Friday, November 02, 2007

The Gendercator drama, part two -- I know you were waiting...

(For the first part of this exposition, click here)

Okay, the Gendercator event, sponsored by Center Women Present -- I was calling it the drama-fest beforehand -- the big question for me was whether it would be the drama of suffocation or the more productive drama of conflict, critique and accountability. Things got off to a good start for me when I had a surprise opportunity to talk on camera about the drama of getting bashed by the cops at a 2003 protest against Gavin Newsom that took place in front of the Center -- yes, getting bashed as Center staff stood and watched and did nothing to intervene -- ah, the community!

Due to the bashing incident of February 2003 (I and another person were thrown into oncoming traffic then arrested; someone else was hit in the face by a police baton -- literally blood dripping down hir face; a fourth person passed out due to a police chokehold, and was also arrested), I try to avoid entering the Center at all costs, so this venture was immediately emotional. I was ready for trouble while standing in line with dozens of other people -- we were the early ones, but the room wasn’t available until just before the starting time of 6:30 p.m. -- no problem, I had plenty of fun socializing and interpreting the strange typos on the glossary of terms handed out to attendees (an approximate example: "dyke – a lesooShwaxsbian, popular term among xx445kuer generation"). I also met a really fun fellow drama queen while sitting with hir in one of the only comfortable chairs available in the hallway -- if anyone knows “Alithia,” tell hir to contact me at once!

In any case, the event -- it was packed, several hundred people and tense but also festive -- first came intros for the panelists, and I will summarize very briefly a few points they made:

Elana Dykewomon (here I have an exact quote because I asked for her printed statement, everything that's not in quotation marks I'm paraphrasing): “There are times when the far left has gone along with the far right, claiming the ends justified the means. And it represents a fear that lesbians have -- that we are being squeezed into the old gender roles so many of us have fought for so long... where's the fear? What power dynamics are getting played out?"

Jamison Green: I'm profoundly against censorship -- artists have a right to say what they want, but I agree with Frameline’s decision to pull the film -- also, the links between The Gendercator and Janice Raymond's 1979 The Transsexual Empire (below I'm quoting from Susan Stryker on this because her comments are available in print:

The ideas in the film [The Gendercator] echo the rhetoric of Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire (1979), which goes so far as to claim that Nazis invented transsexual surgery, that transsexuals are agents of a patriarchal conspiracy to replace biologically female women, to accuse all transsexuals of being rapists (because they represent an “unwanted penetration” of women’s space), and to argue in a eugenic fashion that transsexuals should be “morally mandated out of existence. Raymond’s book, and the film, engage in the paranoid fantasy that what transsexuals do to their own bodies is somehow a threat to the bodies of nontranssexual women, that the very existence of transsexuals will somehow “force” a nontranssexual woman to have her body violated through some sort of compulsory and unwanted transformation–it’s the same structure of fantasy that imagines that all black men want to rape white women, that gays are predatory pedophiles, that communists are secretly infiltrating our government, that terrorists are swarming across our borders, that drug pushers are constantly trying to hook our kids, and so on ad nauseum. The film projects fear onto an “alien other” and then condemns that other for reflecting back that fear to the person who has projected it there in the first place.

Susan Stryker at the event: two moments of extreme transphobia: the part in the movie when a character says, “the trannies went along with it" (forced gender reassignment) + the end of the film when Sally is being subjected to forced surgery by the authority of a transperson. Also, Susan talked about being sick of transphobic things being said by non-trans lesbians about trans people -- Frameline made the decision to pull the film... I wish they could have created this discussion in June because I think a lot of the controversy has blown over.

Yavanté Thomas-Guess: this movie invalidates the life-long struggles trans people go through and the ways in which we are continually transitioning

Fresh! Encounter: disappointed that Frameline couldn't have a panel discussion, but disturbed by yet another film by a white person with privilege that is divisive instead of seeking to build common ground.

Mary Guzmán: it frightened me when this film got pulled, can't respond to it anymore on its merits as a film except in the context of this decision.

Then, an opening statement from Jenni Olson, former co-director of Frameline (in the early-mid-90s, I don't think this was mentioned), who voiced both respect for Catherine Crouch's work and the dismay that Crouch was suggesting that trans identity is a response to a misogynist culture.

