Category Archives: queer
Radical Reading: Dirty River
Confession time: I’ve actually had the book reviewed below for quite a while, and with apologies to the Arsenal Pulp folks. I spent so much time thinking about it and how to write about it that this blog has been stalled out for a while as I go through that process. But hopefully, better late than never, as it’s a volume I think many of you should absolutely pick up.
One of my favorite poets, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, recently released a memoir that is somehow both a gut punch and a sweet femme-of-color lullaby, telling a story that is neither completely linear nor what you might expect from what frames itself as a survivor’s tale, but bursting with sense memory and relevance—particular for QPOC and migrant readers. Dirty River (published by Arsenal Pulp Press) focuses mainly on a period of Piepzna-Samarasinha’s life in the late 90s where she lived in Toronto struggling with both poverty and relationship abuse, but it is neither a sob story nor a clichéd “overcoming adversity” narrative. The complexities of the story are conveyed with a tight relationship to geography, the confusing nature of memory, and a sense of celebration for queer brown crip femme survival.
Like many great books, particularly those by women of color, this memoir made me think about the nature of storytelling. The path to healing is often not very simple, and this story wrestles with that. It’s a narrative complement to all the great radical books on violence in the context of racism and colonialism published in recent years — with all the references to Courage to Heal in the text, I actually found myself thinking much more about how Piepzna-Samarasinha’s story lines up with the lessons of The Revolution Starts at Home.
What is #dataqueer?
1. A queer-identified person who is geeky about data and shares an affinity with other queer data geeks.
2. A philosophy or orientation towards data that focuses on (a) challenging the norms of a data-driven culture or the data industry and (b) approaching data collection, use, and maintenance a way that may seem counter to generally accepted principles
At a recent conference, I only half-jokingly encouraged people to Tweet about my talk with the tag #dataqueer because I kind of wanted to make it a thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about dataqueerness lately, and what it might mean in relationship to my work.
As someone who works in data with other queer people, and enjoys geeking out about data with fellow queers, sometimes just being queer and being into data is a social affinity that I can happily share with others. But I’m also thinking of dataqueer as an orientation or approach to data. Smushed with a prefix this way, queer is often used to imply critically challenging norms, destabilizing or decentering hierarchies and binaries, and applying creative redefinition to a particular area of focus. If we think of it this way, dataqueer could be an identity that signals a particular approach to data.
What Does It Mean to Queer Data?
One possibility is that dataqueerness is simply about questioning the central principles of a data-driven society or industry. In business, this could mean looking at how we can use data for something other than increasing profitability and revenue or reducing risk. In academia or policy or the technology industry, we might think about how we can both be data-oriented and also question the value of a data-driven society. Rather than thinking about privacy as an afterthought or an extra layer, following the core assumption that More Data Is Good, dataqueerness might mean always asking why we need data as a first principle rather than just how to collect more.
Being dataqueer might also be about focusing on data that is messier or less obvious to analyze, spending time on the unusual data points or outliers. It might mean thinking critically about established categories and instead looking for new and different ways to slice information. Why, for example, is it always 18-35? Why are gender categories in marketing data always male and female? (What is the value of gender as a marketing demographic in the first place?) Someone who is dataqueer might take risks in going beyond how the standard data professional would approach data, and instead think creatively, applying different values or looking for different outcomes. A dataqueer person might even use data to show the harms of collecting data, or work within data with the aim of destroying or complicating data.
These are just some nascent thoughts, of course. What does #dataqueer mean to you?
How Do You Determine What Polysaturated Means for You?
So, readers, I’ve gone through a lot of relationship changes in 2015, and thus a lot of personal introspection. My local partner (I’ll call her the QA, as I do on Twitter) joked just the other day when I was trying to figure out some things about my own sexuality, “you should probably take your own Workshopping Your Sexual Orientation class.” And it’s true—do as I say, not as I do. But of course, deciding what one wants out of romantic (or any other kind) of relationship takes time in practice, and also changes over time. Personally, I’ve realized that what I want in a relationship has fundamentally changed, particularly in the last 6-9 years or so, and I thought a little post about how I’ve been thinking about these things might be helpful for others, particularly other poly folks. (And if you think your community group, conference, etc. could benefit on a class that helps participants clarify their thinking around this topics, just shoot me a line.)
