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On “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall”

Like many people across the expansive political spectrum of our current moment in America, I watched President Barack Obama’s second inauguration speech with a careful ear for the messages behind the words. So when he briefly referenced the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which have been the focus of my research for the past two years, my ears definitely perked up. What does this mean? Is this some kind of victory? Should we be celebrating the reference to this particular moment in U.S. LGBT/Queer History? In this blog post, I’ll answer some of those questions from the perspective of my research thus far, and probably pose a few new questions, too.

Let’s start with the context of this reference to Stonewall. Increasingly, there is evidence to suggest that contemporary political rhetoric is a highly nuanced way of speaking that is often honed through the use of focus group methods such as “dialing”. In these trials, speeches by major politicians are laboriously crafted to include soundbites-in-waiting; short phrases that are tested for their appeal to various demographics. Such rhetoric, then, is no longer simply an exercise in predicting the response of an imagined public, but rather has become a technical art rooted in the idea that, from a distance, a speaker can reach out to several groups at once. Even if an ostensibly left-of-center politician accepts that she is only really speaking to those who generally support her, references to topics like gun control must still be carefully couched in language that will resonate effectively with liberal gun owners, suburban parents, and P-12 teachers who may or may not be unionized. Such specific language is known as “crafted talk” and, as political writer Steven Hill candidly summarizes, it is slightly creepy.

This “crafted talk”…is designed to “simulate responsiveness” – to hoodwink voters, and free the candidates to pursue their own partisan agendas. In other words, politicians are busy with their own agendas that have little to do with what the majority of voters want, and use the “crafted talk” and “simulated responsiveness” to sell their agendas like a used car salesman trying to foist a lemon onto customers. (Source)

Ok. So this is probably the worst case scenario, right? Surely there are times when a politician is trying to be honest and inclusive. Perhaps. But ultimately, I don’t think the reference to Stonewall was truly one of them, even if we can read it as a positive sign-of-the-times.

Just over four years ago, I was sitting among students, friends and colleagues in the Black Cultural Center of Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus listening to President Obama’s first inauguration speech. And I remember being slightly in awe of this same man, as he acknowledged atheists and agnostics from behind what is arguably the most important pulpit on our planet. When he referred to the United States as a “nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” I felt a sense of acceptance and inclusion that made me forget, even if just temporarily, the deeply-rooted Christian rhetoric that pushed in on that sentence from all sides. And while I still cringe at the idea of someone who is Wiccan or Jain or Baha’i hearing that list and not finding themselves among it, I know that I felt validated. This was in spite of the fact that it was not more than a few moments before his reference to non-theists that he had explicitly used Biblical language and regardless of the reality that he went on to mention “God” four more times before leaving the microphone. But in that moment, in hearing “nonbelievers,” I heard him say, “I know you’re out there. And I respect you.” Nevertheless, as I listened this year, at a time when you might have expected me to be telling the same story about the warm fuzzies I got from his mention of the Stonewall Riots and his ostensible support for marriage equality, I found myself underwhelmed.

To be sure, neither I nor President Obama are the people we were in January of 2009. Four years of continued economic struggle, the disappointment of the 2010 elections, and the tension with which we both, surely, watched the polls this past November have refined our positions, nuanced our arguments and, in some cases, changed our minds entirely. But do not take me to be so naïve as to be suggesting that I’m merely bummed because he didn’t do all the things he said he would. I understand enough of the circus of American politics to believe two things at least: that no contemporary candidate will ever truly live up to her campaign promises and that most incumbents are more liberal personally than their track record suggests. But the elephant-in-the-corner of both cases is the fact that the whole American political spectrum has been shifted dramatically to the right. So how is it, I wonder, that evoking Stonewall would seem like an effective way to look directly into the eyes of gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans and say, as LZ Granderson has suggested, “I see you”?

