August Links Roundup: Barbie-Core

In anticipation of Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming live-action “Barbie” rom-com, which you know I’m going to watch even (or especially) if it’s terrible, “Barbie-core” is the new fashion trend. Or so says the New York Times, which pointed me to these links from Vogue and WhoWhatWear depicting celebs like Kacey Musgraves and Kim Kardashian in campy hot-pink attire. For us masculine folks, the look would be Ken-core. Last week in Provincetown I thought I’d died and gone to button-down shirt heaven. Never had I been surrounded by so many other middle-aged homosexuals in flamboyant leisure wear. I splurged on a Postmarc top with a color palette similar to my Angel Face Barbie’s floral-print dress in the photo above.

(Superstar Ken, 1977 — my first one.)

In less enjoyable news about people named Ken, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was among the 20-plus Republican state AGs who sued the Biden administration last month to oppose a Department of Agriculture school meal program that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. According to NBC News 5 in Dallas-Fort Worth:

The coalition of attorneys general are hoping for a similar result to a separate challenge from earlier this month when a Tennessee judge temporarily barred two federal agencies from enforcing directives issued by Biden’s administration that extended protections for LGBTQ people in schools and workplaces.

The judge sided with the attorneys general, ruling that the directives infringed on states’ right to enact laws, such as banning students from participating in sports based on their gender identity or requiring schools and businesses to provide bathrooms and showers to accommodate transgender people.

Because nothing says “I follow Jesus” like taking food away from gay kids, right?

I forget how I came across this 2021 piece from FilmDaze, “Anti-Queerness and the Pinkification of Allison of ‘The Breakfast Club'”, but it’s a worthwhile read about the familiar movie trope of the makeover into gender-role conformity. Columnist Nia Tucker says of Ally Sheedy’s metamorphosis from Goth rebel to debutante: “She doesn’t even receive any last words, keeping true to her character having the least lines and a lack of personal development. In exchange for her willingness to be made over, she has been given the gift of the male gaze.”

I had the same reaction to the late great Olivia Newton-John’s transformation in the other direction, from Sandra Dee “lousy with virginity” to sexy spandex chick in “Grease”. What kind of love turns a girl into the opposite of who she was when you met her? There’s an important difference, I feel, between a love relationship that gives both partners the security to grow and change, and a romance that eliminates your eccentricities so you can become “desirable” by the other person’s standards.

Femme style is revolutionary in M.A. Scott’s prose-poem “Pink Magic” at the DMQ Review. “Go ahead & relive that prickle of crinoline, subvert it as drag. Pink magic favors a post-Barbie podiatry, acts as road opener to your slut-crone phase.” Put your Ken doll in a dress!

“How choirs can welcome trans singers”, a recent article on ClassicFM by Sophia Alexandra Hall, reports on several professional choirs that are decoupling vocal parts from gender identities. For instance, Jane Ramseyer Miller, director of One Voice Mixed Chorus in Minneapolis-St. Paul, doesn’t assume that sopranos and altos in her LGBTQ ensemble must be women, or tenors and basses men:

“Most of my conversations are really about the health of a voice,” Jane explained. “If someone’s auditioning, and I’m not quite sure of their gender, I will usually ask pronouns, just so that it’s a little orienting for me.

“Sometimes I will ask if they’re on testosterone, because it makes a difference where I’ll place somebody in terms of voice.”

Some of her chorus members told the reporter about upsetting experiences where choir directors tried to make them wear wrong-gender clothing to fit in with the other singers in their section.

“We are singers, and we wear black,” Jane told Classic FM about the dress code for One Voice.

As opposed to how some ensembles gender their outfits, the singers in One Voice can “choose any kind of black outfit that they want – it’s completely up to them”.

On top of the black outfit, the chorus also wear rainbow scarves.

Listen to this choir sing “Where There Is Light in the Soul” on YouTube.

Poetry by David Kherdian: “The First Problem and the Last”

Poet and memoir writer David Kherdian is the author of numerous books about Armenian-Americans and working-class life in the Midwest. His most recent poetry collection is Blackbirds Over Aurora, an account of an Oregon community based on the mystical teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. He has kindly allowed me to publish one of his newest poems below.

THE FIRST PROBLEM AND THE LAST

I would like to think we end
here to start over again there,
or else continue again from here
where we have landed,
naked, alone, to learn for ourself
what is expected of us here now.
Nothing bedevils me more
than not knowing what’s next.
Can it be that this futile life
is without a sequel,
could anything be worse then ending
without knowing what comes after.

What we want to know above all is:
If death is the answer to life,
what was the question we failed to ask
before it became too late, as it is now,
here / now, always the same conclusion
with nothing said about The After.
How do we approach the end
without knowing either the question
or the answer, and is it enough to say
at the end I lived Fully.

Neutrality Is a Value Judgment

The dream of classic American liberalism is perfect procedure. Abstract principles that all sides accept as legitimate, thus avoiding an impasse or a violent clash between factions with incompatible worldviews. That dream is killing us.

