Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ain't I A Woman?

This past week, I had a wonderful opportunity to see Laverne Cox talk about her journey to womanhood at. "Ain't I a Woman?", a lecture held by the California Institute for Integral Studies.  First, I have to say, what a treat to have been able to attend this event.  Laverne Cox is truly a captivating speaker who keeps her audience engaged with a perfect mixture of wit, humor, honest outpouring of emotion, and sexy sass.  I am truly glad that I was able to attend this event as it gave me many good sources of inspiration for some of the work that I am taking on both within my coven and personally.

Theresa Sparks, director of the Human Rights Commission in SF, gave the introduction for Ms. Cox.  One thing I found interesting was the way in which this crowd, so vocally and viscerally, reacted (in both positive and negative ways) to things said during the entire lecture.  For example: when Ms. Sparks noted that Laverne had been on Katie Couric's show, a whole chorus of hisses and one very loud, "BITCH!" erupted from the audience.  I can certainly understand the anger at the way that Couric chose to focus on Ms. Cox's "transition", and I certainly understand that the trans* community is often targeted with such caustic, invasive, and de-humanizing kinds of questions like these. However, I question the reaction to hate with an expression of  more hate.  It's true that I, personally, do not have the experience of being trans* and many would point that out as a reason why I might not understand this reaction from the crowd (though not everyone in this crowd is trans* either). However, what Ms Cox says next, is what drives home this questioning of the crowd's reaction:

Laverne Cox's "Ain't I A Woman?" 
"I am not just one thing- neither are you.  It's important to claim the multiple intersections of my identity [because] we are in a state of emergency for people at the intersections of multiple identities."

I thought about this and the intersections of my own personality and identities.  Who I am is a woman, who is of color, whose sexuality is fluid in many respects, who is from a working class family, who is from an immigrant parent, who is pagan, who is so many different things... each of these things creates a certain amount of discrimination against me (some bring more than others).  When I think of the reaction of hatred in this light, and in consideration of the fact that we are in the state of emergency that Laverne makes note of, it makes me uncomfortable that rather than expressions of acknowledgement that people like Katie Couric need to be educated, that the crowd reacts with the same kind of hate/discrimination against a western world that does not, yet, understand and accept someone who is trans*.  And yet, even with all of this in mind, I cannot blame the trans* community for reacting this way, especially when you look at the statistics in how discrimination and violent crimes perpetrated against those who are trans* is so disproportionately high in comparison to those who are not.  How can the trans* community NOT react so when they are so continually violated personally and physically?

I felt that many of the most poignant parts of Ms. Cox's presentation came through in the moments where she related anecdotes from her childhood, "The kids said I acted like a girl - whatever that means because as we ALL know, girls act ALL kinds of ways!" Laverne's mother, a single parent and a teacher, often working 3 jobs to support her children, was a woman who made sure that her children knew that education was key to their having a successful life.  However, Laverne's mother struggled with the identity of her child, as so many parts of society were trying to mark Laverne's self as being "wrong". When Laverne told the stories of how often she would be bullied at school or chased home from school by those threatening her with harm, she relates something that her mother told her at the time, "What're you doing to make them treat you that way and why aren't you fighting back?"  This is the kind of shaming that sticks with a child, creating a trauma around it that can be dangerous when so deeply internalized. It is dangerous because it is so difficult to ever fully heal from.

It isn't just our parents, though, that deliver wounds of shame to our children.  Laverne's third grade teacher has a conversation with Laverne's mother, "If something isn't done, he'll end up in a dress in New Orleans!"  This "expression of concern", ever so misguided, results in Laverne being sent to therapy to snap her out of her gender identity issues. Laverne's mother, however, puts an end to all of this when the therapist recommends injecting Laverne, only a child at the time, with testosterone.  I worry, for a time, that this story is going to turn out like the stories of so many others who are trans* - that Laverne might lose the relationship with her mother because of her gender non-conformity.  But as the lecture goes on, Laverne points out that even the toughest conversations, when conducted with love and from a place of love, those tough conversations can be had and can be survived.  In her case, Laverne's mother, did face the tough conversations with her daughter.  Though the relationship between Laverne and her mother was not always an easy one and it had its roughness when Laverne decided to fully make her transition, now the relationship with her mother is a strong and loving one where her mother is now the first to correct others who use incorrect pronouns to refer to Laverne.
"If we are serious about ending bullying by our children, we have to look at issues of gender.  The reality of our lives defies the gender binary model.  This system cannot stand if each and every one of us, decides today to not be the gender police." - Laverne Cox.
Laverne talks about going through puberty and realizing that she is attracted to other men - her education in the church teachers her that this is a sin.  As a teen, she felt her Grandmother (the matriarch of their family) was watching her from the heavens and was disappointed: Laverne's thoughts of attraction to men were a sin in the church that her family was so involved in.  So Laverne swallowed a bottle of pills and went to sleep.  But when she awoke the next morning, she vowed to make her life what SHE wanted it to be.  She became VP of the student council, a straight A student, and eventually went on scholarship to a high school for the arts and was accepted to Marymount as a dance major. And though she didn't add it specifically during her talk, I would say that she holds true to this commitment even now as she's an accomplished actress, speaker, and activist.  Impressive.

