Why the fuck are we saying yes to cis-controlled visibility?

tl;dr Despite knowing that cis-controlled visibility is crap, trans people are still participating it. I’ve nearly said yes, and I get why we are still saying yes, but it’s time to stop and start creating more quality platforms for trans visibility. 

 

I’m always thinking and writing about visibility. This is probably boring by now. I still have lots to say though!

 

Recently, I’ve been working on a long-term project that looks specifically at transition narratives in media and there is one question I keep coming back to and struggling with.

 

See, when I went around asking my trans friends for their pet peeves about trans documentaries, the response I got was “I don’t watch those”. My friends and I are sensible people that understand that most documentaries about trans people are shock entertainment for cis people, or satisfying appeasement, for cis people, or pity porn for, you guessed it, cis people. The documentaries are, on the most innocent level, not for us and, in truth, deeply harmful. There’s no point in watching something like that.

 

Documentaries go two ways – either it’s about a child. In which case, I deeply judge any parent that would put their incredibly young child in front of a camera in such a dehumanizing way.

 

Or, it’s about an adult. The media can’t seem to get enough of middle aged trans women (with the token trans man mixed in) transitioning. It’s frightening.

 

What’s terrifying to me is that these are adult trans people choosing to participate in this.

 

And yes, it is necessary to understand that cis producers, directors, videographers, etc. have  full control in these projects. They can edit anything to show what they want instead of what a trans person is trying to say. When I watch these things, I know it’s not a trans person opening themselves to dehumanizing, body-obsessed bullshit. It’s cis people in power manipulating, sometimes even blatantly lying to them.

 

But, the fact is, we all fucking know this. We know that, by this point, if a cis person’s in charge, it will probably go ugly.

 

And we’re starving so much for representation that we’ll accept things because they’re slightly less awful than other things (I talk about that a bit here).

 

But it’s still awful.

 

It still causes harm.

 

And I just can’t understand why someone would say yes and consent to it.

 

I recently read Juno Dawson’s pretty clear explanation of her reasoning. She argues her position well – the cis creators were sympathetic (ie. not monsters), the position of Transformation Street was good for increasing visibility, and being inside of the show meant she could direct cis people out of their more unfortunate blunders.

 

Can I also remind you that Transformation Street included invasive footage of surgery? It may have been sympathetic. The cis creators may have recognized that trans people are people (radical). Dawson may have talked the creators out of some terrible naming decisions. But it is still incredibly invasive and dehumanizing and multiple trans adults chose to do this. They consented to it. [Disclaimer: I have not watched Transformation Street in full, due to time and access and choosing to focus on documentaries that I can legally use in my work, please correct me if I’m pleasantly wrong!]

 

Why?

 

I can’t explain. But I think it’s worth noting that the main people featured in Transformation Street, and practically every trans documentary ever, are white.

 

They are white, they are rich enough to afford GRS on their own dime (keeping in mind the context of the NHS in the UK – a cheaper, but inhumanely slow option), and they fit cis expectations of what a transition should like (I talk more about that here). They are not the people that are going to be most harmed by an increase in harmful visibility.

 

I actually find it super interesting in Dawson’s piece how she mentions that some trans people don’t get surgery and then never really does anything about it. It’s a side comment, a box to tick to show that she understands something that’s said a lot in the trans community, but there’s no real weight behind it.

 

In the end, all I’m seeing in Dawson’s response and other conversations I’ve had with people around visibility is a strong focus on quantity over quality – it’s more important to get any and all vaguely sympathetic trans visibility out and seen as much as possible than it is to produce and present quality trans visibility that uplifts all trans people. You can see this in Dawson’s willingness to forget that Transformation Street (and most trans documentaries ever) completely ignores people who don’t medically transition, even after she points it out as a problem. You can see it in the fact that trans people are still saying yes to cis producers and that you can see it in the fact that trans people are still handing over baby pictures and consenting to cameras in their doctor’s appointments and surgeries (for the record, I am well aware that this is not always consensual and that is also a HUGE thing we need to address).

 

There’s this sense of “we need visibility, so if I do this highly visible thing, visibility will increase and then we can start talking about respectful visibility”.

 

About a year ago, I took part in a workshop hosted by a production company that wanted to create a documentary specifically about trans dancers. First off, in pair discussions about why it is so difficult for trans dancers, one of the producers tried desperately to get me to tell them my birth name. I fucking love my second name. I’m not going to give it off to a cis person who wants to make a documentary out of me so they can abuse its power. I was obnoxiously closed-lipped and won that conversation, but it was a great window into the perseverance and entitlement even the most well-meaning cis producer has in extracting personal details about their trans subjects.

 

Later in the discussion, another trans person pushed the importance of increased visibility, so I built on that statement to speak very specifically about the importance of trans involvement in all levels of creation. Looking directly at the cis producers in the room, I said that, for a trans documentary to be effective, there needed to be trans producers, trans directors, trans designers, trans video editors, trans camerapeople, trans everything…

 

I then asked if the person they wanted to bring in to do choreography for the project was trans.