The almost-scandal at the beginning occurred when the DVD skipped over the most frightening line of the movie -- at first I thought perhaps this was a last-minute edit on the part of Crouch, but then, to her credit, she announced that we'd missed the most contentious line. The DVD was rewound but the same thing happened -- luckily, I had already listened to the movie several times, in order to write down that very line! So I ended up getting on stage and giving a dramatic rendition:

It all began with the evangelicals -- you know, one man/one woman and all that -- then the next thing the trannies went along with it... Before long, butches and fairies were forced to make the change -- you have to be a man or a woman, no more in between.

No more in between, indeed. And to think that I only grabbed my notes at the last minute...

Okay, well I'm going to write something much more polished sometime in the relatively near future, but let me try to make some observations. First, about the structure of the event -- three moderators with the panel of six presenters plus Catherine Crouch herself -- unfortunately, audience members were only able to ask questions by writing them down on notecards, which meant that not only did we miss out on much of the emotional resonance, but we got to hear the same question eight times, dammit!

But don't worry -- I was not the only loud queer gasping and cheering and hissing -- love that! What is the point of a drama-fest if we can't have an expressive audience?

Okay, well the question that got asked eight times was more or less about Crouch’s transphobia, whether she thinks that all trans men are really lesbians, and I will say that Crouch was a bit conflicted on this one. She did say that she wasn't interested in making all or none statements, but that she was concerned because of so many butch lesbians transitioning so fast -- and worried that this FTM identity was not arising "from inside," but due to outside pressures and the difficulties of being a lesbian in a misogynist, homophobic culture. She also talked about the increase of elected medical procedures, and stated, "I don't know what's happening right now." When someone asked about Crouch’s equation of trans surgery with mutilation, Crouch declared "I never used that word." Then she declared that she was concerned that surgery was being used to solve the problems of being unsafe as a masculine women. Later, Crouch got wackier when she said that her fear was of the gender binary, of the religious right, and it did seem that she was suggesting that the religious right could actually join with transpeople to take over the world. She didn't say how, but this was one of the moments when I'll admit I was a bit frightened -- Crouch was giving a good performance -- she kept saying how happy she was that these discussions were happening, but still her fears were palpable. This is also indicated in the changes she made to her director's statement, which now reads in part:

This remark is not about transpeople. It is about women. My understanding of transsexuality is that it is a rare condition, a medical condition of gender dysphoria. A person’s exterior body does not match their interior sense of self, causing serious social, sexual, and mental problems. This person is a transsexual, not a woman or a man. My statement was not meant to question the validity of this condition, but to call attention to the increasing number of young women who are taking testosterone or undergoing voluntary mastectomies to enhance their masculinity. These are women who formerly identified, or would be considered by the lesbian community, as butch lesbians.


Keep in mind that this statement is in response to months of controversy, so it's somewhat shocking that Crouch is still relying on a medical/scientific explanation of trans identity that has been used for decades to marginalize and stigmatize transpeople.

But back to the event -- Crouch did make her director's statement "clarification" at the beginning, by the way. Later though, she claimed that she was careful to show transmen who were thrilled with their transition -- these would be the transmen comparing surgery, balding, and potbellies in one scene that is very clearly a critique of conventional norms of masculinity. Crouch insisted that transmen reminded her of the way that women judge each other and compare their parts.
Onto some of the other panelists – Susan Stryker talked about this movie as part of a backlash over the last few years, during which anti-trans comments that wouldn't be tolerated about other groups are suddenly in the mainstream again. I would really like to see an exploration of this resurgence of transphobia.

Jamison Green made a good point about how transitioning doesn't help you to escape the problems of the female body, and I like what he said about "possibilities to create a new kind of masculinity that respects femininity."

