26 February 2010

Sucking Cock is Gay; Rhinestones are Fabulous (Yes Blanche, There's a Difference)

Earlier this week, David Badash over at The New Civil Rights Movement responded to Chelsea Handler's tweet "You say 'Ice Dancing,' I say 'Gay.'"  Initially I found the comment mildly amusing, if bland and a bit been-there-done-that.  On the other, I think David makes a very valid point that it reinforces a stereotype.  Personally, I love a politically incorrect comedian.   George Carlin is a god in my book, and I have paid good money to have Lisa Lamponelli personally address me as a "cheap Jew bastard cunt faggot.  God Bless!"  I thought it was hilarious and, in the context of meeting her, getting her autograph and seeing her show, one can see that she goes after every possible sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity and religion that commonly experiences discrimination and makes a joke out of it.  That kind of humor isn't for everybody, but I think it's valuable because it's easiest to break down difficult stereotypes laughing at how ridiculous they are.  So there we have our first balancing act to consider: in repeating a stereotype, does the comedian do so in a context and to an audience that allows us to laugh it away, or is it being reinforced?  I think Ms. Handler's comment falls into the latter category.

When I look at what's being reinforced, my concern is not primarily that this is casting all gay men as effeminate. Rather, I'm concerned that we are continually reinforcing the notion that there is en essential gay quality; I am equally concerned when there is an essentialist view of any sex, gender, sexuality, race, etc.  Because these are largely identities we are born and socialized into, people begin to believe that being born gay means you burst through the womb in high heels doing a baton routine and belting out Judy Garland tunes or that being born a woman or a lesbian or a black lesbian or anything else makes a statement that our actions are inherent to our identity, and every other person of that identity.  Any essentialist view of identity is troubling on multiple levels.  On the macro level, it turns any group into a monolithic one, with identical or near identical experiences.  This is simply not true.

On the individual level, an essentialist view of sex, gender and sexuality has very negative repercussions.  Take for example the notion that there is some essential and inviolable characteristic that makes one a woman.  Any chromosomal or biological identity fails this test.  There are women born with only one X chromosome, and women born XY where the SRY masculinization gene on the Y chromosome is missing or inactive.  Not all women menstruate or give birth.  Sexual identity doesn't make a women either; not all women have sex with men.  Traditional femininity doesn't make a woman as women exist all over the spectrum of femininity and masculinity and some transcend the spectrum entirely; they make it three dimensional, spherical, polymorphous and continually evolving.  Even an essentialist view that, if nothing else, all women are born with a vagina is invalidated by transsexual women who are not, in fact, born with a biological female sex.  Feminists with an essentialist view of female/woman identity are one more voice against trans women, denying them safe spaces, access to healthcare, and flat out robbing them of their humanity and making it OK for them, and especially trans women of color, to be proportionally the most attacked and killed in hate crimes of any group in America.  In other words, dismantling essentialist identity, whether you use such fancy phrases or not, is not just an Ivory Tower exercise for the privileged attendees of liberal arts universities.  It can literally be a matter of life and death.

So then, do we really believe that there is an essential experience of being a gay man?  It is undoubtedly true that when you compare gay men to straight men that more of us like show tunes or get excited about Johnny Weir's performance to Lady Gaga's Poker Face.  Even my friends and I are in the habit of, after a conversation about such things adding the addendum "wow, I'm extra gay today," or perhaps adding the hashtag #bigolmo to a tweet.  Yet here I am arguing that there is no essential femininity or other attribute that sets us apart from straight men.

So to clarify, as the title says: I'm gay cause I'll suck a dick like it's the last lollipop smuggled into fat camp.  I'm queer because I'm weird and politically radical and I'm not a six on the Kinsey scale - there are so many hot queers out there and I hardly think that I'd be disinclined to sleep with them just because of their genitalia, or the fact that their genitals have been reshaped by hormones or surgery, or because they don't fit some sexual or gender binary which, hello, is totally made the hell up!  And finally, I'm fabulous because, well, I mean, have you seen me in a corset?  Or a leather jockstrap?  Or just jeans and a t-shirt.  Have you seen me discuss feminist theories as a way of understanding racial discrimination or did you know that I've set my broken nose with a spoon and duct tape?  Yeah, I'm MacGyver like that.  And I'm fucking fabulous day in and day out, and when I'm not feeling fabulous I do pushups or go for a bike ride or give my self a spa day until I'm bringing my A-game in fabulosity again.