 

“Ummm, I’m not sure, but she’s definitely queer!” was the response. Not good enough. If we really want to create meaningful, effective, respectful trans people, it needs to include trans people. Not all queer folks are trans-friendly and no matter how queer someone is, I would not trust a cis person with something as delicate and complex as trans visibility.

 

Eventually, after an email asking me to take part in the next part of the project, I informed them that I would not continue until I saw a clear plan to include trans people behind the camera as well as in front of it. I never got a response.

 

It was fucking hard.

 

I want a documentary about trans dancers. I want to see people like me on television. I want younger trans people to know that dance is an option. I want that visibility. I very nearly said yes.

 

But, I don’t think I would ever be able to look myself in the mirror if I had said yes.

 

I stalked their website before writing this post and saw that there has been no progress on that specific project. I doubt that my ultimatum had anything to do with it, but I can hope that, in wherever the process stands, the creators are deeply considering what I had to say. At least, they haven’t gone and made a documentary without trans people in production roles in the past year, and I do like to believe in people’s capacity to do good, to listen, and to do better.

 

But, the trans documentary is still nonexistent. I find other trans dancers in fits and bursts, like before. I end up being the only trans person in queer dance spaces. I end up being the only queer person in dance spaces. Or, I’m in class with other trans people, but I don’t “look” trans, so we don’t connect. Dance isn’t safe for trans folks, so imagine how fucking radical it would be to have a BIG FUCKING DOCUMENTARY for people to watch.

 

I want that.

 

But it feels too easy, too quick. Quantity over quality. We go big before there’s even the beginnings of local infrastructure to support actual trans dancers. We parade individualistic, struggling, lonely trans dancers across a screen and create some kind of pity porn to tug at heart stringsn which doesn’t offer practical solutions for how dance spaces can make space for trans dancers in a meaningful, effective (non-mediatized) way. No matter how big it is, what fucking good does that do?

 

Right now, I am making my own work. I am committed to only choreographing on trans dancers. Right now, that dancer is me. I am having conversations in my dance community so that, hopefully, someday, they will be ready to invite trans people in their space. I’m writing blog posts that sometimes people that aren’t my friends read. My platform isn’t as big as it would be if I were in a major documentary, but it is trans art made by a trans person about my trans experiences. That’s something no cis-made documentary is going to do. I don’t touch as many people, my visibility is not as widespread, but it is quality. It is rigorous, it works to consider and uplift as many trans people as possible, not just my own experiences (although that is something I fail at and am constantly working to do better). I fail, I do better.

 

But, I’m doing it alone, and that sucks.

 

A documentary would give me a chance to connect with other trans dancers, both other folks in the trans documentary and then, as a visible figure for other trans dancers to find. That’s the kind of shit we’re desperate for. I get why there are trans people saying yes.

 

But I’d like to encourage trans people to seriously think before saying yes to the next sympathetic cis person with a camera: Who are you harming by grabbing at the easily-offered visibility? Is it worth it?

 

If it is, fucking go for it!

 

But, if it isn’t, I can’t help but look at amazing projects like My Genderation and wonder what would happen if every trans person that considered saying “yes” to a cis person said “no” and went to work with each other to make their own platforms of visibility.

 

I think it would be badass. AND we wouldn’t be alone.

 

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CDA for Dance: Foundations

tl;dr Critical discourse analysis can be applied to dance as much as it is applied to text. The relationship between reader, text and writer is similar to Preston-Dunlap’s triadic perspective. Framing of a piece may come in the form of text. And music, even the obvious-seeming choices, present a specific worldview. 

So, I started writing a while back on Critical Discourse Analysis and I wanted to start broadening it to look at how we can analyze dance and movement in similar ways. This is going to be a series because I don’t know how to be chill about things like this.

This starts with a disclaimer: I will be pulling a lot from choreology, the analytical study of movement, deriving originally from Rudolf Laban’s work (but expanded upon and developed by fantastic people, such as Valerie Preston-Dunlop). I am not a choreologist and, in fact, have a lot to learn in the field of choreology that I hope I will someday get to. I’ll be recommending further reading throughout the series and compile it all at the end of the series. Really, this is an experiment to see how my knowledge of CDA can be applied to movement and the models that choreology provides makes this possible (similar to how CDA relies on a lot of linguistics, and I am in no way a linguist), this is not a proper education in choreology.

Our Example

I’m an Irish dancer, so it wasn’t too difficult to decide what to use as an example. Michael Flatley is an ever present thorn in my side. We’re going to look at this particular version of “Breakout” from Lord of the Dance. Keep in mind that there a lot of different versions of this particular choreography, even dating back to Riverdance era and there is SO MUCH to analyze here. We’re just going to look at this one. Although, once I’ve created an entire series about this one video, I may add some links to some other versions of the piece to provide some new perspectives.