In centrist liberal discourse (Democratic or mainline Christian), the worst sin is being “just like them,” a comparison that always happens at the level of methods, not ends. If “they” are fervently certain, we must be open-ended. If their policies are guided by prayer, mysticism, or tradition, we must be superior rationalists. And if they see America as a spiritual battleground between good and evil, we have to behave as though they’re our valued colleagues–even while they’re destroying the institutions of democracy.

What this means in practice is a permanent gig for hacks like NY Times opinion writer Pamela Paul to lament that the Left and the Right are both “censors” because…the state of Virginia is pursuing obscenity charges against queer YA books, but on the other hand, some booksellers aren’t pushing Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters? (For the record, not enough people are trying to seduce me. Cancel culture has gone too far.) The faux pas of excluding some ideas from respectable discourse outweighs any ethical inquiry into the impact of those ideas.

This search for a privileged vantage point above politics is just that–privileged. And it’s not even working. The Jan. 6 hearings have reminded us that the religious fascists helming the GOP will choose violence no matter what we progressives do, because their worldview is eliminationist and their commitment to democracy is only temporary and expedient. They literally do not believe that anyone except white Christian nationalists deserve civil rights.

As a corrective, let me share some thoughts from a book that changed my life: Stanley Fish’s essay collection There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Fish’s central thesis is that free speech decisions are always made by balancing political interests in a dynamic, situation-specific way, whether we’re talking about true government censorship or private actors exercising discretion about what books to publish and what speakers to invite. “Speech, in short, is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good to which it must yield in the event of conflict.” (pg.104)

Conservatives in 2022 understand the instrumental nature of legal rights very well. Courts and elections are a means to an end. This is not the problem; Fish would say that everyone operates this way, whether they admit it or not. The problem is that the Right’s conception of the good is a dystopia for most people. When we throw down our own weapons and retreat to the superior ground of both-sides-ism, the most marginalized people suffer.

According to Fish, when we pretend that pure legal principles require a certain result, we’re being disingenuous, because legal concepts are created by people within a political system. You don’t find them in nature like rocks. “Speech” is defined in advance so that it includes “stuff we want to allow almost always” and excludes “stuff we want to regulate.” It’s a pragmatic decision masquerading as a command from on high. Important Supreme Court decisions happen when the culture has shifted away from the value-judgments embedded in prior cases’ definitions of speech, but the law hasn’t caught up.

By contrast, when we’re up-front about this pragmatic element, we have a basis to push back against “principled” decisions that throw marginalized people under the bus. We bring our opponents down to the level of politics that they were always already on, and make them defend that harm as something they chose to do.

Neutrality about the value and impact of protected speech, taken to an extreme, ends up undermining the free society that the First Amendment was supposed to preserve:

This is where the idea that there is no such thing as a false idea (and therefore no such thing as a true idea, like the idea that women are full-fledged human beings or the idea that Jews shouldn’t be killed) gets you: it prevents you, as a matter of principle, from inquiring into the real-world consequences of allowing certain forms of so-called speech to flourish. Behind the principle (that there is no such thing as a false idea) lies a vision of human life as something lived largely in the head. There is an entire book to be written about the stigmatization and devaluation of the body in First Amendment jurisprudence… (pg.126)

In a “rights regime”, a regime whose chief concern is to protect the autonomy of individuals, categorical analysis turns an indifferent and dismissive eye to the effects produced by the exercised rights… When the harms seem particularly grievous, as in the case of the Holocaust survivors [in Skokie, IL] who were told that they must endure a parade of Nazis marching through their neighborhood with the intent of disseminating anti-Semitic propaganda, the court will typically announce the regret with which it refuses a judicial remedy, and then solemnly declare that this is the price we must pay (one wonders exactly who the “we” are here) for living in a democracy. (pg.127)

…Modern First Amendment doctrine wishes to…ascend to an intelligibility that is hostage to no past whatsoever. It wishes, that is, to justify its actions from scratch, without reference to the views or interests of anyone who has ever lived. This is the impossible dream of liberalism… (pg.131)

 

July Links Roundup: Live Poets Society

Readers know I have mixed feelings about the “always already” trans narrative, but it does say something that my favorite movies as a teenager were “Some Like It Hot” (musicians fleeing the Mafia have to cross-dress to hide in a women’s dance troupe) and “Dead Poets Society” (boarding-school boys read poetry to each other in a cave).

Last month, my husband, who’d never seen the latter film, suggested that we stream it for date night. It was just as beautiful as I remembered. Against our current backdrop of right-wing attacks on school curricula and libraries, the message of literature versus repression hit even closer to home than in 1989. I could also see clearly what I had not understood when I was the same age as the characters–the movie’s only-barely-subtextual queerness. I yearned for this same tenderness between men, which included homoeroticism but went beyond it.

Fortunately, now there’s Google. I went looking for “dead poets society gay” and found, among other things, Adelynn Anderson’s “‘Chased by Walt Whitman’: Or, Why Did Neil Perry Kill Himself?”, a 2020 article at Medium. She makes a persuasive case that “wanting to be an actor” was 1980s-speak for the main character’s real confession to his repressive parents, which he would ultimately rather die than say aloud. The maverick professor played by Robin Williams frequently references Walt Whitman, that Daddy of gay poets, as their role model for an authentic life. Anderson explains why Neil’s struggle has to be coded rather than overt: “Part of the issue is because movies created at this time were still feeling the repercussions of the Hays Code, a code of ‘moral conduct’ for films introduced in the 1930s. It outlawed, among other things, the display or mention of non-heterosexual characters.”