As a young academic in American Studies, my primary research focus has been on the narrative of the Stonewall Riots; specifically, the ways in which the story of Stonewall has both informed and reflected LGBT/Queer identity for the last 44 years. At the time, raids on bars frequented by “homosexuals” were common and brutal injustices inflicted by police (especially on those whose clothing did not conform to gender norms of the day) were heinous reminders of a state and society that rejected people like me. As such, the political salience of not only resisting a police raid on a bar, but of forcing city, state, and federal officials back into the building and then trying to set it on fire can neither be mistaken for anything less than violent protest nor polished to suggest some reverence for the system against which those rioters raged. Stonewall was not planned. It was not part of a larger campaign for gay rights. It was a livid, impromptu, dangerous and deeply personal response to many years of violent state oppression. Moreover, the week of riots that followed the initial raid were aimed at reclaiming the protestors’ identity from the newspapers that smeared them and the dirty businesses that exploited them. (Let’s not forget that the Stonewall Inn was owned and operated by members of the New York Mafia who regularly paid off their local NYPD precinct—not to prevent raids, but to plan them in advance and at times that would allow the bar to reopen mere hours later.) And while the narrative of the riots is most often told from the perspective of middle-aged gay white men who did not identify as trans* or gender-variant, numerous firsthand accounts mention a racially diverse cadre of drag queens fighting alongside gay men, lesbians, straight hippies and homeless youth, many of whom engaged in street warfare, tagging buildings with “Gay Power” slogans and ripping parking meters from the ground to be used as battering rams against the cops. Indeed, as historian Gary Leupp writes over at CounterPunch.org,

This was no Seneca Falls (a peaceful two-day women’s rights convention in New York in 1848) or Selma, Alabama (where non-violent actions in 1965 contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act). It was violent resistance. That Obama should feel a need to validate it in such a high profile forum is significant. (Source)

“But wait,” you say, “surely President Obama wasn’t suggesting that details of these three events were synonymous!” And you’re right. And that’s the point. As Leupp suggests, the inclusion of Stonewall here is significant, whether or not most folks know the history behind the reference. It is also important to note, as does Leupp, that the President’s reference to Stonewall should not be read as a condoning of anti-state violence. So, what’s left?

First of all, the obvious alliteration and engaging rhythm highlight the rhetorical utility of this phrase; these three events in history simply sound nice together. But more importantly, they each reach out from over the podium individually. Like “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” the extra conjunctions, “and Selma, and Stonewall,” shine a spotlight on particular demographics making up the president’s intended audience. One can easily imagine speech writers and consultants whispering to one another, “Stonewall?” “Oh, it’s a gay pride thing. From the 60’s. The gays will catch the reference.” Indeed, many of us did. And gleefully.

Just like that, the subtle mention of Stonewall became a metonym for an imagined “LGBT America.” And while NPR quickly pulled together a guide for those who didn’t quite get it and the Huffington Post reported on the angry video response from the American Family Association, LGBT/Queer journalists jumped on the story, too. LZ Granderson, writing on CNN.com, took mainstream media to task for suggesting that there were no memorable lines in the speech. And Irene Monroe, writing for the Huffington Post, considered how President Obama’s linking of Selma and Stonewall might have furthered divides in the Black community. Noting both our country’s problematic tendency to talk about the fight against oppression by only referencing the struggles of Black communities, as well as the sense in which some Black folks were offended at the comparison of the two movements, she ponders the progressive possibilities of such a reference.

Though there is merit to the argument that simplistically viewing all experiences of oppression as similar ignores the salient differences between oppressed groups, it is also true that ignoring how the experiences of oppressed groups are indeed similar — and how, by employing that understanding, they can work together — has limited the possibilities for full and equal rights for all Americans. (Source)

According to Monroe, the President’s Stonewall mention points to an opportunity for solidarity that is accompanied by a challenge to foreground and understand difference. While I agree with her analysis, my concerns differ slightly.

For many white, educated, middle-income, cisgender gay men, such as myself, there seems to be a desire simply to be mentioned in such speeches. In my view, this corresponds to another desire–one which is very effectively lobbied for by national groups allegedly representing LGBT people–to be recognized by the State. To be granted full citizenship, which was as often couched in the demand for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as it is today in the continued fight for marriage equality, seems to be the chief concern of most national LGBT lobbying efforts. But such issues are not the key concerns of all LGBT people. And while smaller organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition or the National Center for Transgender Equality (among many others!) are working to broaden the political conversation around LGBT efforts, our contemporary reality remains a place in which mainstream perceptions of LGBT people in the United States have come to reflect the interests of a socially-privileged, economically-empowered and politically-connected elite.

As such, for the President of the United States of America, during an inauguration speech, to mention the Stonewall Riots as a metonymic reference to the lives and struggles of “LGBT Americans” is clearly a victory. The question is, whose victory is it? Whose story is represented by Stonewall? Whose concerns are assuaged by marriage equality or by the repeal of a ban on military service after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq? And whose voices are represented by the multi-million dollar lobbying machines that make such references possible?

