Category Archives: Uncategorized

how we build our own traditions

Good morning good morning. It’s later than I wanted it to be, but also, I suppose, exactly the right time. The candles are lit, and I’ve got coffee that was magically waiting for me when I went downstairs to make it. I’m still not quite accustomed, I guess, to being with someone who rises earlier than I do.

At 6:30 am it’s still dark outside, but the tree is lit up, and the candles help make small pockets of light in this beautifully-fertile dark time. This is the time of year, right around the winter solstice, when I remember — when I work to remind myself — that all I can ever actually see is right where I am, and the very next step in front of me. For all of my planing and visioning and hoping and waiting, all that’s ever certain is exactly what is, and the possibility of the very next moment. I like the early hours because I can let the dark enfold around me while I release these words, no Klieg lights on them, no inspection, no harsh interrogation. They slip from my fingers through the soft caress of the candlelight and into the quiet morning to be exactly what they are.

Something in me is slowing down. This is a time to rest, to pause, and even to honor what got done this year. I come to the end of the year and check my bank book and call myself a failure. While everyone around me is rushing about to buy their beloveds all of the christmas presents, I’m trying to decide whether I should resurrect the girl I was at 28 and start making candles again to give as gifts. Already, the baking I do every winter season is underway — this year I have it on my list to bake 14 different kinds of treats: red velvet pinwheels, pepparkaker, cinnamon nut brittle, Russian tea cakes, extra spicy double-chocolate cookies, raspberry thumbprints, Meyer lemon shortbread, anise-almond biscotti, multicolor spritz, buckeyes, cardamom nut bars, anise pretzels, kifli, and Hungarian cream cheese cookies with apricot lekvar. We’ll see if I get to them all.

Around the baking, the annual holiday grieving is also upon me. This is meant to be a time of family and celebration and tradition and remembrance, but my most vivid christmas memories from childhood tend to be pretty awful, which impacts how I hold this time of year — or rather, how I can allow it to hold me. In my 20s, I began to recognize the winter solstice as my winter holiday of choice, even as I went home (when that was possible). The oldest winter festivals of the people I am from in eastern and northern Europe centered around the solstice — this honoring of the dark, and welcoming, too, the return of the sun. Solstice, for me, was something deeper than christianity, something deeper than commercialism, something that helped me think about how to tend and trust the needed, quiet dark within myself.

This year I grieve, too, that I have reached this earliest middle age and still I have none of my own holiday traditions or legacies. After she and her son went to pick up a tree for her house, my sweetheart and I unpacked her holiday ornaments so that the three of us could decorate the tree. She told the stories of each one — this one her son made, this one she made, this one was from her mother’s tree, these were from the collection of her beloved friend Franco, this one she and her ex bought when their son was… and so on. I stayed knelt down by the box of ornaments, unwrapping and trying to keep myself from crying until after the decorating was done. I wanted to be right here, in this moment, with them, making new memories that would form the basis for something solid in future years, not grieving what was lost. But I slipped into the grief anyway. Where were my stories? For all of my affinity for Solstice, I have celebrated Christmas every year of my life — and yet, I’ve got no collection of ornaments to bring to this tree, none of my own stories to share. Instead, I enfold myself into someone else’s stories, traditions, family customs. Mine stayed tucked away and lost. Through two marriages, I gathered no history in the form of shapes and colors that get hung on an evergreen tree every late December. How could that be?

But the truth is that I left those stories behind when I left the relationships — I couldn’t bring them forward with me, into a new life, into a new relationship — onto a new tree. If any of those ornaments had come with me from my childhood, the story would have been different — those I would have claimed. But I don’t have those. I am fortunate, I guess, that my parents do. When we go to my father’s house for the holiday next week, we will see the brass angels that my father’s mother had made when my sister and I were born, engraved with our names and the dates of our birth, and we’ll remember. We’ll remember something before. We’ll remember decorating his tree, which only happened before my mother married the man who would sweep us up into his cape and disappear us from the world for awhile. We’ll remember those oldest Christmases that were still fraught but tender and sweet all at the same time.

Slowly, year by year, my sweetheart and I are building our own collection of holiday stories in the form of ornaments, memories we can hang on the tree, those images that act as placeholders for a history we choose to claim publicly and visibly. Building connection and relationship and history can only work like that, can’t it — year by year, minute by minute, standing in the circle of light, looking out at exactly what is, seeing where our feet and hands can go next.

This morning, as I looked over the stacks of tins that hold all the cookies I’ve made so far, something else occurred to me — in this annual cookie-a-thon, I’ve developed my own holiday tradition, something I can carry with me anywhere, and that connects me to the women in my family who shared love through food (butter and sugar, especially). I make my mother’s anise and almond biscotti, my grandma Cross’ peanut brittle, my grandma Sherman’s Russian tea cakes (I can’t actually say whether she made these, but I have strong body memory of eating them at her house, so the association lives in me anyway). I think about the hands of these women in my own hands, I remember their power and grace that existed even when they failed, and I think about how they kept going. For all of her loss and all that I wish she had done differently in her life (and in my own and my sister’s), my mother never gave up, and I am grateful for that.

So today I will listen to more christmas music and weep and bake more cookies and start packing up the gifts I can afford to send: some butter and sugar and flour and history and tradition and hope, darkness and light altogether blended.

Here’s to your heart today, to the stories you carry and the ones you release, the stories you miss and keep searching for. Here’s to the ways you trust your own ability to create tradition that can ground you in connection and community — such risky, necessary, terribly beautiful work. And of course, as always, here’s to your good, good words.

what do I do if I am from them?

(Just a heads up, my loves — I’m talking about racism and torture in today’s post, and there’s some graphic language here. Take care of you, ok?)

Good morning, good morning. It’s still raining outside my windows, though not nearly as hard as it did yesterday. I stayed home yesterday, avoiding the traffic and flooding and falling branches — I’d been feeling guilty about taking care of myself that way, thinking that I’d bailed on plans to visit my sister for no good reason (outside my window in downtown Oakland, things didn’t look so bad — some heavy rain, but isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in Northern California in the winter?), but then I saw photos of a car in standing water up to its roof on Ashby Ave in Berkeley, and I heard that downtown San Francisco had lost power, and I heard about the traffic accidents and snarls all up and down I-880, and I figured, well, maybe it wasn’t a terrible thing that I stayed inside.

Funny how, even after all these years, I second-guess myself after making a decision on behalf of my own well-being when I think someone else might be upset or disappointed by my choice. I have to find evidence to bolster up that decision: just saying, Wow, it looks like it’s going to be really bad out there, I think I’d rather stay home, isn’t enough for that voice inside always telling me that I’m selfish and thoughtless. This struggle around trusting myself is a part of my trauma legacy, part of this aftermath I live in, part of this ongoing work of recovery.

(Not really funny, after all. Just sad. A little more work to do.)