Models and Methodology

Unlike my CDA post, we’re going to start big picture and then get small, because I find that easier with dance, since movement vocabulary can be more difficult to describe than lexical vocabulary (ie. words). We’re going to keep on using CDA tools, particularly in terms of narrative, structure, and vocabulary. Since we’re using Irish dance, this will link deeply into existing knowledge around tradition and nationalism. Because we’re using movement, we will use two choreological models as a framework: strands of the dance medium and the structural model. You can read more about them here.

Triadic Perspective

When discussing CDA, I created this cute diagram:

Writer <–> text <–> Reader

In which information is constantly being passed via text between people that are both readers and writers (see my post on CDA for more details on this).

Let’s translate this into dance terms. A writer becomes a choreographer, text becomes a single performance of a work, and a reader becomes the audience. In dance, we have a tradition of believing these to be three separate disconnected roles, but performers, choreographers, and audience members overlap incredibly (Howard Becker makes an interesting point in his book Art Worlds that the main audience for dance is actually other dancers and former dancers, it feels pretty accurate when I look around at who attends the dance performances I go to.)

In the world of dance scholarship (as opposed to CDA), this is called the triadic perspective. Choreographers are audience members and dancers, for their own work and other work. Dancers choreograph in collaboration with choreographers, are choreographers in their own right, and are audience members. Audience members can be choreographers and dancers influenced by performance they see (Athreya, 2002). It’s the same as if it were a text, except, in this case, “text” refers to a performance.

Framing/Presentation

The first thing that strikes me in this video isn’t actually the movement, so let’s leave movement analysis to the side for the moment and do some text-based CDA, like I’ve already discussed.

We know from the video description that this is a corporate event in Hawaii. Interesting, considering the title of the video and common nickname of the choreography (“Strip Jig”). More interesting is Flatley’s introduction:

He says he brought dancers from “all over the world”, including “some of the most beautiful girls in the world” and “big, strong handsome guys” and he promises his audience that they will “understand more about what our culture is all about here in Ireland” (my emphasis).

He sets up a juxtaposition between the global (“all over the world”, “most beautiful girls in the world”) and the Irish (“our culture”, “here in Ireland”). I would particularly like to highlight the use of the word “here”. Maybe it was a slip of the tongue, but through it, he brings Ireland into the space. They might be in Hawaii, but that space has become a part of Ireland while he is there.

In addition, through bringing up the idea of understanding culture, Flatley positions himself as a cultural ambassador. He is there to share Irish culture and, in effect, build the world’s perception of Ireland. (It’s a self-appointed position but, looking at the history of Flatley’s shows, he’s not wrong. I still get people asking me if I can “do the Riverdance” when I tell them I’m an Irish dancer). This tells us that the speaker (Flatley) believes the following performance to be representative of Irish culture and significant to Irish culture, which links into a long history of Irish nationalism and Irish dance. It’s also a form of marketing. By branding his work as “true” Irish culture, he can exploit others’ interest in easy cultural exchange.

Irish dance has been created and reworked many times to represent the values of Irish nationalists and people who hold power in Ireland. Flatley and Lord of the Dance is simply one step in this process, and that is central to this video.

Also, do I really need to comment on “the most beautiful girls in the world” and “big, strong, handsome guys”? I feel like I comment on this everyday (and have trouble keeping a pretend objective tone with this kind of nonsense). Look at the word choice, look at the adjectives, look at the difference between “girl” and “guy”. It’s demeaning, it’s reductive, and it’s gross.

Strands of the Dance Medium

From framing, let’s zoom in a little closer and look at the structure of the dance performance. The strands of the dance medium looks at a “nexus” of various elements that connect (or don’t) to form a performance. This is the book that looks a lot closer at the strands, I highly recommend it. In this particular model, movement is a single element, alongside the performer, the space, and the sound. Performer encompasses everything visible about the person dancing, including their costume. Space encompasses set and the environment of the performance, as well as props. Sound includes music, but also other forms of sound, including silence. The relationships between these four strands are considered “nexial connections” (nexus just means connection, so, just, a lot of interrelation and connection going on).

Sound

For this post, we’re just going to look at sound. The easiest description of the sound for this piece is “music” and we could go more detailed to say “Irish music”.

But wait. Irish music. Doesn’t that link into how Flatley was positioning himself as an ambassador of Irish culture? It might seem obvious to use Irish music to accompany Irish dance, but the fact is that it is a specific choice that gives us a sense of the performance. This dance is supposed to be representative of Irish culture, this music is thus the music that is supposedly representative of Irish culture. It’s saying “these two things belong together and this is how we do it.”

(I’m currently dancing to Against Me! sooooo, apparently I didn’t get the memo, sorry Flatley).

There are two parts of the music. The first part is slower and features a flute, light, airy, and sweet. This highlights the “innocence” of the section and is in direct contrast to the second part, which starts with an electric guitar while the tune is played on a fiddle. The use of electric instruments for a “traditional” form makes everything a big edgy. While this is technically representative of Irish culture, the choice pushes the boundaries of what is considered “traditional”. It suggests that Flatley views Irish culture to be something beyond tradition (this also includes anyone involved in music development for the show, but I’m assuming he has a vague amount of choice in the music and in attaching it to this specific dance).