Birth Assignment and Being Seen
A few things have come up recently that have me mulling over this particular topic:
- Some discussions a couple of months ago on Tumblr and Twitter challenging the emphasis on birth assignment in discussion of trans experience
- Philly Trans Health being super bro-y, and my own experience of feeling really terrible about myself at a trans conference that’s supposed to be about affirmation
- I’ve personally been getting “Sir”-ed a lot lately, and have been experiencing more intense dysphoria than usual.
In recent years, I’ve pretty much stopped referencing my birth assignment, except in private with close friends. What medical transition steps I have or have not taken are basically none of your g-damned business. Sometimes I’m not 100% sure about this, because there are some spheres where birth assignment could potentially matter (what I feel dysphoric about is sometimes related, and also the fact that trans women are far more likely than men to experience violence and other negative outcomes of being trans probably also applies in some cases to AMAB genderqueer folks—the recent discussions by Merritt Kopas, Tobi Hill-Meyer, and others around how “gender weirdness” is policed when AMAB are particularly chilling). But generally speaking, it’s often possible to talk about trans experience while focusing on actual gender, rather than birth assignment, and often better to do so.
What I find interesting is that as a non-binary femme trans person, I default to taking “Sir” as a compliment. I then feel kind of unsettled about it, but gendering me male, as a person who presents femme, is pretty much the only mainstream way to acknowledge my queerness in public—and being acknowledged as queer in public is very important to me. While “Sir” and masculine language doesn’t fit me at all, when I’m presenting femme, I have a sense that it acknowledges at least some difference, however backwards that is.
Equity in Non-Hierarchical Polyamory
This post is part one of a four-part series on poly in practice. Look for part two next week.
Inspiration comes in odd places sometimes. I’d hardly expect the kind of mandatory culture-building sessions I take part in from time to time at work to have an effect of how I think about practicing polyamory, but I’m finding an interesting parallel. We talk a lot in my organization about equity versus equality: how the goals of social movement work aren’t grounded so much in a straight-up definition of equality (i.e., everyone is “the same”) but rather in a desire for equity (solutions that make sense for the actual humans and communities involved in a problem). I’m finding this framework to be equally useful in addressing the challenges of practicing non-hierarchical polyamory.
My knee-jerk tendency, I’ve realized, is to look for equality in relationships. Particularly when I find myself in what I would consider a similar position to a metamour’s (we started dating a partner around the same time, we have similar relationship desires and needs, etc.) I have a hard time not drawing comparisons and setting the bar down on a level playing field. The problem with this approach, which may be obvious, is that the level playing field isn’t really something you can see when it comes to relationships. So this approach has a tendency to create a couple of different problems—when I’m with a partner who does practice hierarchical poly and has a primary, it leads to the feeling of not being treated “equally” because of that prioritization, and eventually to resentment. Even when my partner also practices non-hierarchical poly, this approach can lead to insecurity or a fear that my partner is starting to lean towards the hierarchical when some relationship “milestone” happens: i.e., “you don’t feel that thing or aren’t at that milestone with me, and therefore we’re unequal and your other partner is really first.” Though I know those feelings don’t make sense in the non-hierarchical poly model, it’s still hard to get past them.
And so I’d like to start thinking about relationships in a slightly different way: thinking about whether I’m getting my needs met in non-hierarchical poly should actually be about equity, not equality.
A Radically Queer Gift Guide: Art
This next installment in the Radically Queer Gift Guide focuses on art, one of my favorite things to buy when I have a little extra cash floating around. Art isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to buy online, but these are some of the creators whose work I’ve found particularly meaningful that also make it available to purchase on the interwebs. I’ve included jewelry here, but I’ll do a separate post on fashion more broadly.
Radical Reading: Gaysia
When I recently received a copy of Benjamin Law’s Gaysia to review, I admit I was a bit skeptical, given the title. I needn’t have been worried, however. Law blends an accessible journalistic style familiar to fans of travel writing with solid research and investigation into various queer cultures in the countries he visits. Each chapter focuses on a country, and I was happy to find that despite the cheeky title, the coverage is quite comprehensive when it comes to queer identities and communities. Law focuses quite a bit on transfeminine folks of various identities, as well as queer people involved in sex work, silenced lesbians, and even the often-abused wives of MSM in a repressive society, showing a refreshing willingness to consider queer life from all angles. The account is honest, as Law admits his own ignorance going into some situations, and thus particularly accessible to the reader who is interested in but not particularly familiar with queer Asian cultures. I was eager to ask Law some questions about his process and what he learned in his travels.
