It seems like stories of transgender folks are appearing in the news more and more. Recently, students at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California, crowned Cassidy Lynn Campbell as their first transgender homecoming queen, which was great news that was inevitably followed by bullying and criticism.
Before that, Army Pvt. Bradley Manning bravely became Chelsea Manning. Many journalists and media outlets respectfully followed AP style guidelines by using Manning’s new name and female pronouns, which made for a good lesson for the general public, but Fox News, to no one’s surprise, refused to make the change and even ridiculed Manning’s gender identity.
In the past few months, Jamaican trans teenager Dwayne Jones was beaten, stabbed, and shot to death by a mob in Montego Bay; 21-year-old Islan Nettles was out with other trans folks in Harlem, New York, when a group of men beat her to death; a trans woman was stripped naked and thrown off a bridge in Mexico City; and Diamond Williams, a transgender woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was killed and dismembered, her body parts left in a field.
I understand that a lot of people have lived their entire lives thinking of gender as a fixed fact of life instead of a fluid social construct. That doesn’t excuse violence, but it explains some of the ignorance we keep seeing. The presence of out gays and lesbians in pop culture has helped to normalize homosexuality and strengthen equality efforts such as legalized gay marriage, so I’m crossing my fingers that as transgender folks become more visible–through everything from reality shows to Pulitzer Prize-winning novels–the rest of the world will continue to loosen their heternormative restraints.
Even for those who happily identify as their assigned sex, the performance of it can be exhausting. Haven’t you ever wanted, even for a moment, to break free from the confines of your manhood or womanhood?
I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s post to highlighting transgender artists and gender-bending art. If you want to understand why people struggle with their assigned sex and work to create their own gender identities, this list is an excellent start.
- Heather Cassils: focuses on busting gender binaries through images of the body and performance art, sees transgender as a “continual becoming,” recent work: Becoming an Image
- Zackary Drucker: uses photography, videography, and performance art to explore the complexity of bodily identity and seeing; check out She Gone Rogue
- Greer Lankton (deceased): created posable dolls representing people considered as “freaks” until her death in 1996, inspired by Candy Darling, final work: It’s All About ME, Not You
- Del LaGrace Volcano: considers the performance of gender and intersex experience through installations, performance, film, and photography; recent work: Sex Works
- Antony Hegarty: performs with collaborators under Antony and the Johnsons, winner of UK’s Mercury Prize for I Am a Bird Now, lush and otherworldly vocals, also a visual artist, recent work: Cut the World (live album) and Turning (acclaimed documentary of a European tour)
- Vaginal Davis: started The Afro Sisters, Black Fag, and Pedro, Muriel and Esther; performed with Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin; performance artist exploring spectacle and racial and gender confusion through counter-cultural personas; recent work: “Lesbi Tropicalia – Tea & Sympathy” (performative intervention as part of Helio Oiticica)
- Rocco Katastrophe: rapper, singer, and producer uniting queer and hip-hop cultures; featured on The L Word soundtrack; started the first trans men’s magazine (Original Plumbing) with photographer Amos Mac
Filmmakers and Theatre Artists
- Iizuka Kashou: writer/director of Our Future, a Japanese coming-of-age film centered on an 18-year-old girl who explores her masculinity after her parents separate
- Andrea James and Calpernia Addams of Deep Stealth Productions: produced comedic shorts Transproofed and Casting Pearls as well as the first all-transgender Vagina Monologues, prepped Felicity Huffman for her role in Transamerica
- D’Lo: analyzes South Asian and immigrant experiences of non-traditional gender identity and sexuality through comedy, leads community workshops, recent work: D’FunQT (one-person show)
- Ma Vie En Rose (Belgium, 1997): Seven-year-old Ludovic prefers dresses, which his family initially finds endearing until they discover there’s more to it than fashion and others don’t respond as kindly in this comedy drama.
- Beautiful Boxer (Thailand, 2003): This drama tells the true story of Nong Thoom, a successful Muay Thai fighter and trans woman.
- Tomboy (France, 2011): A little girl is mistakenly identified as a boy, and she goes along with it, feeling perhaps that it’s not a mistake after all.
- Breakfast on Pluto (Ireland, 2005): Based on the novel by Patrick McCabe, this film follows a trans woman’s youth in 1940s Ireland, right next to the border of Northern Ireland and the busy and violent IRA.
- Sacred Country: Rose Tremain’s prize-winning novel is set in rural England, where we find Mary Ward, the child of poor farmers, who discovers at six that she doesn’t want to be a girl.
