Monday, December 16, 2013

Why They Hate Us and Why We Have To Live At The End Of The Story: For May Jawdat and Ryka Aoki

Presented at Glitterati: An Evening of Fierce Femme Sparkling Entertainment
For the 2010 Femme Collective Conference, Saturday August 21, 2010

FemmeCon 2006: Standing in a never ending line of femmes who desperately needed to pee, I watched a beautiful young woman float through the bathroom door and begin checking herself out in the mirror.  The line was very long...millions of femmes in corsets and stockings and NASA inspired under-clothing fueled with the liquid courage required to spend an entire weekend with people who reminded us a little too much of ourselves. The line was infinite and there were only two stalls.  Not a new story.  Because I was bored I watched as the woman in the mirror carefully checked herself for flaws, re-touching her hair, smoothing her dress.  And then, without the slightest provocation she began slapping the shit out of her own face.  Hard!  Over and over again - harder and harder - her own palm and finger prints rendering the precision with which she had applied her blush minutes earlier entirely useless.
She appraised her reflection mercilessly in between smacks as she began talking to the red face staring back at her: You stupid, ugly bitch.  You are so fucking ugly. So fucking ugly -smack/smack/smack - I fucking hate your ugly face, you disgusting fucking make me sick!
The entire bathroom was watching.  Silent.  No one was giggling tipsy or chatting to their friends - the lucky two people occupying the stalls in that moment stopped peeing.  I sucked in my breath and my shoulder briefly touched the shoulder of the curly-haired femme standing next to me.  She wasn’t breathing either. It felt like it went on forever and I wondered if it was going to get worse- I wondered if I should get help but then I realized that running into a club full of drunk gender queers shouting: “Help!  Help!  A woman is hating herself in the bathroom.,” would generate little sympathy.  
Eventually she put her make up back into her purse and left the without ever acknowledging the rest of us.  We started breathing and peeing again. A few of us laughed nervously.  
Earlier that night I had performed to my first large audience since I had moved to San Francisco eight months earlier.  Earlier that night I had performed for strangers,  and new friends and a small group of women who hated me for fucking the wrong femme’s ex in a profound moment of self- destructive Saturn Return madness several years earlier.   That night was transcendent because the punishment I received in my former city for the crime of falling into lust in my mid 20s was near total social isolation.   But San Francisco had seen that one or twice before and decided to embrace the better parts of me anyway.   I had been welcomed back into the fold.  I had come home.
The award winning writer Peggy Munson says:   “The isolation chronically ill people endure amounts to nothing less than socially sanctioned torture,” when she tries to explain what it is like to be a young, female artist slowly watching your own body decay - little pieces of you shedding off here and there all the time - all while the world keeps moving and your friends keep touring and no one wants to hear about the nest you’ve made on  the floor of your  bathroom because you are often too sick and too tired to crawl back to bed.  
The word she uses is : torture.  We cannot waterboard people who fall in love with our exes.  We cannot  force our dying friends back to health  with electric jolts and threats so we shun them.  We cast them out.  It’s fucking brutal- and Biblical - and it works.
In my mid 20s, I was a newly minted femme who fell into the wrong boi’s bed (and here I must pause to offer all of  my femme sisters a substantial  piece of advice which I hope will serve you for the rest of your lives....if the object of your desire invites you into their bed and it is covered in matching Spongebob Squarepants sheets it is ALWAYS the wrong bed to fall into.)  
My first femme mentor is an extraordinary woman.  She is a tornado of brilliance and charm and beauty - every bit as powerful and capable flinging your ass so far out of Kansas you have to decide really quick if you are meant to be a good witch or a bad witch. She taught me the greatest lie she ever learned - the greatest lie every single one of us ever learns.  She showed me who I was and then she taught me about scarcity.  “Here,” she said....”here is what you are  - look at your face in the mirror, do you see how beautiful you are?  Do you see how beautiful and queer you are?”  She taught me to love my shoulders.  She gave me “Stone Butch Blues” to read.  She showed me the first harness I’d ever seen and she held me while I sobbed after my first butch girlfriend broke up with me on Christmas day.  She told me there are not enough butches or boys to love us. She taught me that the only way to be seen sometimes was to make sure we are always well-lit - even if that means burning the people standing closest to us.  