I forgot to mention that I really appreciated people who were getting emotional -- Susan at the beginning looked like she was going to cry when talking about the transphobia in the movie, Jenni Olson was similarly on the verge of tears when talking about her appreciation for Crouch’s work and her discomfort with the violence it contains. Fresh! Encounter talked emotionally at one point about the strictures of 1970s "lesbian feminist fascists," and this opened up a really interesting dialogue with Elana Dykewomon, who personalized this assessment and responded that she wouldn't use the word fascism – “the root of fascism is ‘penis-loving’,” then added, “I was self-righteous, I may still be self-righteous.” Dykewomon continued that she had never understood masculinity or femininity, but that the excitement and flamboyance of trans cultures actually reminded her of the excitement of 1970s feminism. She finished, "when I think of transpeople transforming lesbian communities, I get hopeful." I was really excited by this historical analogy, and by Elana's apparent openness. But even her preparation and analysis couldn't prevent a vocabulary mishap, when she mentioned that there were no femme lesbians on the panel (“What about Susan,” I said, and Susan smiled and put her hands up in the air like “hello!”) Elana corrected herself: "I mean no non-trans lesbians."

I want to pause at this moment because the panelists averted tension with apparent ease, but it's these exact identity and vocabulary questions that sometimes cause heated animosity. The Gendercator focuses repeatedly on certain words and phrases popular in certain trans communities, such as "presenting," as in: "Do you realize that you're intentionally presenting ‘male’?”

While I, and many other transpeople, genderqueers and gender malcontents delight in such linguistic innovations, I do think it's important to realize that we all use different languages, and to have some understanding for errors of analysis due to linguistic interpretations. Of course, I'm not suggesting that someone who repeatedly insists on addressing someone as anything other than hir preferred pronoun/identity/experience should be excused -- but I think sometimes there’s a rush to judgment that creates unnecessary hierarchies.

There was a lot of talk on the panel, and in the audience, about division, divisiveness, and I was impressed by Elana’s response: "We are divided. We have to keep finding language for it.” I would add, of course, that if we don't explore our divisions we’ll never find any commonalities.

Oh -- another one of my favorite moments was when people were making necessary critiques of Frameline, and Jennifer Morris, the Director of Programming at Frameline (who was in the audience), got all flustered and stood up and said something completely incoherent -- I'm guessing that Frameline was approached to be on the panel, and declined, so this was a bit silly. Crouch responded with one my favorite quotes of the night: "gay film festivals are like Pride, they're not interested in representing different points of view." I was screaming at that one -- I'm aware that a few people in the audience may have been upset at that loud bitchy queen, but remember what I said about the drama of suffocation? If I hadn’t expressed myself, I certainly would have passed out.

Towards the end of the event, there was an interesting exploration of the possibilities of transition. Yavante Thomas-Guess said that "everybody transitions, that just means you're growing," and, in response to Crouch’s statement that transgender people are changing their bodies instead of changing the world, Fresh! Encounter asked, "how is nonconformity not changing the world?" There was also a discussion of whether transitioning to male is a trend in communities of queer women. This was one of the most ripe parts of the event, and I think this could be a whole other discussion. Mary Guzmán talked about working at a club that is mostly queers of color, age 18-21, who, according to Guzmán, who is in her 40s "look like me, they act like me, but they won't identify as anything female, and this concerns me in a misogynist world." This was very emotional for Guzmán to say, she mentioned the feeling that it's something she can't talk about, or else she's seen as transphobic, people say it's not "your issue." I felt like the audience was really ready for this painful topic, ready to hear Guzmán and ready to talk about the beauty and possibility and ruptures and pain of transitions in queer, lesbian, dyke and trans cultures. But Guzmán needed to leave for work, and the event ended just a few minutes later.

I liked the gesture the organizers made to read the remaining questions aloud, there were a couple good ones about the connections between transphobia and homophobia, and a very astute comment about how the forced transition in the Gendercator is reminiscent of the treatment of intersex kids, and not the deliberated choice of transpeople.

I left the event feeling drained, but also emotionally engaged and inspired -- filled with ideas and analysis. A few things that were hinted at but not directly addressed in the panel: class divisions in queer/genderqueer/dyke/trans/lesbian communities, and how these impact vocabulary, experience, and access; the prioritization of masculinity across the board in queer cultures; the increased privilege and visibility of highly-educated, privileged transmen in environments where transwomen are mostly unwelcome. These are all areas for more conversation and analysis – yes, more conversation and analysis!