I have been grieving a lot recently, as so many of us are, and thinking about the legacies of trauma and loss. Last night I watched the Australian movie Rabbit-Proof Fence, the story of a fourteen-year-old Aboriginal girl and her two sisters who are stolen from their family and tribe, driven (in a cage) 1200 miles away to a mission run by white settlers, and who subsequently run away and begin to walk the 1200 miles to get back home. If you haven’t watched the movie, I encourage you to do so. I hadn’t seen it since I was living in Maine, when my ex and I rented it and watched it in our little log cabin out in the woods, and I wept and wept and wept. Same thing happened last night as the credits rolled.

I cry partly because this is a story about sisters in trouble, sisters who have to trust each other, sisters who get separated. These are the same tears that rise in me when I watch The Color Purple or (re)read Danzy Senna’s book Caucasia. I think about all the ways my sister and I were able to save, or at least help, each other, and all the very many ways that we couldn’t help each other, how we had to suffer and survive alone, and how difficult that has made our relationship in the aftermath, and how stupid and terrible it is that we had to go through all of that horror in the first place.

But some of those tears last night were tears of grief and shame and sorrow that the people I am from could (and continue) to perpetrate crimes like this on the lives and bodies and families and lands of other peoples.

These days, in America, we are talking about the crimes that majority white police officers commit against and in communities of color. And, now, threaded into this conversation, we have a conversation about the uses of torture. About when and where torture is acceptable. About what forms of torture is acceptable.

This is the kind of cultural conversation we are capable of having in this country: is it ok to kill an unarmed 18-year-old boy for stealing some cigars from a convenience store? is it ok to kill a man for selling cigarettes on a street corner? Is it ok to waterboard someone in order to force them to reveal information they might be holding? What about throwing them against a wall? Or keeping them awake for 7 days, with their hands chained over their heads?

We are able — even expected — to be able to discuss these things calmly, rationally. What kind of dehumanization is required, what kind of profound disconnect from our empathy and human feeling, is required to not be filled with rage and sorrow upon hearing any of these news stories? How armored do we have to be to debate something like the value of torture?

With the addition of this language of “torture report,” I find listening to the news too triggering these days. I shut off the radio. I know about torture. I know about sleep deprivation. I know about brainwashing and terror — my stepfather claimed to have learned the techniques he used from the CIA.

(I just can’t understand how newscasters all over America aren’t breaking into tears every time they sit down to do their jobs. Why aren’t our newscasts filled with sobs, smeared mascara, red-rimmed eyes? How do they keep from wailing in grief and disappointment and horror?)

What’s got me caught this morning is the grief that these are the people I come from: I mean, from white people, white “culture,” white ancestry. I come from people who homesteaded in the midwest (which means they got stolen land and claimed it as their own), from people who kept other people as property, from people who have developed, over thousands of years, the ability to so profoundly  dehumanize other humans that they can treat them like animals (as though even animals were worth treating the way my people have treated other humans).

This horror is a part of my legacy, a part of what’s at my back. As white folks — especially liberal white folks — we like to distance ourselves from what has come before, and from people who actively act out in racist ways. We say, Oh, but I’m not like them! I’m not that kind of white person. I have taken comfort in that way of thinking myself. I’ve thought, Well, yes, white folks enslaved folks from Africa, but I didn’t do that. My mom and dad, they didn’t do that. It’s not our fault.

What do I want to say about this today? Mostly that I am filled with sorrow and grief at having ancestors who did these things, at coming from a people able to develop institutions that have wrought devastation across the world, like the Catholic Church, the Mormon church, the Atlantic slave trade, the Anglican church — that I come from a people who believed that the highest aim of a person’s life ought to be to distance themselves as much as possible from their human body, and yet could treat women’s and children’s bodies, the bodies of folks who looked different from them, as things without value.

I am from the people who could even conceive of, not to mention design and implement, the American Indian Boarding Schools, the Magdalene Laundries, the Salem witch trials, from men with the capacity to perform the cognitively-dissonant gymnastics necessary in order to declare “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” while also owning other human beings as slaves.

Here is where folks often like to jump up and remind a speaker that there were Africans who kept slaves, participated in and profited from the slave trade. Yes, there are folks from other cultures who have done damage to their own and other communities. I’m not talking about those folks right now. I’m talking about the folks I’m from. My people.

We talk about the the intergenerational legacy of trauma. We talk about post-traumatic slave syndrome. I come from the rapists and slave owners, from sociopaths and torturers. In order to undo racism (starting with my own), I have to reckon with that. How do I hold this truth? How do I move with it?

Victor, a participant in a conversation among men of all races captured on film for the extraordinary and powerful movie The Color of Fear by Lee Mun Wah,  at one point reminds the (white) man he’s talking to that in order to become white, folks have to shed their ethnicities — we have to walk away from that which makes us Irish or Hungarian or Italian or Norwegian or French or even English if we want to be white. We have to forget our ancestry. There is no white culture, because there is no such thing as a “white” race (as so many have said so often before me) — instead, we who choose or sublimate ourselves to whiteness have to capitulate to the demand that we not be of a particular ethnic culture. We have to forgo our people’s foods, clothes, ways of speaking, ways of caring for each other, ways of tending the land (and then, of course, feeling that terrible void in the absence of the who and what and where we are from, we steal the culture of others in an attempt to fill ourselves back up again).

And, too, we demand that those we force to submit to our control to give up their culture as well (the Africans and Indigenous peoples forced to relinquish their languages, food, religions).

Some of the work we did in unlearning racism trainings I participated in back in the day invited white folks to acknowledge and name their ethnic ancestries, and share something of that culture with the room: a song, a dance, a recipe, a story. What of ourselves and our humanities have we relinquished in order to call ourselves white?

I don’t have answers today. Today I am grateful for the rain. I am grateful for the capacity to recognize and feel grief, to mourn what has been done in my name, what terror white supremacy has wrought all over the planet. I remember change happens one person, one connection, one generation at a time. I remember that it is my job as a white-skinned person to continue to speak out, recognize and name privileges I am given, to stand back and listen and share and honor the voices in communities of color sharing their reality and sorrow and truth.

And I remember that the child of a rapist is not doomed to become a rapist. We can make different choices from those of our ancestors. We can hold what is true about the path while going about the difficult and necessary work of creating a wholly new future.

who keeps us safe?

I wake up to the light of a tall candle on the altar in the hall. Outside, the rain splatters over everything. If we lived anywhere else, the parking lot next door would be a sheet of ice.

I’ve spent the better part of the last couple of weeks, immersed in a number of writing projects — I wake up and plunge back in, writing and editing both. I had a blog post forming that I wanted to write yesterday, about I’d begun to wake up with ideas, how I’d wake up ready to write, how writing begets more writing. It seemed like a great message, especially on the day after the last day of NaNoWriMo, when folks might need some encouragement to keep on writing every day, keep on with that regular writing practice that they’d established over a month writing that novel.

My sweetheart was up at 4am to head out on a business trip, and I was about to get up after her — as painful as it was going to be after a lazy weekend, I was ready to move back into my own routine. I’d even asked her to turn on the coffee, which almost always assures that I’ll get up, out of a desire not to waste it — no matter that the coffee’s decaf these days, the old habits die hard.