Poet Diana Goetsch is very much alive and getting well-deserved acclaim for her new memoir, This Body I Wore (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2022), reviewed last month at Autostraddle by Melissa Faliveno. I had the pleasure of hearing her read from it at a Charis Books & More online event. Goetsch had been teaching English and publishing well-regarded books under her former name, while expressing her hidden self in New York City’s cross-dressing social clubs in the 1980s and 90s. She came out as trans at age 50. Faliveno’s essay reflects on queer temporality and late-in-life discoveries:

“There is simply no knowing a thing if it is self-secret,” Goetsch writes, “perhaps because that thing refuses to know itself in your presence. It is like a valley, spread out before you, hiding in plain sight.”

…Queer people are constantly resisting straight time. We often live in direct opposition to it, refusing or unable to buy in, forging our own, often nonlinear, paths. We don’t get married, or we don’t have kids, or we don’t buy houses — those markers that, to the straight world, make us more adult. We exist, instead, in queer time.

Even if we do want some of those things — like marriage (assuming queer folks can still do that in the future), a house, a family — it can take a lot longer to get there, not least because we often spend more time figuring out who we are, interrogating those structures and exploring what we want. But even in queer spaces, there’s pressure to do things a certain way. To come out, for instance, as soon as possible. The problem is that, for a lot of people, it’s not possible. For some people, it’s not safe. For others, we don’t have the models that reflect us, the language that fits. We define and redefine ourselves as we go…

…In queer spaces, we spend so much time urging people to come out. And don’t get me wrong; I believe that coming out, extracting ourselves from the shame that people and institutions place upon us and living our lives as authentically as possible is important — not least in this era of “Don’t say gay” bills and constant threats to queer and trans lives. Speaking our truth can in fact save us. But that pressure can also undermine an individual’s sense of time and space and safety, the acknowledgement that some things take a while.

At the Ploughshares blog, Jessica Hines’ essay “Queer Desire and the Myth of Iphis” looks at how medieval writers questioned social roles by retelling an ancient Greek story of a gender-switching princess. Chaucer’s contemporary John Gower, for instance, commended the myth as a role model for courageous devotion. The socially transformative power of queerness, which made the church and the state afraid, can also make lovers brave.

Iphis’ story is one of magical transformation. Assigned female at birth, Iphis is raised as a boy by their mother, Telethusa, due to their father’s decision that all female children will be killed in infancy. All goes well until Iphis becomes engaged to a young woman, Ianthe. Ianthe and Iphis long for each other and deeply desire marriage. Iphis and Telethusa keep delaying the marriage, however, because they fear that it will expose Iphis’s secret. Iphis laments loving Ianthe, seeing it as, in Valerie Traub’s terms, amor impossibilis—an impossible love. Iphis lacks a phallus and thinks this indicates that they do not have the physical means to satisfy their desire (this detail gets me every time—if only Iphis had had access to sex positive sex ed!). And so, Iphis worries that even as they will get what they most desire through marriage—Ianthe as a wife—Iphis will not be able to “complete” that love and will ultimately risk exposure and humiliation. In the end, the goddess Isis intervenes, and Iphis transforms into a man (perhaps biologically, perhaps socially—Ovid’s original isn’t entirely clear). Iphis and Ianthe live happily ever after…

…Gower’s story of Iphis occurs as part of a much larger work, a poem called the Confessio Amantis, in which a failing lover, Amans, gets advice from his priest, the allegorical figure Genius. Genius tells the story of Iphis in the section of the poem about the sin of sloth. Amans confesses that slothfulness, particularly in the form of pusillamité, cowardice, has frustrated his efforts as a lover. Genius tells Iphis’s story as a counternarrative, a story of how great courage can win love. Iphis and Ianthe, with their willingness to throw themselves into Some Thing—some desire, some practice, some love—that was all unknown to them, are an example of the kind of courage that can help someone reach great love.

I don’t want to oversell what’s happening here. Gower isn’t out marching in the medieval equivalent of a Pride parade. But there is something shockingly moving in the fact that Gower brands this expression of desire as a cure for cowardice. It frames the willingness to exist in the epistemological uncertainty constructed by unknown desire as a type of courage. It suggests that the willingness to move into the unknown spaces of desire and bodily union is powerful and transformative. That there is something to be desired and worthy of imitation—something that cowardly lovers should learn from—in the dwelling in obscurity, in the unknown spaces, of sex and desire.

