Archive for August, 2011

Positive Space

Posted: August 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

I thought I would take a break from dissecting our community’s clashes and issues to talk about something positive. It’s a temporary reprieve; the damp and gloomy Northwest winter is around the corner, and after a chilly and gray “summer” I’m already primed for a stark, introspective, Bergman-film-like state of mind.

For the moment, though, it’s warm(ish) and (sort of) sunny … so I want to acknowledge that despite some inevitable conflicts about names and spaces and why they matter and what they mean (and there is more to be said about that, but in a different post), it is exciting and gratifying to watch our community grow. It is encouraging to see a wider range of gender expressions find a foothold, and to see a broader range of expression even within the butch identity. I am hopeful that fewer kids will be in the position many of us were in, growing up having absolutely no frame of reference for ourselves, no way to project ourselves into the world.

Even had I known what butches were, I’m not sure I would have seen myself as one when I was young. I didn’t fit any of the classic butch archetypes. I was never a tomboy. And I wasn’t rough or rugged or dangerous. No one wanted me on their teams and no one ever thought I was a boy. But I really wasn’t a girl either, even on those infrequent occasions when I tried to be. In the world as I knew it, I wasn’t anything at all. I was a phantom or a fiction. I was one of those drawings of negative space that beginning art students are always taught. I was nothing. I didn’t understand how to be in the world, how I was supposed to look or act. I didn’t understand how I could measure my worth if I had nothing to measure it by. I didn’t understand how I could even have any worth.

Had I been more enlightened or more confident maybe I could have seen the lack of definition as freedom. Maybe I could have imagined possibilities. But from within the confines of my own insecurity and the limited horizons of my working-class neighborhood and small blue-collar town, I could see mostly dead-ends and isolation. I couldn’t imagine possibilities for myself; I couldn’t imagine anything beyond getting away from there. But ultimately that was enough to propel me forward. Though I couldn’t exactly picture a world where I was an actual something, I still hoped for it. It was just enough to keep me alive.

I want more than that for today’s youth. I want them to feel confident that they do have a place, even if they haven’t yet figured out what they want that place to be. I want them to understand that they are real, that what they are is real. I want them not to worry too much about archetypes and just worry about finding their way. I want them to see only possibilities, not negative space.

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No I am not blogging from Glacier National Park. I didn’t want to leave the blog empty the whole week though, so I am posting another installment in the ‘celebrating 25 years of being an out dyke’ series.

When I came out in college in 1986, I quickly became involved in the lesbian and gay rights group on campus, so most of my friends were activists and of course they were heading to D.C. in October of 1987 for the second March on Washington. They had a car arranged and a place to sleep and they invited me to go along. All I needed to do was show up and chip in for food and gas. It was a chance to be part of something historic. It was a chance to feel connected to a huge community. It was a chance to maybe get laid.*

But it was the weekend of my parents’ 40th Anniversary party — my conservative parents, to whom I was most definitely not out. So I glumly resigned myself to spending that fine fall weekend in my miserable hometown** instead of Washington D.C., doing my familial duty. I thought I was missing out on the chance for a transformative experience. I was wrong.

Almost as soon as I arrived home, my mother directed me to a small stack of newspapers from the previous several days. They were folded open to a series of articles about a controversy over the existence of a gay bar in town. I had a moment of panic, wondering why she was saving these and showing them to me. It turned out the bar was a few blocks from my aunt’s house. She was away on vacation and my mother was collecting the papers so my aunt could catch up on the hubbub when she returned.

I tried to seem nonchalant as I began reading the articles, though my stomach was tying itself into such tight knots that I felt like I would vomit. The bar was owned by an older woman and her son and it had been a typical neighborhood bar struggling to get by. When the owners saw two men dancing together there one evening, they told the pair they were welcome at the bar and suggested they tell their friends the same. Business boomed as more and more gay men came to the bar, along with a few lesbians.

 Neighbors were outraged. The “reasonable” ones wanted to shut the bar down. The less reasonable ones wanted patrons arrested. Or dead. The sheriff apologized to the community because being homosexual was “unfortunately not illegal” so he had no grounds to make arrests. He accepted as inevitable that the bar would be firebombed and said that he would “even feel bad for those who were trapped inside” when it was. He said that as though he was being magnanimous. As though the queers who were injured or killed would have had it coming. The flood of vitriol, venom and insults stood basically unchallenged. The only person who was publicly defending the bar or its patrons (besides the bar owners) was someone the ACLU sent in from out-of-town.***

I wanted to yell obscenities. I wanted to cry. I wanted to be able to acknowledge how personal it was for me, that it wasn’t just this odd thing that was happening in town. Hell, I wanted to go to the bar. Instead I returned the newspapers to their neat pile and muttered something about how ridiculous people were being. I didn’t say another word about it, but my head buzzed and my guts churned all weekend. My friends were marching in D.C. with hundreds of thousands of other gay people as I sat alone in an angry, pained silence.