She’d just said goodbye to me and headed downstairs to gather her things together and leave when I heard gunshots from what sounded like just outside the back window. They were so loud they might have been in the house. I froze, terrified, not even wanting to scream lest the shooter hear me and take aim at an upstairs window. Was someone trying to break into the house? Had someone targeted her? I froze in the bed, listening for any other sound, but as is so often the case after hearing gunshots in Oakland, the only sound after the shots was silence. No screams, no tires, nothing.

My sweetheart ran back up the stairs a moment or two after the shots, and I clung to her like a barnacle, I held her as tight as I’ve ever held anything. I was terrified to let her leave. There have been armed break-ins in the neighborhood. What if someone had been interrupted in a the middle of a burglary and was now escaping, fearful of being seen or caught? What if a neighbor had just shot up their family and might turn the weapon on someone they thought might be able to identify them, any witnesses? Maybe my stepfather had finally escaped from prison — my mind raced to every terrible scenario.

We called the police, and learned that many other neighbors had also called to report shots fired. And then we sat still, listening. But Oakland had gone silent.

After she left for the airport, I sat in the dark. I watched the police cruiser silently drive up and down the block, looking for whatever they were looking for. All of the neighbor’s houses were silent. We all stayed inside and kept our blinds down. It turns out the shots, or the noises, were heard from blocks away. Underneath my terror,  I kept hearing those gunshots, and I thought about my relationship with the police, especially given our current national conversation about police violence, brutality, harassment, unfair targeting, and profiling. Yesterday morning, in spite of everything I know to be true, I felt a margin of safety knowing that the police were there. Why? Did my neighbors? Who were the other neighbors who had reported the shooting to the police?

I was awake after my sweetheart left, but I couldn’t write. I could barely read. I stayed away from the windows, like my ex had hollered at me to do after the first time we heard gunshots not long after we’d moved into our first place together in West Oakland. I’d gone immediately to the window to see if I figure out what was going on. Turn off the lights! he said. And get down! It was the first time I’d heard what I was certain were gunshots in real life. Living on McAllister in San Francisco, near the Panhandle, I’d sometimes thought I heard what sounded like they could have been gunshots, blocks and blocks away, but I was never sure.  What we heard that night on Myrtle Street in West Oakland were something else. I don’t remember whether anyone died that night. Later that year, there was a week when we heard gunshots every night, several nights in a row, and on the last of these nights, someone was killed in the street a half a block from our apartment. The next day, we started looking for someplace else to live. Someplace safer. Where was safer?

Yesterday, after my sweetheart left, I sat alone in the dark — the puppy had abandoned me to go curl up on her chair in the living room, though she’d growled at the sound of the gunshots, as though an intruder or something threatening were just outside the bedroom door. Everything in me was alive with panic and terror. I imagined awful scenarios about what had just happened. And I thought about friends and beloveds and and other folks elsewhere in the city who live with this kind of fear and violence every day. I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up — so odd for me, who usually longs for more darkness in which to write, but yesterday morning, I wanted the light. No matter that I know how many terrible things happen in the daylight. There were just too many secrets hiding around in the early morning darkness, and I wanted the sun to take away their possibility.

I never did write yesterday. I fell asleep again, the sort of sleep that happens when I’m overwhelmed. I curled up under the covers, freezing, and hid from the guns and the terror outside the windows. When I woke up, the sun had risen. I looked out into the backyard, and saw everything as it should be — no bodies were lying there. Maybe I should cut back on my Law and Order reruns. I checked Oakland news, Twitter, but there was nothing about shots fired in our neighborhood, nothing, which is usually the case after I hear gunshots. Just silence. The violence probably not actually random, but it feels that way to this listener, who has no context for these specific acts, and is left just to imagine the worst. What else is there to imagine when gunshots are involved? Maybe someone was shooting their rapist, their abuser, their pimp? Maybe some good was opening up in the world in that silence that followed those impossibly loud shots. Yesterday, that didn’t once occur to me. I crept around all morning, still terrified, peeking through the fence into other yards, not wanting anyone to catch me looking. This is the behavior of someone who has learned to navigate around someone violent. I tried to work, couldn’t, and ended up watching Serenity on cable — not a non-violent film by any means, but I got to see my friend Yuri who was an extra in the film, and there’s humor, and the good guys win — even after all the vast amounts of irreparable damage by the bad guys.

Yesterday was the first time, in all the years I’d lived in Oakland, that I called the police after hearing gunshots.  It has often seemed like calling the police would do no good, and maybe even create more harm. Even in making this call, I was reminded of the messiness of individual witness accounts of crimes — I have a clear memory of three gunshots, while my sweetheart reported four. We both heard a shot, then a pause, and then more — two more for me, three more for her. This time, at least we could say for sure where we thought the shots were coming from.

Yet, yesterday, I wanted someone to put themselves in harm’s way. Damnit, I wanted someone to go find out what happened. That’s what the police do. At least, that’s what I was taught that they do. I believed for years that police put people before property, protected everyone the same, got into the work because they wanted to serve their communities. And then I had a stepfather who made us terrified of going to the authorities because he said he had an in with the government, was friends with folks down at the courthouse. I worked with victims of domestic violence whose husbands or boyfriends were cops or had friends who were cops, and so could track their victim’s movements and could close off all avenues of protection to her. I watched four cops beat Rodney King, and I watched a jury let those cops walk. I learned about police who covered up child abuse, pedophile rings, and other terrible crimes against women and children and men. I listened to those in my communities who described being targeted by police, harassed in their cars, targeted unfairly. I was terrified, living in West Oakland, that my ex would be mistaken for someone else and picked up or shot — just for being a brown-skinned guy in the wrong place at the wrong time — because it seemed that brown-skinned guys in America were often in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I stopped trusting the police so much. I understood that many situations would be made worse by bringing the police in — not just in Oakland, but all across the country. I do not always feel safer to have a cop car pass me, because even though I know that I am not an historic target of their violence, folks who look like me have, as Minne Bruce Pratt taught me, been used as a justification for the violence of historically white-supremecist systems of power.

Yesterday, I was grateful the police were there, and responsive, ostensibly trying and make me and my loves and my community safer, trying to bring someone doing harm to justice — and you can ask yourself how I can believe that, even after all these years watching the criminal justice system fail victims of violence. You can ask me how I can believe that knowing that the cops are looking for whatever they can find during those scouting trips up and down the block. You can ask me how I can believe this knowing they might stop someone completely unrelated to the shooting, even the teenage son of the mom across the street, a young brown-skinned man who has almost certainly already been the victim of police harassment, or lives in fear of it, and in fear of the aftermath.

When we live in communities of thousands and thousands of people, don’t we need those who will sometimes put themselves in between us and violence? True, those people aren’t always cops — they’re often not cops. They’re family members, bystanders, neighbors, friends.  In the best case scenario, maybe a once-upon-a-someday situation, the neighborhood is working together — we call one another first. It’s not that we don’t know our neighbors around my sweetheart’s place — it’s that when those gunshots went off, I wasn’t at all sure that it wasn’t one of those neighbors doing the shooting, and I was terrified of getting shot if I interrupted them, or exposed them. Maybe all the violence I’ve been exposed to — in my stepfather’s house, in the lives of the women I’ve worked with since the 90s, in the tv I choose to consume — has done its work, and terrified me away from being able to trust my neighbors, trust the people I live with and around. An isolated people are a more easily controlled people, of course, and when we are more afraid of our neighbors than the “authorities,” we do what the authorities want.