I wish I didn’t have to repeat myself that throwing trans people under the bus will not save democracy, but mainstream media is enamored with this idea that Democrats would have the bandwidth for real social change if only they didn’t have to worry about the pronoun police. At the social justice news outlet Truthout, journalist Kelly Hayes talked with ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio last month about why attacks on trans rights are an integral part of the fascist strategy to control everyone’s sexuality, healthcare, and family formation. Scapegoating misunderstood minorities is also a convenient pressure-release valve for the trauma of life under authoritarianism. Hayes observes:

Cultivating a disregard for suffering is going to be fundamental to any capitalist system, as we move forward in this era of drastic inequity and catastrophe. But for the Republicans, the goal is not simply to cultivate an indifference to extreme and routine acts of violence against targeted groups, but also, to satisfy an enthusiasm for that violence…

…As we saw under the Trump administration, a government can fail to deliver on nearly all of its promises, but still enjoy the celebration of a fascist movement if the state offers up violence that its followers experience as redemptive.

The GOP does not plan on doing anything to make anyone’s life better, and it’s not really even pretending to offer any plans that would do that, but it is promising white people, cis men, and cis women who feel threatened by trans women, a form of social retribution.

Strangio concurs, and connects “gender-critical” feminism to racism:

[W]hite women in particular have been central to mechanisms of white supremacy in the sort of structural political sense, even when cast as sort of outside of typical power structures. Sort of there’s this long history of white womanhood being situated as that which needs protecting, which builds some of the most violent mechanisms of state power, and we can sort of trace that through the entire structural formation of the United States as a nation state, where you have protecting white women and this being used in the service of mass violence against Indigenous communities, against enslaved communities, and to perpetuate lynchings, to fuel mass incarceration, to propagate wars globally…

…And in the context of anti-trans bills, this is very much part of the continuation of that legacy wherein you have in particular a lot of cis white girls and their white parents, in particular their white mothers, sort of evoking this idea that their daughters are being threatened by this monstrous other that needs to be controlled and removed and the state needs to step in as protector.

Later in the interview, Strangio takes aim at the argument that gender identity is a frivolous “culture war” issue distracting us from real material concerns:

I have truly never understood the culture war discourse as anything other than some sort of media narrative to minimize and sort of invisibilize structural power. Everything and nothing are culture wars all at once. We are constantly having fights over yet sort of who can live and die. That is the nature of politics. And that is inextricable from all of the things that we might understand to be culture and cultural norms.

And so every conversation about gun control or foreign policy or taxation or housing, I mean, those are culture wars. It’s a conversation about who is centered in our understanding of our ideological and cultural norms in this country.

Honestly it reminds me of the irritating progressive Christian platitude that “what matters is not what you believe, but what you do”–as if there could be any action without a belief behind it.

Speaking of Christianity, I was struck by the originality and boldness of these Easter weekend reflections from philosopher Adam Kotsko’s blog, which obviously I am catching up on several months after the fact. In his post for Good Friday, “The Cross: That’s How They Get You”, Kotsko remembers praying the rosary during the end of his Catholic phase and deciding that it no longer felt wholesome and redemptive to meditate on Christ’s martyrdom:

People talk about the power of “making martyrs,” but martyrs are very easily recruited by the powers that be, to shore up their own legitimacy. And within the first generation of Christians, even as they were living under Roman persecution, the Christians themselves were helping out with that process. You can find the outlines of an anti-imperial account of the cross in the synoptics, especially Mark, but even in Mark you already see the beginning of the effort to deflect culpability from the Romans to the Jews.

I’d propose that the real effect of the cross imagery in history has been more akin to the imagery of the fetus in pro-life circles (which obviously overlap heavily with Christian circles) — a fantasy of victimhood that incites fantasies of revenge. The cross has incited more pogroms than revolutions, it seems, and when it has inspired revolutions, Christians have been among its greatest opponents. Among more well-meaning Christians, the cross seems to underwrite a kind of magical thinking about redemptive suffering, as though being beaten up by the police and arrested will somehow in itself produce social change. It turns the performance of state terror into a performance for the state, which will somehow shame it into doing the right thing. The very sign of a social order that is irredeemable — the fact that it publicly tortures people to death in order to terrorize populations into submission — becomes a sure method for helping the powers and principalities to find their best selves.

I’d argue this is why Christian writers and churches are so much more enamored of abuser-redemption stories than supporting survivors’ resistance. Kotsko’s post on Holy Saturday calls out the guilt-trip underneath the message of free salvation:

So God becomes man in Jesus Christ, God submits to the humiliation of birth as a helpless infant, God experiences the ignorance and insecurity and fear that make up a human life, God contrives to antagonize the legal authorities until he can count on being publicly tortured to death to fulfill the demand of — God. God dies on the cross to satisfy God’s demand for punishment, to calm God’s wrath. God dies on the cross to save us from God — hallelujah!

…And after the delirious, incredulous joy of this bizarre moment, the next section reveals the truth: God’s payment of our debt of sin was not true forgiveness, not a clearing of the books, but a consolidation loan. He died for you, can’t you live for him? God is willing to offer you for forgiveness, and all he asks in return is your very life, your very soul. God saves us from God by binding us ever more closely to God, indebting us more profoundly to the one who sacrificed himself for us.

