Friday, July 18, 2014

Entitled to the Internal Tangle: how working through want makes us human

Part I: Intentional Background

For the last five days I've been reading Anne Leckie's fantastic Ancillary Justice. It's been blowing my mind in all types of lovely philosophical and fictional ways. Seriously that book is an intellectual back-bending inversion and we need that kind of upending fiction. Read it!

But this afternoon it brushed against a nerve whose sensations I've been trying to work through for the past month or so:

For a month I've been trying to write a post that sums up my feelings about desire/thought/intent and how they don't matter or at the very least how they are ancillary to the real world action and behaviors we choose to take.

In January 2010 Kinsey Hope made a satirical post about intent being "magic". The follwoing year Melissa McEwan at Shakesville put up the first post in a two part series about how seeing intent as magic can cause communication to be harmful. (I'm wildly paraphrasing here). Since then so many radical corners of the internet has been touched by the powerful words implied in these posts:
Intent is not magic.
It does not absolve the doer of damage and it does absolutely nothing to resolve, heal, or otherwise take accountability for the effects of the resulting harm. Reconciliation can never start from "I didn't mean it". Because as an adult human person you are expected to do the hard, but deeply human work of navigating how to respect your own desire/wants/thoughts while maintaining respect for others.

Now it's important for me to give this (poorly sourced) background and my take on it because it's crucial to what I am trying to draw out here. The reason intent is not magic, is because it has little to no direct power over how we act and communicate. For the most part, our conscious (not necessarily logical/sensible!) minds determine how we act and interact. The effects of intent are indirect at best.

Intent isn't magic, and in many contexts straight up doesn't matter. As Leckie's extremely utilitarian  protagonist Berq says "Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing."

Part II: The tangle that makes us human

All actions have consequences. As humans in community with other humans; as socially sophisticated animals, it's our evolutionary imperative to anticipate and strategically reduce the harmful consequences of our own actions.

Every moment of our waking lives (and probably a good portion of dreams), we experience a complex tangle of thoughts, desires, wants, and wishes. We all must weed through this tangle to figure out how to act.

Let me give you an examples of my own navigation of this process:

For me a huge part of being genderfuild is engaging in a process of choosing how to follow up on my many and seemingly conflicting desires to express myself. I consistently have to chose from a tangle of erratic desires. These desires often buck lessons I learned about gender, behavior, and societal expectations. And sometimes I come to the conclusion that things I thought were in conflict are in fact not.

But thing is, the internal process that brings me to act and express, it belongs to me. It is part of what makes me me. In fact, I'm willing to take it even further than that. It's part of what makes me human. Take this process away from me and I am less human. Take this process away from anyone and they are dehumanized.

The processes that we go through, whether conscious or unconscious, swift or slow, to determine which of our wants we are going to actualize and how is a process that belongs to each us individually. Because the simple fact is (barring any drastic nuero-tech advances) nobody else can be in your head deciding which of your thoughts mean action, and which mean nothing.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Appropriation Is Erasure


Alright, let's get this out of the way.  I am a white person about to write about race. And I am scared to do it. 

You're more than welcome to skip this preface and proceed onto what this post is really about. Trust me, my clumsy thoughts on racism and appropriation and art are much more interesting than my fears. But I must speak them.

I have been afraid of blogging about race in the past. I still am. The only other times I have written about race I've either used a disclaimer, or not addressed it directly while making note of implications I was skipping. The fear I experience is complex (like most human emotions) but mostly boils down to three basic thrusts. 

  1. I don't want to further enforce oppressive structures, and/or harm those whose experiences/cultures I'm speaking about. 
  2.  I am afraid of bumping up against the spots in my world view that've been made blind by my privilege. I am afraid to find in myself those deeply lodged flecks of violence and oppression I've yet to eradicate.
  3. I am afraid to have this process laid bare in public, because I ultimately want to be thought of as a "good guy". But giving up being the "good guy" is part of challenging power structures that put me and people who look/act like me in power (and gives us the freedom to call ourselves "good guys" and be believed). So here goes.

