Friday, May 6, 2016

On The Antioch Review's choice to publish and promote transphobic content

Content warning: transphobia, sexism, cultural supremacy (esp in the first link, click with caution!)

In its Winter 2016 Issue the literary magazine The Antioch Review published Daniel Harris’s essay titled “The Sacred Androgen: The TransgenderDebate.” At the beginning of his essay Harris brings up the topic of the transgender experience as one might broach a topic at a fancy dinner party. He nervously presents a few nonspecific facts (eg: high rates of depression and suicide among transfolks).

He presents these facts like he’s testing the room. He wants you, the reader, to know he’s hip, that he reads the news. Citing the facts seems neutral enough. But, as many oppressed individuals know, the facts are never neutral. By pre-empting his views with a three sentence patina of cold hard facts about the suffering of others, he wants to show you he’s objective, that he has no skin in the game, that his perspective is fully formed and informed.

I don’t have that luxury. As a transgender author and active member of the literary community, my skin is always being dragged into the game Harris wants to deny he is even playing. My conception of transgender experiences is constantly being informed and re-formed. And I can’t write about the experience of transgender people objectively. The facts hurt me too much. I can’t write this from the perspective of society, only from myself.

I'm a transgender poet, nonfiction writer, and graduate student in Antioch University's MFA program. I also work as a peer writing consultant at Antioch University Seattle. Although Antioch College (the source of the publication in question) and Antioch University are no longer officially affiliated, they share names and a lot of history. Even though these institutions are not longer connected, I am ashamed that the university I currently attend shares so much with an institution that now supports such bigoted views. Harris's words threaten my very existence, as well as to the work I do in validating and archiving transgender voices and narratives in the literary landscape.

The essay itself made me physically sick to read. It was sometimes so blatantly wrong the only thing I could do was laugh. (Did Harris do ANY research?) The way he uses people's bodies and the choices they make about those bodies to prop up his bigotry was absolutely horrifying. The way he shames women and trans people for making surgical changes to their bodies combines both sexism and transphobia into one revolting sour note of supremacy.

Yet beyond the reductive misinformation Harris espouses, the patronizing tone of the essay itself was deeply upsetting to me. As someone who writes nonfiction, I simply can't understand writing something like that and not realizing it's so condescending that it borders on parody. It's not just bad politics. It's bad essay writing.

I'm offended by his words and also by the way he uses words. 

No, not offended. I am actively harmed by the form and content of those words.

I am, however, more hurt by The Antioch Review. I know views like Harris’s and the people who hold them exist. I am reminded all the time. I am disappointed and appalled that The Antioch Review gave Harris a platform. Not just because his polemic is obviously bigoted, but because I can think of at least 10 transgender writers (myself included) who could've offered a more accurate, more engaging, and much better written. Yet it's vocally transgender transgender writers whose work is labeled "divisive." It transgender writers whose work about their lives and culture, that get rejected or excluded from so many literary spaces. Or those pieces don't get sent out from fear. Or because cisgender publishers neglected to solicit the opinions of trans people.

The Antioch Review’s promotion of the words in Harris’s essay, more so than any of those words, is an enforcement and harsh reminder of the fact that literary culture isn’t safe for transgender people, that is doesn’t want our voices and our stories. It signals a tacit agreement with Harris, that when transgender people ask to be recognized accurately, that we are asking too much:

TGs [transgender individuals] have ambushed the debate and entangled us in a snare of such trivialities as the proper pronouns with which to address them, protocol as Byzantine and patronizing as the etiquette for addressing royalty

The words of the essay itself also generalize about transgender experiences in a way that erases my identity as a trans masculine genderqueer person. It ignores anybody with a non-binary gender and assumes all trans people want to undergo or have gone through gender affirmation surgery. It’s from this reductive assumption, that Harris claims trans people are enforcing gender norms and that we are "running away" from homophobia, that we, en masse, are trying to assimilate into heterosexual culture. 

(this was one of the parts where I had to laugh)

Harris’s framing of himself and his cisgender gay peers as valiantly resistant to assimilation, and also as victims of purported bullying at the hands of transgender activists who just want to be recognized as who they are, is downright disgraceful. It's disgusting, self aggrandizing, and disrespectful. It’s a naked moment of pushing someone else down to raise yourself up. Harris's need to see himself as more right and more persecuted (aka noble) than trans people has cost me my sense of security in the literary community and has blocked his worldview off from the rich wisdoms, truths, and stories of transgender people.

I fear for myself and my peers because of what he's said. And I pity him. Because, through his own denial, he'll never know or want to understand the beautiful and complex cultures, stories, and possibilities that trans people create. And we create them daily dammit!

Shame on The Antioch Review. Pity for Daniel Harris.

Please sign this petition denouncing the Antioch Review’s promotion of transphobic content.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Poetry Month Project: New Voices

I've decided to start a small project for poetry month. I'm starting a bit late but showing up and starting is more important than getting it right. So here I am.