That’s love, right? That’s what love looks like: sacrificing yourself, so that you can emotionally blackmail the loved one. That’s what love looks like: giving up everything, so that the beloved can never leave. That’s what love looks like: playing the carrot of forgiveness off against the stick of the old regime, the supposed “Old Testament God” whose threat and demand remains the only background against which this heroic self-sacrifice can even remotely make sense. That’s love — love for the debtor who will always only be debtor, love for the debtor who now carries not just a debt of sin but the burden of having somehow caused the death of God. That’s love.

If that’s the only way God knows how to love, then I don’t want God’s love. If that’s what the death of God on the cross is meant to accomplish, then maybe we’d be better off if God stayed dead.

There is a minority tradition in the West — running from Hegel and Nietzsche up to Altizer and Žižek (and maybe, I’d dare to suggest, by way of Bonhoeffer) — that claims that that is precisely how we should interpret the cross. God dies, permanently and irrevocably, leaving us alone to figure out for ourselves how we want to live our life together.

An Ode to Paulie Walnuts

Tony Sirico, who played Mafia henchman Paulie Walnuts on “The Sopranos”, died last week at age 79. A memorably eccentric character, Paulie was superstitious, quick to anger (even by gangster standards), and vain to the point of old-womanish fussiness about his appearance. Sirico did his own hair on set, creating Paulie’s distinctive two-tone hairdo, a dark grey bouffant with white “wings” at the temples. From the NY Times obituary:

Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. was born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1942, the son of Jerry Sirico, a stevedore, and Marie (Cappelluzzo) Sirico. Junior, as he was called, remembered that he first got into trouble when he stole nickels from a newsstand. He attended Midwood High School but did not graduate, his brother Robert Sirico said.

“I grew up in Bensonhurst, where there were a lot of mob-type people,” he told the publication Cigar Aficionado in 2001. “I watched them all the time, watched the way they walked, the cars they drove, the way they approached each other. There was an air about them that was very intriguing, especially to a kid.”

He worked in construction for a while but soon yielded to temptation. “I started running with the wrong type of guys, and I found myself doing a lot of bad things,” he said in James Toback’s 1989 documentary, “The Big Bang.” Bad things like armed robbery, extortion, coercion and felony weapons possession.

While serving 20 months of a four-year sentence at Sing Sing, the maximum-security prison in Ossining, N.Y., he saw a troupe of actors, all ex-convicts, who had made a stop there to perform for the inmates. “When I watched them, I said to myself, ‘I can do that,’” he told The Daily News of New York in 1999.

Co-stars Steve Schirripa and Michael Imperioli’s “Talking Sopranos” podcast recounted that Sirico had a chance to move up higher in the mob, but declined, saying he wasn’t good at following orders. A tactful way to say no to the kind of guys who make offers you can’t refuse…

In his honor, here’s a poem from my unpublished chapbook The Waste-Management Land, which I wrote last winter while bingeing the show. Hard-core fans, see if you can catch all the episode references.

Between Noon and Three O’Clock

for Paulie Walnuts

What am I paying for, Father?

I was raised — and not only me —
on the creed that if I served
my silent time in the flame-
colored jumpsuit, I’d walk clean
through the snow at transmission’s end.

What’s a few hundred years
of ashes in the purgatorial can
compared to that damned cut to black,
the freezing barren where I’d plead
guilty to hold even my enemy
warm as a lost shoe?

But no more protection
gold for you, Father,
the saint can parade bare-faced as a boss
who lets his stockboy’s legs be broken
rather than pay me one bean.
It’s over for the little guy.

I’ve seen the Mother of Sorrows on the stripper pole.
I’ve seen a cat suck the breath from a ghost.

See, bad luck’s contagious
as piss on a shoelace.

Everyone who headed that crew
before me died
or will die and everyone
takes that one-way cruise
with the man who says, let’s go fishing.

When my time comes, tell me, will I stand up?
Last night I dreamed I asked
my underwater friend
but he just flipped
the fish frying in the pan
and passed the plate
to me.

The Poet Spiel: “War Zone” and Other Poems

Good evening. America is fucked. Please enjoy these crazy-ass angry and true poems by my friend Spiel, who has lived through this madness for 80 years as a proud homosexual. Transition goals, baby.

War Zone

“My therapist said,
‘Sometimes I think you believe you live in a war zone.’
And I said,
‘I do. Doesn’t everybody?'”

****

Chain of Blood

This bucket of blood
chained to my neck,
same as the buckets
hung to the necks
of my siblings
passed on by our mother
hung to her neck
just like her sisters.

Passed on from their father
same as his sister,
chains from their mother
dragged and dragged on
from their father’s mother,
her mother’s mother and so on.

Each attempt to move forward
clouds my eyes
so I barely can see.
Friends walk away
in dread of mother’s gift.

Why hate her for what
no one knew
of the poison
of her madness?

As I turned dark,
none questioned my blood,
instead whipped my ass
to straighten me.

****

Witness

In innocence, as you crayoned on the floor,
she emerged from her dark closet to reveal
what she knew were forbidden–her petals of flesh.
She planted a wanton glance with nowhere to settle but upon her firstborn son.
Your bewildered face between her space–for her, a lily in her valley.
Your eyes aghast, replete with games, repeated over time
in a shame you could not name in crayon-speak
and your crayon days were early done.

