FH-hummingbird-slider

the dance floor was the one safe place to have a body

CW: violence, sex, grief, a graphic detail about rape

This morning, I’m out at my neighborhood cafe, where they are playing club music to wake up the patrons. Or maybe in solidarity and grief and resistance. this cafe is queer-owned/-operated, and has sizable queer clientele. A handful of folks come in who I read as queer; we’re subdued this morning. We don’t smile big. We give each other the side eye, we purse our lips in that sort of sad smile that says, I’m grieving, too, even though I’m out in the world trying to look like I have my shit together. The world feels quieter today, muted, and not just because of the fog dampening the trees and the morning commute.

This morning I am grieving like so many of us are grieving because we’ve had a mass shooting hit us in our back yard. Many others of us are grieving because this is only the latest shooting to target someone or some community we love.

My love and I spent early Sunday morning with the New York Times, out on the back deck in the sun. After more than a week of doing everything I could to avoid hearing or reading about the Stanford Rape fiasco, I finally felt like I was ready to look. To open my eyes and look. To pull my head out of the sand and look, read, take it in. I’d been avoiding the news because I didn’t want to be surprised by details of the violence, I didn’t want to hear any more about how a white man’s future is protected by all the white men in power, even though he raped a drunk woman in the bushes and was witnessed in the act. I didn’t yet want to read her letter. I wasn’t ready. I just didn’t have the room in my body for the details, and for the rage that rises up in me every time I even think about it, and I wanted to wait until I did have some room in me before I tried to take in the story. I avoided Facebook even more studiously that usual, not wanting to run into excerpts of the survivor’s letter, into yet another story about the rapist or, even worse, learning the details from some ironic Facebookable image or satirical story.

Just yesterday, sitting on the back porch with the New York Times review section, I ran into yet another article about the case — I suppose I should be grateful that rape is finally deemed newsworthy in this way — and thought, Ok. All right. Fine. I’ll read it. I took a deep breath, and got about a quarter of the way in, until I reached a line that included details about gravel in the victim’s vagina. And then I shouted, “That’s enough!” and turned the page. My beloved looked at me sympathetically as I was shrieking at newsprint.

Until we got in the car an hour after that to drive the 45 minutes to the little church that I fell in love with when I lived in Tiburon, I didn’t know about the violence in Orlando. We switched on the radio, which was turned down low, and heard the whisper of one of the NPR announcers talking about special coverage of yet another mass shooting — and then I grabbed my phone and looked up the news.” It was a gay bar,” I said. “A gay bar.”

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I still haven’t read anything that explains why it took the police three hours to get into that bar after patrons started calling 911.

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Yesterday, driving down the hill from church and looking out on the San Francisco Bay, I thought about how it could have been us. I thought, Those were kids, the people in that bar — queer youth looking for sanctuary, looking for sweetness and solidarity and, yes, sex.

They were like us, who piled into Anna’s suburban late on a Sunday to head over to the one bar in the Upper Valley that had an “alternative lifestyle” night, who knew that if we timed it just right, the bouncer wouldn’t care that some of us were underage because the bar was going to close in an hour anyway, and we tumbled into the place like a bunch of oversexed puppies and took over (we thought we took over, I thought we took over) the dance floor, and we preened and performed for each other and the “older folks” (who were what, 35?) and spun and bounced and flirted and had one place that we were “normal,” we were the majority, we were right. This place was one of the few sanctuaries I had in the world, one of the places my stepfather would have never thought to try and track me down, one of the places where sometimes I almost even forgot about him and what he had made me into. The club, the dance floor, was my reclamation space, my resistance to incest and rape; it was, for some years, some many years, the only place it felt truly safe to have a body.

I thought about the majority young, majority-Latinx queer folks at Pulse this weekend and what that night, last Saturday night/early Sunday morning, was supposed to be for them. I thought about how hard some of the people in that club had had to work just to walk in the door. I thought about the joy and delight, the sexuality, the history and ache throbbing in that place.