Avory Faucette: Though your style is accessible and reflects your journalistic background, I also wasn’t surprised to find that you have a PhD, since you raise a lot of important questions that I’ve seen in the recent scholarly literature around queer identity in Asia. What kind of research did you do in preparing for your travels? Were you at all influenced by academic research in deciding what topics to investigate in the countries you visited?
Benjamin Law: To be honest, the volume of academic writing on queer identities, culture and communities is so enormous, I had to back away from it and remind myself I was writing something pretty different – a work of adventure journalism. At the same time, a lot of academics were so enlightening and crucial in my understanding of how other cultures framed queer identity, especially Dr Peter Jackson. But most of my background reading was other journalism, actually. For prep, I’d try to email or call every expert in the field, in the country I was going to. And then when I’d arrive in, say, Myanmar, I’d have a meal with them, pick their brains, and ask for more recommendations of interesting stories, or people I should chat to. Most of the contacts I encountered were people I met on the ground.
AF: What was your biggest surprise in terms of how the people you met see their own identities or present themselves?
BL: I guess the biggest surprise was that nearly every preconception or expectation was completely dismantled by the time I left a country. For instance, as an outsider, you go to Bali assuming every male sex worker is living a life of rank exploitation and poverty, when a lot of them are middle-class guys with other jobs, but see sex work as a respectful way of supplementing their income. I’ll never forget when one money boy said, “Of course I’d ask for money after sex – I’m young and handsome, and no one should get this for free.” In a way, I sort of got where he was coming from! And then there are the stories I assumed would be happy, like the ladyboy beauty pageants in Thailand, where transsexual women get a lot of media attention and sponsorship deals if they win. But of course, as I quickly discovered, Thailand isn’t exactly this promised land for transsexual women. In some respects, their laws overlook transsexual women so much, that ladyboys are treated even worse there than countries were transsexual people are less visible.
AF: Were you surprised by how some of your subjects saw you as a journalist? I was struck, for example, by a story where someone perceived you as white, and your decisions in certain contexts not to reveal yourself as queer. Did you find that your own identity shifted significantly in the eyes of those you met as you went from country to country?
BL: Oh absolutely. My first rule was never to lie – I’m openly gay myself, but I’m not going to go out of my way to discuss my sex life with a religious zealot who believes homosexuality can be cured by the power of Christ, or Allah, or yoga, or whatever. But then, to get access to other openly gay men, I’d bring up my boyfriend back home, just to let them know they were in a safe space. Being a Chinese guy ethnically, but an Australian person in terms of citizenship, was interesting – some people saw me as outsider, and others saw me as someone they trusted more quickly, because I had a familiar face.
AF: Finally, I was particularly interested given my own research into how some Asian cultures classify gender and sexuality in how you described kathoey people in Thailand. I’ve noticed that it’s very hard to get any sense from English-language literature of whether kathoeys and other gender categories (hijras in India, fa’afine in Samoa, etc) are really a distinct category in the given culture or just another understanding of what white Westerners would call trans women. Your explanation seems to suggest that ladyboys are basically trans women and that the idea of kathoey has died out. Do you think that in Thailand, or in other queer cultures you researched, gender and sexuality are mostly understood as separate categories with a Western model of transgender identity, or do you think there’s a fundamentally different understanding of gender (or how gender and sexuality relate) in these cultures compared to in the US or Australia? You described some fairly complex understandings of identity categories in a few of the countries you visited, and I found myself wondering to what extent they might affect a general cultural understanding of gender (as opposed to something very much internal to queer subcultures).
BL: Every culture has different vernacular for what’s often similar things. But then in some places, like Myanmar/Burma, the language is really specific, because the gender and sexual identies are so super-specific and don’t have an exact parallel – apwint, abone and thange, for instance. I mean, I think it’s really interesting that the West uses the acronym LGBTIQ, whereas in many other cultures, those alliances aren’t seen as inevitable or natural, necessarily. Gay Burmese men would probably have little or no understanding, concept or care-factor about lesbians, and one country that might subsidise sex change operations because transsexuality is seen as an illness, might also stone homosexuals to death.
Thanks to Benjamin for generously answering my questions about the book and to Cleis for the review copy!
