Category Archives: building community

visibility in the face of violence

I talked to my mother today – from across the country she’d heard about the murder of Oscar Grant and she was curious what the mood was like in the Bay Area.  As we discussed violence and racism, I brought up the Richmond Jane Doe, the lesbian who was gang-raped in late December in what is widely acknowledged to be a hate crime.*   In what must have been a difficult question, my mother asked me if incidents like that one ever impacted my ideas about being so visibly queer.

In some ways, the answer is no.  Violent crimes are not special in whether or not they spur me to think about my own queerness and visibility; I think about how I look and how I present to the world every day.  It is a constant and unavoidable issue for queer folks, especially those of us who feel more comfortable with non-traditional gender presentations.  (Femme invisibility is a whole other animal.)  Yesterday I met, for the first time, one of the folks for whom my partner and I house- and pet-sit.  We stopped by to drop off some keys, and I recognized him immediately from the photos on the mantel.  He, however, looked intently at me the entire time I was in his house, scanning me as though he wasn’t sure who or what I was.  Earlier that day, I had answered the door to a solicitor, a young man my age, who spent half of his time on my doorstep trying, unsuccessfully to ask me out.   The tensions of visibility are there every day.  I don’t want to be mistaken or overlooked for who and what I am, but what if it doesn’t go well?  What if the young man soliciting at my doorstep is a violent homophobe?  What if I never get hired to house-sit again because the homeowner doesn’t feel comfortable with someone like me feeding his cats and watering his plants?

But here’s the thing:  I cannot, and will not, live a life solely dictated by fear. I believe that some kinds of violence function like terrorism; they are a(n extreme) means of social control, by which they terrorize not only their victims but also send a message to an entire group.  Police murder of young black men is one way that racism and power relations are inscribed; gang rapes uphold, extend, and enact patriarchal misogyny.  The threat of interpersonal violence is scary, certainly.  That fear figures into my urban life and lifestyle every day.  But I work hard to interrogate that fear, and my reaction to it.  Is growing out my hair and looking straight going to serve me, or is it going to serve a system that oppresses me?  Is avoiding certain places, or certain people, or certain kinds of people, going to serve me, or is it very effectively keeping me in my place?

Sometimes these two things can co-exist; declining to walk alone at night in a neighborhood where I don’t feel comfortable may simultaneously keep my physical body safe AND enforce that neighborhood as one where women and queer people are not safe alone. This is always a question of judgment, of tension, of holding a balance.  The balance I’ve been striving for lately is “appropriate caution.”  It’s kind of like the judgment necessary regarding cars (in which, by the way, I’m much more likely to be injured); I can (and do) wear my seat-belt, drive moderately, and minimize my use of the phone while driving, all of which will help reduce the chances of injury or death while driving.  But just as it would be ridiculous of me to refuse to ever ride in a car because of the safety risks, it would also be self-defeatingly extreme for me to radically alter my appearance (or behavior) in order to avoid being a target of violence.  And while nobody would really care that much if I never got into a car again, my toeing the line of heterosexual femininity would sure as hell benefit patriarchy, institutional sexism, and the system of domination and oppression that has enacted itself so violently in the Bay Area in the past few weeks.

One last, quick point.  I think it’s important that the sexual violence in Richmond is labeled a hate crime.  It will be prosecuted differently, and it’s important for the (again!) visibility, to see that the powers that be are condemning prejudicial hate.  However.  I see rape – sexual violence as a whole, in fact – as a hate crime towards women.  It is the most egregious, violent arm of a system that devalues and degrades women and femininity – ‘rape culture’ – is the shorthand for that.  (Well, so is ‘patriarchy.’)  Need proof that we live in a rape culture?  I emptied my spam email folder as I was writing this post – in fact, directly after looking up the two articles that describe the hate crime in Richmond – and in it was an ad for penis enlargers.  “get huge to gang-rape her!” cried the subject header.  I feel sick again, just typing this.

Goodbye, Amazon

Amazon Bookstore Coop, the country’s oldest feminist bookstore, is going to close its doors at the end of the month.  The Midwest has a concentration of feminist bookstores – A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Women and Children First in Chicago, Broad Vocabulary used to be in Milwaukee – but Amazon’s been there the longest, and it’ll be sad to see them go.  The Minnesota Post has a nice article; and some blog posts.

