Wednesday, April 04, 2007

All of these surprising moments, or: just give me more, please more! (and some luscious sleep too, please)

Okay, really I should be getting ready for bed because I’m exhausted, my back hurts, you know the story. But inside also I’m incredibly invigorated by this event at George Mason University, it starts when two students, Ian and Randy, pick me up and then we’re driving through rush hour traffic except that it’s not even 3 p.m. yet, gross. I’ll admit that I’m grateful for air conditioning, otherwise I’d be sweating to death in this heat and humidity, starting an event feeling sticky wouldn’t be much fun so yes, I’m grateful for the air conditioning that doesn’t quite reach me but it also reaches me, thanks. As we’re entering the Virginia suburbs, oh the suburbs -- the middle class parts of endless town homes, rich parts with identical mansions and an occasional old plantation-type house. It’s fun chatting too and I’m glad that I have time to relax and eat before the event since I didn’t get a chance to eat before leaving, rushing to get ready.

The pride office -- I’m not sure if that’s what it’s called -- but it feels fun and festive, I like meeting people ahead of time although yes it’s hot in here too, that’s right did I mention it’s pride week I’m speaking during pride week? On the way to the lecture hall, Ric Chollar, coordinator of pride week, points out the special pride bench, there is a row of wooden benches painted by different student groups and this purple one is for pride, actually with a smart quote so I sit down for a picture. A lot of pictures with this crew, I like pictures!

The lecture hall is huge, which is always slightly alienating but the microphone is flawless, you don’t have to be anywhere near it for your voice to be crystal-clear. Of course I’m eating until right before I talk, would keep eating except that would be kind of distracting during my talk, which goes incredibly well I think -- I’m glad someone is videotaping it, I think I will like this video. The questions are particularly vibrant, or maybe it’s that I feel particularly present while I’m answering them -- also yes it’s being here in this room with these students, I’m excited about their engagement -- about them bringing me here to George Mason for pride week of all things, that’s maybe risky in some ways at a school that has a Sextravaganza where anti-choice groups speak alongside sex education, just to give the full range they say. The first question is about whether I think I’m furthering stereotypes while speaking at pride week, I think it’s about my personal presentation --the flaming queen thing, I imagine. It’s fun to answer a question like that. I end up talking about the way mainstream gay people with power are now doing the job of Christian homophobes by silencing the margins of queerness in order to present a “respectable” face. The face of cultural erasure. We see gay role models like the lesbian couple who want to join the $50,000 golf club but they have to pay twice because they’re not married and of course so-called middle America takes one look at these GMO gays and cries special rights -- even mainstream gay groups would get a lot further if instead they showed a queer kid who had run away from an abusive home, was living on the streets strung out on heroin and trying still to find a safe place to create hir gender, sexual and/or social identities -- I get applause for that comment.

A question about the vulnerability that I invoke in my introduction, I talk about the vulnerability and accountability, critique alongside celebration so crucial to creating cultures of defiance. A question about the notion of working within systems of oppression for incremental change, it’s phrased much better but I can’t remember exactly how -- of course, the problem with incremental change is that if you’ve already compromised from the beginning, you don’t have very far you can go. Someone asks about whether always saying fuck you, this is my identity -- accept or reject me on my terms-- whether that alienates people and prevents coalitional work -- I actually think that articulating difference instead of creating a silencing notion of absolute cohesion actually is the only way to do work that crosses the boundaries of identities. And more, I’m trying to think of the rest.

One person comes up afterwards with a copy of Nobody Passes, wants to know about the Jewish assimilation anthology I was once working on -- at some point in the future it will arise, please keep asking. A great intimate conversation with someone who identifies herself as a trans woman who usually passes, someone who started out as a rich, straight white male and how can she make sure that even when passing she’s not enacting violence or that’s not the question exactly, she says quite clearly that she’s not asking me to critique her identity since I don’t know her but rather what possibilities exist. I kind of like my response, that the question is first how to use the privilege she has and how to inspire others to find the beauty and possibility and transformation that she’s found. Someone who works at Mason, and who came to my That’s Revolting event a few years ago in DC, tells me she’s impressed with the generous way I answer questions, I think generous is a beautiful word to use. All of these interactions feel so intimate.
Afterwards, a bunch of us (yes, 14 again) are on a way to a vegan restaurant in the nearby suburb of Vienna, Virginia, which is kind of hard to say if you say it a few times in a row: Vienna Virginia Vienna Virginia Vienna Virginia. Luckily, I convince people to sit in the sun for a few minutes on our way, now it’s cooler and much more relaxing. I guess we scare away the woman with very proper hair who’s sitting on the same bench, which doesn’t seem like much of a problem. It’s an interesting moment because a lot of the students with me look more or less mainstream, but this student on the bench is in an entirely different category, like she’s on the way to do some lobbying.

The restaurant is called Sunflower and the menu is huge, which isn’t always the best sign but here there are so many delicious items -- even some that label themselves macrobiotic, I almost can’t believe it. The food is delicious and nothing even verges on making me feel sick, which is quite quite rare. Lots more questions but I actually feel relaxed and present, not so exhausted even when Ric asks if I’ll feel exhausted later, I mean I will -- I mean I am already, but also I feel relaxed and present, more so than usual I think. There’s a funny conversation next to me that I just hear snippets of, one person is saying that violence is human nature and then another is saying didn’t you hear Mattilda’s talk?

I like that response. The problem with arguments relying on “human nature” is that they can justify any monstrous behavior, that’s why of course I believe in moving away from “nature.”
Someone asks whether anyone ever tells me that something I’ve done or written or a talk I’ve given has changed the way they’ve looked at the world and actually that does happen, especially on the tour, and it feels very generous for someone to say that, to borrow a word from earlier -- inspiring to me actually, I mean to realize or acknowledge thatthings can change like that and that I can be a part of it, maybe.

After dinner, I pose with different groups for a bunch of photos and I love it, especially the photos with me and one other person, yes more intimacy! Give me more intimacy, I love it! It’s all so sweet and now I’m wishing I’d taken my camera out too, but I’m counting on people to send pictures my way -- yes, send me those pictures, please.

Ric drives me back to DC and we have a great conversation about Larry Kramer’s politics of blame, backlash disguised as accountability, even though he’s not quite like some of the other backlash gays because he actually has done some amazing things so that’s what makes it all the more disturbing. Then about gentrification and my sadness that gay people who bought cheap houses in the ‘70s couldn’t do something like create beautiful and vibrant and safe places for difference rather than focusing on enhancing their property values by getting rid of the people who were there in the first place, policing the borders, etc. Ric says he appreciates the way I can deliver a strong critique but also with so much warmth and possibility, those aren’t the exact words he uses but how I interpret them although I also like his word choice, what is it? I will have to ask, because it makes me feel warm and like I’m doing something useful by articulating things in a rigorous way yet with humor and excitement maybe -- I guess trying to connect with people instead of standing above or beyond or to the side, I mean I certainly also stand in those other places too at times but then there are times like this when I feel the possibility for connection and intimacy and transformation from all of these surprising moments.


Kate said...

I'm so glad I found this post - I live near GMU, and wanted to go to this event, but work got in the way. I recently moved to the area, and it's great to hear your thoughts on the wilds of suburbia. I also just graduated from college, and am working a full time job, and it's like I'm visiting another planet. The safe environment and networks of support are just poof! gone. It's tough passing in a middle class suburb, in all senses of the word.

This place could use some more enlightenment - Here's hoping you come back to GMU, and soon!

mattilda a.k.a. matt bernstein sycamore said...

Kate, thanks so much for writing! Good luck with all of the craziness, and keep in touch!

Love --