Before you read any of the following please at least skim  DEFINITELY READ ALL OF Nicholas Powers's Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit. In fact, if you only have time/energy to read one take on this topic make it his not mine.

I strode to the front, turned around and yelled at the crowd that when they objectify the sculpture’s sexual parts and pose in front of it like tourists they are recreating the very racism the art was supposed to critique. I yelled that this was our history and that many of us were angry and sad that it was a site of pornographic jokes.

Among the many thoughts and feelings I had after reading this, this is proof positive for me that more comprehensive interdisciplinary arts education is necessary. I want a clear connections drawn between art and social justice. There is such a fucking failure in our schools and at large to connect past atrocities and suffering to current occurrences and artistic trends.

Unfortunately Powers's experience is only a glaring example of how the centering of white folk's contexts for experiencing erases the culture and history of others. I mean look at how "exotic" art (whether it be foreign, "urban", Native American, or otherwise "tribal"/"primitive") is presented in film/tv. They're used as props or background and all too often end up as the butt of some throwaway joke. Those jokes as well as those photos people were taking of the Kara Walker exhibit are as naked a portrait of appropriation as I can imagine.

The very reason that experiencing art itself can be transformative at all this that it asks us to consider and in theory inhabit contexts other than our own. But so many white and otherwise privileged people have been insulated from this process. So much so that when they encounter anything that seems outside of their experience/history they assume that it must only exist for their entertainment. The viscous cycle of erasure and appropriation is fed by this consistent failure to connect with the cultural contexts of those either deemed "other" or simply not spoken about at all.

In one of the presentations at my residency last month someone said "people who have suffered are smarter". That phrase clicked with me then but I think only now am I understanding why. People who suffer and are made "other",  are forced to, and for their own survival, become adept at understanding contexts and experiences other than their own. This was the "smart"ness referred to.*

This type of appropriation is the process of reducing the art of "the other" to the frivolous, exotic, and/or racy/trendy (and usually profiting from that redefinition). And I am ashamed. But more important I'm livid.

Livid that the insular straight-up dumb assumption, that "if [x piece of art/culture] is not about me/my experience then it must not be that important (to anyone)." is part of my culture as an american and as a white person. The comfort of that privilege is NOT making us smarter, or better people. It only makes us more comfortable (at the expense, erasure, and discomfort of others).

*After drafting this I was informed that this context switching "smartness" is known as "outsider-within" perspective in feminist stand point theory. Source

Monday, June 30, 2014

Check In

Hello friends. My my, have I ever been a busy bee lately! I prepped for and attended the very first residency for my MFA program and generally had my mind blown out of the water in so many ways.

I'm mostly posting right now just to check in with you dear reader, and wanting to let you know that despite my spotty posting on this blog for the last 3 months I am still very much so here and writing up so many storms: some poetic, some nonsensical, some for the rigorous documentation that goes along with being in school again, and some stuff about books too.

I have a few blogposts in the works right now but they need refining, and hopefully I'll find the time between school work in the next two weeks to polish them up for publication. But for now I'll give you some morsel of what I've been working of for grad school.

I've selected a section of or my first book annotation. I read Jericho Brown's Please and I was so impressed I needed to share my thoughts/love for it. I would highly recommend to anyone who likes to read words:

You'd think that the jagged subject matter of Please would relegate it to the “tragic black story” trope* but no, Brown keeps it from being that simple. This book is triumphant, ecstatic, and also heavy with grief. It doesn't pull any of its loving lyrically-saturated punches. The poems in Please don't aim to be universal, they aim to be honest. And in striking those achingly honest melodic cords, the universality of intimacy, othering, violence, and suffering rumble out in slow, synchronous harmony.

Here's a photo of my favorite poem from this book:

PS: I somehow absolutely feel that I should be getting out one post each month at the very least. See you all in July. 
(good lord summer's flying fast ain't it!?)

