Erasure and Swag: My Life in Pins

I could depict the timeline of my passions in swag. Pins, keychains, and pendants that proclaimed my shifting special interests, my fervent niche identities, to a world that usually ignored or mocked but occasionally extended the brief warmth of tribal recognition.

And just recently I asked myself, as I picked out more queer nerd tank tops on Redbubble: What have I been driving at, in my lifelong quest for visibility–or more often, my battle against a crushing feeling of erasure? What deeper wounds are reopened when, for example, someone refuses to make waves in a conservative environment by using my nonbinary pronouns–or when I make the same pragmatic choice myself? Why, as an adolescent, did I feel compelled to add to my social awkwardness by literally wearing my heart on my sleeve?

I had a thing for tragically murderous dudes.

When I was 13, for example, I read British mystery novelist Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, in which her series detective re-examines the historical evidence for King Richard III’s alleged murder of his young nephews who stood in his path to the throne. The conclusion: He wuz framed, yer Honor. No topic is too obscure to inspire a fan club somewhere in the world, so (impressively in the pre-Internet 1980s) I connected with the Richard III Society in England and bought this lovely pin (figure left) that I wore every day in 9th grade, to the ridicule of my classmates. Yes, my main political activity during the era of AIDS and apartheid divestment was lobbying to reopen a 500-year-old cold case.

In college, I saw the musical “The Phantom of the Opera” and, like many a lonely young woman-adjacent person who liked black capes, fell in love with the title character. This pin (figure right) was my lucky amulet through the ill-advised adventure of law school. Perhaps all that Erik needed was a good real estate lawyer to help him claim title to his underground lair via adverse possession.

At right: St. Dymphna, patron saint of mental illness.

My late 20s-early 30s was my peak Christian phase, so I bought keychains like this one saying “YIELD your heart to Jesus” and wore a little diamond cross pendant on the commuter train in hopes that cute guys would strike up a conversation with me about the Trinity. (Reader, they did not. But if you begin an M/M romance that way, I will buy it.)

I don’t have any relevant swag from my “trauma theory explains everything” period, 2008-2015. You mean there’s no market for “emotional incest survivor” keychains? What a surprise!

This just screams “Etsy shop”, no?

I rediscovered H.P. Lovecraft around the time that I was becoming disillusioned with Christianity’s abuse apologism. The Elder Gods “religion” is great for mystically-minded cynics because it is simultaneously a genuine apophatic theology and a light-hearted parody of church ritual. We can get our Monty Python kicks from dressing up in tentacled headgear, but we’re also bracing ourselves to confront the cold reality of a non-human-centered cosmos–a bittersweet passage out of father-idealizing religion, into spiritual adulthood.

Central pendant and pin courtesy of NecronomiCon Providence 2017.

Which brings us into the wonderful world of queer signifying apparel. In case the boy-band haircut, Eddie Bauer fleece vest, and dozen slightly different blue pin-striped button-down shirts don’t give me away, I have begun collecting pronoun pins, necklaces, and tank tops with Pokemon characters in the colors of the trans flag.

So what does all this mean? Apart from the observation, so routine and widespread as to be cliché (but like many clichés, also true), that Americans are groomed to create brand identities for ourselves through consumption?

A thread that runs throughout my life is the need to struggle against misinterpretation. But it is interwoven with the contradictory thread of ceaselessly seeking an identity that resists definition. Show me what’s the opposite of who I am, and I will try to include it. And then I’ll complain that I’m still being mistaken for another, easier-to-understand category–as though it wasn’t my own choice to become something that has no name.

Dr. Freud, up there, would say this is about my engulfment trauma from being raised by a narcissist. Wherever I am, I have to carry some pocket talisman of resistance, an assertion (even if only secretly to myself) that a piece of me remains outside the agenda of the people around me. A crucifix at a radical feminist conference, a Cthulhu necklace in church.