It is also worth noting that traditionally, Irish dance is accompanied by live music (and Flatley’s work in general too). This is recorded. This alters the relationship between dance and music because the music is unresponsive to the dance’s needs and the dance needs to conform to a rigid, pre-established sound.

There is one final note to make on sound that we’ll return to in more detail later: shoes. That sound is heard throughout the piece, but not at all moments. It goes with the music (another choice that feels obvious, but isn’t), suggesting that the music holds power and form in the piece. There is no moment when the sound of the shoes challenges or stands against the music. This can be (and will be) used alongside other elements of the piece to show how the music illustrates the narrative of the dance.

Conclusion

Through looking at the framing and sound choice of this piece, we can start to piece together an understanding of Flatley’s self-positioning in terms of Irish and global culture and how that plays out in his shows. It also starts to offer us a window into the appeal of Irish dance and how both Riverdance and Lord of the Dance spread very specific versions of Irish dance.

Hmmm.

Up next, we’ll look at the three other strands of the dance medium: Movement, Space, and the Performer!

Bibliography

Athreya, Preethi, “MAKING DANCE; A CHOREOLOGICAL APPROACH”, Narthaki, 2002 <http://www.narthaki.com/info/articles/article66.html&gt; [Accessed 7 April 2018]

Preston-Dunlop, Valerie, Looking At Dances (Binsted, Hampshire, UK: Noverre Pr., 2014)

The Biggest Problem in Dance: Men

tl;dr While exploring masculinity in dance is not necessarily a problem, the fact that this is happening while femininity is continuously placed in relationship to masculinity or silenced in conversations around masculinity is a problem. And honestly, it’s tiring.

matthew bourne swan lake
[image is from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake: an all-male corps de ballet of swans in feathery pants and no shirts take on a strong stance with one leg lifted, one arm over their heads with the other pointing to the side]

 
I was recently in a choreographer Q&A session when someone asked me what the one thing in dance that I hated was. Not wanting to be too divisive in the moment, I chose to let other choreographers answer for me, but here is my answer now:

 

Men.

 

I’ve already talked about this before, specifically in terms of our current obsessive attempts to recruit boy dancers, that covers a lot of the concrete reasons why this is an issue, so I’m going to try not to repeat it too much. Instead, I want to look at a more abstract way this has developed in the new artistic fascination with masculinity.

 

“Exploring masculinity” seems to have become the new pseudo-feminist nonsense designed to keep dance’s focus on male dominance while attempting to appear progressive.

 

I’m not saying there aren’t things to explore in masculinity. I don’t even believe the choreographers, dancers, and leaders who choose to focus on masculinity for subject are doing it solely to maintain male dominance in dance. I’m actually pretty certain they have personal stakes in the question of masculinity, and masculinity in dance.

 

But every time someone makes a piece about masculinity, it reinforces the idea that masculinity is worth discussing and that femininity is…secondary.

 

I’m not opposed to people making personal, vulnerable pieces about masculinity, I’m opposed to the fact that we are not making space for femininity in the same way. Instead, we are continue to treat femininity in dance as “shallow” while masculinity is “deep” and “covers important issues”.

 

Where are the deep evening-length works about how social norms of femininity has deeply harmed little girls? Oh right. Conversations about womanhood, femininity, and women on stage exist in dialogue with masculinity.  And anything that starts that dialogues makes us go “Ugh, another social justice, feminist piece”.

 

We don’t get pieces about femininity, we get feminist pieces. There is actually a difference.

 

And of course, women in frilly dresses are clueless, women in pants are dangerously challenging society.

 

All of that is in terms of masculinity – who props up the masculine ego, who threatens it, and how we respond to each category in order to maintain the status quo. And, strangely enough, only the people that edge towards masculinity are powerful enough to be deemed dangerous, while the feminine is still seen as brainless, airy, insignificant.

 

I’m tired of seeing masculinity played out on stage. It happens enough. I’m tired of male choreographers continuing to gain visibility while female choreographers are paid less, and have smaller audiences. I’m tired of the feminine aesthetic being seen as frivolous while we continue to look at explorations of masculinity as intense works of art. I’m tired of discussions of femininity only being discussed in terms of masculinity.

 

I want my evening-length exploration of femininity. I want to see it cause intense academic discourse. I want to see that choreographer be lauded for “bravery” and “vulnerability” and have their career launched sky high because of that piece.

 

I want to see the feminine, the underlying powerhouse of the dance world, be treated as the amazing concept it is, instead of shoved away in a corner with shame.

 

So, it’s not just time to lose having men in positions of power while women still make up the majority of the dance world, it’s time to reverse a paradigm that dares to suggest that masculinity is more important than femininity. Let’s stop reinforcing and justifying the power structure in which men continue to sit on top.

