valuable part of the organization. There are many ways you can get involved, including completing administrative tasks, community outreach, building referral databases, and staffing the 24-hour crisis hotline.

      General Orientation
      The general orientation will provide you with all of the tools you'll need to be an amazing volunteer with CAVP. This is also a great way to see if the CAVP crisis hotline is right for you.

      The next general orientations will take place in July & October.
      July training:
      Two weeknights, July 13 and 15 from 6-9pm. You must attend both of these dates.
      October training:
      One full-day training, October 3 from 8:30am-5pm.

      Crisis Hotline Training
      Because the crisis hotline training is about 30 hours long, you will be making a considerable time-commitment to both the training and to the hotline itself. Hotline shifts are a half week long, and you will carry a pager for 24-hours a day. When people call the hotline, they will leave a message and the pager will then go off. You must have access to returning that phone call within 20 minutes of the call. If you have any questions about how the hotline can fit into your schedule, please let us know.

      The next crisis hotline training will take place in October. For additional information about the Colorado Anti-Violence Program or to sign up for the volunteer training, please contact Kelly Costello bye-mail or 303-839-5204. Feel free to pass on this message on to anyone you think might be interested in volunteering.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Refried Musings on safer spaces

In between recent bouts of studying for the LSATs I have been reading Trans/Forming Feminisms edited by Kristen Scott-Dixon. The essays within are exactly the kind of stimulating debates that I feel are left out of my new preocuppying battles against assimilation and normalization in LGBT progressive movements. The essays don't agree with each other, in fact they are often contradictory - but they disagree in a respectful way. The section that affected my advocacy ideas the most was a selection of essays from scholars, lawyers, and advocates around transgender issues at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF) and the case of Kimberly Nixon vs. Rape Relief.

The debates over MWMF are debates I am interested in and concerned about - however I have heard so many different arguments from so many different people that I have yet to form a consistent and definitive opinion on any specific course of action. I'm not entirely worried however, as I am confidant that my opinion as a man - albeit a genderqueer transsexual man - is not the voice missing from these debates. The essays, however, have re-sparked my interest, mostly because one essay in particular reminded me of the tribulations that faced the Queer Union at Macalester.

My senior year a proposal was made to allow the Info Shop - a project of the student group Macalester Peace & Justice Coalition (MPJC) - to reside inside the on-campus room assigned to the student group Queer Union. Three student groups on campus had been given access to private rooms: Feminists In Action (FIA) and Students Together Against Rape And Sexual Assault (STARSA) got together to create the Womens' and Gender Resource Center across the hall from the Queer Union Lounge, which was managed by Queer Union. Notably, no other groups had private or safe spaces to meet although semi-public spaces such as the Multicultural Resource Center and the Cultural House were available for the majority of groups.

The debate centered around the issue that queer students at Macalester had petitioned for usage of the space and received it based on the merit of their need for safer and confidential access to information that was not widely available in other Macalester locations. While it may seem that an organization dedicated to peace and justice would be dedicated to queer liberation enough of us had faced transphobia, homophobia, and heteronormativity in peace-based organizations to know that the two tracks didn't necessarily correlate. Moreover Queen Union was dedicated to consciousness-raising and members were concerned that MPJC might not be truly dedicated to eradicating heteronormativity and gender binaries. After all, no MPJC members regularly attended QU meetings except self-identified queer members - there was no MPJC ally visibility.

While QU members were not opposed to the idea, there were some reservations that MPJC's presence might make the Queer Union Lounge no longer safe. To counter this, however, it was raised that safe is a relevant term and that no member of QU felt safe at every moment of every meeting. After all, the QU/MPJC members were on a more revolutionary model of progressive liberation and their views were often held as contemptible by the LGBT Democrats present, and the few Republican members. Students of color often encountered racial profiling about their sexuality, open minded attitude, or even the legitimacy of maintaining multiple identities. The voices of women and gender variant people were often silenced or unheard from. These same members pointed out that we needed to differentiate between what is a challenging feeling, and what is an unsafe feeling (I feel this is analogous to a person who exercises distinguishing between the discomfort of stretching new muscles and the pain of hurting a muscle).

QU members supportive of the proposal also brought up that MPJC members were often of more diverse socio-economic backgrounds than QU members and the group was often strongly persecuted. The President of the college and multiple Professors wrote statements against their actions, and during the year in question their budget was sliced in half. In particular funding for the alternative zine The Hegemon was lost completely as was any additional funding for the Info Shop after student government decried the buying of a book about dildos.

In the end, Queer Union gave the Info Shop permission to share the space and gave MPJC permission to hold meetings. However, Queer Union also decided that no MPJC activities could take place during QU time periods – i.e. MPJC members couldn’t access the Info Shop during a QU meeting of any type, unless they were present for the QU meeting. The secondary decision came from a clear desire to mark the space as predominantly queer, although that ultimately failed as MPJC members used, decorated, and partied in the space much more than any QU members.

This walk down memory lane isn’t just for fun, as I read from so many authors about the idea of “safe space” in the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival I became very aware that the greatest debate about safe space that I publicly participated in was one where the more obvious issue of safety (that of queer students) wasn’t necessarily the population that needed to be in a safer space. With a college administration that was terrified of the radical acts of MPJC the MPJC students, of all sexualities, were more persecuted than queer students even though queer students were not respected either. This flip-flopping of ideas about oppression took a long time to make sense for the majority of QU members, as did the idea that just being queer didn’t mean we had each other’s backs. The amount of fighting, flippantly thought of as “drama” was assumed to be normative and it wasn’t until the MPJC/QU student pointed out how un-safe the space was that many of us were aware that the “drama” wasn’t a precondition – that we had the power to address it and treat the issues as serious.

I have never been to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival – nor do I want to ever go. I have no interest in an event that practices such blatant discrimination. But my partner tells me that when she went many years ago she noticed it was a highly divided space and she spent the majority of her time in the Womyn of Color tent. Likewise, there is an S&M area and other identity-divided spaces. Which makes one ask how much of a community is really present? Like Queer Union, if MWMF is already divided by identity than how safe is the space? And how much is it about “women” anyway? Or is it more about hanging out with a very specific group of people within a narrowly defined definition of women? How do you build community in that way?