When I was That Kind of Christian, I wore swag to evangelize. I wasn’t concerned with saving people from Hell; I agreed with C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle that all good and loving deeds were counted as worship of the true God, whatever you called your religion. I was desperate to rescue people from shame, perfectionism, and codependence in this life. Because a certain rather idiosyncratic brand of Christianity had done that for me, at that point in time, I hoped it would do the same for everyone. In my non-Christian family and my secular big-city workplaces, and in progressive churches where we glossed over theology instead of wrestling with its historical difficulties, I felt a similar burden of erasure as a conservative Christian in America that I now feel as a genuine sexual minority. Which is why I asked the question that led to this post: is this my psychological pattern, regardless of content?

If so, I am optimistic that the pattern is shifting. At NecronomiCon and Flame Con (the LGBTQ comics convention), I wore my rainbow octopus gear to signal membership in the tribe, to ask for welcome, not to undermine it. And it really worked. I felt energized, relaxed, and appreciated as the current version of my true self–however long a shelf-life it may have.

This nonbinary Russian Blue is one of many cute color-coded animals available from @GayBreakfast on Storenvy. 

December Links Roundup: We’ve Always Been Here

Happy Advent and Hanukkah to my readers! This year, to honor my ancestors and the victims of anti-Semitic violence in Pittsburgh (and elsewhere), I’ve begun lighting Hanukkah candles again. As I did at his age, the Young Master loves the ritual of selecting the colors for each night, and seeing the little flames cheer up the early darkness of these winter evenings. Pro tip, this grapefruit peeler is great for extracting the wax stubs from those tiny candle holder cups.

I’ve been thinking a lot about visibility of minority identities, and the compromises involved in translating one’s self into an alien discourse. “They” is a grammatically awkward pronoun precisely because life outside the gender binary is supposed to be unthinkable. Then, too, there is the question of why recognition matters. Who is our audience? Are we signaling solidarity to others in the tribe, or are we seeking public validation of an identity that we ourselves are insecure about?

Speaking of visibility in unlikely places, if you grew up in a progressive household in the 1970s, you probably remember Dr. Bronner’s liquid Castile soap. I spent many hours soaking in the bathtub, puzzling over the philosophical tracts that covered every inch of the bottle label in tiny print. These quirky paeans to the “All-One-God-Faith” included quotes from Thomas Paine, the lyrics of “To Dream the Impossible Dream”, and the timeless advice: “Don’t drink soap! Dilute! Dilute! OK!” At the social justice blog The Establishment, Casey Kleczek gives a thumbnail history of the still family-owned brand in “A Soap Label to Save the World from Future Hitlers”:

Bronner’s Moral ABCs first developed in the Heilbronner home in the Jewish quarter of Laupheim, Germany where for 70 years Emanuel and his family tirelessly fine-tuned the first-ever liquid castile soap, and held the prevailing belief that “You don’t mix politics and soap.”

This stalwart rejection of incorporating Bronner’s then Zionist ideology into the family business by his strict orthodox father and uncles inspired him to emigrate to America in 1929, where he would be free to create a company of his own ideation, and mix politics and soap as he wanted.

In America, he dropped the “Heil” from his last name and became a successful consultant for American cosmetic companies. He fell in love, got married and had three children. But his life came screeching to a halt with a postcard in his father’s largely censored scrawl:  “You were right.”

For years he had been trying to convince his parents to follow him to the United States amidst Hitler’s rise to power. He managed to securely help his sisters out of Germany but was unable to convince his parents, who held the prevailing belief of the time that “Hitler would be a thing of the past.”

Within the next year, the Heilbronner soap company was nationalized by the Nazis, and the family was deported and killed in Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt. Not long after, Bronner’s wife passed away.

After the death of his parents and wife, a switch flipped. His very aliveness was a burden, a reminder of the fact that his parents died while he was living the American dream. He carried the weight of their deaths like a talisman with a gnawing question, “What are you going to do about it?”

The guilt and sorrow frothed into a frenetic madness. Rather than slip into mourning, he was seized by a singular charge: teach the world the Moral ABCs. All the sources of unwelcome philosophy from his youth were channeled into this hodgepodge Talmud. Mohammed, Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, Buddha, and even Thomas Paine were some of its more notable players. And while the particulars may have been unintelligible, the guiding principle was a call to rise above religious and ethnic differences and unite on “spaceship earth.”