Another anecdote that Laverne describes is one where she is cat called.  This story speaks to me as a woman since we are all, so often, harassed like this in public.  The Patriarchy teaches us that this kind of treatment of women is to be commended - we idolize it in the media, in music, in our social outlets: how brave a man is for yelling out at a woman passing him on the street, "Sexy woman, come here/give me your number so I can have sex with you!" It's objectifying at best and threatening at worst.  Cat calling, Laverne says, is not affirming - it's misogynistic, and I completely agree with her on this.  She goes on to describe how this cat calling incident turns into one where the cat caller realizes that she's trans* and begins to call her out as a man.  "Calling a trans* woman a man is an act of violence,"  Laverne says.  The group of men she passes (who happen to be African American) begin to verbally harass her and her would-be suitor turns violent as he kicks her when she passes (to the congratulatory motions of his companions).  The police do not consider this assault as the kick results in no lasting physical in jury - it's just harassment and it will go unpunished.

One thing Laverne points out, that I find an interesting point and is one that she fully acknowledges could be seen as a very incendiary thought: most of the bullying she has experienced, has been by black men.  She noted that she doesn't think that this is because black men are more transphobic, per se.  Laverne points out the violent treatment of black men in the history of American society as the reason why more black men react to her in a violent manner.  "We emasculate black men," she says and briefly describes how it was not uncommon for a lynched black man to have his genitals cut off or otherwise mutilated. This, she believes, leads to the subconscious reaction in many African Americans to her presence and choice to make a physical transition to being a woman.  I think, still, this ties back to how a patriarchal society controls those within it's sphere - destroy the matriarchs, the women, and degrade the men such that they have no other choice but to join forces with their oppressors lest they fear being butchered (whether that butchering is physical or emotional). It all plays into the "power through fear" hierarchy that patriarchy promotes.

In the moments when Laverne speaks of the oppression and harassment that she's experienced in her life, moments where you can see and feel her fear of what the world might have done to her in that moment, I notice that there is a reaction from the crowd, subtle, but definitely there.  Many of the people in this hall have experiences similar and many have experienced worse - they too are raw in their fear and you can feel it in the whispers and glances that make their way around the room.  But here, unlike in the world outside, this shared fear is ok to express: we are, none of us, alone in knowing what that moment feels like.  It is that moment we feel fear that a person may perpetrate violence against you because you are a woman or because you express your gender in a way that does not conform.  Each of us knows that quickening of a heartbeat, that feeling in the pit of your stomach, the racing breath as you try to run away and the silent prayers to the powers that be to please keep you safe.  Here, we know we are safe and can be vulnerable - Laverne shows us we can be both vulnerable and stand-up strong.
"For any trans* person to stand and proclaim their identity is a revolutionary act in a world that tells us we should not exist." - Laverne Cox

"Self acceptance is really the key.  It's said of
people who live wholeheartedly, that their
worthiness is not on the line.  We need policies
in place to support and address the lives
and worthiness of trans* people but this
 is also an inside job: self acceptance."
During the Q&A session, Laverne is asked about what suggestions she has for trans* people working as prostitutes who want to find a way out.  "It's really important that we stop stigmatizing sex work," she says, to the rousing approval of the audience.  "There's a whole world out there saying we shouldn't exist and then there are those who are paying money to be with us. Sex work, for too long, has been the only option for us but trans* people need to know this is not the only option for us."

At one point, the Q&A host, shifts uncomfortably in his chair and prefaces the question he's reading with a note that he really doesn't want to ask this question and he's sorry that it's in there to ask (questions were collected from the audience during the lecture portion of the program):  "Have you ever wished you were born female?" she's asked. The audience hisses, big time in response to yet another, invasive, and de-humanizing question. Laverne handles with with grace, "No.  I've always known that I was born to be who I am and doing the work I am doing. THIS is God's plan.  I feel anointed." Laverne talks about how in many cultures, trans* people were not only revered but often were the shamans of their culture.  "We are a threat to the hetero-normative culture because we are anointed!"

A gradeschool-aged child, Soleil, tells Laverne that they are gender non-conforming and expresses frustration at the obstacles and bullying that they go through just to use the staff bathroom in the school office - things that come at all corners for this child.  Laverne invites Soleil up and we see that the child can't be more than 7 or 8 years old.  Laverne reassures Soleil that they are beautiful and loved and that it is the parents and teachers that should have to deal with such heavy issues about how to handle bathroom use for non-gender conforming students, not the child themselves.  The child should be free to be the child that they are and that it's up to parents and teachers to help end the kind of gender bullying that someone like Soleil experiences.  It was a touching moment - Soleil was a bit frightened by the exuberance of the crowd reaching out to send love and support and Laverne handled it wonderfully, approaching the child with understanding and love.  It was a moment that left many in the audience in tears both for the shared moment of sending love to an innocent and in reflection on their own paths where they may have so needed a moment like this.  I hope, as do many here, that in the future, there will be more support for children, like Soleil, in the form of people like Laverne - trailblazers who help carve the way to equal rights and protections.

Throughout her talk, Laverne ties in themes from so many feminist authors and activists.  But it's how she speaks of Sojourner Truth that resonates with me the most.  Laverne notes that she shares a birthday with Sojourner Truth, "Same day...not the same year.  I ain't that old! Wouldn't that be a helluva moisturizer?!" she quips.  Humor aside, it's when she speaks of Truth's experience at a university lecture where the men attempt to call her out as a man.  Truth, undeterred, simply rips open her shirt to expose her breasts, "Ain't I a woman?" she asks them.  Skeptics and oppressors should not have to be soothed with such violating displays, even if the shock value is enough to turn their minds.  Persistence, consistency, and love are our greatest tools for turning the minds of others.  One day, because of people like Laverne, none of us will have to face questions about our self-identities and acceptance will be the rule. Until then, we need to keep having the tough discussions, born from a place of love, so that we can achieve this acceptance that shelters all.

-Q'Desha Yansumi Diwata, High Priestess of Musical Ecstasy, CAYA Coven.