But I want to step back for a moment and talk about my own personal history -- my first queer world of inspiration and innovation and challenge and transformation and heartbreak was San Francisco in the early ‘90s, centering around Mission dyke cultures that nurtured and scarred me -- it's where I learned what community could mean, how to dream of home and create it in the same breath, and where are I also learned how the illusion of community, even or especially among malcontents, could create a false sense of security sheltering violence. I could be more specific, but instead let me say that I learned from dykes (and a few fags) who were incest survivors, whores, outcast kids, vegans, runaways, dropouts, anarchists, activists drug addicts and other types of social misfits trying not to disappear without first attempting to challenge power in every way we could imagine -- this was the feminist politic that we embraced, what drew us together.

Now, if these cultures also betrayed me in every way possible, that does not mean that they also did not make me. I'm offering this glimpse so that I can talk about returning to San Francisco at the end of 2000 after a six-year absence (except for eight months at the end of 1995/beginning of 1996, when I'd returned after my best friend had died more or less because she was kicking heroin and SF General refused her healthcare). In 2000, I returned from New York to a San Francisco genderqueer and trans explosion that blew my head off with the possibilities of self-expression and transgression. Now, getting your head blown off is not always the most comfortable experience, so I'll admit that at first I was confused by this embrace of masculinity -- as someone assigned the label "male" at birth who has struggled my whole life against compulsory masculinity, my instinct was fright. To be sure, I did watch certain transguys formerly politicized by feminism perform a grotesque chauvinism as if it was a birthright, and I gasped in horror and disbelief as a certain notoriously misogynist, femme-phobic, racist leather bar was suddenly seen as part of the "dyke and trans community."

But what also happened, in the transmasculine explosion, is that I witnessed the emergence of so many complicated, critical, defiant and liberatory identities that yes, my head was blown off because I needed to make room for so many more delicious possibilities -- the conscious, negotiated, deliberated, critical and engaged exploration of masculinities was different than anything I had ever imagined. Oh, the possibilities for flamboyance and transgression -- not just the embrace of a politicized, feminist masculinity, but the exploration of masculine femininities, feminine masculinities, femininity through masculinity, transfaggotries and all the other explosive combinations that emerged -- all I can say is that my mind could not contain all of the opportunities for analysis and intrigue, and I am so grateful.

But I will say one more thing -- there have been hushed conversations about the more problematic and unquestioning transitions into masculine privilege, within genderqueer, trans and dyke cultures (mostly, in my experience, among femmes and faggots). To be sure, these discussions have also taken place in certain public events like Michelle Tea's Transforming Community and books like my own anthology Nobody Passes, but these are the exception rather than the rule. The fact that these conversations have mostly remained muted has made it possible for far less nuanced, complicated, loving or inspiring critiques (and even, perhaps, more layers of transphobia) to emerge -- critiques like that of The Gendercator. I'm hoping that the response to this movie will make the rest of us more vocal.

9 comments:

D. said...

oh, this is really interesting to read, sweetie! i'm glad you were able to make it in the doors of the center and sit through the whole thing. i remember listening to susan stryker at a conference on the intersection of trans & women's studies a few years ago, where she was presenting her film about the compton queens. i talked briefly to her afterwards and she was very nice to me. i think she's a good, clear voice in academia, which is certainly rare enough to come by.

xoxo,
deena

D. said...

also, wow! i just realized that i've met emily wood, the actor who plays the main role in "the gendercator." she was also in the main role for another movie that was about a woman who dressed as a male soldier during the civil war. she lives in indianapolis and we have some friends in common.

love, deena

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Deena, "a good, clear voice in academia" -- rare enough, indeed -- you're certainly right about that! And hilarious about the Emily Wood connection, of course all our queer worlds intersect...

Love love love --
mattilda

grantatee said...

"but remember what I said about the drama of suffocation? If I hadn’t expressed myself, I certainly would have passed out."

that made me chuckle.

like deena said, this is interesting to read. thank you for putting it together. i especially like when you talk about your own history ('use I statements, speak from your experience' as an engaged audience member at the event told susan...) especially the part about your head being blow off and how that is not the most comfortable thing, but also expansive.

lovelovelove,
grant

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Grant, darling -- or of course I'm so glad you're chuckling!

And now you're making me see the humor in my writing -- indeed, getting your head blown off is not the most comfortable thing...