This also means that I’m going to fly up there next week and kick off this oral history project!  I’ll plan to post thoughts and photos from Minneapolis (where I’ll be overlapping with the Berkshires Conference on the History of Women) and then to post some analysis after.

Identity Politics

I’ve been resisting this post. Everyone and their mother has written about the Clinton/Obama explosion, and the massive tensions around identity politics. I’m not all that excited about electoral politics, and especially around primary time, I feel profoundly cynical and disenfranchised.

However. The fracas about identity politics is particular in this situation. It is being pitted as the contest between race and gender. It’s being discussed as though either Clinton’s or Obama’s victory will vicariously denote the victory of one ‘minority’ over another, as though a defeat will signal the gold medal in the oppression olympics. Continue reading

mentoring

I’m involved in a feminist community which is very connected to the media industry (facilitated by the excellent Women, Action, and the Media conference), in which mentoring has been a big topic lately – to some extent for the whole group, and more specifically for me. Continue reading

where’d all the other white folks come from?

I walked home from work last week down Mission Street, and I was amazed at how many white faces I saw on the street – certainly more than there were last week.  Where’d they all come from?  They felt like intruders!  This is clearly ridiculous, coming from a white girl who first walked down Mission Street almost exactly a year ago.  But my first instinct was to regard them as outsiders who are ruining it for the rest of us, meaning the rest of us white folks who are already there.  Again, completely ridiculous.

It’s hard to face up to being an agent of gentrification on a daily basis – it makes me feel evil.   I know that I’m an active part of the process of gentrification.  I know that my presence paves the way for whitewashing and yuppies.  But I only make about 50% AMI (area median income) and I too need housing that’s safe and affordable.  I also make an effort to support local businesses, so that I give as well as take from the neighborhood.   Does that make a difference?  No, not really.  Would it end gentrification if I lived somewhere else?  Again, no, not really.  These things happen in aggregate, not individually – but there is no aggregate without a critical mass of individual decisions.  All things I know, but nothing that gives me a clear indication of how to be a positive force instead of a negative one.  This is a new struggle for me (I grew up in a state that is 96% white), and so maybe there’s something I’m missing.  Is there a solution I should be seeing?

How do you foster community while there’s a baby crying?

One of my jobs is at a community agency that serves mostly LGBTQ folks, where, among other things, I provide childcare at our drop-in center. The childcare space is off the lobby, and has a half-door that I usually leave open – like I did tonight, while I was in there with 4 children under the age of four. At one point, while we were all in the second room (with no access to the entrance door), the infant fell and started screaming bloody murder. I took her into the front room to calm her, and while she continued screaming, the other children wandered in to check out the action. Her cries also attracted the attention of someone else who was hanging out in the front lobby – a middle-aged man who came over to the half-door and kind of poked his head in. I barely made eye contact with this man, more intent on calming the screaming infant and getting the other kids back on track. So I turned away from the door and asked the other children to go back into the other room and find their snacks, and followed them in with the baby – who, distracted by the movement of the children, magically stopped crying.

I feel uneasy about how I acted toward the curious man tonight. My first priority as a childcare provider is for the kids’ well-being, which I accomplished by herding the kids into the back room (and also by not involving a stranger in an already-stressful situation.) And in the past, I’ve had strange characters invite themselves into the childcare, invading the children’s and my privacy. So I’m clear that I did the right thing tonight. What makes me uneasy is this: most of the folks that hang out in the lobby of this community agency are struggling with homelessness, mental illness, HIV infection, and other things that bring about social stigma. I’m sure that the clean, pretty mommies with their clean, pretty babies regularly shun these folks on the street, and I feel like I acted like the clean pretties tonight.

I know I didn’t act based on prejudice (I would have steered the children into the back room regardless of anyone being at the door), but part of being a community agency is supporting the people on the margins, not replaying the same stereotypes (i.e. middle-aged gay man as child molester) that harm these folks every day. It weighs on me that my actions came out looking like actions based on stereotype and prejudice.