The word we have for the act of violating a place of holiness and worship is desecration. What the shooter did on Saturday night was a desecration.

Where can we go to be safe? Where can we go to let down our guard? As women, as queer folks, and I think even more for my QTPOC beloveds and community, what does ‘safe space’ even mean?

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 I listened to the news yesterday, learned that the shooter was of Middle Eastern descent, and thought, Just wait for what Trump is going to say. Just wait for the Republicans to pretend to be friends of the queer community now. Meanwhile, LGBTQ rights are under assault across the country. Meanwhile, the same politicians who called us perverts yesterday are going to try and use us now to further their cause for war. They don’t care about queer people. They care about power and violence.

Meanwhile, queer men still can’t donate blood unless they’ve been celibate for a year. (In protest of this rule, I myself haven’t donated blood since the 90s.)

I’m afraid of what white gay folks and queers will do, are doing, with news like this. We tend to make it all about ourselves, and only about ourselves — all gay and only gay, forgetting about or actively erasing the intersections. This was an attack on queer folks, yes, and primarily on queer people of color. Yesterday I turned on the radio for a minute, just to be with people who were talking about the horror, and I heard a reporter relay the comments of someone at a rally: “This is our Charleston, SC!” I can only imagine this was a white person speaking, though I might be wrong; I make this assumption because white queer folks have a history of laying claim to Black struggle with entitlement. I had to turn off the radio immediately, because I started shouting again. Queer folks have been under attack throughout human history; we don’t have to appropriate an atrocity committed on Black folks (some of whom may certainly have been queer) in a house of worship (who were targeted for their Blackness in a place of sanctuary by a white man whose actions were not called terrorism and initiated no calls to remove all white men or white people from the country, though because historically violence of this nature is committed overwhelmingly by white men, a case could be made that we might be a safer country if we did just that).

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At the end of last week, while having sex with my beloved, I ran my hands up and down her body, over and over, and felt a kind of thick astonishment that I get to be with this woman. With this woman. It was an old feeling, like I imagine dykes in the 50s or 60s felt, this terrified wonder, this sense of transgressing, of holding something I was never supposed to be able to hold, of experiencing a kind of joy and pleasure I was never supposed to be able to experience. Like I was doing something wrong. Maybe that feeling is my legacy, a kind of queer bone memory. I thought, But why should I be feeling this way today, in 2016, when queer folks have so much acceptance, when no one cares anymore if you’re queer?

Then I remembered the number of trans women murdered just so far this year. Then I remembered that I live in a bubble here in the Bay Area — that when I met my sweetheart at the airport in Omaha when I was there visiting a couple of weeks ago, we both hesitated before kissing hello. I put my lips on her forehead instead. Just taking her hand and wrapping her up in my welcoming arms felt wildly visible, potentially dangerous. We laughed about it nervously, but I kept an eye on the people who were keeping their eyes on us. (A few days later, back in the airport on our way out, we passed a man arriving in Omaha wearing a tshirt that read Black Guns Matter – and I was so sad to acknowledge that I was glad to be leaving.)

Then I heard the news about Orlando.

Yes, it’s still transgressive to love and want a woman the way I love and want mine. Yes, there are still plenty of people who want to see queerfolks “cured” or fixed or killed. Yes, there are still plenty of people who “love the sinner and hate the sin. Yes, there are politicians – and plenty of folks in their constituencies – who would happily legislate queerfolks out of existence.

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These are days for grief and rage. We live in a white supremacist patriarchy that privileges access to weaponry over the sanctity of human life, that cares more about the future well-being of a white male rapist than about holding him accountable for his crimes, that over and over deems Black and Brown bodies expendable, that treats gender transgressive bodies as crimes against nature. Change is possible — isn’t it true that change must be possible, that resistance and solidarity and the vision of something different must take precedence over hopelessness and resignation? But today it’s a struggle to pull away from the quicksand of hopelessness.