Not mine. For me, a victory is this fleeting moment of significance that is bound so tightly to context and intersection that it cannot move forward on its own. And I believe Stonewall was a victory, but one I cannot claim. And it does inform me and I do believe I can learn from it; but to see it hoisted as a banner congratulating the efficacy of a queer movement that is so deeply mired in complex iterations of racism, sexism, ableism  and classism is pure farce.

Victory is not a queer idea. In my view, queerness, if it must be analyzed at all as queer theory and not simply queer survival, is deeply skeptical of boundaries between people, of dominant hierarchies that constrict creative spirit and of the probable falseness of most rhetorical positionings. A political win is fleeting. What comes next is forever.

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Violence Against Women Act

A couple months ago the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was reauthorized in spite of fairly significant Republican opposition in the House of Representatives. Their opposition was based mainly upon the extension of protections to people of all sexes, sexualities and genders, not just heterosexual women abused by men. This opposition can be summed up by the response of Republican Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas who said he opposed VAWA because it contained protections for transgender individuals: “This is a truly bad bill,” he said in an article published by the National Review. “This is helping the liberals, this is horrible. Unbelievable. What really bothers — it’s called a women’s act, but then they have men dressed up as women, they count that. Change-gender, or whatever. How is that — how is that a woman?”

In his reasoning, it is more important to protect the rights of people TO COMMIT acts of violence against transgender individuals than it is TO PROTECT women (and all people, since the bill includes men as well as transgender people) from violence. Fortunately, these confused transphobic views were in the minority in Congress and President Obama signed the bill into law in March. VAWA demonstrates that there are legal protections and consequences for violence against any and all people in the United States. VAWA, together with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009 have been the first federal legal protections officially inclusive of all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

While these are clearly very important steps in providing legal recourse to transgender people, victories are still few and far between as recent examples from within and outside of the GLBT community demonstrate. See the continued debate over transgender inclusion at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF), and the repeated attempts by conservative CongressMEN to pass “Bathroom Harassment Bills” in Tennessee and Arizona which would restrict people to using the bathroom indicated by the sex marked on their birth certificate. (Who carries their birth certificate on them for inspection on entrance to bathrooms anyway?)

Both of these examples explain my continued hesitancy to embrace the “victory” of VAWA for transgender people. It is certainly important to have legal recourse and non-discrimination policies, however, exceptions to the rule of law and in practice demonstrate that there is still a long way to go in eradicating transphobia from the cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual communities as well as the cisgender hetersexual ones. For example, the founder of the MWMF justifies their exclusion of transgender women from the festival to allow womyn-born-womyn the “freedom to walk in the woods at night alone without fear.” While I certainly support women (trans and womyn-born) and their right to feel safe – not just at the MWMF – I cannot believe it must come at the cost of the invalidation of the lives and experiences of transgender people who are as stigmatized and discriminated against as lesbian women. Further, the supported inclusion of transgender men in these same womnyn-born-womyn spaces sends the message that birth assigned sex and genitals are what truly matters for inclusion and exclusion rather than self-identified gender. Likewise, bathroom bill advocates claim the need to protect women and girls in bathrooms from predatory men who have disguised themselves as women in order to enter into a women’s only “safe space.” (Can anyone give me an example of violence perpetrated against women or girls by a “man dressed as a woman” in spaces like these?) Again, I realize the need for women’s safety and security, but I submit that these bills aren’t being proposed by CongressWOMEN or advocated by women’s interest groups.

Taking the MWMF and the bathroom bills into consideration with an essential exception included in VAWA we can see why  transgender rights have actually become more limited recently. Below is the “exception” taken from the official wording of VAWA:

‘‘(B) EXCEPTION.—If sex segregation or sex-specific programming is necessary to the essential operation of a program, nothing in this paragraph [the non-discrimination policy paragraph] shall prevent any such program or activity from consideration of an individual’s sex. In such circumstances, grantees may meet the requirements of this paragraph by providing comparable services to individuals who cannot be provided with the sex-segregated or sex-specific programming.”