Now, after all these years, you wonder, which hurts the most?
Perhaps those vital tidbits you can’t recall to reassemble nor recant;
or is it the reverberating odor of the absolute volumes you cannot forget?

****

First son

They said on TV that winning champion cow at State Fair
is like something they’d worked toward all their lives–
like when they give birth to a son.
Someone to plow, someone to milk the cows,
someone to carry on the farm when they are gone.
They likely said similar decades ago when you were born,
the first son, fourth generation on the farm.

But you had no inclination to become a farmer.
You were an artist at heart from your first spanking.
They said it broke their hope of what they expected a son would mean to their tradition.
Yup, they said on TV that winning is like getting a son.

They said this in America, not China, where they threw the baby girls away.

****
carne

after The Corvo Brothers art exhibition at the Sangre de Cristo Art Center

indifference in the eyes of the frilly-frocked child refuses you,
refuses also the flop-eared cotton-stuffed bunny she has already
half disposed into a pot-metal meat grinder she cranks without passion
feeding fresh ground rabbit meat out its gaping end onto the flat stump
of an old oak tree long ago erupted up and through the white slate
tile floor of her reckless playroom.

only the wistful eyes of one of her three captured teddy bears connect
to you as you wish the lack of spaces in its bent wire cage might provide
an out for mr. soft-pink-ear elephant if only he were not so deflated
but he proves to be no inspiration for his innocent bear companions
who already recognize their fate is no doubt recorded in the history
tamped into strings of turgid sausages suspended directly above them
and possibly her motivation for not demolishing the weighty antique
butcher’s drawing of a quartered hog barely dangling from old twine.

then of course the significance of the steel roast pan at her side bearing
an enormous sun-bleached skull with a dark eye-cavern that never ceases
its gaze upon a gleaming slaughterer’s axe driven deep into that stump,
the fine splinters of the skull’s own snout forever aimed at new red meat
squishing from the grinder as a constant reminder just how dead the skull is,
how long ago its own live meat may have flourished on its desiccated bone.

but this aloof peach-ribboned child was not there when the tree threw up.
the floor was not there when this skull’s live nostrils flared at the slightest
hint of life and its thick lips feasted upon moss like the moss that even now
still prospers on the roots of the butchered tree.

and certainly she was not there when those peculiar brothers spelled carne
with wooden christmas blocks across the floor way back
when the white slate was new and the wire cage imprisoned,
a perpetual rotation of yellow-fat-dripping fowl.

and if you dared to ask the child
where does the fresh ground rabbit meat come from
it will be as if you were never there.

What Does Gender Feel Like?

Not a day goes by that some trans guy, who just wants to enjoy his seven identical pairs of cargo shorts, doesn’t get asked by a cis feminist friend: “Why couldn’t you just be a tomboy? Why isn’t 21st-century, gender-role-busting, glass-ceiling-breaking womanhood enough for you?” This query is sometimes followed with: “Are you sure it’s dysphoria and not internalized misogyny? Aren’t you just trying to escape sexism?”

Nothing I say can improve on Daniel Lavery’s satirical essay “Did You Know Athena Used to Be a Tomboy?” (Have you really tried being the Tutelary of Athens?) Nonetheless…

First of all, my tomboy quotient is somewhere below “Sopranos” homosexual Vito Spatafore trying to survive as an honest construction worker in Vermont. (He hammers one nail in the freezing cold, says fuck this and goes home to get whacked.) Second, I don’t think anyone ever said, “Life is too hard as a mildly attractive middle-aged wife. What I really need is to become a short, balding gay man with no dick. That’s where the social capital is!”

But let’s leave the facts aside. Womanhood shouldn’t be a cult. You shouldn’t have to prove you have a good enough reason to leave–if indeed you were ever truly a member. This rhetoric reminds me of pressure to remain in a family or spiritual community where your needs aren’t being met. Preservation of the institution is the top priority, so your needs must be squeezed into their box or redefined as something different or unimportant. This approach treats transgender identity as an inferior state to be avoided, a last resort, an imposition on the people who matter.

We all adapt to life’s constraints and inequalities in imperfect ways. Our choices shouldn’t be compared to some ideal of perfect autonomy and objectivity. If anyone does transition for relief from trauma or sexism, that person is just as trans as I am, and their reasons are just as valid. Transition is an incredibly powerful assertion of self-determination over one’s body and sexuality, which can be healing for survivors of intimate abuse. There’s no reason other than transphobia to deny survivors that tool for self-repair. Same for autistic folks who find that one gender presentation causes less sensory distress or social overload than another.

Moreover, transition is a move toward something that fits right and gives us joy. It isn’t primarily a rejection of something else. Being “not-a-woman” is just the beginning.