I have been thinking since yesterday of a poem by Essex Hemphill that I’ve handed out at many of my erotic writing groups – his words speak louder and more clearly than anything else I could say.

American Wedding
by Essex Hemphill

In america,
I place my ring
on your cock
where it belongs.
No horsemen
bearing terror,
no soldiers of doom
will swoop in
and sweep us apart.
They’re too busy
looting the land
to watch us.
They don’t know
we need each other
critically.
They expect us to call in sick,
watch television all night,
die by our own hands.
They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.

What the rose whispers
before blooming
I vow to you.
I give you my heart,
a safe house.
I give you promises other than
milk, honey, liberty.
I assume you will always
be a free man with a dream.
In america,
place your ring
on my cock
where it belongs.
Long may we live
to free this dream.

FH-hummingbird-slider

not confused

(I began this last fall, and never posted it, because I couldn’t finish the piece… more about that at the end.)

I’ve been immersed in sexual assault these days. (So much so that I can’t even engage in my usual mild self-harming practice of watching Law and Order:SVU) Who isn’t, though — I mean, when aren’t we all immersed in sexual assault and hostility? When do we get a break?

I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s new book The Small Backs of Children (read it), then her essay Explicit Violence when thinking about how to write about violence without “overwhelming” my readers (a topic we discuss often in grad school — never mind that no matter how explicitly I describe the violence done to me or my sister, how cleanly I can recreate the house we lived in, the reader is never going to be as overwhelmed as we are just living with the memories). One book I read for my Autobiograpy class includes the narrator getting routinely raped by her brother, almost gang raped by older boys at her high school, and pressured into sex by her “boyfriend”– and that’s just in the first 80 pages. Never mind the news: Bill Cosby, sexual assaults on camps, story after story about how the Catholic Church continues to cover up the abuse of children perpetrated by its priests around the world. My dear friend tells me some of what she’s learning in her anti-trafficking trainings, as local organizations ramp up their services in advance of the Super Bowl. I get an announcement from the SFSU security deparment, reporting a stranger rape on campus, which reads like an old-school alt.sex.stories.rape post…

And then there’s the writing I’m trying to do — finding the words for it, writing down the old stories, the stories I haven’t written yet, the parts of my story that appear between the time Before and the time After. I’ve spent a lot of ink these last ten years writing about After, but I’ve done very little writing about During. And writing about the During means being back in the During — means having to remember what it felt like to be a confused 12, 14, 16 year old, being back in that body, being back in that disembodiment.

I’m thinking a lot about writing violence, how violence is portrayed, who gets to wield it unreservedly, even in fiction.

There have been two sharp spotlights of surprise in all this media consumption of violence against women. The first was while my sweetheart and I were watching the Sopranos (please don’t ask how I got myself watching this show that I managed to avoid watching for all these years), and in one episode, a woman simply picks up a gun and shoots in the chest a man (her fiancee) who had hit her in the face. I couldn’t help it — I cheered.

The other while watching Queen Latifah’s portrayal of Bessie Smith in the HBO movie Bessie. The movie gives us Bessie Smith as an absolutely take-n0-shit kind of woman — in one of the earliest scenes (spoiler alert), Bessie is fooling around, drunkenly, with a guy in an alleyway back behind a theater where she’s performing. Her back’s against the brick wall, they’re having a good time, and then he’s trying to pull down her drawers, which she doesn’t want, and she says no. He keeps pressing, pushing her to go further than she wants. She knocks his hands away, and he punches her hard in the face, knocking her over, and curses her. While she’s bent down, and he’s preparing to go ahead and take what she wouldn’t give him, she picks up a shard of glass. She straightens up and stabs him in the side, doubling him over. Then she stands over him and says something like, I said I wanted to fool around, but I didn’t want all that, damn. And it was just getting good, too. Then she kicks him, not hard, just a kind of nudge — a sharp nudge. Her brother bursts out of the back door, frantic — it’s time for her to go on stage. So Bessie leaves the guy bleeding, goes back into the theater, dons her costume, rushes out on stage and sings for a packed house, with a bleeding cut on her head.