So, let’s consider this in light of an example from my research in Tennessee. A transgender woman who has been victimized by her male intimate partner managed to leave her abuser in spite of unemployment and other financial and interpersonal obstacles only to be turned away from a “women’s” shelter because she has not been able to change her identity documents to reflect her gender expression. While the official policy of non-discrimination includes gender expression and identity, the exception based upon sex segregation allows her to be turned away from the female shelter. And as she told me, the male shelter was “not an option physically or emotionally.” She was eventually able to find a trans-inclusive shelter that allowed her to be herself during the recovery process, not every transgender woman is so lucky or resourceful. With the knowledge that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence against (trans)women, I understand that it would be unsuitable and potentially harmful for men and women to be sheltered together. However, by setting up the segregation system by sex, I am left to wonder where transgender people belong? What documentation is acceptable to permit a transwoman entry into a woman’s shelter? What if she was without the resources to obtain any formal documentation of her feminine identity? Additionally, I wonder how shelters can be inclusive of lesbian and gay men when their abusers are of the same sex as they are.

Continuing with the reasoning of the sex-segregation exception, “comparable services” must be provided to those who cannot be accommodated within the existing sex-specific programming. Optimistically, I hope this will entail the creation of numerous trans-only or at least transgender-positive shelters. Then again, are transgender men and transgender women to be sheltered together? What about issues of sexism and misogyny within the transgender community?

The above examples elucidate the shift in acceptable forms of transphobia. Homophobia and transphobia in the recent American past had been based upon policing gender performance and norms which often included butch lesbians and effeminate gay men. However, homophobia of any kind is no longer socially acceptable (not that it doesn’t still occur) and transphobia as demonstrated above has become an almost compulsive process of policing genitals and glorifying the “irrevocable” nature of biological sex. Today, American culture is much more accepting of various gender expressions, and can even laugh at playful gender presentations (see Ru Paul’s Drag Race). But has this acceptance come at the expense of solidifying the line between male and female and exalting the naturalness of sex and genitals? It seems that culturally, we have agreed to a certain amount of gender transgression but have drawn a line in the sand, allowing cisgender people to wink at one another and say, “Okay, you can be whoever you want to be, but we know who/what you REALLY are.” Many seem comfortable with gender and sexual transgression so long as one fits neatly into a box, even if that box is gay or lesbian. Transgender is still an unknown, often understood as the representative from Texas said, “change genders” or men who dress like women. Thus, genitalia and the “naturalness” of biology have been exalted so that people can “understand” at the cost of allowing for the diversity of transgender experience and the complex interplay of gender, sex and sexuality. Instances like these remind me just how far we still must go.

CRDI Award Winners Plis and Blackwood

Ryan Plis and Evelyn Blackwood received the Center for Research on Diversity and Inclusion 2012 award for the best paper In the category of Faculty research.  The paper is titled:
TRANS TECHNOLOGIES AND IDENTITIES IN THE UNITED STATES 
It will be published in Technologies of Sexuality and Sexual Health, 
Lenore Manderson, editor, Routledge, 2012.

Gallery

A Sunday Morning in Hong Kong

Tomboy Funky

It was a shocking scene to me when I was invited to a pageant of Indonesian women domestic workers in Hong Kong last year. I was told that the theme of the pageant was “Tomboy Funky” with all participants wearing the trendiest clothes and make-up and walking with masculine gestures. I was shocked because their masculinities were under the spotlight — they displayed no smile, short hair, flat chest, leather boots and heavy metal accessories.

My shock did not go away with the end of the “Tomboy Funky” pageant; instead, it was further intensified when the “Miss Evening Dress” pageant began right after the Tomboy Funky show. The candidates’ sweet smiles, soft gestures and slim-cutting evening dresses highlighted their body curves, making a strong contrast with those tomboys’ masculinities. I was amazed to see both Tomboy Funky and Miss Evening Dress taking place in one event because it suggests that female-bodied persons are now free to choose what attributes, either femininity or masculinity, they want to show off in one event. Everyone has a place to run if one likes to, no matter you are a tomboy or a femme. Isn’t it fair?

Miss Evening Dress

Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are live-in domestic workers. They are required by law to live with their employers. The only holiday they get every week is Sunday. And so, Sunday is the only day they can really express themselves, especially in a gendered way, as either a tomboy or a femme. Some Indonesian domestic workers told me that at their employer’s house they could only wear simple clothes (such as T-shirts and sweatpants) and were asked to tie up their hair. Neither hyper-femininity nor hyper-masculinity is allowed. They are being de-sexualized from Monday to Saturday. Sunday is the only day they can celebrate their beauty and their masculinity, and also refresh and recover themselves from the laborious 6-day work.