No one ever tells you the person you look up to, the first person who turns your face to the light and gives you a name for all of the questions that have roamed inside of you  for years is really just a person like everyone else.
On May 31st, 2009 my femme friend, the gorgeous May Jawdat sent me an email with a link to a New York Times article saying  Dr. George Tiller had been murdered that morning in his Church in Wichita, Kansas.  Dr.Tiller was one of the three physicians in this country who possessed the technical skills, compassion and bravery to perform second trimester abortions.  Sometimes his clinic in Wichita had thousands of protesters.  His clinic was fire bombed in 1986 and he rebuilt it.  He was shot in the arms while in his car in 1993 and when he healed he went back to work.
Dr. Tiller wore a button almost every day that said: “Trust Women.”   When the clients who came to my abortion clinic were too many weeks pregnant for us to safely help them we sent them to Dr. Tiller.  Dr. Tiller died so that my clients could live.   He was shot in the eye at close range because he trusted women.
May asked me a very reasonable question that day.... “Why do they hate us so much?”  I have thought about it every day since because she deserves an answer. I did not know in August 2006 during my transcendent Femme Con moment that my own body was silently and swiftly decomposing.  Most of this time I have been an uninsured and unemployed American.  When there is no money there is no medicine, there are no tests, there are no treatments to halt the progress of the disease.  I spend 90% of my time alone, in a darkened room waiting for something to change.  And if that was the sum total of my story I would not be here talking to you tonight.
May Jawdat my beautiful, femme friend - my incredible chef/comedian/ all around wonder woman had a job in San Francisco preparing high class organic food for high class people while she and the rest of the kitchen workers burned the fuck out of their hands and arms, and cut and sliced themselves to pieces for $10 an hour.  May knows the name of every person she ever worked in that kitchen with, what country they came from, what family members they left behind.  
May earned $10 an hour working on her beautiful femme feet, with her heart breaking and her body being broken and May would send me $100 for medicine as though it were a roll of quarters.  An entire community of people, many of whom I’ve never met, come together in countless ways and continue to work to save my beautiful, imperfect, ridiculous fucking life.  And the overwhelming majority of those people are femmes.  My point is this....
If you are new to this community.  If you are a young femme and this is your first experience of femmes....even if this is not your first experience of femmes please hear me now when I tell you: Scarcity is NOT your inheritance. Scarcity is not yours to pick up and not yours to carry....Yes, my beautiful community there will be times when your heart is breaking.  Times when you will lose something so precious you think you should die from that pain but you will not, even if you pray for it the pain will not kill you.
I flew across the country in ugly surgical support hose to prevent  blood clots from floating up to my lungs and killing me at 30,000 feet to ask you with all of the humility and love I possess: Please Trust Women.
No one should lose their friends and their community for  falling in love - or taking the wrong person home one night...and if you think otherwise....if you disagree with me can you honestly say you have never loved someone who has not loved before you?  Has every single kiss you’ve savored been the first kiss of the person whose hand cups the back of your head to pull you in closer?  Is it our responsibility to make sure every fling is a brand new fling so as not to engage the wrath of others?
Imagine the Craigslist Ads we’re going to have to start writing! :