The truth is, I know that police can’t keep me from being harmed, they can’t keep me safe. Just because a cop is around doesn’t mean I let my guard down. But police act as deterrent, they can intervene during an assault or violation, and they can investigate in the aftermath of a crime. I want more from our police departments than racial profiling and harassment and stop-and-frisk and a desire to protect property before people — like so very many people do. I want a police department that protects and serves the people. I want everyone to feel safer when they see a police car, not more at risk.I want a police department that comports themselves in line with their own ideals (just as I want a us government that does the same). I want police officers willing to unlearn the racism they were raised with in this country, so that they are never able to look at a human being, especially someone they are meant to “protect and serve” and say, “it looks like a demon.” I want everyone in my community not to feel conflicted about whether or not to call the police when we are harmed or threatened or violated. I want the police to be our allies.

I am thinking, too, that most victims of gun violence know the person who is shooting at them. The handgun my stepfather kept under his bed in a case (loaded or not, I don’t know) was never, to my knowledge, pulled out to protect the family, but at least once that I was present for was used to shame, terrify, and threaten us. Is there really a need for us to have as many guns as we have in the communities in this country? Are we using that weaponry to create change in the government, or are we treating one another like entities in a video game? But that is a topic for another blog post.

By the end of the day yesterday, my adrenaline was back to normal, and I was functional again. I still can hear those gunshots, though, and when I remember them, I feel the terror in my belly and my shoulders seize up again. I am sending whatever good thoughts I can today to those who live with the fear of gun violence, and to those who absolutely know they can’t turn to the police. We have to be able to turn to each other in order to hold our communities in greater safety and reverence. I am sending whatever good thoughts I can to whoever was involved in that shooting yesterday. And I am sending good thoughts to you.

Be easy with yourselves today, and say hello to your neighbors. I will do the same. Maybe I will even say hello to a police officer. And I’ll keep writing. You do, too, please, ok? Ok.

 

Thanks

The birds are already awake this morning before I get to the keyboard. I had a whole plan for last night — celebration at the final meeting of this fall’s Fearless Words group, hustle home, and head out to Brothers & Sisters to dance hard enough to find my gratitude, to sweat out the toxins, to touch and grab hold of my joy. But when I made it home I was just too tired to go back out into the world; several nights of not enough sleep finally caught up with me. And how could I drive through or around the protests in downtown Oakland in order to go dancing of all things. It felt like crossing a picket line. So instead I obsessively updated my twitter feed, trying to follow what was happening, and ended up crashing on the couch. Not exactly the celebratory evening I’d had in mind, but this 42 year old body doesn’t rally the way it did when I was 22, even though I don’t like dancing any less now — it’s still one of the very small handful of healing practices that have kept me going.

Today I am thinking about the complexity of gratitude. All over America, we’re supposed to be grateful today — we have a national holiday set aside to be thankful for all that we have. It’s meant to be a time for gathering with family, connecting with our beloveds — no one is supposed to be alone on family (even if they’d prefer to be). Meanwhile, we are surrounded by advertisements for so-called Black Friday sales, enticing us into believing that we do not have enough, that we need to buy more, proving the lie of this day of gratitude practice, at least culturally. On this day when we’re supposed to be jubilantly grateful for home and hearth, kith and kin, we have a nation rising up in grief and rage. Many, many people will not be safe today with the people who are supposed to be their safest havens — many of us will grieve the families we ought to have had, the safe hands and hearts we ought to have been surrounded by. This is the beginning of the most complicated time of the year for so many of us.

There’s a poem I like to hand out every November — if you’re in a workshop with me, you’ve probably seen it. It’s W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks,” written in 1927, and it goes like this:

Thanks
-W.S. Merwin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

This is one of my favorite poems, one I would like to commit to memory someday. I find it to be outrageously hopeful, naming the possibilities and claiming of gratitude even at our most difficult times, even when gratitude seems wildly ridiculous, even laughably hopeless. How can we be grateful when our country is dropping bombs on people around the world? How can we be grateful when we know somewhere in our own neighborhoods a child is being harmed right now? How can we be grateful when our friends our sick, our communities are hungry, our hearts are aching, our own bodies suffer?

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

I read this poem and I think about resilience. I think about the times I sat with my stepfather while he had his hands on me and I made it through his violence. I think about getting out from under his hands when they were on my neck or between my legs. I think about the moments I had alone — walking my dog, doing homework, riding the bus home from school — when I saw something that brought me joy. Maybe it was a flock of pigeons diving and pooling in the skies over Omaha. Maybe it was my dog bouncing after a squirrel that she had no hope of catching. Maybe it was figuring out the answer to an especially difficult calculus or physics problem. And yet, what right did I have to feel joy? How could I possibly have had the capacity to feel joy? What is it in us that allows us to smile at all when we know we are headed right back into the fire?

For that skill — the wonder of our human ability to continue to allow ourselves pleasure when we know what great pain feels like, when we will be mocked or harassed or harmed if someone catches us grinning to ourselves, for exactly that measure of resistance and resilience — today I say thank you.

I love that the first line of the poem is a command, a harkening: Listen — I hear the poet, the voice of the piece, calling us to hear what’s happening underneath the destruction all around us, these quiet, whispered, continual thank yous. We are not alone in this complicated place of grief and gratitude. Listen: there are others who are saying thank you anyway, who are smiling anyway, who are dancing anyway, even as the thefts and the beatings and the losses go on and on and on.

Today I am grateful for the resilience of the women I wrote with for nine weeks in Fearless Words, women risking everything to reach out to one another, women risking ridicule and shame by offering their true voices and stories to one another, women who found a new community of beloveds. It’s a devastating thing, this being grateful for a community of others who have been hurt like you’ve been hurt — it’s not that we want anyone else to have to have gone through what we went through, raped by someone who was supposed to be a friend, or sexually violated by a parent, or the friend of a parent, or a cousin or — we don’t want anyone else to know what this pain is like. And yet, we also do not want to be alone with this pain anymore. We are tired of our loved ones treating us like we’re crazy. We are tired of feeling crazy. So we are grateful to find ourselves in a room with others who get us from the inside out because they have been there, too: we go on saying thank you thank you

Today I am grateful for you and for your words, for the exact struggle of your life, for the fact that you take on that struggle in order to laugh and breathe and weep and make art and hug those you love and make a safer place for someone or something else, I am grateful for the days you walk through the fire and for the days you are immolated by pain and then rise from the ashes. I am grateful that you give yourself time to rest, time to be silly, time to garden or dance or play World of Warcraft (is that even around anymore?) or solitaire or watch endless episodes of True Blood. I am grateful for how you perceive the world: you are the only one who sees things like you do, and I love hearing from you exactly what you see and hear and feel and smell and taste and sense otherwise, with the knowing that lives deep in your liver and gut and heart. I am grateful that you give yourself the possibility of deep desire, that you have worked so hard to reclaim your sex, that you are working hard still.

in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

Today I am in grief and I am grateful anyway. I want better for us and for our children and I am grateful anyway. I am grateful we continue fighting. I am grateful we sometimes give up. I am grateful we resist. I am grateful we are not alone. I am grateful we are no longer alone.