*Many groups are only allowed to be represented as solely tragic figures in mainstream culture. This simplifies their stories and oppressions. I'm referring to this oversimplification when I say "tragic black story" trope. I don't think this limiting approach to telling stories that involve tragedy is specific to black folks, but I do recognize it as a way that they've had their narratives (over)written.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

My Lumpy Bravery: on chest binders and trans superhero narratives

Last week I bought my first chest binder from a reputable online vendor. With vigor, glee, and a hunger for play I clicked the purchase button. It came on a Thursday night. When I had stomach cramps and vicious heartburn that dissuaded me from enacting the fantasy of tearing open the package just when it arrives and trying on its contents that very instant.

The next morning I was alone and had forgotten about the bulging envelope in favor of my morning piss, the laundry & various other mechanics of morning.

I only remembered it while loading up the washer. I realized that all of my sports bras (and by all I mean 3) were starting to exhibit a decent amount of sweat funk. So, with a song in my heart I topped off the washer with my and current slightly rank bra before adding soap and letting her rip. Afterwards I thought giddily, 'Oh yeah, I could try it out for a bit'.

I went downstairs and opened the envelope. Immediately I didn't like the synthetic, rough fabric. It reminded me of the surface of a cast. Though less rigid. I slipped it up and over forearms and head, but it got stuck. Awkward on my shoulders. I had to slowly but stiffly tug it down my back bit by bit.

The experience didn't get any better.

I thought I might find a way to press my expectations through the discomfort. But the force of my fantasy didn't push me past the sixty minute mark. Sure I liked the way it made me look in some of my tighter shirts. But the pinch behind my armpits made me wince  and pushed my usually stout shoulders into a slouch. Besides it really didn't do much more than my tightest sports bra already does.

Wearing and taking off the binder just made my breasts feel absolutely massive. Having all of the pressure on my chest, just served to remind me every moment of each inch of flesh the binder touched. I could never not be thinking about my chest and it's size while wearing it. I'm sure I could adjust out of feeling this way but honestly I don't want to. That didn't stop me from wanting to want to and feeling guilty for not wanting to.

The worst part came when I took it off and I was hit in the chest with the realization that the only other garments I'm comfortable (com)pressing my chest were wet and swishingly unavailable. I just sat there with red stress marks in my armpits, my chest achingly huge and aware of itself.

My sports bras do more for me in terms of getting my breasts out of the way when it comes to moving though the world. But more than that, they get my breasts off of my mind, which is great. They enable me to think of my chest as just my chest. This ease and flexibility is an extraordinary tool in navigating my gender.

I mostly ordered a binder out of sartorial naiveté. Because I lust after the clean lines of menswear and want some of my looks to not include a lumpy chest. I have a vague desire for smaller breasts and a more muscular chest but for the most part I love my breasts and have no animosity toward them. (I recognize I am lucky in this regard).

There's a part of me that loves thinking about clothes and presentation as all fun and games, but the truth is, it's only on my best days that I get to feel that way. Many days result is me feeling that my clothes are confining me.

All of the 50 minutes I spent in, putting on, and taking off the binder were painful and unsettling. But I kept it on for that long because I wanted to show myself I was “tough”. Or because some part of my brain shamed me away from comfort by screaming 'Real trans people are willing to suffer to ease their dysphoria (and so you should too).'

The shame and self loathing I felt gave me flashbacks to trying on prom dresses in high school. Except this wasn't about not being thin enough participate in the concept of pretty (which I never got that hung up on anyhow). This time it I felt like I wasn't tough enough to be trans and that because my gender dysphoria isn't actively painful that I am incapable of bravery or sacrifice.

Oftentimes trans* people are laughingly and empoweringly referred to as superheros, badass mutants, or as having extraordinary powers of bravery, endurance, or chutzpah. These are important stories. But they are just that, single stories about individuals. The trans* community is so diverse.

I love the power in these superhero narratives. But the way they glorify, and mythologize trans people's choices oversimplifies the complex and individualized abilities and tactics trans people create to cope with the suffering and discomfort of gender dysphoria. Worst of all it offers very few models and resources for newly out/realized trans folks (like me).

We see these “strong trans characters” and assume that transition and trans lives must include certain activities and compromises to be considered socially acceptable or brave. In Sophia McDougall's piece I hate Strong Female Characters she states that “The Strong Female Character has something to prove. She’s on the defensive before she even starts.” I would a argue that superhero trans narratives have done the same. And while the thing we're on what defensive about is very real and very dangerous we are more than just our fights against our own dysphoria.