- Middlesex: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the struggles of Cal, an intersex child raised as a girl in a fairly traditional Greek American family, who finally manages to define his own identity as an adult.
- Cereus Blooms at Night: Shani Mootoo’s acclaimed debut explores gender identity in a fictional Carribean country through Tyler, a nurse who cares for Mala, an older woman suspected of killing her father.
- Annabel: Kathleen Winter’s debut novel reminds us of the limitations of gender through an intersex child raised as Wayne, who loves hunting in the desolate Labrador countryside with his father but has a shadow self he calls “Annabel.”
Having read my post on Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” a friend sent me an article about women poets in India who have taken up the subject of rape. You’ve no doubt read about the increasing problem of violence against women in certain parts of India, Delhi in particular, and the gang rapes that made international news. One poet explains her intentions:
‘With debates increasingly centering around violence against women, the topic has become common ground for all of us. We have become one entity, irrespective of where we come from,’ said Tamizh poet Salma. Her poems are often devoid of illusionary imageries and soaring similes. ‘I call sex, sex. A rape, rape. People have often asked me why my language is so stark and descriptions so explicit. How else would you convey what a woman goes through? Poetry is constantly evolving and this is part of that evolution,’ she said.
This article got me thinking about the evolution of the rape poem. For centuries, rape poems came from the pens of men. These poems, such as Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” and Spenser’s “The Fairie Queen,” addressed classical rape, stories from mythology. They were not meant to help the reader understand real instances of rape; instead, they served as metaphors, ways to address other subjects. Essentially, women’s bodies were not women’s bodies but political symbols.
Even later, with Seamus Heaney’s “Act of Union,” rape is used as a metaphor for Britain’s control of Ireland, a common theme in earlier Irish poetry. Likewise, many scholars consider Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” to be an allegory for the “rape” of Ireland. With its erotic, sensual imagery, “Leda and the Swan” turns rape into an aesthetic experience, which makes Yeats’s sonnet one of the most revered works of art and exemplifies a problem that is common in art from painting to film: the eroticization of rape.
So rape is sexy and rape is useful for “loftier” discussions than women’s lives. In her book Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture, Sarah Projansky points out that “scholars and media pundits alike casually invoke rape metaphors…to convey a sense of ‘ultimate’ degradation or horror or to illustrate the humiliation of nations (e.g., the “rape of Kuwait”). Simultaneously, they neglect the particular experiences of [those] who actually experience rape.”
When women finally began writing rape into poems, the narrative changed dramatically. Suddenly, the rape poem became personal, intimate, and painful. Rape was no longer a metaphor but a gritty reality. In a strange way, women reclaimed their bodies as sites of personal violence instead of national symbols. Poets like Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Ntozake Shange expressed the complexity of woman as victim: being betrayed by a friend, being treated like a criminal by the police, feeling guilty and dirty, trying to overcome victimhood, etc.
But the depiction of rape on a personal level does not rule out politics. If the personal is political, then these poems are fiercely political, which just what the Indian poets are saying. Poetry can be healing, as it has been for countless victims in programs like Lifecentre, and it can nurture empathy, helping readers understand the experience of sexual assault and of living with the threat of this kind of violence. But it can also be a revolution.
Contemporary rape poems often serve to challenge, disrupt, and destabilize patriarchal power dynamics and gender norms that create male subjects and female objects, punish and silence transgressors, and perpetuate rape culture, i.e., community complicity. I came across this story from Julie Buffaloe-Yoder, who describes submitting a poem about her friend’s brutal rape to a literary journal and receiving a disturbing response from the male editor who told her to stop writing rape poems because he was “sick of wenchy women poets who are always bashing men.” Clearly, he was threatened by her poem. Her response, of course, was to write another one.
In Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, poet Anne Waldman wrote:
Perhaps women have the advantage of producing a radically disruptive and subversive kind of writing right now because they are experiencing the current imbalances and contradiction that drive them to it. They are turning to skillful means in figuring out how to combat assaults on their intelligence and time [and bodies]. She–the practitioner–wishes to explore and dance with everything in the culture which is unsung, mute, and controversial so that she may subvert the existing systems that repress and misunderstand feminine ‘difference.’ She’ll take on the subjects of censorship and abortion and sexual harassment. She’ll challenge her fathers, her husband(s), lovers, male companions, warmongers, micromanagers, spiritual teachers. Turn the language body upside down. What does it look like?