Be easy with yourself today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, too, if you can. Thank you.

the system serves those it was designed to serve

Oscar Grant with his daughter

Good morning, good morning. Oakland is quiet outside my windows — only the helicopters are disturbing the peace.

I am heartsick this morning, as so very many of us are today, at the unwillingness of the grand jury in Ferguson, MO, to indict Darren Wilson on any charges whatsoever related to the killing of unarmed, 18 year-old Michael Brown. Officer Wilson shot the young man at least 6 times. 6 times. The officer claims he was afraid for his life, and shot in self-defense. At least 6 times.

Meanwhile, across the country yesterday in Florida, Marissa Alexander accepted a plea deal, and will go to jail for only three years (rather than the 60 she’d been facing) after firing a gun into the air in an attempt to warn away her abusive, estranged husband. This is a man who had hurt her in the past, who was threatening to hurt her again, and she did not aim the gun at him, nor did she harm him.

She was arrested in Florida, which has a Stand Your Ground law, made infamous by George Zimmerman, who used that same law to defend his killing of Trayvon Martin. According to an article in The Guardian, “The law says individuals have no duty to retreat from a place where they have a right to be and may use any level of force, including lethal, if they reasonably believe they face an imminent and immediate threat of serious bodily harm or death.” Zimmerman was found not guilty all the charges brought against him. Meanwhile, an abused woman has been in jail for 1,030 days. Her estranged, abusive husband — think he’s been in jail?

In Cleveland, a 12-year-old boy is shot and killed by a policeman. A 12 year old boy.

This morning, I am aware that our criminal justice system is protecting exactly the folks it was designed to protect. Last night, while relentlessly updating my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I read many reminders to white folks that undoing racism is on our shoulders — it’s a system that serves us, and we are the ones responsible for unlearning what we have been taught are our rights and privileges, those that arrive on the backs of folks of color. Someone wrote that it’s a mark of white privilege if you are (if you get to be) outraged by the decision in Ferguson, rather than terrified.

This morning I feel numb and overwhelmed and outraged and terrified. I feel like throwing up my hands in resignation, which is also an extraordinary privilege — it is a mark of white privilege to get to walk away from this whole issue, or imagine that I can.

In her book A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Sharon Welch writes:

“What does it mean to act ethically in a world of expediency, to stand for justice in a world of exploitation, to act with compassion in a world of indifference, cynicism, and despair? How do we work for justice when it seems that only individual well-being is attainable, while collective social justice is unreachable?”

Welch’s book was transformative for me, at a time when I was burned out around anti-domestic violence work. The system of misogyny and men’s power over women is so entrenched, I thought — nothing we do is going to ever change things, not really. I just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide until “it” was all over, which was going to happen somehow, but I didn’t know how. While doing my MA work in Transformative Language Arts, one of my advisors encouraged me to read Feminst Ethic of Risk. In this book, Welch describes working in a primarily white, middle class community engaged in anti-nuclear organizing in the 1980s, and watching as the folks she worked with burnt out as a result of the particular individual work ethic with which they’d been raised — an ethic of control, one that taught us that we should be able to do it all ourselves. But social change isn’t something that any one person accomplishes change alone — Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks: they’re often held up as representing what a single individual can do if they stand up to power. But all of these people had an organized community of resistance around them. They were never working alone. We can’t do this work alone, the work of deep social change — we do it in conjunction with others also in resistance.

We also cannot do the work expecting to see change in our lifetimes; we do the work to end racist culture or rape culture in order that we might hand over something slightly shifted to our children, to the folks who will take up the cause after us. We take small steps, make individual connections, do the work on a local, one-with-one scale, and we understand that big change happens in this way: slowly, cumulatively, change accretes.

Today, that doesn’t feel like enough. There has to be time for grieving and rage. But the work never stops. Progress can’t be held back. Change is coming.

 

 

Uber and Cosby and Sagal, oh my

Partir un peu et revenir beaucoup

Good morning, good morning. I slept in this Monday morning, and only got to writing after the boy and his mama were off for the ride to school. The sun is bright and beautiful here, unfortunately. I keep hoping for a string of rainy days in a row.

Yesterday, I listened to the most recent episode of Wait Don’t Tell Me, one of my weekend pleasures. Do you listen to this show? It’s a goofy news quiz show on NPR that makes fun of current events, some satire, some outright comedy, and can provide an opportunity to laugh at the ridiculous and horrifying goings-ons around the world, and especially in our country. The show has three guest comedians every week, and I’ve been grateful that they’ve been including more comedians of color, though they continue to seem to have a difficult time booking more than one female comedian at a time (no problems, though, finding two male comedians almost every week, and sometimes three).

This week, one of the news items up for skewering had to do with the Uber executive who, at a dinner party, supposedly threatened to invest a million dollars in order to dig up personal details on a journalist who was criticizing the company. (Not being online much these days, I was surprised to hear about the scandals; my sweetheart filled me in on some of the details:the CEO using the term “Boob-er” because he women “on demand” (let’s have another conversation about that later, women who would happily date this guy) now his company is so successful, and also the reports of women who felt unsafe on Uber rides and folks who have been attacked by Uber drivers. Yikes.)

And then Sagal mocked the folks who are protesting Uber’s company culture and the behavior of its leadership by deleting the app from their phones. He said the service was so easy to use that there was no way most people will walk away, and that even if your ride showed up and Bill Cosby was the driver, you’d still get in and take the ride. Here’s an excerpt of the transcript from the show’s website:

~~ ~~ ~~
SAGAL: This week though, one of the [Uber] execs was caught promising to hire investigators to look into the private lives of journalists who were investigating their business practices. So now people – this is an amazing movement – people are denouncing Uber. They’re saying they won’t use it anymore. That’s right, they’re taking a stand by deleting an app from their phones.
(LAUGHTER)
[PJ] O’ROURKE: Brave, brave Americans.
SAGAL: That’s – move over Gandhi. Right? I mean this is…
O’ROURKE: Forget Washington at Valley Forge.
SAGAL: Right. It won’t work. It won’t work. Anybody who has used Uber is addicted to Uber. It is so convenient. If you called Uber and Bill Cosby was the driver, you’d get in.
~~ ~~ ~~

Now, of course, you may have heard that Bill Cosby has been in the again news lately, this time not for taking working class and poor Black folks to task, but because he’s got at more than twenty women who tell the similar stories about how he sexually assaulted them — including women who describe being driven out to isolated areas and assaulted — and those women are not going away, even though they’ve been telling their stories for over a decade, and it hasn’t seemed to impact Cosby’s career until now. Suddenly, folks are listening, after a comedian called Cosby out around these allegations— talk show hosts are cancelling Cosby’s scheduled interviews, a tv show that had been in the works has been scrapped, and one channel even pulled reruns of The Cosby Show.