Notes:

In researching this post, I happened upon this article on Dance Magazinewhich I think says more than I ever could on the subject – the first person quoted about women in dance is a man and the one person who mentions trans women is a cis man that uses drag and emphasises “the idea of gender as illusion and social construct”. Now, I don’t know enough about his work to decide (yet) where his drag stands in terms of being transmisogynistic, but I think the choice to include these two men speaking as they do and positioned in the article as they are say a lot about men in the dance world right now.

In a similar vein, I would also like to put on display this quote from Matthew Bourne that I found when looking for a picture: “The idea of a male swan makes complete sense to me. The strength, the beauty, the enormous wingspan of these creatures suggests to the musculature of a male dancer more readily than a ballerina in her white tutu.”

 

Trans Day of Visibility 2018

tl;dr Trans Day of Visibility was created as a celebration, but it has always been complex. We need to talk about visibility outside of celebration and question what viisbility is necessary for trans people. I’m not sure if the visibility we need this year is a celebration. 

trans pride flag
[image is the trans pride flag, stripes from top to bottom are light blue, pink, white, pink, and light blue]
[cw: mentions of transphobia and gun violence]

(this ended up more convoluted than even TSER’s theme explanation, but maybe that’s the point. TDoV has always been a convoluted day, there’s no reason to stop now)

 

I have to admit that my stomach clenched a bit when I saw that TSER’s theme for Trans Day of Visibility this year was “Surviving, Thriving”. First off, I wasn’t even aware that TDoV had a theme. Secondly, TDoV is complex enough to begin with.

 

But really, as I looked at that theme, the only thought that crossed my mind was simply, “But we’re not.”

 

In the statement about the theme (which personally, I found a little convoluted, but maybe I was tired when I read it), TSER states, “We are not only surviving the Trump regime but we are making strides to transform how people think about gender around the world.”

 

Yes. We have had some exciting “wins” this year. We have trans people in office. We have more people who know what the word means (correctly). In the dance world, Sean Dorsey is about the present at the FUCKING JOYCE (for anyone who doesn’t quite understand the US dance scene, the Joyce is a Very Big Deal).

 

But the fact is, for the majority of trans people, we are barely surviving, let alone thriving. And actually, sometimes it is visibility that is harming us. Trans Day of Visibility has always been a day stuck in that constant balance between the necessities and dangers of visibility, and the fact that the world continues to not Listen even when they do See (and nowadays, there’s a lot more Consuming too).

 

And, if we look at the environment trans people are forced to live in every day – from a president that literally hates us and then keeps appointing more people that hate us into positions of power, to the fact that our right to use the bathroom has become acceptable dinner conversation (a lot of the cis people in my life still haven’t figured out that I really do not like casually talking about going to the bathroom at the drop of a hat), we are living an everyday reality of fear. We are dehumanized and challenged every day.

 

And we are not surviving. We are dying. People are murdering us. Some are straight up burning us in our homes. Some of us are victims of poor medical treatment because doctors can’t look beyond the word “trans” to treat any other medical condition we may have. Some of us are taking our own lives because the completely hostile world we live in turns us on ourselves.

 

Even as a “well off” trans person – white, invisible, has enough money to survive, I even have a job in a trans-friendly work place, I feel this. I feel the way the world around me is unable to care about or see me. I feel the way that I have to fight in order to gain respect.

 

And then I remember that not everyone is in a position to fight the way I can, and my heart breaks. And I remember that  while I am well off enough to take care of myself, I’m not in a place to help every trans person that needs help (yet. I dream of the day that I can), and it hurts so much to see how much my community ISN’T surviving or thriving.

 

I mean, it’s hard to talk about tragedy. Especially when we’re trying to make a successful social media campaign. I recently had to create a social media campaign about queer history in Boston and I almost didn’t include the origin of Trans Day of Remembrance. Even though that is literal Queer Boston History. It’s hard to include something as sombre and sobering as the continued murder of trans women when you want to hype people up and get them excited about Boston.

 

But, I ended up including TDoR history. It’s important to show the true Boston history, not the nice one. Rita Hester and Chanelle Pickett deserve better than one single day. We can afford one incredibly emotional post in the middle of exciting fun facts about epic queer action. It’s important. It’s not something we can erase or ignore in the name of hype.

 

So, when I see a theme like “Surviving, Thriving” for something that’s already so wrought as TDoV, I can’t help but wonder, “is this really what you want to make visible about trans people?”

 

Yes, TDoV started as a celebration of beautiful trans visibility. But it has always been a day that has alienated groups of trans people. And it’s gained traction and political meaning beyond celebration and visibility. In Boston this year, there will be folks canvassing against the bathroom bill that’s showing up on Massachusetts’ 2018 ballot. TDoV is a day that we can exploit to make cis people listen. Sounds like a great idea to me!

 

Do we really want cis people that are willing to listen to think that we are surviving? Maybe even thriving?

 

Or do we want them to understand the reality, in which even trans people with support systems have to fight and expend too much emotional energy to simply exist?

 

A month ago, there was a shooting at a trans bar that was barely reported. Where was our visibility then?

 

Is getting shot when we simply want to go out and have a nice night out really surviving?