After I read Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” I thought about a few things in my life that I hadn’t written about. I thought about the time I was riding my bike to the library, nearly a decade ago, and two men in a pickup truck followed me. I could feel it all over again. And then I wrote this:
Quick, the hammering fear
as they pull up alongside
in a beat-up work truck
Words I cannot repeat, will not
words thrown like hammers
fired like hot bullets
I tell myself
to look straight ahead
keep riding, pedal harder
One block free
they find me again
I try to hide the shudder
It is the loveliest kind of day
a day for falling in love
or dipping your feet in the creek
A neighborhood of Victorians
pale pink, creamy yellow, baby blue
sidewalks interrupted by old trees
But the truck rumbles again
Locusts that keep coming, shadows I can’t shake
They have fists and gasoline and terrible tools
I have only the slender frame
of my bike and myself
a voice caught in my throat
Done taunting, they gun it
disappear into the city
their laughter still squeezing my throat
I stay inside for weeks
for the clouds watch my every move
the air itself trembling with murderous desire
for further exploration: frida’s love letters, playwright amy wheeler, feminist comics, artist larissa sansourPosted: August 26, 2013
A few things you should know about before you take this day any further:
- Frida Kahlo is one of my ultimates. Every move the woman made was pure art–paintings, clothing, homes, relationships, politics. Given the amount of physical and emotional trauma she faced, it’s amazing that she insisted on seeing life through so much color instead of turning to darkness. It turns out that she could have been a damn fine poet too. Somehow I had no idea that there were facsimiles of her diaries floating around (see The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, but, look, I hate to link to Amazon, so see if you can find it somewhere else). From this book, Brainpickings offers a few images of Frida’s letters to her husband, Diego Rivera, and they are divine. Here’s a peak [capitalization hers]:
“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.”
Reminds me of Pablo Neruda. Did they inspire each other? Someone research this and write a lovely essay on it.
- The Feminist Wire has an interview with feminist playwright Amy Wheeler. Wheeler talks about what feminism means to her creative work, how art can make an impact on social issues, and Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers. Here’s an excerpt that echoes my own thoughts:
“I believe creative work is the way. Stories connect us and cause us to experience empathy, to imagine what it feels like to see the world through someone else’s eyes, or walk in their shoes. And this is key: we have to understand and believe that we are deeply, irrevocably connected; that we are more alike than we are different from each other, and that our interconnectedness is our strongest asset as animals on the planet.”
- Warning bells go off in my head and my belly immediately begins stoking dragon fire whenever I hear, “I’m a feminist, but….” Comics are safer than dragon fire, however, so feast your eyes on The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism. I’m not going to pretend not to notice that the afterward comes from the controversial Hugo Schwyzer, but don’t let it stop you from at least taking a look. It’s poignant and clever.
- The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID, a fantastic organization) has an interview with Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour about art, activism, and censorship. If you want to learn more about her work, I recommend Falafel Road, Nation Estate, and Trespass the Salt. I will leave you with Sansour’s words:
“The issue of women’s rights is not only necessary to address for its own sake, but also because it opens a magnitude of questions as to how we perceive reality and why it is important to question the very system by which our humanity is constructed and by how we perceive things.
Last week I wrote about violence against women in crime fiction and detective shows, and I mentioned that these kinds of stories often lead us to believe that there is always some kind of monster lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. While most women are attacked by someone they know, we also live with fear of stranger rape as a fact of life. Maybe “fear” isn’t quite the right word. Awareness? We are always aware of potential threats to our bodies–partly because frequent verbal harassment reminds us that violence is not far behind–and so go about the world knowing that horrible things sometimes lie just under the surface of a seemingly pleasant moment: a night out with friends, a quick trip to the store, a walk in a park.
I said last week that even though these threats are out there, I try not to spend a lot of time thinking about them despite what these stories and the media would have me think. Two days after I wrote that, I was lacing up my running shoes and glancing at the local news online. I discovered that a woman had been sexually assaulted the day before at the park where I run several days a week. She was walking a trail with her two-year-old daughter in the middle of the afternoon.
A great deal of cussing ensued in my living room.
Needless to say, many in the community and employees of the park are angry, feeling like an important part of all our lives–where we seek peace, fellowship, and pleasure–has been attacked. I run for release, for serenity. But I also work out a lot of creative ideas while I’m running. I like to run at this particular park because it has miles and miles of trails to choose from–with dreamy sunflower fields, old marble quarries, and lush, tree-covered tunnels that make everything magical.