I’m not going to get into a Cosby rant here — the one in which I stand in my sweetheart’s kitchen and ask, over and over again, Why would someone do this? Why do men drug women so they can have sex with them? What makes that a turn on? What happens to you in your life to skew you in such a way that you can possibly get hard enough to rape? Why is it fun?

Please, if you have answers to these questions, don’t give them to me. I don’t want to know that you know, that you understand, that you can explain. I don’t want to know that you’ve done it or could imagine doing it. Not today.

No, instead, I want to understand why Peter Sagal thinks it’s funny to make a rapist joke on his show. I want to know why he’s aligning with Uber by attempting to undermine the #deleteuber campaign, mocking it as effectively calling for inaction. Uber is all about its app — if you don’t have the app, you don’t have the service. Deleting the app is taking a meaningful step toward holding this company accountable for its culture and behavior. If the company loses customers, loses business, maybe there will actually be some changes in its corporate culture. Calling out the company for its inhumane behavior hasn’t had any impact on its massive growth — venture capitalists don’t care if someone’s an asshole; they only care if that someone’s company is making money. Stop making money, or start making less, and maybe then all of a sudden the founder’s misogyny is a problem and the culture gets a shake up (see: Dov Charney and American Apparel).

So, yes, please #deleteuber. Let’s get a dent in those profits, and maybe make a dent in the Uber CEO’s massive ego.

And What about Peter Sagal’s Cosby remark? It wasn’t just unfortunate– it shows a profound lack of concern for listeners who have survived rape, who are, in fact, also NPR listeners, regardless of whatever classist assumptions the show’s writers or NPR makes about folks who rape or are raped.

It just isn’t fucking funny.

This is the point in the post at which I’m supposed to defend myself against accusations/dismissals as a humorless feminist — where I say that I really do have a sense of humor, I laugh at all sorts of inappropriate stuff, honest, it’s not that I don’t get a good joke, it’s just that this one was really not funny, seriously, you guys. But you know what? Fuck that. Folks can call me humorless if they want. It’s just a joke isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t work anymore. I was just kidding is bullshit, and folks know it. The writers at Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me chose that joke for a reason, and it was to prove some kind of point about NPR not being soft, not being afraid, not being emasculated: We can be thoughtless about women’s issues, too, guys!

Here’s what’s true — a man can be tagged with the term misogynist for decades and still make billions of dollars. But call a woman an angry feminist and she’s supposed to run crying into the closet and come out wearing spangles and fishnets, dancing as fast as she can to a John Mayer or Eminem or R. Kelly or Chris Brown record to prove that she’s totally cool and totally gets it and totally just wants to be one of the guys (but still less than, of course) and totally was just kidding when she called them out.

(What would happen if women were less afraid of being called angry? Or feminist, for goodness’ sake?)

Anyway: what a way to derail a simple weekend pleasure, guys. Listen, we know you can be edgy. Try another tactic, and don’t throw women or rape victims under the bus in the name of a joke. Thanks.

NaBloPoMo #16: “it’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday”

My stepfather used to say, “You can do whatever you want in private, as long as you look good when you’re out in the world.” He adored that sentiment, appreciated, I believe, being able to play the good and loving father when we were out to dinner or spending time with family friends, and then come home and either sexually violate one of us, say, or spend the night either psychologically torturing his us with mind-numbingly long talks about how some small aspect of one family member’s behavior was an indication of a larger pattern of disrespect and bad thoughts (akin to the re-education techniques used during the Chinese cultural revolution). He counted on this public-private split, the well-developed expectation of a man (particularly a man of a certain class) to act however he wants to at home or in private as long as, in public, he keeps himself together.

In yesterday’s NYT magazine (you may notice a pattern here, with respect to the place where I find things to rant about these days), there was an article about how the FBI apparently sent a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, threatening to expose his sexual liaisons with women other than his wife. The article makes reference to a press that was, in the early 1960s, “more cautious” than today’s media:

“F.B.I. officials began to peddle information about King’s hotel-room activities to friendly members of the press, hoping to discredit the civil rights leader. To their astonishment, the story went nowhere. If anything, as the F.B.I. learned more about his sexual adventures, King only seemed to be gaining in public stature. […]

Today it is almost impossible to imagine the press refusing a juicy story. To a scandal-hungry media, the bedroom practices of our public officials and moral leaders are usually fair game. And a sex scandal is often — though not always — a cheap one-way ticket out of public life. Faced with today’s political environment, perhaps King would have made different decisions in his personal affairs. Perhaps, though, he never would have had the chance to emerge as the public leader he ultimately became.

Luckily, in 1964 the media were far more cautious. One oddity of Hoover’s campaign against King is that it mostly flopped, and the F.B.I. never succeeded in seriously damaging King’s public image. Half a century later, we look upon King as a model of moral courage and human dignity. Hoover, by contrast, has become almost universally reviled. In this context, perhaps the most surprising aspect of their story is not what the F.B.I. attempted, but what it failed to do.” (emphasis mine)

Back in September, the NYT magazine ran an article pulled from the recently released book about the same topic, claiming that the way the press dealt with Gary Hart’s extramarital activities caused the downfall of American politics, creating a press that cared more about character than causes, that spent more ink and column inches on what politicians did in the bedroom (or hotel room, or bathroom stalls — hello, Larry Craig) than they did in Congress or the Oval Office or state houses.

Both articles seem nostalgic for a time when a man could stand in front of the country and expect the people to focus only on that man’s public words and deeds, when he could count on the hard split between the public and private spheres, when a man could get a little on the side and not be questioned about it. For goodness’ sake, a man’s private affairs didn’t have any bearing on his good public works! Access to women’s bodies (or young men’s bodies, in many cases) just went with the territory, and the press didn’t pay it any mind — that was simply the way things were. How come we can’t go back to the good old days?

This is the same logic that kept child abusers and wife beaters in power, the same logic that kept women and children quiet because a man could still hold (can still hold) positions of great power in public, be seen as a pillar of the community, while at home given full and complete license to behave however he wishes.

Now — it may sound like I’m comparing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to a child abuser. No. I am, however, questioning the cultural longing for blinders that were meant to provide men in power with cover for behaviors that they kept secret (believing those behaviors wouldn’t  stand up to public scrutiny), blinders we in the public were supposed to wear so that they could keep on engaging in those secret, private acts at their whim.

(I also question assertion of the author of the Dr. King story that a sex-scandal is a one-way ticket out of politics — please see Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, et al for more there.)

I am not a fan of mud-slinging, dirty politics. I, too, wish our campaigns could focus more on issues, the plans that each individual candidate has for improving our communities and our country, rather than on dealing dish about a candidate’s private life.

I also wish that folks comported themselves in private in a way that they themselves would stand up for in the light of the cameras.

Frankly, as a woman, as a queer person, as a survivor of sexual violence, I am grateful that members of the press — and the rest of us — are beginning to remove these blinders and take seriously the private behavior of those in positions of power in this country.