But after that weekend, I understood that I had to come out to my parents sooner rather than later. I understood that it was important to me to feel like I could always choose to be out. It was important to me not to feel afraid or ashamed. Maybe going to the march**** would have had the same effect on me, I don’t know. But I do know that I came out to my parents on December 27, 1987. I do know that I have been out at every place where I have worked longer than a few months. I do know that in that October weekend, I was transformed.

 

* What? I was an activist, not the Dali Lama.
** It’s an auto industry town that has been dying a slow death economically over the last several decades. There’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. It has a regular spot at or near the top of the FBI’s list of cities with high rates of violent crime.
*** The bar owners eventually shut down in fear of their safety and the safety of anyone who patronized the bar.
**** When the third March on Washington happened in 1993, I was the editor of a lesbian community paper and I did attend the march. It was an amazing, joyous experience that I will never forget. I did not, however, get laid.

 I said last time that the next post would be about sex. Yeah, that’s not happening. Not yet. It’s not you, it’s me. As I started to write it, I realized there were several components that I wanted to introduce first, but I don’t want it to get too rambling and far-flung. So I need some time to work on it and kick around a little. In the meantime, I’m going to post on some other things. Maybe I even throw some vacation photos on here when I get back.

I am going to post one more thing that is tangentially related to the Butch Voices stuff, and then move on to other things. But I was having a conversation last evening about the BV stuff and the formation of Butch Nation, and I said that I hoped Butch Voices can find balance and that Butch Nation doesn’t emerge as reactionary, which would be a pretty typical thing to happen given the circumstances of its birth. I’m not sure how things are going to shake out with the two organizations, but it got me thinking about what I would like to see.

I hope for a butch organization that:

  • Has core feminist, anti-oppression, social justice values. These values should guide how the organization does its business.
  • Has a mission or vision statement that explicitly rejects a binary gender system.
  • Includes the landscape of butch identities not just in word but within the power structure. There has to be balanced power sharing as part of the organizational structure.
  • Has a regional powerbase. I would like to see something like regional chapters that have representation on the organization’s board/steering committee and that put on annual regional conferences. A structure like this allows broad participation in organizing, presenting at, and attending conferences.
  • Holds a bi-annual national conference. A bi-annual national conference is less financially draining than an annual one, and it allows the regional conferences to have the spotlight during the off years.
  • Has a few clearly articulated goals that are updated biannually as a follow-up to the national conference. These goals should inform the next biennial’s activities. For instance, perhaps at one of the national conferences a theme emerges from the discussions that centers on the need for more cross-generational dialog. The organization might adopt that as a goal and make a point of developing some activities through the 2-year period with that goal in mind.
  • Leverages technology to make some of its activities accessible without travel costs. Explore web-based panels and discussions. Hold regular web-based meetings between regional chapters, etc.
  • Recognizes that although female-identified butches and male-identified butches have many common issues and experiences, there is enough variation of experiences to justify undertaking smaller-scope activities that are focused on one portion of the butch landscape. They key would be to make sure resources are allocated fairly among different areas of the landscape. And certainly the regional and national conferences would need to address the organization’s entire constituency.
  • Partners with similar allied organizations (e.g. the Femme Collective) for resource sharing (shared expenses for web conferencing account, domain hosting, possibly some shared/coordinated fundraising activities, etc) where such sharing is beneficial to all parties.

That’s my wish-list at the moment.

After reading some of the discussions around the Butch Voices controversy over the last several days, I have been thinking about the broader issues that are being raised, issues that are part of this current situation but really have more far-reaching origins and implications. As others have noted, they are difficult conversations to have but I think we have seen that not having them isn’t really serving us well either.

One of the issues is that of how we even talk about sexism and misogyny in our communities. I have seen these discussions stall and flame out for years, often getting stuck on the same roadblocks again and again. I’m trying to come up with a good list of basic ground rules, some points everyone can agree on up-front so we can move the dialog forward when concerns are raised.

