Tranifesto Asks: Is It a Choice? So What?

Trans man Matt Kailey recently posted this timely and well-reasoned piece on his Tranifesto blog: “It’s Time to Lose ‘I Didn’t Choose’ (to be Transgender)”. Kailey writes that he gets tired of hearing GLBT folks defend themselves against social prejudice by saying “I didn’t choose to be this way”, as if their orientation or gender expression were some kind of disability. If being straight or gender-conforming feels preferable, that’s because of stigma and discrimination, not because there’s anything wrong with being different.

…Being trans, in and of itself, is not a curse. Neither is being gay or lesbian. It’s the society and the culture that decides whether such things are negative, positive, or neutral. If, as in some cultures, we were revered as powerful, knowledgeable, spiritual, and blessed human beings, would we wish that we weren’t trans? If our family was proud, if we were deemed as special — or even if we were just treated matter-of-factly — would we wish that we weren’t trans?

The “I didn’t choose to be this way” argument paints us as victims. It paints us as tragic figures with an external locus of control — life has done something to us. We have no control over it or over ourselves. We have no “choice.”

I understand the purpose of the argument, because, truly, none of us did choose to be transgender (or gay, lesbian, or bisexual). No one chooses to be straight or non-trans, either. But you don’t hear straight, non-trans people arguing that they didn’t choose to be that way. They don’t need this argument, because they have the power. We don’t. That power makes their particular existence the “right” way to be. We feel as though we have to make the “no choice” argument in order for those in power to accept us, to grant us our rights, and to quit killing us.

But I think there are better arguments — arguments about equality and dignity and human rights — that give us a stronger position and make us stronger as people. To say, “It wasn’t my choice” is to say, “I wouldn’t be this way if I could help it” — which is to say, “This is a bad way to be.”

But is it such a terrible way to be, or is it only terrible because of the way we are looked at and treated by society? Why is straight better? Why is non-trans better? We have been brainwashed into believing that this is so, and we have been brainwashed into believing that we are “less than,” so we have to come up with an argument that excuses our deficiency — and that argument is: “I didn’t choose.”

We come to the table as victims, we sit at the table as victims, and then we wonder why we have no power. It doesn’t matter whether I chose to be this way or not — what matters is that, by virtue of being a human being, I deserve the same rights as everyone else.

Read the follow-up post here. Excerpt:

…please remember that I am not saying that sexual orientation or gender identity is a choice. It’s not. What I am saying is that, in my opinion, the “I didn’t choose” argument causes us to relinquish our power. The “no choice” argument says that we are deficient — but it’s not our fault. It says that there are other ways to be that are better — but we can’t be them, because we are “like this.” It hands the power over to those with more “desirable” characteristics — characteristics that we are supposed to want … if we had the choice. And it diminishes the concept that all human beings are worthy, simply by virtue of being human. Some are not more equal than others.

If we say it enough, we might convince ourselves (and others) that nobody would choose to be us — not even us. And honestly, if given the choice, I would choose to be me.

I say “Amen!” to Tranifesto, because I believe that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and all other forms of prejudice arise from our unthinking acceptance of arbitrary value judgments about the differences between us. Transgender rights may seem like an obscure and low-priority fight to some people. But actually we have a lot to learn from people who occupy a liminal space. They are living proof of the unreality of the boundaries that oppress us.

In Memoriam: Rane Arroyo

The acclaimed poet Rane Arroyo died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 7, at the age of 54. Arroyo taught creative writing at the University of Toledo. Read a tribute to him in the Toledo Free Press:

…“His death is a great tragedy and loss for poetry and Puerto Rican literature in the United States,” said Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, a Latino studies and Spanish professor at the University of Michigan.

Arroyo was a mentor to La Fountain-Stokes, who said Arroyo was very generous with his fellow writers and fellow poets. Arroyo visited La Fountain-Stokes’ classes for presentations.

“He was an incredibly funny and warm person who was gifted as an artist. He had an ability to translate his experiences as a gay man and a Latino from Chicago, and the experiences with his family and with his partner. He was able to translate all of that into poetry that was accessible and that was in the grade of the great American and English poets,” La Fountain-Stokes said.

La Fountain-Stokes said Arroyo used his poetry to share his experiences as a gay and Latino man in the United States and show that Latinos have something to say in American Literature.