Even more love --
mattilda

Az said...

Thanks for this. It's really awesome to get a detailed account of the Gendercator drama that doesn't simply pit transphobic femininsts against the 'community' and the film festival. I love the irony of Catherine Crouch pointing out how Frameline doesn't like controversy. Although my jaw is still dragging on the floor after reading that 'edited' version of her director's statement, I mean honey, how many different trans political perspectives can you alienate in one little paragraph? All of them, evidently!

Mary Guzman's perspective is interesting. It feels odd to me that so many lesbian-feminist critiques of transness evince such a personalised form of anxiety over ftm/genderqueer embodiment, and phrase that in a familial, almost maternal style. As if we are their children, and we grew up wrong. -- Then, by implication, does that mean it's their fault somehow, that they weren't good enough lesbian 'mothers'? Maybe this is key. Sheila Jeffries wrote an article a couple of years ago about her personal sense of grief at FTM trans embodiment. I guess Guzman's point might have been phrased less offnesively than Jeffries, but this emotional 'grief' response makes me really angry, viscerally. Even when I was 'presenting' (ha!) as a dyke, not many of the younger generation of lesbians thought of lesbian feminism as maternal: the radical feminists were busy kicking us out of the 'movement' for wearing lipstick, or practicing BDSM, or fisting, or doing sexwork. (Sometimes literally; Jeffries got a sexworkers support group banned from my university campus in 1998.)

That articulation of anxiety and grief feels quite possessive, and it feels icky to me precisely because it's too intimate, too presumptuous of a familial relationship in the first place. It makes me want to say, "No, we were never like you. We are not your children. Even as women, we never were." And it makes me even angrier, again, when I think about how those same people, Raymond, Jeffries, Crouch, respond to transfemininity and transwomen as extreme enemies, bodies to be forcefully dispossessed, disowned. Even their affective responses to transness are totally filtered through binary gender, and worse, all about property. It's so self-absorbed, it makes me want to puke.

Wow, that got really heated, and I totally didn't mean it to. you're right about the importance of needing to explore the painful moments :) I wish I could have been another loud faggy heckler, I know that suffocation thing in public spaces so well, and if you don't speak up, you end up leaving with all of that hysteria crawling trapped around your body. Or passing out :)

And finally, yeah, bring on discussions about masculine privilege. I think they are happening, at least, sometimes I'm trying to make them happen with transboy friends/compadres. (That's obviously because I'm femme *and* a fag!) Masculinity is too often about not talking, even when people want to. Apologies for ranting at length in your comments thread, I'll bow out now xoxox

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Az, thanks for such thoughtful brilliance! Yes, that "edited" version of the director's statement is quite the prize, especially when juxtaposed against her comment, "my fear is of the gender binary." Um, really?

Of course it's the gender binary she's simultaneously invoking...
Or many of them, in fact.

Your exploration of the familial style of lesbian anxiety around trans expression is especially evocative and on-target. I'm a bit exhausted at the moment and not as clear as I would like, but I'm especially drawn to this part: "That articulation of anxiety and grief feels quite possessive, and it feels icky to me precisely because it's too intimate, too presumptuous of a familial relationship in the first place. It makes me want to say, 'No, we were never like you. We are not your children. Even as women, we never were.' "

Oh, and when you say "I wish I could have been another loud faggy heckler, I know that suffocation thing in public spaces so well, and if you don't speak up, you end up leaving with all of that hysteria crawling trapped around your body." Oh, that's when I know we'll certainly have to heckle
together at some point.

But wait, can I quote you again?
"Masculinity is too often about not talking, even when people want to." So true, and I do agree that delicious and challenging conversations about masculine privilege in transmasculine cultures are certainly emerging -- in fact, I do think these are some of the most interesting conversations currently occurring about masculine privilege, but oh we need more more more indeed...

Love --
mattilda

Thanks so much for your insight!

Love --
mattilda

Az said...

We totally have to heckle together at some point, that would be awesome. Feel better, sending energetic revolutionary vibes to ya!

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Okay, we're on!

But wait -- did I really sign that last comment twice? And there's no edit comment function on blogger!

In any case...

Love --
mattilda