Is this because I'm queer?  Partly, largely, but it's not an essential part of me.  It is my reaction to being a big old queen who was scared of boys growing up.  I don't know which came first for sure, but I think that even that was a reaction to a negative experience and not something I was born feeling.  It was an inequality between the sexes that pissed me off from the start, and it was one day in first or second grade that, as usual, the boys were off terrorizing the girls during recess and I was running with the girls, making sure nobody bothered my best friend Meghan.  At some point I had that National Geographic African steppe documentary experience of being prey separated from the herd.  I was the gazelle and he was the hyena, pinning me down, calling me a faggot, telling me I had to take the boy's side and that he was going to punch me if I didn't.  Channeling some dignified resistors of tyranny from the collective unconscious, I straight up brought my Ghandi/King/hunger striking suffragette energy and just lay there silent, refusing to acknowledge or bow to his threats.  My non-violent, silent protest worked and I wasn't bothered again.

So what's the theory?  The theory is that we are not essentially, any of us, queer or not, masculine or feminine or football players or chorus members.  We are born with a personality, and our identity and our actions are shaped by how the world treats us.  I know from the age of four that I was different even though I couldn't verbalize how, and so I was sometimes abused.  Largely I was not; I still had white male privilege and spent most of my formative years in a liberal New Jersey town; that coupled with my personal tendency towards diffusing tension and being extraordinarily trustworthy and non-threatening spared me from the abuse that many other queer boys experience.  Still, being weird and different gave me the liberty to try on more identities outside of what men are supposed to be.  I learned, over many years, that there was no incongruence in baking, playing rugby, sleeping with men, listening to AC/DC and Madonna on the same playlist and wearing heels if I damn well felt like it.  My response to being a queer man in a queer-unfriendly and queer-terrorizing world, like many but not all, was to explore all of the ways I could be a human and sometimes those behaviors stray far into the zone of stereotype.  When I do so, I'm not "acting gay," I'm just being me in a way that makes sense in the world I live in.

One more thought before I leave you lovelies to digest that bit of queer theory and get your Friday night outfits picked out:  It is essential that we take down such stereotypical statements at their root, as we have done here.  Calling out stereotypes without calling out their roots is treating the symptom without addressing the disease; it's removing a tumor without doing the biopsy to see if the disease has become systemic and what it is affecting most deeply.  Often times when we take down a gay stereotype we end up reinforcing homophobia and patriarchy.  (An aside: I don't feel that David's blog did this at all, but many do.)  Instead of addressing the troublesome concept of an essentialist view of queer sexuality, we often see queer men of a more masculine variety, whether than gender presentation is sincere or an attempt to mollify the homophobic, but more specifically effeminate/queen/"stereotypical"/patriarchy-challenging homophobic masses, distance themselves as far from the stereotype as possible.  Instead of affirming that this is one of many valid queer identities, they become apologists to the straight world for such men behaving the way they do or even existing.

I know this is true because once upon a (seriously deluded) time I thought I could be a bad, butch rugby player, the non-stereotypical gay man who sneaked in the back door of patriarchy (no anal sex pun intended, I swear, you guys) and demonstrated that no, we're not all "like that," we're just the same as you, so it's about time we got our freaking equal rights.  The reality is not all gay or straight or black or Jewish or whatever men are all like anything.  We're people, not 32 flavors at Baskin Robins that all stay in separate tubs. When we tackle stereotypes it's important that we honor all of the members of our community, and not just the ones that are the scrubbed and  polished version of what we perceive a queer man or woman to be, ready to be the non-threatening, status quo-maintaining and wholly  ineffective next face of the queer community.  Furthermore, by dismantling the idea that there is an essential gay behavior or set of likes and dislike, we honor the straight men unfairly affected by homophobia, straight men who drop out of dance classes and glee club because those things are not honored by society as being legitimate straight male identities.  Remember, homophobia and it's evil progenitor patriarchy hurt us all.

23 February 2010

An open letter to college students, and students of life.

I once saw John Leguizamo speak and he said something that I really liked, which, at this remote later date I will paraphrase to "I'm not here to be a shining example.  I'm here to be a screaming warning."  I think this may have been related to his story of passing on "Philadelphia" to make "Super Mario Brothers: The Movie" because he thought he was too good looking to play Tom Hanks' lover.  I have had my own similar wacky paths through life and questionable decisions - for example, I saw him at TCNJ early in my career there, maybe 2003.  Now it's 2010 and I'm back to finish a degree that I abandoned four years ago.

I do not regret one minute between now and then.  Sure, knowing what I know now I would make different decisions, but I wouldn't know now what I do without doing what I did so....you see my point.  Now that I'm back, I've got some thoughts.  They apply most directly to college students, perhaps the 19 year olds that can avoid my mistakes by my insight, perhaps the 49 year olds going back after decades - and a minute I'll open this up to everyone, not just matriculated students.