For me, a good run or long walk is magical. My feet can barely keep up with my imagination as it takes off in different directions, conjuring up ideas, crafting narratives, developing characters. I spend a lot of time just letting ideas percolate before I ever write a word. It’s my favorite part of writing, the wandering mind. There’s something about communing with nature that sets my mind free; I can become anyone or anything in that moment. It’s like lucid dreaming. As long as I’m moving forward, the scene in my head is as vibrant as jewelweed along a stream.
I don’t know what I would do without this part of the process. Granted, it hasn’t always been part of my creative process. I used to write poetry strictly, and all I needed was a pen and paper to make something happen. It might not always be good, but there would be something salvageable to be put to work the next day. When I began writing fiction, however, I realized I needed a different approach. I couldn’t just sit down and write and expect there to be a full narrative, so running and long walks have become a critical part of my life. There’s something about a physical challenge that engages my mind in a way I never would have expected. It also helps me deal with stress, anxiety, or other frustrations.
I’m always aware of what can happen when I’m out there. There’s that word again. One has to be aware. Some of the trails become quite isolated, and I pay attention to my surroundings and sometimes look back to make sure that men who pass me don’t double back. Balancing daydreaming with defensiveness is a complicated act, but I’m sure it’s one that many women are used to.
Every time I’ve gone out since this attack, my imagination has taken me in a very different direction. All the stories and characters are the same: I fight this guy. I win. I stop him. I become like a superhero, a warrior, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Jennifer Garner in Alias. I imagine possessing Buffy’s super strength.
And then I’ve spent an hour dedicated to committing violence. I don’t like it. I’ve run out some of my anger, but my muscles are tighter than usual. So much for release.
My heart goes out to this woman and her family. It could have been any of us, but she’s the one who has to live with it, who has to find a way to make sure it doesn’t haunt her child. The police have released a sketch of the attacker, and I hope someone turns him in.
In the meantime, I will keep running wherever I want. And I will find a way to go back to the kinds of stories I want to create. I won’t let him change my life. Though I may have some tricks up my sleeve if you meet me on the trail.
I’ve written about the debate over rape jokes, and it goes on and on in editorials, blog posts, and online discussions. But Patricia Lockwood took a new approach by submitting her thoughts in poetic form. “Rape Joke,” published in The Awl last Thursday, has already received more attention than any poem could dream of in its lifetime. I beg you to read it, sit in silent thanks for a moment, and then come back to chat.
I know. It hits the spot–if the spot is a deep ache to say once and for all that rape is both horrific and sadly banal and can really fuck you up but eventually you find a way to go on living and are even able to find the humor in your tragedy, but that humor is yours to share as a way of processing and healing and getting on with life. If the spot is a desperate desire to explain that the real joke is that this kind of thing happens every two minutes, that rape is so normalized that we talk about it all the time but nothing ever changes, that women are often silenced when they talk about rape.
Take a deep breath.
This is what I love about poetry. It guts us in a way that nonfiction generally can’t manage. We might have different interpretations, but it’s hard to come away from a piece like that without feeling something approaching what the narrator feels. This piece also reflects the wide open landscape that we get with poetry. In an essay, the thesis is laid out pretty quickly, but a poem takes us on a ride to a place we didn’t know we were going. I know I’ve got poetry as a knife and as a vehicle here, but I’m just going to take liberties with metaphors and you can bristle and click away or just indulge me.
Poetry requires a different kind of engagement than most other discourses. We open ourselves to experiencing language more deeply, and our imagination is aroused with metaphor and imagery. Reading the comment section after the poem (because I wanted to know what others thought but was quickly reminded that other people’s brains are like quicksand pulling me down to the very bad place), I saw responses that described a physical reaction to the poem (“I can’t breathe”) and its transformative power (“This poem changed me”).
The Guardian posits that Lockwood’s poem may encourage people to read more poetry. I suppose it’s not the kind of poetry most people are used to. Folks who don’t read poetry tend to think of the medium as a tangle of unrecognizable wildflowers that shouldn’t be here so let’s burn them and plant grass instead. But most poetry is more accessible than it seems at first glance if we are willing to take the time to think about it. Sure, it can be tough to deal with poetry that seems to be nothing more than a catalogue of non sequiturs, but a lot of poems offer a narrative that’s fairly clear.
“Rape Joke” is accessible, clever, and moving at the same time. The images of some of the more poignant moments stick in my head: the “pretty green necklace” that she later cut up, her laughter for “one long split-open second.” There is a lot going on beneath these words, but they conjure up vivid images that linger like an uncomfortable feeling.