 

So, let’s end with something I recently wrote in a creative reflection:
“For trans people, our currency is visibility. We earn it through entertainment. But trans people like me don’t make for good entertainment”

 

So yeah, maybe “Surviving, Thriving” is good entertainment. Maybe it is the visibility trans people currently have. But it is not our reality and we cannot let ourselves be blinded by the quantity of visibility certian trans folks currently have. Trans people are not surviving, we are hurting, we are struggling. And people need to see that too, entertaining or not.

 

Some March Readings

So, February was Black Panther month and I finally got around to reading some reflections and reviews of the movie. In case you weren’t aware, I might be very into Marvel, so watching a Good Film (rare for the MCU) that celebrated blackness and African culture in such a thoughtful, meaningful way was the most exciting thing that happened. I’ve seen it twice now, I’ll be seeing it again as soon as I come up for breath from the current mess of overwhelming work. In the meantime, here is a taste of what I’ve been reading.

 

In addition to the two readings on Black Panther, there’s some preparation to be done for the incredibly challenging but potentially incredible Autism Acceptance Month, an article that I hadn’t quite finished by the end of Black History Month, and some good conversations around disability and paying artists. And, of course, I am continuously frustrated by the lack of thoughtful trans-centered reporting on trans murders.

 

Lost this year

 

Tonya Harvey, Buffalo, NY

Nicknamed “Kita”

Learn more

 

Celine Walker, Jacksonville, FL

“Low key” and “amazingly talented”

Learn more

 

Zakaria Fry, Albuquerque, NM

“You told me fuck anyone who disagrees, and fuck all of those who can’t accept my happiness.”

Learn more

 

Phylicia Mitchell, Cleveland, OH

Hairstylist, a good and kind person who had already suffered homelessness and addiction

Learn more

 

 

Take Action

Get ready to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month instead of Autism Awareness Month:

 

You can:

 

 

Reading

 

black panther
[image is a promotional image for the movie Black Panther:  serious black black stares out over the movie title and is surrounded by the other characters from the film, mostly black women]
Why museum professionals need to talk about Black Panther

 

“It is uncomfortable for many institutions to even broach the subject of the museum’s complicated relationship with audiences of color, but Black Panther has created an impeccable opportunity for institutions to begin a dialogue with their community. So many people will see this film; the scene may only reinforce their conception of museums, or it may open their eyes to the realities of the complicated relationship between the universal museum and colonialism, and museums need to be prepared to actively engage with this topic rather than avoiding the uncomfortable truths that are now out in the open on cinema screens.”

 

An American Monster in Wakanda

 

“After the movie, I left the theater to the chants of “Wakanda Forever,” feeling unsettled and displaced. If Wakanda were a real place, I’d be Erik; I’d be the American monster in Wakanda because I couldn’t love a country with the means to end the transatlantic slave trade that instead chose to hide and pretend it wasn’t their problem. A nation that only fights when absolutely necessary and did not think the kidnapping, torture, murder, rape, abuse, dehumanization, and destruction of millions of people made war absolutely necessary. A nation with superior education, technology, creativity, and the financial ability to help that instead turned its collective back on those who lived outside its borders. Black people, like them. Because they were not Wakandan.”

Why Everyone Thinks that They Care About Disability Rights When They Really Don’t

 

“Disabled people have long found themselves firmly in the category of people deemed worthy of assistance but they often don’t get it. Consider the “ugly laws”, a set of policies and bylaws often incorrectly assumed to ban disabled people from public spaces outright. They were, in fact, more accurately anti-vagrancy laws. They were often premised on the idea that disabled people were justified in begging. The problem was they were convinced that people were faking disabilities to unfairly gain sympathy.”

 

100+ LGBTQ Black Women You Should Know: The Epic Black History Month Megapost

 

“So, in honor of Black History Month, below you’ll find over 100 lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer and transgender women you should know about. If she was still alive, the oldest person in this list would be 189 years old. The youngest person on this list is a mere 21 years of age.”

 

 

When are you coming to my town?

 

“What really fucks me off about the touring part of the sector is this myth that the arts is poor, that there is no money. I refuse to believe that organisations with over 30 members of staff who facilitate artists cannot pay just 10 artists properly.”

 

 

I don’t always have to be included

tl;dr It’s not the job of any one person to include nonbinary identities. In fact, including nonbinary identities as a sidenote is also harmful. Instead, we just need to make space for folks to include themselves. 

 

There’s a trend that I’ve been noticing for a while, and I think, at the end of the day, we all probably just have to relax. I’m going to talk about this in terms of binary trans folks and nonbinary folks, but this is something that happens a lot for people that know that they should do Intersectionality, but don’t quite know what that is (and I definitely do it too!)

 

It’s this: a binary trans person, usually someone who’s only met one or two nonbinary people in their entire life, gets a platform to speak about trans issues with cis people. Of course all the cis people want to know about is Medical Transition and that poor person is thrust in that awful balance of maintaining cis curiousity just enough to maintain their platform while also trying to make an impact.