A different take on femme power
I’ve been trying to think since I attended the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference in June how to write about some of what came up in a particular femme discussion. We talked a lot about power, which is a concept I’ve struggled with. After turning it over in my head, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am powerful, but not in the ways that are most commonly described. My power comes from my enthusiasm. Whether I’m rocking out to some silly pop song while kicking the ass of a tricky database, squeeing over the next Doctor Who episode, or kneeling for a lover, I’m seriously fucking enthusiastic. And there’s power in that–in the ability to be unabashedly joyful, to throw yourself into something without reservation or shame. But it’s not a kind of power you hear much about, even in queer and trans communities.
My power is not a masculine or macho power. It’s not the kind of power that comes from leading others or from defeating the enemy or from standing up in front of a room full of people and being right. Nor is it the femme action hero kind of power of a Lucy Liu character who kicks all sorts of booty without ever messing up her eye makeup. I’ve tried that, and I do admire those femmes who strut their stuff, make cutting remarks, show their power by negotiating for salaries or starting a business or leading their communities. But that’s not me. I’m more likely to think of a comeback five minutes later, and I approach conflict with “can’t we all just get along?” I’m a pacifist. I do public speaking but I don’t feel like I’m showing my best self on a stage. As a geeky introvert, showing power in an extroverted way is something I can do, but not something I love doing.
My power comes not from these typical sources but from making mistakes, from giggling at what a fucking nerd I am, from throwing myself into something I love without shame. It isn’t a dominant kind of power or the power of a leader, but it’s no less valuable. And while we’ve gotten to the point of recognizing femme power, I think we could take a next step in recognizing power that doesn’t focus on leadership or winning or getting things right. Sometimes power is shy or submissive, is geeky and obscure, is less than obvious.
So getting back to the topic of femme power, I want to recognize that some of us are uncomfortable in a tight, killer-hot action hero ensemble. Some of us want to wear floofy yellow dresses or femmey sweatpants and be powerful even when we’re dressed in what one conference attendee called “blah femme.” Some of us feel more comfortable and authentic in a different kind of presentation, and it’s that comfort and authenticity where I find my power most firmly resonates.
Immigration Is a Trans Issue: Strategy Around Framing LGBT Rights
Thursday afternoon I went to the big #TimeIsNow immigration rally at the Capitol and I was struck by the shirts we were all wearing that said “LGBT Families for Immigration Reform.” I felt like a bit of a jerk for criticizing the shirts later to a friend, but it just kept niggling at me. Why LGBT families? Why not LGBT people?
My question gets to a bigger problem that comes up a lot in LGBT organizing work when we want to develop messaging around “X Is a Trans Issue” or “X Is an LGBT Issue.” The challenge, generally, is to convince an audience of LGBT folks (or in my case, often trans folks) that some policy area that’s not usually associated with the core goals of the movement is at its heart an LGBT or trans issue. We usually do that in one of two ways:
- Link the issue to core LGBT movement issues. This is what the t-shirt example does. We tend to think of family issues as a movement priority, whether that’s marriage or second-parent adoption or binational family immigration issues. A lot of LGBT immigration reform proponents have used the example of binational couples to make the argument: if we agree that queer families are a core issue for our movement, then we should be concerned about the immigration laws because they often separate families. Other examples of this include linking reproductive rights to transition-related health care or framing health care as an LGBT issue via hospital visitation policy problems.
- Tell a tragic compelling story about a queer or trans person. Strategy B is what comes up when you don’t have a good hook with an agreed-upon issue, or sometimes alongside that hook. You find some really sad examples of violence/abuse/discrimination, preferably using people who are considered upstanding and acceptable according to movement values, and you tell their stories from a human rights angle. “This person is part of our community and the abuse he/she/they suffered is so bad that it triggers a need to consider this an LGBT/trans issue from a human rights perspective.” So for example, you might find a gay man and a trans woman who were raped in prison and use their tragic stories to illustrate why prison reform is an LGBT issue.
Neither of these ways are wrong, exactly. It’s true that the agreed-upon core issues often do touch others, like immigration, and it’s also true that compelling stories are a good way to remind people that we’re all human and we need to support human rights. But I think we can do better.
Why is immigration a trans issue? Yes, it’s about human rights, and thus we should care from a solidarity or ally perspective if we’re non-immigrant trans people. Yes, some trans people have experienced really shitty things at the hands of our immigration system, and we want that to stop. Yes, draconian immigration laws separate queer families, including families with trans members. But it’s also a trans issue for reasons that are less sexy and harder to describe.