Lockwood’s poem also uses language most of us don’t think of as necessarily “poetic,” but there are no words or moments that are off limits in poetry. We can write lines about washing dishes (“I opened the windows and shut / the doors and put the plates in the sink / and oodled Palmolive all over.”) or monthly bleeding (“Yes, / I want to talk at length about Menstruation. / Or my period.”) or, as Lockwood does, dip cups (“He had chaw in his mouth the entire time, and you told him he / was disgusting and he laughed, and spat the juice through his goatee into a Mountain Dew bottle. “)
Perhaps this kind of poem shows lapsed readers the usefulness of poetry–beyond the simple pleasure of reading–and, therefore, reminds them that poetry is a subject worthy of their time. Perhaps it says something about rape and rape jokes and rape culture that we needed to hear. Maybe some readers identify with the narrator, find in this poem something of their own story, and feel validated or less alone.
It got me writing about a time I was followed by two assholes who threatened me while I was riding my bike. I hadn’t thought to see a poem in it, but there’s a poem in everything. Maybe there’s a joke in everything too. But as with poetry, it can take a long time to see the humor, feel brave enough to reach out to it, roll it around in your hands, and not want to smother it.
“But the color of a Negro’s skin makes him easily recognizable, makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.”
–Richard Wright, Black Boy
I’ve had friends tell me that they can’t imagine wasting their time with fiction when there is so much going on in the world that they need to learn about, so they read only nonfiction. I don’t understand why we need to make such distinctions, but I say, if you really want to understand an experience, read fiction. Susan Sontag once described reading as “an education of the heart.” She said, “Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”
Imagination often gets trapped in the realm of fear mongering. Over and over, we see carefully constructed images that are meant to stoke fear in our hearts, and our imagination runs wildly through the forest of racial profiling, xenophobia, nationalism, etc. If we deconstruct those images instead, we find common ground, people who love and mourn and work and play just like we do. But that takes a different kind of imagination.
Iris Murdoch wrote: “In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” In other words, through art, we are reconnected to the world–we gain empathy, the ability to imagine ourselves in the life of someone whose experience is very different from ours and to feel what they feel.
I’ve heard from white people who have a hard time seeing the problem of race in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the police response, and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman. Since it’s clear to many of us that there is pervasive racism involved, from beginning to end, I can only guess that these folks don’t have a good understanding of systemic racism and have not put themselves in Trayvon’s place, that is, have not fully imagined what it might be like to walk down the street as a black boy in a world that criminalizes black bodies.
I’ve also heard from white people who do see racism in this case and keep thinking about the experience of boys like Trayvon and their parents. One of my good friends, who is white and has a white baby boy, said last night that she thinks of the parents of black boys and the fear they must feel as their sons grow up. One of her black friends once said to her that she worried constantly about how best to raise her sons in an environment where they are set up to fail.
Like black girls, black boys have no voice. They are silenced. We, as a culture, do not seek metaphor in the language of black kids; we hear only noise and shut it down. (See Rachel Jeantel, for example.) Our institutions have created a fictive black boy that permeates our consciousness and convinces us that black boys aren’t worth saving, or even worse, they are worth killing.
I include the arts, particularly in terms of popular culture, in those institutions. A few years ago, The Guardian published a piece on the lack of popular fiction for black men, and the author, Aaron Akinyemi, said: “When [Michael] Obiora pitched his novel to a television executive, the producer liked the story but told him bluntly that mainstream audiences would be unwilling to see a black character without a gun in his pocket.”
bell hooks wrote in Reel to Real: “The process by which any of us alter the way we look at images is political. Until everyone can acknowledge that white supremacist aesthetics shape creativity in ways that disallow and discourage the production by any group of images that break with this aesthetic, audiences can falsely assume that images are politically neutral.”
Assuming these images are politically neutral is like believing that race played no part in what happened to Trayvon Martin. In light of the violent death of yet another black boy and the subsequent absence of justice, I offer some fiction, poetry, and film that can help us understand why these things happened, and continue to happen, because Trayvon is only one of many. May these works counter the usual images, enhance our empathy, and encourage us to fight fear.
- Native Son, Richard Wright: Wright’s novel chronicles the story of Bigger Thomas, who feels his fate has already been determined by his social conditions.
- Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison: This novel, by the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved, follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead, just a few generations removed from slavery.
- Fruitvale Station, dir. Ryan Coogler: This film, about the death of Oscar Grant at the hands of an overzealous cop, stars Michael B. Jordan, who played Wallace in The Wire, and just opened to excellent reviews.
- “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” and “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmet Till,” Gwendolyn Brooks: These two poems were inspired by the death of Emmett Till.