Category Archives: gender police

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.

Are all Hollywood movies this bad?

I just finished watching Boondock Saints, because my sister said she loves it.  We have rather, uh, different taste, but I try to build bridges where I can, so I watched this movie with crossed fingers, hoping for a couple of jokes or something that we could share.  Unfortunately, I got nothing.  The plot made no sense, one of the main characters seemed to have no actual reason to be there, characterization was both overdone and patchy, jokes were tired, and the plot conventions were so patched-together that it bordered on post-modern pastiche.  But with that list, I could be talking about any Hollywood action flick.  What really stood out for me in this one was this fascinating, contradictory homoerotic homophobia.

The main cop (the big fancy smart one from the FBI, not one of the dinky small-town Boston donut-feeders) is gay.  However, at no less than two separate points in the movie does he insult the gay men around him by calling them, first, “fag,” and second, “fairy.”  Mattilda (a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore) has a lot to say about the imperatives of masculinity for gay men, so I’ll step off of that soapbox.  But the really special part of Boondock Saints is that it sets up a completely contradictory trilogy of male-male relationships.  So there are the Boston cops, who are straight-up homophobes, and whose homophobia is meant to be shared with the audience.  (There’s plenty of flouncing and opera from the FBI investigator.)  Then there’s Mr. FBI, who denigrates the despicable femininity of the gay men around him.  And THEN there’s the vigilante duo (which becomes, briefly, a trio), who share meaningful looks, save either other’s lives, spend all their time together, and show each other unwavering committment and – dare I say it? – love.  So really, what all of this is saying is that men should be (1) highly masculine (like the smart FBI cop, like the vigilante duo); (2) NOT GAY because ew; (3) be completely oriented towards their relationships with other men (indeed, the vigilante brothers never even actually speak to any women during the entire movie); and (4) somehow accomplish all of these things simultaneously.  No wonder the movie was all over the place – it was impossible to create coherent characters with that set of statutes.

I won’t even really get into how the movie imagined women (kill pimps because pimps are bad!  but sex workers are stupid sluttish whores who deserve to get beaten up!  but don’t touch their boobs when they pass out! but it’s totally justified to kill their johns because they are dirty and bad!).

The only saving grace was visual: the vigilante twins were cute as hell, and the Boston backdrop was wonderful.  But hell, did they butcher a Boston accent…