  1. We are all stakeholders in these discussions. If we are genuinely trying to create non-sexist communities and organizations then we must all be full participants in these conversations. While autonomous organizing among groups will always have its place, it is not valid to suggest that femmes should have limited participation in the larger discussion of sexism/misogyny in butch or trans communities.  And seriously, a femme who dates butches/transbutches/transmen is going to wind up on the business end of an awful lot of the misogyny manifested by them. So yeah, she has a stake* or two in this.
  2. Sexism/misogyny exists in our communities. None of us chose it; we were raised in a culture suffused with it. It’s not our fault that it exists but it is our fault if we choose to ignore it. It exists in every community** though it will not always manifest the same. This means, for example, if we are talking about the ways sexism/misogyny is perpetuated by butches, we are not saying it does not exist among femmes, nor do we need to take time out of that discussion to list the ways it is perpetuated by femmes. That is a different discussion.
  3. It still counts even if you are not aware you are doing it. That’s part of how –isms work; they become so deeply woven into what we consider normal that we don’t notice them if we don’t have to (i.e. if you’re in the group who is being bludgeoned by a particular –ism, you tend to notice it more).
  4. No individual gender presentation or identity is inherently sexist or misogynistic. Choosing to identify as male or to fully transition is not an abandonment or betrayal of feminist values.
  5. Someone calling you on sexist or misogynistic behavior or language cannot be dismissed as an attack against your gender expression or identity as long as that person is abiding by rule #4.
  6. When someone calls you on sexist or misogynistic behavior or language, they are not saying that you are a bad person. This means, among other things, a general defense of the caliber of your personhood or purity of your intentions is both unneeded and inappropriate. Focus on the behavior or language that is being called into question.
  7. When someone calls you on sexist or misogynistic behavior or language, recounting your history of grievances against feminists or lesbians or whoever is not a valid response. Yes maybe some feminists have truly done you wrong in the past, that doesn’t exempt you from having to deal with your sexist/misogynistic shit.  And the way this scenario typically (not always) plays out is itself covered in a sticky sexist coating; it’s meta-sexism.  Feel free to hum along if you know this one, it goes something like this: Femme raises concerns about something being sexist or misogynistic. Butch or transman details one or more injustices committed against them that have nothing to do with the femme they are speaking to and have nothing to do with the action that they are being challenged on, but do have something to do with someone who identified as a feminist. Discussion screeches to a halt so butch or transman can be reassured and validated.  Femme’s initial concerns are set aside, minimized, or abandoned completely.
  8. If you are inclined to say something like “Misogyny means hating women and I love women, so what’s the problem” then you are a fucking tool who is being willfully obtuse and trying to derail discussion rather than engage in it. Go away and don’t come back until you’ve read beyond the first line of the Wikipedia entry and are ready to take this seriously.

That’s what I’ve come up with so far. Let me know if I’ve forgotten anything that should be a ground rule.

Be sure to tune in next time for: Butch Enough’s first post about sex. If I don’t chicken out. I kinda feel like there’s no point in me writing a post about sex if I’m not willing to make myself a little uncomfortable with it, so I’m still talking myself into it. But next week seems like a good time to try because I am leaving on vacation at the end of the week. And either I will a) get eaten by a bear*** (grizzly, not gay!) and not have to face having basically stood naked in front of the class or b) not get eaten by a bear (grizzly or gay!) and be so relieved about that I won’t care so much about having stood naked in front of the class.****

* I have recently met a femme who is very into Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Very. Into. Now, I love me some Buffy but I do not think I will ever know as much about anything as this femme knows about Buffy. And it’s not the first time I’ve come across a femme who is waaay into Buffy, so I couldn’t write the paragraph about stakes and stake-holders without imagining a whole crew of femme vampire slayers armed with pointy sticks, taking out monsters. Which is bad, because this post is about a Very Serious And Important Topic and I shouldn’t get distracted like that, but there you go.

** Back in the 90s I worked for a lesbian organization in the Northwest. We were pretty much all good, dedicated lesbian feminists and yet were still hamstrung at times by internalized sexism. It manifested in an organizational culture of privation (“Someone brought us a beat-up, flea-infested sofa for our drop-in center? We’ll take it!”) which we did have some success in countering, and in a maddening resistance to making decisions and exercising leadership in the community, which we never really overcame. And we didn’t even talk about it. I brought it up sometimes, but it was kind of our dirty little secret.

*** Some of you have read this from me elsewhere, but I have a paranoia about bear attacks that is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk. And I am vacationing somewhere that features a nontrivial risk of bear attack. Relaxing!

**** The “naked” thing is a metaphor. I am not going to be posting naked or semi-naked pictures of myself here. Ever. Almost certainly.