“In the U.S,. where gay and Latino people have been looked down upon, his work is very pertinent for our political atmosphere,” he said.

Sample poems from his collection The Sky’s Weight (Cincinnati: Turning Point Books, 2009) are posted on the publisher’s website . They’ve kindly given me permission to reprint this poem:

Come Back, Blue Jay

Let the cats interrogate far birds
to be forgotten after the sun returns to

its black hole throne. Daylight keeps me
safe from forever. No one has quoted

joy in years and yes it hurts
to be so jauntily human. Look!

A bluejay: blue, sky blue, like sky.
Clouds are slow period marks

in a profound letter to Now.
Why do we ever feel unloved?

Update: Read a tribute to Arroyo by editor Gloria Mindock in the June 2010 Cervena Barva Press newsletter.

John Ollom’s Dance Troupe Merges Sex and Spirit

It’s June…the month of weddings for those who are legally allowed to do so…and also the month when Reiter’s Block becomes just a little bit gayer.

Our first Pride Month post features dancer-choreographer John Ollom, director of Prismatic Productions and Ollom Movement Art. Their new production, “M.U.D. (Men Under Dirt)”, fuses dance, music, and video to enact a man’s journey to spiritual wholeness. Through passionate struggle, the lead character discovers how to integrate the male and female elements within himself and embrace his sexuality. The work owes much to Jungian ideas of male and female archetypes and the shadow self.

We enjoyed a performance of “M.U.D.” at the Soulforce Anti-Heterosexism Conference last fall. (We got the R-rated version, undies on.) The gay entertainment blog Jed Central has posted a good review of the production that just closed in New York, plus an exclusive interview with John. I found these remarks especially insightful:

Jed Ryan: You have mentioned that gay male love, as opposed to gay male sexuality, is vastly under-explored in theater, cinema, etc. Why is that?

John Ollom: You asked me about love between men as a concept that is not portrayed in current film, dance or theatre. Our current society is so afraid to see love between men. It is getting comfortable seeing men fuck and fight and be objects of sexual desire, but to see men desiring each other’s touch and love is truly radical. That is why this work is so important. Look at “Brokeback Mountain” for example. I know homosexual men who hated that movie. There is so much internalized homophobia and self hatred, that only one scene shows them fucking. You do not see any love or tenderness or joy in their life. You only see pain and suffering. This is 2010. Have we not progressed since the films and theatre works in the 80’s when so many men tragically lost their lives to AIDS? Can we not see men loving each other and having no shame in this part of their life?

I have had two experiences in my career as a choreographer with an Artistic Director from a company (that will remain unnamed here) and a composer at a university. They were both terrified that I was showing men in love on stage. They begged me to “hide” or abstract my work. I refused. This caused my work to be cut from one venue. This was done by homosexual men. One of these men later wrote me and thanked me for showing me that he was a “homophobic” homosexual. I don’t think that shame and self hatred have to be a part of our collective experience. I think with HONESTY this work can reveal the male condition. This work can comment on how we as men are conditioned in this current society. I have had to look into other cultures that have revered the male-to-male relationship as a rite of passage to honor the phallus, the male comradery, but the male intimacy is still something that can only lie in the “shadows”. That is why “M.U.D.” is truly revolutionary. I think man to man love is truly the “shadow” of the film, theatre and dance industry. Men are insecure about their penis size, their lust for other men, their desire to love or be loved by men, regardless of sexual orientation. Audience feedback has also revealed that they highly appreciated my awareness in not being binary in the sexual expression of my bisexual character. There was an ambiguity and complexity to love and sex that was not oversimplified into “gay” or “straight” manifestations of one dimensional characters. Different types of love, lust and rage were shown on a spectrum of a complex human being.

I think John’s right that male-to-male intimacy and vulnerability are even more taboo, in our culture, than the actual sex. This probably comes from the culturally conditioned misconception that emotion is a weakness rather than a source of authenticity and power. The job of expressing emotion is outsourced to women, who are perceived as having less to lose because we’re not supposed to be dominant anyhow.

As an artist, I struggle to overcome that conditioning. Particularly in my fiction about gay men, I worry “do they sound too much like women?” when they express love instead of just sex. But everyone (not just men, or gay men) will be more free when those taboos are challenged.

Local readers take note: John will be teaching a movement workshop at Smith College in Northampton on August 7-14.