I cheered then, too.

There are several moments in Bessie, actually, where we get to see her bashing back on the men who expect her to simply and unquestioningly comply with their wishes, sexual and otherwise. She doesn’t appear to hesitate, just turns the violence they do to her right and exactly back onto them. And because they don’t expect it, don’t expect any woman to fight back, to stand up for themselves, to say no and have the full power of their strength and agency behind that no, the men are astonished at Bessie Smith — I was astonished, too, because I, too, have been conditioned not to expect any woman to fight back, to stand up for themselves, to say no and have the full power of their strength and agency behind that no.

It gets beaten out of us. It gets terified out of us. It gets silenced out of us.

Around the time I watched Bessie last fall, I said to my sweetheart, what if women’s violence were a more common response to men’s violence? It isn’t the solution I want for us as a human race, and yet, just today, I want all of us armed with knives and coat hangers and guns and shards of glass. I want all of us put through tae quan do training, I want all of us fully aware of our phenomenal strenghth, not just internally but externally — in our biceps and quads, in our jaws and teeth. How many men would keep shoving their dicks in mouths that are absolutely willing to bite down hard enough to sever flesh from flesh

Do you think men will stop their violence on their own? Do you think they will be peacefulled, yoga’d, west-coast-Buddhist-ed out of it? Do you think those ecstatically-dancing, hippie Burning Man guys aren’t beating their girlfriends, sexually assaulting drunken female rvelers (who thought they were hanging out with friends in a place of peace and love and new possibility), aren’t expecting that the new order will still have them absolutely in control?

Think again.

“Listen, I know this is a bit of a dreary story. But whenever I get told that, by friends, or agents, or editors, or publishers, I think, if this dreary story is hard for you to live with, how are we supposed to live with you?” – Lidia Yuknavitch, “Explicit Violence

Are we still really wondering whether no means no? Are today’s college-age men learning something that their older brothers didn’t learn?  Are they doing it differently? You saw the study last year announcing that nearly a third of college-age men in this country say they’d commit rape if they thought they could get away with it: “When combined with what the study’s authors described as ‘callous sexual attitudes,’ the results suggest a man with a hostile attitude toward women may view “forced intercourse as an achievement,” and a woman saying ‘no’ could be ‘perceived as a token resistance consistent with stereotypical gender norms.’”

Also last year, in a story about affirmative consent (which means that folks get to say yes to sex they want, instead of it being all right for someone to fuck them just because they didn’t hear her/him/hir say no loudly enough), the author wrote: “Studies have found these stereotypes, even in the age of hookup sites like Tinder, to be generally true. Men tend to rely on nonverbal cues in interpreting consent (61 percent say they get consent via body language), but women tend to wait to be asked before signaling consent (only 10 percent say they give consent via body language). No wonder there’s so much confusion.” (“Affirmative Consent; Are Students Really Asking?” New York Times, 7/28/15)

Confusion. Aha — that’s what we’re calling it.

Here’s the thing: They’re not confused. We’re not confused, no matter how long (like, centuries) they’ve worked to convince us otherwise.

Is it any wonder that I can’t listen to the news these days. I look up stories of women who fight back —

And right here is when I stopped writing last fall — I looked up links to those stories of women who fight back against men who are assaulting them, and was overwhelmed with all the stories from around the world of women being attacked by men, page after page after page. I couldn’t read through even a fraction of them just to pick out two or three links, no matter how much I wanted to show you a couple of the women who said No More and “won.” But instead, guess what I found? You know. You know what happens to many women who say no more — they’re jailed for killing the men who’ve been abusing them for years, for fighting back against the rapist (against whom they have to fight back if they want to be taken seriously as “victim” rather than “tease”) — or they’re killed.

There’s a reason many of us keep our old Hothead Paisan books in easy reach.