Single Femme bottom looking for Butch Top: Please be edgy and smart and have a good sense of humor.  And, please be sure you have never had a crush on/kissed/dated/fucked/played with/fell in love with anyone I know or may know in the future - and if you have please show me how much  you care for me by getting all of our friends to avoid that person and talk shit about them until they no longer feel comfortable going anywhere I may decide to go on a whim at any point in the future.   Must be over 14 years old and not a virgin - in fact you should be extremely sexually knowledgable.  I will also be asking you to sign a waiver on our first date stating you will never in the future do any of the above with anyone I know or the friends of my friends or anyone I don’t yet know but may meet in the future.  Can’t wait to hear from you!  420 ok- Safe Sex Only.”
I know the insane part of that entire hypothetical is femme bottom seeks butch top- but just roll with me for a minute.
Many years ago the great poet, and my friend, Ryka Aoki de la Cruz spoke about the portrayal of transgender people and queers in the media.  She spoke about how afraid they must be of us to constantly turn us into psychopaths or hapless victims  - but either way we always die at the end. We always die at the end.
My Dear May Jawdat: I I think they hate us because we cannot un-stitch the seams of desire from our bodies.  We do so much more than fuck - but we fuck spectacularly well.  And on our very best days we are not ashamed.  We are whole beings - despite how they see us - we are whole- we desire, we chase, we capture and we feast on it....for all that has been denied us in this world they can never take away the secret languages we pull from each other’s bodies.  They hate us for that, May. And after all of these days....sitting in a darkened room listening to my irregularly pumping heart I think sometimes we hate ourselves for it too.  Sometimes, May, we are them. When we utilize our power to take community away from people as a punishment for following their hearts that is us hating ourselves. When we work our asses off to get by and send ridiculously precious gifts to each other so that we might stay alive a little longer that is us loving ourselves.
My dear newest femme in this room tonight - my dear femmes who have come from smaller communities where there are not many of you reflected when you walk down the street I want you to look at me now:  I will be the least hot bitch in the collective - I will be a whole pot of polluted honey in the hive mind if you promise me to remember that there is more than enough love for you here. Scarcity is not your inheritance. Your inheritance is a collection of human beings owning the power of femininity and using it to make all of our lives better.  
As I was leaving the club the night of  Femme Con 2006 I saw the woman from the bathroom standing in the door flirting with a handsome butch - she kept her eyes on the ground -only fluttering up occasionally through her lashes to encourage the butch on.  If you are here tonight dear lady - or wherever you may be - I am so sorry I did not throw my body onto  the grenades of your fists before they had a chance to explode all over your face. I am so sorry I lacked the courage to hold you still enough until you could look into that mirror and see how absolutely stunning you are.  Next time I will be more brave.
Ryka dreams of stories where we live and thrive at the end.....and I like that dream.  If I could I would give each of you a blank notebook with the words: “Once upon a time....” on the very first page. I’d ask you to fill in those books over the next two years with whatever brings you joy or sorrow or intrigue....fill it with your recipes or the first words your children speak, or what you see when you look in the mirror with the intention to cause no harm....I’d ask you to count all of the ways love shows up for you, even when you are not looking.  .I’d ask you to trust women a little more each day between now and then and see how your life changes because of it.
I’d ask you all to bring those books back here for the next Femme Con thinking about May and Ryka and that girl in the mirror - And I’d want all of us to write the last sentence together - a line worthy of us....a line that makes us infinitely bigger than the hate they try to feed us-the hate we sometimes swallow.  I would want us to end that chapter of our lives with   a line we memorize and hold tight to us so that it becomes the very first words that come to mind when we wake up -the very first words  our daughters learn to say out loud:
Having loved as hard as I could possibly love these past two years I cannot help but pass a mirror and smile at the femme staring back at me, and because of that I will not lower my eyes to anyone for any reason ever again.