 

And, in the back of their head, there’s that niggling awareness that nonbinary people exist and, if they’re now suddenly a spokesperson for trans people, that means they need to include nonbinary folks, even if they have no idea how to do that.

 

It usually results in “nonbinary” being tacked onto the ends of sentences as an afterthought with no definition or explanation.

 

Now, I am a strong believer that people with platforms should consider their responsibilities before using that platform. And that means that if cis people have decided a trans person speaks for ALL trans person (usually despite that trans person being incredibly honest about what they can speak for) , that trans person has to be explicitly clear about what they are able to say on an issue and work as hard as possible not to exclude.

 

But, my identity is more than an afterthought.

 

I actually don’t really want to be included if it’s only going to be an afterthought. All that does is teach cis people that my gender is an afterthought, secondary to other genders.

 

Also, it’s absolutely fucking ridiculous to expect one single trans person to know Everything about Every Single trans identity Ever. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a single person.

 

The thing is: not excluding someone is not the same as including them.

 

I don’t need binary trans people with platforms to include nonbinary genders in their discussions, unless they are completely and utterly prepared to explain and defend my gender, giving it the same value as their own gender.

 

What I need is for binary trans people to simply not act as if nonbinary folks don’t exist. In your fight for a platform, for a voice, for representation, don’t forget that we need that too. Be prepared to say “I’m not that kind of trans, I can’t answer that question, maybe you should ask a nonbinary person”, be prepared to listen to what we have to say and share it, be prepared to recognize when to speak and when not to speak. Extend your hand and share the platform with as many different trans people you can fit on the damn thing.

 

That’s all.

 

When nonbinary folks ask for allyship from binary trans people, we’re not asking for Sudden Constant Inclusion. That’s too much for anyone to handle. All we want is the recognition that we exist and that we are the experts on our own experiences.

 

It’s not the job of an already marginalized person to speak for every other marginalized person out there.

 

It is everyone’s job to make sure that there is space for every marginalized person to speak for themself.

 

Theory: Allo queer/ace tension in asexual readings of history

Tl;dr Because asexual history is tied into allo queer history, there are going to be moments of tension between different readings. It is necessary to understand the context and the way asexual history has been erased, even by allo queer history, to really investigate this challenge.

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[image is a black and white book cover that reads “Sappho und Sokrates: oder Wie erklärt sich die Liebe der Männer und Frauen zu Personen des eigenen Geschlechts”]

Back in November, I wrote an article for the project Making Queer History on Catherine Bernard (for the record, all of their articles are amazing, go check it out!) In writing that article, I started developing methodology around looking at asexual and aromantic representation in history (but also in literature, as the two are related), and I would like to share and discuss a number of the challenges and tensions this is bringing up. It is incredibly complex as I’ve found that searching out asexual and aromantic history requires three actions that are usually frowned upon within queer communities.

 

I have to challenge previously accepted methodology around uncovering queer historical figures, as it did not account for asexuality and aromanticism. This can be particularly fraught, as it questions other forms of queer sexuality, a topic which is already vulnerable and regularly challenged already.  I also have to conflate asexuality and aromanticism in order to account for the ways sexuality and romantic behavior are conflated in historical records (and current, everyday life). And then, I have to conflate our understandings of self-identity and behavior, another action usually warned against by asexual communities in particular.

 

Here, I will discuss the tension between existing allo queer history and asexual history, leaving the other challenges for later blog posts, but first, I will start by discussing existing ace history in an attempt to give context. While contemporary ace history is important, I am choosing to look a little farther back in time, simply because it is less known and studied at the moment.

 

 

Existing ace history: Pathologization, queer-otherness

 

To understand acespecs’ current place in history, let’s take a brief look at what is unarguably asexual history. It is a history of pathologization and being othered from other queer identities.

 

Consider: One of the earliest (we may never know the actual earliest) uses of the word “asexual” was in 1896 in a pamphlet by Magnus Hirschfeld, who helped to establish the domain of sexology (Tristifere, 2018). While Hirschfeld was an incredibly important person in queer history (he performed the first successful modern gender affirmation surgery), his work and the entire concept of making gender and sexuality “scientific” has been used against queer folks (Mills, 2016). Pathologization has been used to dehumanize and other queer people by turning us into scientific fascinations that can be explained (and then potentially “cured”).

 

However, alongside our records of pathologization, studies into homosexuality and transvestism and other scientific blunders, we have records of a rich queer history in the twentieth century. We have trans elders that have led and loved the queer community for decades. We have oral histories. We have tangible evidence of our humanity and existence outside of the disgusting science.

 

But asexual history starts with patholgization and that continues until the late 20th century/earliest 21st century, when the internet, AVEN communities, and the ability of people to have more control over the content about them that gained influence. We have no ace elders. In fact, we have one single man who developed a kind of cult status for a while and now I hear nothing about him (I did a quick google out of curiousity: he’s still appearing in shock-appeal articles but his blog hasn’t been updated for yeeeeaaars, or maybe there’s a new blog I didn’t find, hrrrm). Asexual oral history starts with the internet.