I just tried again to find those links. And had the same experience. So let me just link here to Home Alive in Seattle — the organization that formed in the wake of the murder of Gits’ singer Mia Zapata in 1993, which offers self defense classes and information rooted in social justice analysis. This is a group of folks who said No More, and are still alive, still fighting, not giving any ground to the folks who want to hold on to the license to rape offered by the so-called confusion about what the words yes and no mean, and yet also holding out hope that a different world is possible (to paraphrase the tagline of the US Social Forum), with heads held high, shoulders back, eyes up, unashamed of our strength, unashamed of our survival, unashamed of all the truths we have to tell, and honoring every bit of the myriad ways we fight back every day of our lives. 

Thank you for your resistance. Thank you for your resilience. Thank you for your words.

FH-hummingbird-slider

(nablopomo #9) how deep are we really ready to go?

graffiti of a girlchild holding on to a bunch of balloons, which are carrying her over the wall the graffiti is painted onGood morning good morning. The wall heater has just kicked on, so I can’t hear the owl that I was about to describe to you — s/he’s out in the pine trees, maybe situated near the top, maybe watching the moon, who-who-whoing every now and again, waking up the air around me this morning.

How is it where you are? I ask this every day, and here’s why: 1) I’m curious (and if you wanted to tell me about it in the comments, I’d love it) and 2) I think it matters for our writing, to know how we’re situated, I mean the details of place, what and where we begin from.

(A note about comments: I love them and am so grateful when you write here. I’m not always able to respond right away, but the responses mean so much to me, and I want to offer a public thank you right here.)

There’s work to do, a talk for next week to prepare (how do you define liberatory, after all?), but I’m here with this quiet page, quiet music, quiet cold air, not quite into the day yet, because it’s still dark out, so that means we’re in the inbetween. Night, early morning, isn’t that the inbetween?

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There are big things I’d like to write about this morning — including the sexual assault awfulness at Penn State and the way sexual violence is being used and ignored at #ows encampments. When does this writing happen?

I set my timer and am just doing it. These subjects don’t go away, but public interest in them does, fades, shifts to the next best public horror. At Penn State, they’re apparently working with the model of the mainstream Catholic Church, which means, allow the pedophile to continue to have access to the children, and to use resources and facilities for his violence, but work, always work, to keep it quiet and hidden. Then they said, well, just don’t do it on campus. Yes, thank you. Take it home, don’t do it here. That way, we’re not liable. We don’t have to call you out or fire you. We don’t have to be accountable.

The truth is that we have plenty of precedent for this, not just the catholic church. This way of engaging power is all around us. Is this part of what the #ows movement wants to change? This is certainly part of the privilege that the 1% wants to hold onto, that many in the 99% also expect to have access to.

Why is anyone surprised at this behavior, at this story? The fact is, I want to be surprised. I want to be horrified. I’m not. It doesn’t feel like a calloused or cynical thing, more like familiarity with what goes on behind the surfaces of perfection and ostensible ethics. (You’ll remember, or some of you won’t know, that my mother’s second husband, the man who violated all of us, he was a child sexual abuse therapist, who wrote articles and small books about treating CSA) — The thing I heard on the news about this coach,  the one who covered for the pedophile, was that his ethics were always impeccable, everyone counted on him to do things the right way.

How do we learn to trust people again, when they never give us the chance to?

There’s more. Don’t stop. I want the details of this story, I want all of those people, those men, the men who colluded with this violence, the men who made it possible for all those boys to be raped, I want them fired, I want them held to account. Maybe jailed, but better would be a public remembrance — don’t forget. What does transformative/restorative justice look like in this case? Do they need to sit in a room with the boys and their families and listen to the damage that they were instrumental in causing? Do they need to not just apologize but provide financial restitution? They wanted to distance themselves from this man’s actions but somehow also, for reasons I don’t understand because I’m not a sports person or because I’m not a man, they wanted to keep him around. What do they have in their own closets? Why not fire him as soon as they learned about the abuse, the violence? Why are the priests moved around from parish to parish instead of fired, released from duty, sent to a monastery where they won’t have access to children, something? What is the investment for those in power, if not  so that those in power can continue to render themselves blameless for their own violences?