Review of Falling into the Lesbi world – Inside Indonesia

Falling into the Lesbi world – Inside Indonesia – a quarterly magazine on Indonesia and its people, culture, politics, economy and environment.

Evelyn Blackwood wins 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize

P R E S S  R E L E A S E

AQA Awards the 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize to Evelyn Blackwood’s Falling into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia

The American Anthropological Association’s Association for Queer Anthropology (AQA, formerly the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, SOLGA) is very pleased to announce that Evelyn Blackwood has been awarded the 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize in the category “Outstanding Monograph” for Falling into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010)

The Ruth Benedict Prize is presented each year at the American Anthropological Association’s meeting to acknowledge excellence in a scholarly book written from an anthropological perspective about a topic that engages issues and theoretical perspectives relevant to LGBTQ studies.

More about the book:

In Falling into the Lesbi World, Evelyn Blackwood takes us on a vivid ethnographic voyage to West Sumatra.  Her evocative narrative allows us to experience the complex relationship between gender and sexuality in play among female-born persons whom we might be tempted to call “lesbians.”  Given the global drift of language and culture, it’s perhaps not surprising that her protagonists often call their way of life “lesbi,” designating themselves variously as “tombois” and “femmes,” and with local words for “guys” and “girls.”  She shows us, however, that it would be a grave error to assume that the lesbi world is equivalent to what we know as lesbianism, even as there are significant points where meanings and practices do intersect.

Tombois tend to discover their “maleness” when they are young, living very much as boys when they are children, and feeling masculine freedoms as embodied and authentic. But even as they can enact masculinity in their relationships with ideally compliant and domestic femmes, the path to full manhood is blocked at every turn.  Establishing independent households as couples is rarely possible for tombois, and the pull of familial obligations often can draw them back into the role of daughter.  Physical transformation is rarely imagined or desired; tombois live with their physical ambiguities, which they understand as part of who they are.

The title of the book is apt:  the reader is plunged into a world where the meanings of words constantly shift and both compliance and resistance appear as lesbi sensibilities are enacted.  Blackwood’s analysis comes from years of work in West Sumatra and reflections on her position as a femme in a previous relationship with a tomboi, an experience that first alerted her to the ways that Western lesbian and Indonesian lesbi existences merge and stray from one another.  Not unlike the stereotyped roles of sharply distinguished expectations for butches and femmes in the West, tomboi-femme couples struggle with appropriate sexual behaviors.  Only the tombois are definitively lesbi; femmes are “normal” women who are thought to really desire men.  Even so, some femmes understand their attraction to tombois as more than merely situational or transitory, and thus struggle to understand whether they are authentically lesbi.  Lesbi lives, then, while seemingly shaped by prevailing understandings of gender, with appearance, personal style, sexual preferences, and other attributes lining up, can defy the imperatives of gender, reconfiguring desire and identity.

Falling into the Lesbi World poses provocative questions about issues queer anthropology has on its front burner:  how transgender subjectivities are imagined and enacted and how global flows of information and language shape queer experience.  But Blackwood does more.  She tells us that it’s not enough to say that women’s same-sex desires and relationships are less visible than those between men, and hence less worthy of analysis.  We need to ask the right questions and fall into lesbi worlds if we are to better grasp the complexities of sex and gender across cultural divides.  Blackwood guides us into these worlds and makes them come alive.

Evelyn Blackwood is Full Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Purdue University. Her books, edited volumes, and articles include award-winning scholarship on Native American female two-spirits and tombois in Indonesia. Much of her work critiques matrilineal theory, matrifocality, and marriage through rich ethnographies of gender, kinship, and political economy, focusing on rural and urban West Sumatra.

The Ruth Benedict Book Prize will be presented to the winning authors during the AQA Business meeting on Friday 18 November at the 110th American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Montréal.  AQA would like to thank the Ruth Benedict Book Prize Committee for their thoughtful work, including former Benedict Prize winners Tanya Erzen and Ellen Lewin, and Graduate Student Representative, Richard Martin.  For questions or additional information, please contact the Committee Chair, Mary L. Gray, at mLg@indiana.edu.

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