The project is simple: Read aloud a new (to me) poem every day in April. Record it and post publicly.

My goals for taking on this project are a tad more complicated so I will try to keep them to a simple list. I might write about how it affects me. But later.

The goals:
  1. Familiarize myself with new poets and the lesser known works of poets I already admire.
  2. Become more accustomed to reading poetry aloud. Normalize this practice in my life.
  3. Become more accustomed to the way that testosterone has changed my voice.

Today's poem:

This project was inspired by queer and trans magic.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Today a Thin White Giant Fell from Earth

My brain hurts like a warehouse, it has no room to spare.

I have David Bowie to thank for the very first time I waxed philosophical on the penis. At 10 I remember his shimmering codpiece as if it took up 2/3s of the screen. And maybe it did. It's been years since I watched Labyrinth. But this morning I woke up hungry for his peach and nothing else will do. I especially want the worm inside. His was the first force to awaken the dreaming worm of weirdness beneath all my sweet curvatures and juice. The first to offer graffiti'd hints that my pit might be something much more tricky.

My sophomore year of college youtube was still a novelty. Once I found him seducing Mick Jagger into shaking his ass and pressing fiery foreheads together, I watched the "Dancing in the Street" video at least 300 times that winter. I forced all of my friends to watch it too. It kept us warm. It doesn't matter that in the 90's they both took their passions back in respective interviews. Evidence for their overwritten queerness still exists. I still love him. I already miss him through my lack of forgiveness. I would still go down on his ego. Gladly.

The first time I heard "Space Oddity" I almost cried and then the key change saved me from folding in like my mother was prone to. Confident jerking guitar pulls brought oxygen back to the chest cavity his solemn space opera had thrust into vacuum. After that I never again remembered how to breathe normally. My lungs knew from then on, the dazzling strangeness of his universe.

 This morning I full-on sobbed before his hope came in to save me. (My mother would be proud). 
"Tell my wife I love her very much."
"It's time to leave the capsule if you dare."
He dared and dared and dared. Without him I'd never have understood how to accomplish the necessary risk of leaving my capsule.

He, mystical glittery beast, unweaving himself each musical season, and saying "Yes" to every possible version of himself – He, sex on two milky-thin matchsticks, shattered the panicky distance between us and alien. He put a shine on the things my adolescence feared touching: Sex, Loss, & Otherness. In many ways I see his career as a 50-year long public adolescence. Now that he's gone the way only his space ship knows to go; now that his bright flare of earthly puberty has ended, and the rest of humanity remains, I fear we'll find ourselves far too grown up. So let's remember his hair throwing (caution to the wind) and tenor-into-baritone trajectory as we recall our very first tweenage desires, with ache and a sharp-but-tender recklessness.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Gender as Negative Space: A Quick Response to Kat Blaque asking "What Defines Gender?"

To me, as a nonbinary trans masculine poet, I think about the rightness or definition of my gender in a similar way to how I think about a poem that resonates deep down into my soul. Sure, I can point to concrete details big, small, and structural as to why that poem works for me, but that will never be the whole story of why it's so meaningful, why it feels perfect. It's a kind of magic. Which I know sounds hokey, but whatever.

I know that I like slick images, em dashes, and enjambment, but that doesn't mean a poem with all these components will work for me. I know I like getting sweaty, wearing a binder, painting my nails, fixing my bike, and being called "sir," but all of those things don't necessarily add up to my gender.
My gender, just like the meaning in poems, is too big/complicated to be defined just by the currently available language of words and physical/visual concepts (like fashion). Yes, gender is in these words and symbols, but gender is also in the negative space, the implied universe beyond definition. Gender exists in ways we don't have language or symbols for yet. But like a poem we don't wholly understand, yet moves us deeply, gender affects our lives. 

from Kim Addonizio's poetry manual Ordinary Genius
I choose to believe this. It's a belief that keeps me alive and in my body. I hold on to it. Without this faith, I wouldn't have the courage to call myself a trans person or a poet. I know because I spent a long, dark, disconnected time not calling myself either because I didn't believe in the power of the unsayable. I wasn't closeted or hiding (yet). I was closed off to the possibility of being something currently undefined. Now I'm open.

And now that I'm out in this open/negative space, it's a bit scary and kind of lonely. People in a hurry sometime get angry that the words on the page are confusing and tend not to consider the negative space (aka the rest of my identity). Sometimes it hurts to be overlooked but honestly, I'm much happier this way. I don't feel so small. And, though it's sometimes lonely, I don't think I'm alone. Out here in the negative space is, I think, where we can all be our most complex and human.

So, friend, come with me into the ample life-giving void. Let's boldly go where no words have gone before.

<3 Wryly

PS Watch all of Kat Blaque's videos because they are SO amazing.