Why do we continue to expect more than violence from those in positions of power, when they show us, over and over, that they will violate our trust, our skin, when given opportunity — when we see, over and over, that those around them will shield them, not us.

This is where it gets complicated — we want to change how financial resources are distributed, in and with and through this movement, but we don’t necessarily want to give up our white privilege and we don’t necessarily want to give up our access to women’s and children’s bodies (& to men’s bodies, too). Is that it? What part of cultural revolution doesn’t include a revolution around engagement with racial violence and sexual violence? Deep change means giving it all up, means letting go of the places where you had unearned power and privilege, also — without knowing what will happen after you open your hands and bodies and release.

If the movement doesn’t deal with these structural, cultural places of damage and pain, it will disintegrate. First, because the ‘new society’ being created will look awfully the same to folks of color, all women, all children — change that comes for white men isn’t the only change we need. Second, because those in power, the 1%, will always say that they want to protect women and children, and will use the issue of sexual violence as a reason to attack and dismantle encampments — not because they care about protecting anyone from sexual violence, mind you, but because they want the movement to go away. We’ve seen this already, at occupyoakland and elsewhere.

What are we fighting for at this time of revolution? How deep are we really ready and willing to go?

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The nablopomo prompt for today is this: When was the first time that you realized that your home was not like other people’s homes? I have an old piece of writing to share, in response to this:

I was hunched up against the night, sometimes. I watched all the lights go on inside.  I looked in shamelessly, walked my dog through quiet neighborhoods where nothing was happening inside the houses that would make you want to call the cops.  I looked in and watched dinner times, I watched rooms turned blue flickering with television, I watched straining and want.  I passed by.  I never stood there. I passed by.  The crickets were nighttime and I was safe in them. No one was baking bread. That was a long time ago, back when the fields were real and the houses were wool and the streets outside were gravel and cicada shells swollen with puffs of cottonwood trees, swollen with something. Possibility. Hope.  At 5, there’s nothing but.  At 5, there’s nothing but.  Later, though.  Then.  Now.  Teenager in crimson pants or nothing.  Teenager in bright green anger. Teenager gliding through nothing like hope anymore because the concrete has thrown itself up into roadblocks.

Where can I go with this story, tell the drama of those walks and all they meant for me. They were like a movie but worse, a long-going soap opera, a hope for something new, no, just escape. They were a movie where I’d never be interrupted because it was all in my own head.  This was near the university, not so far from Elmwood Park, where I only went alone when I was older and I learned there was nothing to be scared of, nothing scarier than I might find at home.  This was why I hated winter.  Walks were circumscribed.  The dog got cold and so did I and I hated being all bundled. I hated the ways the windows got frosty and kept me out; I couldn’t see inside, could just see the blue flickering against the ice on the windowpanes.  A pristine kind of privacy. Winter kept me locked out., and in.  Winter kept me too hot in my own head with no time away for distraction.  No crickets.  Still no bread.  Just the cold against the fingers.  Just the frost heaves, just the grass turning dead but still green, too poisoned, too fertilized.  What were those walks but forays into aloneness? What were they but desperation?  I’d defend myself when I got home, learned to gauge what was too much, too long. An hour? Mid day summer vacation only.  Nighttime?  Strictly ten minutes or less, unless I was pushy.  And I usually was.  That was my problem.  Half an hour with the dog meant half an hour of relative freedom, some new breath, something unsupervised.  Not free.  Just unwatched movements, when I could watch alone.

Want to use this as your prompt? Give yourself 10 minutes, just 10 minutes, set the timer, put the pen to the page, write straight through, don’t stop and don’t think/edit/censor. Let the words come. More than you might imagine can emerge in 10 minutes.

Thanks for all the questions you’re asking, the places you’re holding open for answers to emerge. Thanks for your deep engagement in complication. Thank you for your words.