What do gender congruence and gender dysphoria feel like for me? It’s the sense of daring, expansiveness, and hope when I’m in a men’s group and someone calls me brother, versus feeling the walls closing in when I’m in a group designated for women. It’s understanding why, since my tween years, I was filled with sentimental yearning for stories of male camaraderie and boys’ schools (extra credit if they were British and tragically homoerotic). It’s the sadness, shame, and confusion of being unable to identify with female characters in movies and TV. Was I too fat, too virginal, too immature, or too assertive to share that fundamental similarity that women expected from me? It’s my “aha!” experience in a meditative movement workshop at the 2015 Transcending Boundaries conference (“I’m attending for novel research!”). We started on one side of the room as our current gender and slowly walked into a transformation into any other gender we chose. When I became male, someone who’d been inside me all along suddenly came into view, and I fit into my body with new clarity and awakening.

What I’m talking about here is not certainty, or an unchanging nugget of maleness waiting to be freed from a shell of femininity. I am talking about the right to know what I know about myself in this moment, and act on it, without first having to disprove every other possible interpretation.

Trans Allies: How to Help

A supportive reader of my recent “Trans Genocide” post asked me what cisgender allies could do to educate themselves and help our community in the current political climate. Here are some suggestions!

The first step is to have a more critical mindset toward news coverage of “trans issues” in mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and the Atlantic. Was the story written by a trans journalist? (Probably not.) If not, why is such outsider coverage the norm? Compare it to your standards for reporting on other minority or marginalized groups. Nowadays your average liberal would rightly give the side-eye if abortion-debate stories were only written by cis men, or if only white writers were assigned to review books by Black authors. Reading past the byline, ask yourself next whether the journalist has included eliminationist talking points in service of “journalistic neutrality”. Why is it considered appropriate, in an article about trans healthcare or civil rights, to credit the opinions of people who don’t want us to exist?

In response to Emily Bazelon’s New York Times feature on evolving standards of care for trans youth, a piece that has been widely criticized by trans commentators for the above errors, historian Jules Gill-Peterson wrote this helpful Substack essay, “Three Questions for Every Paper of Record That Publishes a Story on Trans Healthcare”. Keep this next to you while you read the news. It’s eye-opening. Gill-Peterson wants us to be aware of this baseline fact: “Unlike many fields of medical practice, transgender medicine was deliberately intended by its architects to prevent and limit as many trans people as possible from transitioning.”

Notice when double standards are being applied to transition-related choices, compared to other body-altering decisions with permanent effects–teenagers playing football, going on a diet, or even having an abortion. No more or less so than transition, these personal desires are inextricably bound up with community norms, gender roles under patriarchy, and practical survival concerns. But only trans healthcare is barricaded with prerequisites such as psychological tests that are biased against people with autism, PTSD, and minority cultural identities. This imbalance reflects the presumption that trans-ness is a fate to be avoided, a path you should only be allowed to follow if you’ve ruled out all the other options. Being a good ally means noticing and challenging that narrative everywhere.

Some other simple everyday things you can do: Ask public facilities like restaurants and hospitals in your town to make their single-stall bathrooms gender-neutral. Donate LGBT-affirming books to your local school and library. Include your pronouns in your self-introduction so that trans people don’t feel conspicuous for stating theirs. If you know someone who’s conflicted about a friend or family member transitioning, help that cisgender person process her feelings with you (or a therapist), so she doesn’t dump them on the trans person. Here’s a queer books list for young people, from Western Mass indie bookstore High Five Books.

Two Poems from Pamela Uschuk’s “Refugee”

Pamela Uschuk’s latest poetry collection, Refugee (Red Hen Press, 2022), is not a subtle book, but we don’t live in subtle times. For me, these poems re-enact the emotional whiplash I experience when scrolling through social media, where uplifting images of nature and family intimacy are suddenly and repeatedly juxtaposed with the crude horrors of politics in the Trump era. Uschuk’s skills are most on display when describing her Southwest environment in striking, precise imagery: “Corona of ice, the invisible moon/ blesses supplicant cacti offering thorns to heaven,” she writes, or “Sun lifts machetes of light over the Rincons slicing through oleanders.”

I did wish for equally creative language in the political references woven through these poems, which too often didn’t rise above images familiar from the news: Trump’s spray tan and small hands, children in cages, etc. I wanted to see these phenomena through new eyes, learn something new about them, but didn’t always get that from the brief allusions in the poems.

The middle of the book pivots around a sequence of gorgeous, poignant poems about illness and healing, including Uschuk’s journey through ovarian cancer, her brother’s death from after-effects of Agent Orange, a beloved dog’s surgery, and a friend’s bereavement. These hopeful elegies, if I may coin that paradoxical phrase, seem perfectly placed in a book about healing the body politic. Refugee makes the case that our whole earth is one organism, fragile and beautiful, still able to be saved if we look at it clearly and tell the truth.

Pam is an American Book Award winner, and the editor of the well-regarded literary journal Cutthroat. She kindly shares two poems from Refugee with us, below.

Shapeshifter

Each day I climb onto fear’s broad shoulders, tape
my fingers to fragile reins, weaving them through
the unpredictable angry mane.

The future is a cracked ice cube
plunked in the imagination’s teeming water glass.
Chemo’s breath stinks, could take my life with no regrets.

Fear is a shapeshifter with bloody teeth
or no teeth at all, just a broken jaw of anxiety.
Holding tight to grief’s violin, its arms bruise.
What ifs are its favorite cuisine.