The article goes on to give an even-handed account of the impact of Bronner’s zeal on his family, whom he neglected in his quest to spread his message. After much financial and medical turmoil, things turned around for the Bronners during the natural-products craze of the 1960s, and the rest is history.

At the Huffington Post, writer and theater performer Travis Alabanza argues that white supremacy plays a role in erasing gender diversity, in the article “Non-Binary People Aren’t a New Phenomenon”. Since the mainstream media has taken notice of trans issues only recently, there’s the implication that these identities are a new trend, and therefore shallow and insubstantial. But gender-bending identities have been named and given space in a variety of cultures, from South Asian hijra to the bakla of the Philippines. “I do not think it is a coincidence that things are often seen as ‘just beginning to exist’ when they are placed within frames of the West and/or whiteness. Did we mean to say ‘non-binary was new’, or did we just mean to say ‘non-binary is now something I see more white, western, middle class people talking about’.” Alabanza worries that this new framing will lead to a narrowing of possibilities, so that nonbinary becomes a cloned look: “skinny, able-bodied, white, and masculine of centre.”

A welcome variety of literary personalities, including Northampton’s own Andrea Lawlor and Jordy Rosenberg, are on view in Peter Haldeman’s NY Times profle “The Coming of Age of Transgender Literature”. These authors, along with other rising stars like Akwaeke Emezi and Kai Cheng Thom, discuss how genderqueer literature lends itself to a “magpie” approach to genre, with narratives that incorporate fables, poetic devices, faux-scholarly footnotes, and other postmodern techniques.

While literary innovation may be flourishing in the Pioneer Valley, traditional test-driven education is doing its best to stamp it out, writes Ryan Boyd in his LA Review of Books article “Students Want to Write Well; We Don’t Let Them” , reviewing John Warner’s new book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Students’ lack of competence or passion for writing can be blamed on “how we have tried to industrialize and centralize education since the Reagan era while simultaneously withdrawing the resources that allow teachers to create environments where students can thrive.” Teaching to the test–the formulaic composition assignments on topics no one cares about–stifles students’ curiosity and burdens them with economic anxiety from a young age. Students are unmotivated, not because they’re lazy and coddled, but because they intuitively understand that these assignments are merely grooming them to become corporate cogs and neoliberal consumers.

The five-paragraph essay, bête noire of writing professors, encapsulates this: a straitjacket format never seen in the wild, where actual writers have to be flexible, creative, and intuitive based on genre and audience, the five-paragraph model is wholly artificial. And since the only person who reads it is an adult who holds a grade over the writer’s head, this example of “education folklore” (Warner’s term) socializes students to obsess about grades (which research shows are detrimental to learning and merely increase anxiety) and view The Teacher as the only arbiter of quality, who judges everything according to a strict rubric. All that matters is the final score, which can be standardized, rather than the kind of rich, in-depth, guiding feedback that only experienced teachers can provide their students. In overcrowded, over-tested classrooms, students come to see every assignment as just another flaming hoop to jump through.

No wonder I did poorly on the AP English exams!

Just for fun, check out humorist Daniel Ortberg’s “Potential Names For My Short-Lived Queer Suiting Company That Will Fold Under Mysterious Circumstances Eight Months After Launching”:

If there’s one thing I know to be true in this world, it’s that anytime I click on an article that says something like “Five AWESOME Companies Making Androgynous/Non-Binary/Genderfluid/Queer-Bodied Suits for the Butch/Masc-of-Center/TenderBlenderBabyBoi In Your Life,” if said article is more than half a year old, fully half of those links will be dead and the companies in question will be decisively, yet mysteriously, out of existence. (With the exception of Bindle and Keep, it would seem; may their doors never close.) I don’t quite know why this is! My guess is that it’s a relatively small client base, suits are generally kind of expensive, especially if you want a custom fit, and the butch/stud/transmasculine/et al market covers a lot of different body types. But that doesn’t stop us from launching another round every couple of years, because hope and ignorance of markets spring eternal (see The Toast).

Create your own company name from your birth month and day! Mine is “Wolf & Ranger”. We make cowboi hats…