This Girl is on Fire: Queer Misogyny and the Consumable Queer Femme Body


Because I am a poet  it will probably serve me to start with the facts  since I am bound to get lyrical up in here eventually.  I am a white cisgender working class crip queer femme woman.  I have been a writer, performer and activist for twenty years.  I love my community very, very much though every time I critique the tremendous and rampant misogyny and transmisogny embedded within my community I am accused of the opposite.  

 I will not begin to pretend that what I am about to write is true for all femmes or that my experience can really speak for anyone but myself.  But I like to think of the act of writing as similar to getting a plane off the ground.  You pull up and back long enough and suddenly the entire world is within view.  My great hope in crafting this is that other femmes might read it and be encouraged to write their own truths down or dance their own truths out or find one of the many gazillion ways of expression and use it to hold a light to their own lives which I  would like to know more about.  I write because I am ever-weary of femmes being written about by folks who do not live our lives or honor our lives.   I write this because I love my community very, very much and I know for a fact that we can do better.}
"Nobody told us: The path divides, and divides again, in many directions....How many ways can gender expression multiply - between home and work, at the computer and when you kiss someone, in your dreams and when you walk down the street? No one asked us: What is your dream of who you want to be?"  -Minnie Bruce Pratt

*It's the early 2000s and I am sitting in a darkened audience assembled for a night of performance to cap off a conference for FtM  and masculine identified queer folks.  I'm sitting there at the request of a  femme friend  of mine who had been asked to perform that evening by her partner who is the organizer of the event.   It is no secret in my community that the organizer has a history of beating his femme partners.  He has publicly admitted it, in fact.  I know as I sit there waiting for the show to start that my friend, a classically trained singer,  had wanted to sing that night but she had been told it would be better if she stripped.  As the music starts - My Heart Belongs to Daddy, of course - and she starts to work her tease I can tell that she's high.  Her beautiful dead, dead perfectly made up eyes.  I know that her back has not been  the same ever since he picked her up and threw her against that wall - something for which he apologized to the community.  I recognize her awful, hollow smile as guys all around me start whistling and yelling at her.  She is beautiful and she is taking off her clothes.  Yes, they say, hungry for the sight of her body and oblivious to her pain.   I watch the conference's keynote speaker, Patrick Califia, stand up and walk slowly to the front of the stage where he makes sure everyone can see him staring directly up her skirt  before he throws $1 at her.  Afterward, in the lobby, I watch as people jostle to get up closer to her and touch her without permission.  All the while her perfectly made up eyes were dead. No one cared that she wanted to sing - no one was curious about her voice. No one asks the hot femme what she thinks or feels or dreams of - she is here to serve and arouse.  This is not the first or last time she and I will be on the receiving end of this message.

*It is 2006 and I am living in San Francisco.  Rumors start to fly that photographer Kael T. Block has raped a femme and was beaten up for it by one of her friends.  Block, who photographs some of the most well known trans*men and masculine identified queers in our community, is about to have a show.  The gallery is besieged with calls and they revoke that show from him.  Block is publicly defended by some of the most famous queers in the city.   They say what will become an enduring refrain for well known masculine identified queers who are called out on vicious acts of misogyny and transmisogyny:  You are just jealous.  We are popular.  We are significant.  You are haters and you are trying to tear apart "our" community.  Why can't we support each other? Why are you so hurtful?  So hateful?  It is so much easier to tear something down than to build something and we are the builders.  Why can't we support him and his artwork while we figure out if this charge has any merit?  Block is a French citizen.  He promptly flees the country before legal charges can be brought against him.  In the ensuing months and years it comes to light that he has viciously and sadistically raped and assaulted many femmes on both sides of the Atlantic.  Not long after he flees the country Block makes a "Top 100 Butches" list.   This is not the first or last time the sexual assault of a femme will be deemed far less important than the reputation of her rapist.  I personally know dozens of femmes who have been raped, assaulted and/or abused by butches and FtMs and not one of them feels safe enough to report or even ask "the community" for help and support.  Many of their perpetrators use this fact to continue to torment and stalk them.

*It's February 2011 and I am opening for two well known trans*men who are on tour.  I am a poet.  An essayist.  A performer.  I have been reading and performing in my community since 1999.  I have never been a burlesque dancer.  Not once.  It's winter and the guys I am opening for are wearing jeans, t-shirts, flannels, work boots.  I am wearing a thin satin mermaid skirt and a cloth embroidered corset.  I open for them.  They do not bother to introduce me.  Later I make a joke to one of them that I am probably getting too old to read in bars - that I grow weary of trying to shout out words to audiences who care more about drinking and flirting.  He reaches out and puts his hand on the top hooks my front-hook corset.  He rubs them and says: "Maybe if you undid a few of these people would listen to you more."