 

And yet, most mentions of asexuality up until this point are in terms of other queer sexuality. Of course, the most obvious example of this is the Kinsey Scale, in which Kinsey made a group “X” for people that didn’t fit onto his (in)famous scale (Mackay, 2013). It was important enough to be mentioned in groundbreaking research into queer sexuality. It wasn’t important enough to be studied or explored further.

 

More or less, asexual history is specifically tied to the history of the beginning of studying queer sexuality. While many of those studies have been recognized as pathologizing, even harmful, they still remain the one place where we can reliably find records of asexuality.

Even in those studies, asexuality is othered. It is deemed unimportant, a throwaway comment to account for people that didn’t fit into the data. We don’t even get complete access to that history because it was eclipsed by society’s prioritization of sex. There is no untangling asexuality from the rest of queer history, but asexual history was erased within a context of queer history. That means that studying asexual history is going to challenge existing queer narratives.

 

Interestingly enough, the most compelling figures and moments in history that could be asexual, from people like Catherine Bernard to Agnes Martin (studied in Przybyly and Cooper’s article) have been already considered allo queer or happen to tick the metaphorical boxes for a historical allo queer figure or moment. This means that asexual history has to challenge existing queer history because we might need to change the boxes.

 

 

Allo queer/asexual tension

 

In establishing a methodology for building a “queerly asexual archive”, Przybyly and Cooper assert that where there is queerness, there is asexuality. They state that in historical moments and figures that have been already been identified as “queer”, there is unexplored potential for asexuality and that it remains unexplored due to cultural, feminist, and queer disinterest in asexuality (2014, p. 299).

 

While there is still a war raging around whether or not asexuality is queer, it is understood by most folks that, even if asexuality isn’t queer (it is), it exists in relation to other sexual identities. In academia, asexual studies and queer studies are still distinct ideas, even if they overlap.

 

There appears to be a very deep-rooted fear that the existence of asexuality desexualizes and denies sexuality to other queer identities. Allo queer sexuality is vulnerable and regularly challenged in Western society as it defies Western gender norms, cisnormativity, and heteronormativity in a way that destabilizes the status quo (and thus, threatens straight cis folks’ power). Allo queer folks have actively fought to reclaim and celebrate their sexuality. Returning to figures and moments that have already been defined as queer in terms of allo sexuality and exploring the possibility of asexuality can be an act of violently denying an allo queer person their sexuality.

 

But, on the flip side, failing to consider the possibility of asexuality when exploring moments and figures of queerness in history is an act of violently denying aces our identity and our history. This becomes particularly harmful as allo queer people have used the lack of asexual history as justification for excluding acespecs from queer communities.

 

I’d like to be able to say that this is a two-way street, that there is a way for us to both get what we need, but I have to be honest. From my perspective, what I see is allo queer people blaming acespecs interested in asexual history for the historical erasure and dehumanization done by straight society. I then see queer people using this justification to continue to erase and deny history to acespec communities.

 

I understand the need to have a history. I understand how difficult it can be to accept that the small amount of representation that one has can be (and should be) read in a different way.

 

But there is a huge difference between an acespec person fighting to uncover their lost history and a straight historian rewriting queer history. And, the fact is, allo queer folks are privileged in that their history is being studied and uplifted while asexual history is continuously ignored. When an acespec historian mentions the possibility that a figure or moment previously assumed to be allo queer could be asexual, this need to be considered instead of looked over, challenged, and even blamed.

 

 

Conclusion

 

When we start wondering whether or not it’s harmful to revisit existing understandings of queer moments and figures in history and question their (a)sexuality, we need to remember this: It’s not about denying allo queer folks their history, or their sexuality. It’s about challenging a history in which everyone, including allo queer folks, decided that asexual folks didn’t deserve a history. Acespecs weren’t just pathologized, we were othered, ignored, even erased.

 

Taking back our history after all this time isn’t pretty. It isn’t going to be successful, either, we’ve lost too much. But it is something we need to do. And while I’d rather do it in a respectful way, there is a distinct possibility that we will step on some toes and that’s going to have to be ok.

 

 

References/Further Reading

 

Mackay, Brad, “Asexuals, The Group That Kinsey Forgot”, University Affairs, 2013 <https://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/asexuals-the-group-that-kinsey-forgot/> [Accessed 11 March 2018]

 

Mills, Laura, “Magnus Hirschfeld, The Founder”, Making Queer History, 2016 <https://www.makingqueerhistory.com/articles/2016/12/20/magnus-hirschfeld-the-founder> [Accessed 11 March 2018]

 

Przybylo, Ela & Cooper, Danielle, “Asexual resonances: Tracing a queerly asexual archive”, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 20.3, (2014), <muse.jhu.edu/article/548452> [Accessed 11 March 2018]

 

Tristifere, “What Is Asexual History? Part Two: The 19Th And 20Th Century”, Acing History, 2015 <https://acinghistory.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/what-is-asexual-history-part-two-the-19th-and-20th-century-2/> [Accessed 11 March 2018]