No one can predict how fear can leap
up from a birthday cake or laugh like a monkey on fire.
Fear is a horse starving for grain.

Fear grinds down the raw ore of the heart,
smelting each nodule of grief, removing
its aggregate shield.

I have to make you sick to make you well,
the oncologist says, five months
we’ll scour each cell of your abdomen clean.

****

Finding a Moth Dead on the Windowsill

for John Uschuk, d. 2010

Astonishing this cecropia, the color of juniper bark,
its thin wings thrust back as if it dove through the stars
just to die here. What broke its flight
while night froze around its intent? I wait a breath
before I touch its final beauty, wonder
if my brother’s broad chest thrust up
to expel the moth wing of his last breath
in the Veteran’s hospice, where Agent Orange
could no longer scar his hands, where
napalm could not scald the scalps of children
he watched incinerating all his life, so that
orphanages called him in dreams, so that he
could not bear the slap of moth wings on his porch
beating insistent as the blades of the helicopter
he shared with body bags going home.

Trans Genocide

They’re trying to kill us, and cis people still want to quiz me about gender theory.

Dear cisgender friends and allies: I’m glad you value our relationship enough to be honest about what’s challenging for you. I’m glad you see that I’ve changed significantly in the past four years. If gender matters to me, of course it’ll matter to you too. You’re going to relate to me differently as a gay man than as a woman. (Let’s simplify my identity for purposes of this discussion.) I like being “out,” and until recently, I haven’t minded educating you about it. In the beginning, it actually felt more awkward to avoid talking about one of the main projects in my life. What’s new, Jendi? “Oh, you know, the usual, I’ve been busy growing my leg hair and studying witchcraft.”

But there comes a time–and that time is now–when I need you to ask me different questions. Such as: How am I coping with the terrifying wave of transphobic state legislation and eliminationist rhetoric from mainstream political pundits? Am I worried about losing access to gender-affirming healthcare? Do I need emotional or material support, for myself or less privileged members of my trans community? What can YOU do to help?

Nobody’s asked me this. I don’t know, do I seem too happy? Are blue-state liberals assuming that Massachusetts and New York will remain untouched by the national-level bans that Republicans are itching to impose? We can’t afford this complacency. Look at what’s happening with abortion in the lead-up to the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade. Conservative states and cities are attempting to criminalize abortions that occur outside their geographic jurisdiction, and we can’t expect the current Supreme Court majority to care about this plainly unconstitutional restriction on the right to travel.

Abortion is a good analogy because I’ve always had a visceral and moral discomfort with it, rooted in personal trauma as much as philosophy–perhaps the same way J.K. Rowling feels about trans women! My narcissistic mother wasn’t convinced of my independent personhood after I was born. She literally said to me when I was 30 years old, “I had three abortions, I could’ve had a fourth!” because she was mad that I wanted to meet my father. So it always frightened me that pregnant people would get to decide whether their fetus was a human with rights.

But who cares how I feel? Seriously. It doesn’t matter. The issue is not whether abortion, or transition, is a good decision that someone is always making for the right reasons, with no regrets, and no better alternatives. The issue is, who is best equipped to make that decision? The person living in that body, or the state? And beyond that, do we want to live under a regime that has that much power over our intimate lives?

So, friends: Stop asking for the perfect definition of womanhood that includes you and Laverne Cox but not Elliot Page. (Who wouldn’t want top surgery after seeing that torso? DAMN.) Start asking whether this question is so important, that it justifies subjecting schoolchildren to genital inspections if anyone makes an unsubstantiated claim that the young athlete is trans. Here’s Reason Magazine–hardly a liberal rag–on this Ohio law that passed last week:

The “Save Women’s Sports Act” bans schools and colleges in Ohio from permitting “individuals of the male sex” from participating in women’s sports. It covers any school that participates in organized interscholastic athletic conferences, meaning it covers private schools that compete against state-funded schools as well.

The bill does not explain what the “male sex” or “female sex” is. It does not say “trans” or “transgender” anywhere in the bill. It doesn’t talk about birth or biological sex.

What it does instead is give people the power to dispute the sex of an individual athlete. Then it falls upon that athlete to prove their sex by going to a physician and getting a signed statement confirming the athlete’s sex based on only the following:

“The participant’s internal and external reproductive anatomy;”

“The participant’s normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone;”

“An analysis of the participant’s genetic makeup.”

The bill does not specify who has the authority to levy such challenges, but it does authorize individuals or schools “who [are] deprived of an athletic opportunity or suffers a direct or indirect harm as a result of a violation of this section” to sue the school, school district, or conference who allowed the trans woman to play and be awarded damages.

The article notes that Idaho passed a similar law in 2020.

Stop asking me whether all these minority gender identities are splitting “the movement”. You don’t think they’re coming for you next? Bans on trans healthcare, or even abortion, aren’t the endgame. All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall of the evangelical-authoritarian state. One party in the United States has gone full fascist and you’re still acting like we can appease our abuser with the perfect argument or self-effacing compromise.

You don’t have to agree with every decision we make, or see yourself in us, to understand that we’re in the same struggle. What are you going to do about it?