Neither article asks or even considers what seems to me to be a fairly straightforward question — why do these politicians (mostly male) continue to believe that they get to behave badly in private? Why do we as a culture think that someone’s private behavior doesn’t impact their public works?

I think about the men in power passing or enforcing homophobic laws who are, in private, meeting their male lovers or call boys. I think about men with constant access to the bodies of young men (football coaches, priests, let’s say) who decide that it is their right to misuse those young men and boys, sexually violate and debase them, while absolutely expecting that their professional communities — and the community at large — will support them.

And we do. We as a culture have developed massive institutional constructs within which men of power are given license to access the bodies of women, young men, and children, and we as a culture are still supposed to turn a blind eye if those same men also do “good works” for the community.

It sounds to me that this is what the authors of these books and articles are actually decrying: the fissuring of these institutional infrastructures, and the fact that just a little bit of light has begun to shine into these secret rooms.

I have an idea for politicians who don’t want the press to focus more on their private life than their public works: comport yourself in private in a way that you are proud of, that you are willing to invite your constituents to be proud of. If you are a politician who, for instance, likes BDSM play or has an agreement with your partner that allows for relationships with other people, stand up for that part of your life. Notice what happened when queer folks started refusing to be ashamed of their desire, and began claiming publicly all of who they were. Be willing to own your consensual sexuality and then get back to talking about the matters at hand, the work you want to do for your community or country; think about how to respond to the questions that call your consensual, adult sexuality into question, rather than shrinking from the fullness of your sexual self and hiding behind the safe haven of shame. If you choose to access the services of sex workers, then work to improve the conditions of their labor, just as you say you want to improve the condition of all of your constituents’ working conditions. Ensure them a living wage and health care; legalize their work. Don’t take advantage of trafficked children or others. Don’t sneak around, taking advantage of a system that harms everyone but you.

I am mostly curious about the profoundly overdeveloped sense of entitlement these men seem to have. What convinces them that they will be the one whose dalliances with underage pages or sexual harassment of coworkers or multiple extramarital affairs will escape public notice? What assurances have they received along the way that their private behavior will not be used against them? Why do they set themselves up for blackmail and public excoriation?

I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t use a pseudonym for my erotic writing, in large part because of my stepfather’s philosophy of a public/private split self — I never wanted to be blackmailable. I wanted to be the same person in all parts of my life. Of course, I understood that this decision might limit my chances to, say, run for public office — thank goodness that this has never been an aspiration of mine.

NaBloPoMo #15: I get clean by writing it

Today’s post comes from the Fearless Words writing group — our prompt came from the group itself: how do we get clean?

How do you get clean? You know — inside? How do you begin to release that sense that you are dirty, soiled, smeared with someone else’s stain?

We took about 8 minutes — and this is what came for me (with only small edits):

I get clean by writing it. I take the stories out of my body and let the page hold them, too. And I get clean by crying. So many buckets and buckets of ears, a sea full. a world full. I cry because crying is what brings the body back to itself. Cry and dance and sweat and move the damp through the body’s pores and the toxins are flooded out. They say that every seven years, every one of the body’s cells has replaced itself. One day I realized that this means that he has never touched the skin I’m in now. I have sloughed and shed the places he put his body against or into mine — I have sloughed him. I get clean by getting messy, by telling the truth, surrounding myself with a love that never thought me dirty in the first place.

NaBloPoMo #14: you always believed we could have something more

Today’s post is brought to you by last Saturday’s Dirty Words Sacramento writing group. For our introductory prompt, I read aloud the C.P. Cavafy poem entitled “Body, Remember,” which begins with the line, “Body, remember not only how much you were loved…”

We had ten minutes. Here’s what came for me:

Body, remember how hard it used to be? Remember the armor we wore and the disappointment? Remember the long hours spread open and aching, trying trying trying for release that wouldn’t come? Remember the tension in knees and thighs, how you hardened against the memory, against the loss? Remember how we worked together, one orgasm at a time, to untether you from your pain? Remember how you wanted something easy, how you imagined that someday sex would leave you not spent and sobbing and sorrowful but delighted and laughing and free?  Remember how we thought that was impossible, remember how we thought history, the memory of old hands, unwanted touch, unasked-for experience would always be a skin we lived inside of, something we would have sex through forever? Remember. But in spite of that centering and sorrow, you didn’t quit, body. You always believed we could have something more — or maybe simply something else — sex that didn’t feel like a battleground or a crime scene, sex that instead simply (simply?) felt like connection and opening, power and joy. We are getting there, body, you and I, to a sex that can be free. We stayed on this long road for all these years and never would you let me put sex down, even when I wanted to, remember? And now — now — maybe I am beginning to understand why.

NaBloPoMo #13: In which I wrangle, again, with my fury around queermasculine privilege

Good morning good morning. My sweetheart was up at the crack that precedes the crack of dawn so that she could get on an airplane by6am, so I followed in her wake, pulling myself out of bed. It’s quiet this morning, and raining. I put on a little music to mitigate against the silence. Under the throb of the baseline, I hear the tick of raindrops against the windows.

The writing I have to do today feels sticky and messy and is absolutely full of energy, and I’ve stopped myself from writing out of fear that I’m voicing things that aren’t supposed to be said. Out of fear that I’ll offend the exact people I’m angry with. And so I stop, freeze up at the page, write off in different directions whenever I try to tackle the subject. The words remain, tarry and complicated in my belly, and I keep swallowing and swallowing my anger and disappointment, and I end up feeling more isolated, and less able to write or speak about anything. I’ve found over these years that when I silence myself in one area, I end up feeling silenced all throughout the different parts of my life. I’m not going to repeat that Audre Lorde quote about speaking up whether or not one is afraid, but it’s absolutely pushing me forward here.

(Some of you who aren’t all knotted up in the interweavings of queer women’s/trans* gender politics might want to break away and go find something else to read just now … or, you know, if, as you’re reading, you’ve got questions about terminology or anything, please do let me know.)

[ETA: Thanks to my friend Marlene, who informed/reminded me about “the space” when writing about trans* folks — I’ve made adjustments in this post to reflect this learning!]

A month or so ago, the New York Times magazine published an article about trans men at historically women’s colleges. The author of the piece profiled a handful of trans men at Wellesley college who have felt, it seems, wholly entitled to demand that, now that they have transitioned and are living in the world as men and desiring that the world see and meet and treat them as men, these colleges that were developed for women (and have grown up around the belief that there should be some places in male-supremacist society that privilege women’s voices and thought) should alter their language and lens to be more welcoming of men. That they should quit speaking of sisterhood. That professors should quit using “she” as a neutral or default pronoun (as an answer-back to the hundreds of years in which all readers and interlocutors were meant to hear themselves included in the pronoun “he,” regardless of their gender). That, in fact, the school might even want to consider not calling itself a women’s college — as that denotation was now oppressive to these folks who had enrolled, intentionally, at a women’s college, in order that they might be welcomed for all of who they are. And the colleges are acquiescing to these demands. Made by men. Never mind that, until only very recently, and still at only some of these historically women’s colleges, folks who are living in the world as women (who the colleges are ostensibly dedicated to serving and educating) have been shut-out without a thought. Trans women continue to be seen as men-in-women’s-clothing, as infiltrators, as frauds. These women are denied access to the very resources made available to the trans men who now want to change the culture of these institutions that they may feel more comfortable.