I have so many examples of misogyny and femmephobia at my disposal that it is almost difficult to sort through them and figure out which ones might help illuminate the nature of this epidemic in my community.  I've been trying to write this for days and, honestly, it makes me feel like puking.  I know from experience that some femmes will read this and feel appreciative but that challenging dominant misogynistic institutions rarely encourages the people who most benefit from those institutions to divest themselves of any privilege or unfairly acquired power.  One of the more insidious ways that dominance asserts itself is by proclaiming the feelings of the dominant group to be far more important than the physical, emotional and societal well-being of everyone else.   It does not matter that we have lovingly explained, gently asked and downright pleaded for years and years to be listened to or that we have been repeatedly ignored.  What matters is that we respond to inexcusable behavior with anger - and that anger makes people who participate in that behavior feel badly for a little while;  and that is not ok.

It does not matter that femmes are constantly made invisible inside of our communities as punishment for our femininity.  It does not matter that the fact of refusing to publicly acknowledge the existence of femmes to the point where we cannot even be served in dyke bars we have frequented for years without a butch by our side amounts to nothing less than emotionally abusive gaslighting.   It does not matter even when they know we have been here fighting since Stonewall and before.    It does not matter that femmes have been writing about femmephobia and misogyny and transmisogyny for years and years and years - when a new femme asks to see herself reflected in our world she is almost always directed to one of a handful of masculine identified queers who have written marginally-positively to positively about femmes and have been praised and rewarded significantly (both financially and in terms of social status)  in the community for doing so.

So here's the most honest and loving and vulnerable thing I can say at this stage of my journey as a femme:

My Beloved Community,

A. Your lack of commitment to ending femmephobia causes femmes harm.  Even if you are not actively one of the people who say and do horrible things to us your lack of standing up beside us publicly when that happens causes us harm.

B.  Wearing leggings for a day and noticing, for a few hours, the brutal emotional/societal abuse that is the public shunning of femininity by queers toward queers does not actually give you insight into my life.  At best, it only provides insight into how little you have ever had to notice this  in your own life.

C. Please stop telling me that I experience "femme privilege" because as a cisgender woman I can use public bathrooms more safely than you.  Femme is a gender and it is most certainly not limited to cisgender women.  Lots and lots of femmes also face danger when they use the rest room.  What I have in those situations is cisgender privilege and I am actively working toward alleviating myself of that privilege.  Femme privilege does not exist.  If it did butches who wore leggings for a few hours would not feel compelled to write whole essays about how hard it was for them.  If it did femmes who were assaulted and abused by their masculine identified partners would have resources for help that were community supported and driven.  If femme privilege existed it would not be my job as a writer to explain to the countless people who ask me to take my clothes off for "community" fund raisers that that is not what I do.  Femme Privilege does not exist.  Period. The following quotations introduce Maura Ryan's essay: "The Femme Movement: Why We're Here, Why We're (So Damn and Beautifully) Queer, and Why You're Gonna Get Used To It" in Visible: a femmethology Vol 2.  Please read and consider them the next time you wish to embark on a treatise about femme privilege.

"There's nothing worse than a femme girl who's basically a straight girl in disguise-one of those girls who wants to settle down, be wifey, be a lazy-ass bottom, and then pretend that she gets some sort of queer credit for wearing red lipstick.  When it comes down to it-hell! I think I just described all femmes."
-A queer stranger's response to hearing about my dissertation topic.

"That's great! Can you figure out a way to get rid of them for good?"
-A queer stranger's reaction to hearing that I am researching femmes in queer communities

"Could you tell me why femmes are such selfish bitches?"
-A genderqueer-identified person who said he was in love with me.