I have a trans friend who will brush off or object whenever someone calls her “brave” for expressing who she is. Part of what I read into that refusal is her acknowledgement that being willing to suffer or to choose different forms of suffering is not bravery. She defines her dysphoria as suffering; a constant ache which can spike randomly or in reaction to certain experiences. Whereas I identify my dysphoria as a discomfort I regularly find myself bumping up against. The conditions of our lives and dysphoria differ. So too must our metrics for bravery.

As someone who has to balance the discomfort of my dysphoria with the discomfort of chronic pain and social anxiety, I don't always have the willingness or resources to suffer in order to ease my gender dysphoria. Sometimes I have to choose to ease my dyspepsia or my social anxiety first.

But too often that choice leaves me wondering, am I a coward? Am I  a disgrace to trans superhero narratives every where because I chose not to suffer the discomfort of a chest binder?

Of course not. (says my logical brain)

My body is a multi-purpose space for working on feeling okay. My unique gender and gender dysphoria are only some parts of this work and are not confined just to my physical body.

Because I've got many long term bodily concerns not related directly to my gender, I often prioritize my short term physical discomfort. This runs counter to the superhero narratives of trans folks that I love and clung to in the past and that have become a beacon for young trans people today.

For me complication of this narrative means choosing (for now) to forgo the discomfort of a chest binder. And to continue building myself and my expressions sans a traditional trans narrative.

I've decided that bravery, like dysphoria, has many forms. My bravery is apparently lumpy and unbound.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Compromises, the Public Eye, & Political Expectations: why Beyoncé's not a terrorist and bell hooks isn't either

Last Friday I found out that bell hooks claimed that Beyoncé is a "terrorist". And my internet exploded. What follows is my collected thoughts on the matter. Before you proceed please read about/watch the panel discussion where the "terrorist" claim occurred.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I am a white person writing about interactions between and about women of color. I recognize that I could be reading all this shit terribly and utterly wrong and that there are most certainly racial elements involved that I've undeveloped/nonexistent understanding of. My experiences as a white person have ill prepared me to discuss this. Please read Janet Mock, Beyoncé, and bell hooks work. And listen to/read Beyoncé's words. They are the authorities on their own experiences.

I'm troubled by hook's word choice but I optimistically see hook's “terrorist” comment as being not so much specifically about Beyoncé as it is leading to a conversation about "selling out" to make money/fame in the entertainment industry. And that the music/entertainment industry make this sort of selling the price of admission for any marginalized identity who wants to promote themselves or their work.

Women (and w.o.c esp) artists will have their expression of sexuality and bodily celebration twisted into objectification and fetishization by misogynist managers/producers/publishers/viewers. I personally think it is unreasonable to expect that all marginalized creators of art should refuse to release their work/images to people who are perpetuating the patriarchy. We'd have far fewer women and p.o.c. celebrities.

That would mean we as consumers of their content expect our idols to exhibit the politics we've come to associate with them at all times. Which is an odd impractical form for political idolization. And it is as unreasonable as any expectation viewers might have of a celebrity.

As someone who seeks to be radical as much as I can, I definitely take compromises the kyriarchy hands me. Because sometimes I am tired or I just really really want what that compromise will get me. This doesn't make me a terrorist. But it does mean I'm colluding with, support, validating the kyriarchy. Which is the point I assume hooks was trying to make about Beyonce's Time cover.

I don't think hooks intended to make a villain out of Beyoncé. But having pure or radical intent doesn't absolve anyone (hooks or Bey) of the effects of their work and presentation. Hook's words were still hurtful, regardless of her intent. And no matter how loudly Beyonce sings about how shitty the patriarchy is, I know that she wants fame and money too. And sometimes the money and fame she gets to do what the patriarchy wants wins out.

One of the things I am thankful for in the exchange between Mock and hooks is that Beyoncé's agency was discussed. I've been in far too many "feminist" conversations that involved implying or outright saying that women who do porn, sex work, or the work in the entertainment industry are "brainwashed" or have no idea what they are doing.