I was astonished at how much anger rose up in me as I read this article. I would pause in my reading, throw the magazine to the couch and start ranting, then pick up the pages and start reading again, only to throw it down again a few moments later. I didn’t know what to do with all this fury — but I understood that it would be dangerous for me to go to facebook or twitter with it. We are supposed to be good and vociferous allies of trans men, we femme dykes. My job as a member of the queer ladies auxiliary was to jump into the comments section and defend our brothers’ right to undermine our cultural institutions and demand  that they be made more comfortable. It is my job to bolster their masculinity by standing up for them — that’s what girls do.

Meanwhile, my sisters are left outside the gates, and there are trans men inside who defend that policy — parroting the same sort of transphobic, transmisogynist bullshit that gets used at Michigan to keep trans women out:

“Others are wary of opening Wellesley’s doors too quickly — including one of Wellesley’s trans men, who asked not to be named because he knew how unpopular his stance would be. He said that Wellesley should accept only trans women who have begun sex-changing medical treatment or have legally changed their names or sex on their driver’s licenses or birth certificates. ‘I know that’s a lot to ask of an 18-year-old just applying to college,’ he said, ‘but at the same time, Wellesley needs to maintain its integrity as a safe space for women. What if someone who is male-bodied comes here genuinely identified as female, and then decides after a year or two that they identify as male — and wants to stay at Wellesley? How’s that different from admitting a biological male who identifies as a man? Trans men are a different case; we were raised female, we know what it’s like to be treated as females and we have been discriminated against as females. We get what life has been like for women.’” (from the NYT Magazine article; emphasis mine.)

(Thankfully, Mills College recently shifted their policies to welcome all women, including trans women.)

I have been horrified at how our queer women’s community turns itself inside out to adulate the male and masculine. We fawn over the masculine woman, the butch dyke, the trans-masculine, the masculine of center (MOC). We fall over ourselves to make excuses for MOC folks who have assaulted, harassed, or raped our femme sisters. We call it he said-she said, and don’t (apparently) see the irony — and then we turn around and talk about trans women are a threat to women’s safety because there’s (maybe) a penis in the house.

Hello? Have you been in a room full of butches? Do you know how many cocks are being psychically wielded in that space? I’ve been in the room while the (at that time, majority butch) SF Dyke March committee argued — again— about whether or not trans women were to be explicitly “allowed” at the march (as though anyone could keep anyone from entering a public park — and as though the place wasn’t always crawling with the male friends of attendees), and experienced the butch group members shouting over one another, and certainly over the couple of femmes in the room, to make sure they got across their point that it was trans women who brought male energy into the space.  Whew.

I’m not trying to get into a conversation about the border policing of women’s spaces, or defining who is a woman (folks define that for themselves, thank you), and I am not saying, of course, that there should not be queer spaces open to all queer folks and those we love and those who love us. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t adore our beloveds who transgress gender toward the masculine side of the spectrum. This is a piece about the unquestioned privileging of masculinity — and how fucking tired I am of it.

I think we get to have queer women’s spaces where it’s ok to be a woman. Where it’s ok to call yourself a woman. Where it’s ok to talk about womanness. Where woman gets to be something that’s good, as well as fraught and challenged and challenging. Where I don’t have to swallow my tongue when I want to speak about what I deal with as a queer, femme woman in the US because someone masculine of center might not resonate with what I’m saying. Meanwhile, MOC takes over the cultural conversation around queerness,and I’m supposed to act like that’s right up my alley. Universal “he,” anyone?

Of course, I get it that the NYT Magazine article wanted a readership and manged to find trans men willing to articulate extreme positions — I am certain that there are trans men at historically women’s colleges who value the space exactly because it was created by and for women, and understand that they have transitioned into a role that gives them a measure of privilege (even as it may also (for some trans men) bring with it cultural baggage and hostilities that accrue to men of color) and who allow themselves to acknowledge the very great honor they are receiving as men in a space designed and historically set aside for women. Understanding that everywhere else in the world, given that they are now read and received as men, their voice will be given primacy and privilege, they allow themselves to listen more than they talk — they go about the business of learning to be different sorts of men.

For me (admittedly a plain old cisgendered ostensibly-femme dyke), it’s pretty straightforward: if you don’t identify as a woman, go ahead and step out of the handful of spaces set aside for folks who do identify as women. Affinity spaces serve a purpose. Some places are not open to everyone — and historically oppressed folks get to set aside some spaces for themselves in which to gather, heal, educate, collaborate, and grow. Just because you don’t get to be inside those spaces anymore, because you have decided that your body and soul are better attuned to a different gender, a different way of being in the world, does not mean that you get to go about fissuring those spaces, breaking them open in order to serve you better. That, right there, my friends, in this case, is male privilege speaking.

I can remember my ex (who once identified as a trans-butch dyke, and may still, for all I know) raging about the way queer women allowed their spaces to be coöpted — he told the story of The Cafe in San Francisco, once a dyke bar, from which the women fled once men started coming in to dance (straight men, I think, mostly). Why didn’t we stand up for ourselves? Why didn’t we claim their space? Why don’t we? he wanted to know. But women are trained at a primal level to bow to the masculine, in order to keep ourselves safe. So we tuck our tails, mumble under our breaths, and walk away, only to complain later about how good that space used to be when it was ours.

It’s true that I have a lot of anger about the ways in which the masculine is revered as the be all and end all of dykehood. Perhaps you know this already, having attended one of my performances recently at which Althea Xtravananza makes an appearance. I experienced a profound loss of visibility and respect in the community (and the world, let’s be honest) when I transitioned from butch to femme — suddenly, I turned back into a regular girl, nothing queer or subversive going on here anymore. No more sexual agency (unless I explicitly and actively perform femme top/mistress or femme sub/little girl), no more recognition by other queer women when walking down the street, and suddenly my voice is just a little less valuable, even among other women, and my worth is just a little more about my sexual availability. Lovely.

I wonder what it means for us as a queer women’s community that we are unwilling to deal directly with the ways in which we continue to privilege and revere masculinity, undermine and devalue femininity. Femininity, even among queer or lesbian-identified women, continues to mean weakness and frivolity. Masculinity continues to be equated with strength and seriousness. This lens impacts the weight and value we give to different voices in our community — the masculine voice continues to be privileged, whether that masculinity is packaged as butch or trans male or MOC or whatever masculine-identifier of choice you’d like to use today. Why are historically women’s colleges so afraid of a backlash that they would so quickly begin to question and even alter their admission policies, when trans women have for decades been asking to be recognized as the women they are, as women who should be welcome on these campuses? When will we begin to decenter (queer) masculine voices with the intention of holding persons of all genders in the same high regard and respect?