"Femmes are always selling out lesbians."
-A genderqueer-identified friend of mine who dates femmes.

D. Please feel less comfortable talking and writing about femmes in essentialist ways, even when your intent is to flatter us.  When you are tempted to do so please take a beat and read or study the work of any or all of these critical and necessary femmes instead.  Encourage people to go to femmes to learn about what femme is.*: Minnie Bruce Pratt, Dorothy Allison, Amber Hollibaugh, Pratibha Parmar, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha, Tara Hardy, The Lady Ms. Vagina Jenkins, Jewelle Gomez, Joan Nestle, Peggy Munson, Alex Holding, Cyree Jarelle Johnson, Krista Smith, Ryka Aoki,  Ulrika Dahl, Courtney Trouble, Julia Serano,  Heather McAllister, Nomy Lamm,  Emi Koyama, Kate Bornstein, Michaela Grey,  Ms. Victoria Cruz, Amanda Piasecki, Sossity Chiricuzio, Tanisha Johnson, Chaia Milstein,  Jac Stringer, Shawna Virago, Evan Emerson, Dr. Carol Queen,  Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Cherry Galette, Jessica Halem,  Annalise Ophelian, Amber Dawn, Alex Cafarelli, Zoe Whittal, Debra Anderson, Cindy Emch,  Hanne Blank, Rosie Lugosi, Jen Cross, Meliza Banales, Dulce Garcia, Gina de Vries, Mia Mingus, Kathleen Delaney-Adams, Maggie Cee, Asha Leong, Kiki DeLovely, Damien Luxe.   These names are but a trickle in the bucket.  This is an infinitely expandable list.

E. Please stop asking me to respond to a world that does not see, value or center my life with vulnerability and love.  I wear armor because my world is not safe.  I use my tongue as a sword because I am a survivor and I have to fight to make my voice heard in every world I walk into.  I fight because I love myself.  I love femmes.   I am protective of young femmes and desperately want a better queer world for them than the one I inherited.  Prioritizing your feelings over the well-being of femmes is not what solidarity looks like.

F. Please stop equating my legitimate anger and frustration in the face of injustice with destroying the community I have devoted my life to.

Many years ago I wrote the following poem.  I tell you with all of the love and vulnerability I possess that I wish it did not withstand the test of time so well.

Stone Sculptor

They walk each other
past the end of the tether they

go out walking after
midnight                  it is a two-step love affair

then dawn comes on,
a sweet persistent cramping
of every muscle they have ever flexed

for one another

They are a dance in black and white
Fred and Ginger with a twist

look at the girl

swaying red nailed stone sculptor
she is a tone poem                call her by her name

call her land and set sail

Her badge of courage read as blood smeared
across lips

before lowered to his ears

she whispers into the granite
of his night

"go on home boy."

She is the house of cards that
mercy built

she is a harder stone
for sure

so hard he cuts his teeth on her
and when she drinks his blood
he is the body

She says:

Boy, if you were your charm
I would take these potato picking baby shelf
hips & turn tornado for you

I am hypnotized by the music of
your scent which I carry on my tongue


you damn the serpent who
sees you

as though she lost you paradise by
way of the fruit

we are a two-step love affair
we are a dance

I am no less for the lipstick
I am no less for the lipstick
I am no less

for holding the music
like I hold you

up in the granite of
the nights we tumble through together

and when I arch my back to the work
of you

you are the body you were
born to be

I am a house of cards
impossibly built to
shelter your fickle intentions


I may be charmed
and I may be dancing for you
but I've got a mouth full of venom
I am a hard thing to break

so look at the girl

swaying          red nailed        stone sculptor

she is part of the dance
whether you claim her  or not

call her by her name

call her            hard blood smeared thing

who cuts through the granite of your night
like a diamond

*This is not a complete or fully representational  list by any stretch of the imagination but it is one constructed with the help of many femmes I admire and respect when I asked them who their personal femme heroes are.  Their assistance and brilliance are infinitely and lovingly appreciated.