It's because both hooks and Mock avoid diminishing Beyoncé's agency in this way that believe that hooks is not really aiming at Beyoncé with her remark. It's not a great upgrade, but I prefer “terrorist” to “brainwashed” any day.

I could be reading it wrong, but really isn't hooks just using a celebrity as a controversial entry point to get people thinking and talking about more complex, pervasive issues? Now of course there's more radical and necessary work to do than to make a critical example of Beyoncé for not exhibiting feminist and anti-racist politics all of the time.

It isn't helping anyone's deconstruction of power structures and their insidiousness to call Beyoncé a terrorist. I assume that hook's use of the word “terrorist” was a misstep at best and at worst a provocative placeholder; a way to stop the conversation completely and force a the focus onto larger systematic forces at play. Now using a black woman and celebrity in this oversimplifying way is something I believe to not be in line with hook's politics. But I also don't expect hooks to always perfectly exhibit her politics.

Sometimes Beyoncé delivers messages about how beauty culture is damaging through gyrating madly or falsely claiming that it's girls who run the world. And sometimes bell hooks calls another progressive black woman in the public eye a “terrorist”. Everyone takes compromises and unfortunate shortcuts when it comes to expressing ourselves and our politics.

The conversation about the problematic elements of accepting sexualizing and patriarchal compromises to get your career going and to maintain successful in the entertainment industry is an important one. It's a choice many have to face and that no woman with a public career ever makes easily. And just because bell hooks chose not use her body or sexuality in the promotion of her work, doesn't mean that that choice is available or desirable to every woman who works in the public eye.

What hooks is missing in her “terrorist” claim is the recognition that her own gaining of fame and recognition as a black woman who didn't do those things is unfortunately incredibly rare and for many impossible because of the industry they work in.

Those who're able to criticize the system (in this case the music industry) from outside of it should not name call the people who are trying work within it to effect progressive changes. Selling out isn't a binary. I'm not saying that change from the inside system is the right way or even the best way to change things, or even that such efforts should be above critique. I think the effectiveness and inherent problems of such approaches should absolutely be discussed. But the name calling is unnecessary. There is other more radical work to be done. And more respectful (less sensational) ways to broach these issues.

So yes, bell, Beyoncé is in the masters house (the music industry) and has been definitely been handed some of the master's tools, but I've always been of the opinion that tools are can be repurposed. And Beyonce is definitely doing work to transform the expectations of the music industry with repurposed tools.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

March Was Enormous

It's been almost two months since I've posted.

So much has happened. It's hard to know how to tell it all and what I should mention first.

Last month took a trip back to Seattle. It was a strange delightful and full of both warmth and ache.

And also It was very very wet.
I collected so many hugs from the loved ones I left behind in the Puget Sound.
I visited my grandmother who'd had a stroke the week before I arrived

A few hours after my after my flight got into SeaTac I received the first of two life-changing phone calls I would get in March.

The call was from chair of the MFA program at Antioch University. He said "I'm delighted to offer you admission to our program." The cohort begins this June. I was elated and confused and many many feelings besides that. Antioch was my top choice of the three schools I applied to, and the personal attention, professed commitment, and recognition I've received from the faculty has been amazing. But it's going to cost a lot. After a conversation with my partner in which he advised me against going graduate school (he asked "Could you wait a year?"), I spent two very painful days thinking I wouldn't go.

I know I might be in debt forever, and that this decision is more risk than investment but I couldn't say no. I sent off my Intent to Register form last week. Bring on the debt.

Last Thursday morning my father called me to tell me that my grandma Iris McCutchen had died. It's been less than a week. My mind and my body is still processing her being gone. And I have NO idea what to say or think about this.

I'm sick this week, but part of what I've gleaned from the frenzy of March was to keep moving and that  I shouldn't let shame and fear stop me from doing.

Earlier this week I started a Patreon account (a crowdfunding tool for creative folks like me):

And I've once again committed myself to writing a poem every day in the month of April. And sort of against my better judgement I'm rebooting my tumblr to archive the poems I write over the next 29 days.

So here I go.