Trans immigrants have to deal with a lot of shit, not only when they experience the really amazingly awful, front-page-headline story kind of treatment. They deal with daily microaggressions that are compounded by dual identities, and often also by race, class, and ethnicity. Some of these trans immigrants are not ideal candidates for a Facebook post or a fundraising email. They may have a history of criminality or be too politically radical to use in a carefully-orchestrated communications strategy. They may not want to be part of such a strategy. And then, beyond the individual people who are both trans and immigrants, our immigration system as an institution overlaps a lot with the problems trans people are fighting. The problems with our immigration system and the violence and discrimination trans people face are clearly part of the same disgusting web of policing, capitalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, and kyriarchy. There’s not much difference between the vigilantes with guns who stand at the U.S.-Mexico border and those who beat up or murder trans women in the streets. There’s not much difference between police harassing immigrants with “papers please” policies and racial profiling and police harassing trans people with gender policing and asking for ID to use the restroom.
I have a problem with the “link to a core issue” strategy because I want to know who came up with those core issues. It’s not even that it’s a single-issue marriage movement, it’s that it’s a movement of five or ten or fifteen core issues. We have hundreds of issues, and how we prioritize them necessarily varies from person to person. Of course organizations and individuals have to prioritize their use of limited resources, and I support using strategies such as determining who is most marginalized within a community, determining what issue areas are tackled the least and thus need more resource commitment, and determining what issues a group can tackle most efficiently with given resources. But it doesn’t take many resources to simply say “we care about this.”
I have a problem with the compelling story strategy, and with the overall “we care about this because we are all humans” strategy, because it both privileges the easiest-to-package stories and can become weak and diluted. When we hear “X is a human right,” it may be absolutely true but we hear that so many things are human rights and it doesn’t necessarily speak to us. I think we need to acknowledge the specificity of our interest in different issues as queer and trans people. So again, immigration is a trans issue because we as trans people are dealing with this tangled web of policing and patriarchy and bullshit, and part of addressing that system is supporting immigration reform. Immigration is a trans issue because trans immigrants experience multiple forms of oppression that make them one of the parts of our trans community most in need of social, legal, and policy change.
I think that we have an enormous untapped creative potential as a movement, and that we need to start going all-in, taking risks, and supporting social justice in all its forms not simply because we are humans but because we are humans who know the tremendous pain and suffering a broken system can cause. We need to acknowledge that this is what queer and trans work is about, whether we’re working for marriage equality or health care coverage or immigration or protections for sex workers.
Creating Change 2013 Reminds Me of the Power of Southern Queer Diaspora
As organizers, sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in law, policy, and discrimination and forget about the importance of culture. As I follow the #cc13 hashtag today, I’m reminded of how powerful diasporas can be and how strong my sense of Southern self is.
I grew up in North Carolina, and a big part of my identity formation as a queer teenager rested in opposition to my location as a Southerner. It was easy to dislike the South while imagining the big queer meccas awaiting me over the Yankee rainbow. But as a trans queer adult, I’ve learned that Southern culture has a profound and often positive effect on who I am.
Being a Southerner means instant nostalgic connection as you wax rhapsodic with others in the Southern diaspora about grits and sweet tea, biscuits and cream gravy, even those awful “salad molds” of Jello and pineapple and whipped cream. It means a shared language of “bless her heart” and “come to Jesus meetings.” It means ingrained traditions around generosity and creating family wherever you go. Being a queer Southerner means forging tighter bonds with members of this diasporic niche, and examining the relationship between queer and Southern identity.
As I read the Tweets from North Carolinians in Atlanta this weekend I feel a sort of hometown tug, and look forward to visiting my high school in a few weeks, where I’ll be doing a trans 101 program. Though I often feel envy for those who grew up in liberal areas with many resources, and thus learned how to describe their own genders and sexualities long before I did, I also often think about the surprising openness of conservative straight white parents who approached me after graduation and said they’d learned something from my speech on how discrimination forms and leads to anti-gay bullying. That moment is a touchstone that reminds me something very important: every group on this planet is made up of individual people. The power of a diaspora is both to spread culture outward and to return with new perspectives that might change individual minds. Queer Southerners are living examples of our region’s diversity and potential, as are those conservative parents who cast aside prejudice and upbringing for a moment and were willing to listen to a 17 year old who had something to say.