Did you know that for many people, but most definitely for people privileged enough to be enrolled in institutions of higher learning, there is an entire network of people that are dedicated to not only your academic success in the sense of achieving excellent marks, but, if you really care and keep an open mind, are guides for an emotional, intellectual and perhaps even spiritual journey that will forever change and uplift you?  It's true.  I just noticed for the first time this semester that every single one of my teachers will accept papers early to give feedback.  Sometimes if you stay after class to ask a question they will direct you to resources.  One gave us the names of the research librarians that specialize in history and gender studies, respectively. Mind you, I developed a love of research librarians on my first go round as a student and knew they had master's degrees in library science; I did not know that they published scholarly articles and had specialized areas of expertise.  I knew I could ask questions when I stopped by the reference desk; I didn't know I could schedule a one-on-one appointment with a librarian who specialized in my field of research.  Nobody ever told me but, more importantly, I never asked.

That's probably the most important thing I have learned in the last few weeks.  These resources have always been open to me, yet I never asked.  I didn't have the wisdom, maturity, inclination or focus four to eight years ago.  Now I do.  College students everywhere should be asking for help and resources, even if they might not need it, just so they know what support & safety nets are there in case they do.  Employees should be calling HR to make sure they know about all of the benefits available to them.  We should all be talking to people about what they know and are passionate about, because we never know who is ready, willing and able to take us on the next leg of our journey.

(Photo credit: by Marc Meola,  TCNJ librarian from his Flickr)

22 February 2010

This Week in Fabulosity - Mean Little Deaf Queer (& Other Assorted Faggotry)

I was very joyful to get out of the house this weekend.  I was nearing a total meltdown with school, and frankly that didn't fully resolve until late last night when I cleared a thesis with a professor, realized I had plenty of time to write it, and calmed my raggedy over-achieving Virgo ass down.  But I digress.  This Saturday, my fabulous sex blogger flatmate Sarcastabitch reminded me that Giovanni's Room has having both an author reading and Holler, their (relatively) new open-mic night which I have attended previously.   Side note: Sarcastabitch is so intensely, delightfully, snarkily and brilliantly fabulous that she'll also be guest blogging for The Evil Slut Clique because her wit and swish cannot be contained to just one blog.

The evening started with Terry Galloway dramatically reading from her memoir "Mean Little Deaf Queer."  (Follow the link to buy the hardback from Giovanni's Room, or here to get it in paperback edition when that comes out shortly.)  She was pehomenal and an off-the-wall wonder.  She read/performed three excerpts.  The first was about meanness as a way of coping with deafness in her youth, and the second two about passing.  One was passing as less disabled to order to feel less an outsider, and the other about passing as more disabled than she really was in order to make sure she qualified for public assistance in getting new hearing aids. 

It was the latter that I found the most interesting of all, though both about passing made me think about behaviors in which we, whether queer, disabled, ethnic or racial minorities, etc., may take on a very affected behavior outside of us in order to demonstrate ourselves to be either "enough" or "not too much" of whatever it is we think we have to be for the audience we're currently performing for.  Performing different versions of ourselves and others is something that most or all of us do in adolescence or in college or other times in our life that are formative of our emotions and identities.  To see someone not only recall this in their own life but to recreate the performance for us was captivating and it begs the questions: "How does she perceive both her own disability, and that in the context of her larger identity?  How does she perceive her disability compared to others' disabilities?  What does this performance of disability tell us about her perceptions, and do they seem accurate either to us or to her in retrospect?"

Overall, Terry's reading and answering questions for the audience afterward was unwaveringly energetic and captivating; in addition it was, at turns, laugh-out-loud hilarious, cringe-worthy, sympathetic, tugging at our heart strings, and, in moments, cruel.  The title of the book, after all, is "Mean Little Deaf Queer."  In little more than an hour she took us on a real journey that certainly left me wanting more, and so I joyfully purchased the book and had it signed, and am glad to report that Beacon is already looking for Terry to write a sequel.  In this endeavor she has all of my best wishes, and I cannot wait to finish the first, and read the second when it comes out.

I've had so many things to say about Terry's fabulosity that I'll sum up the rest of the evening in a quick stream of consciousness: most  read from anthologies, I from GENDERqUEER, though one young man performed a monologue on performing queerness (performing identity = evening's theme) with great hilairty.  "I am a Christian Woman!" he exclaimed.  Delicious audience member with beautiful braided hair.  Delicious hummus afterward with some queer gals and one "butch tranny fag."  Baklava and coming out stories.  His fascinated: first as a dyke, then as a trans man who has a wifey, is queeer, is "down for the tranny cock" (as in, other trans men like himself), does not love cis-men's penises.  My cock barely bristled; not everybody can love it.  More than enough do and that's fine.  Strawberry-vanilla hookah and homemade baklavah.  Deliciousness abound.