25 December 2007

Shaming The Brotherhood (Part One)

The Late Joseph F. Beam

Two decades ago, I took part in an historic event. I was one of thirty-five writers who contributed to a book called Brother To Brother: New Writings By Black Gay Men. This book was the follow-up to In The Life, a groundbreaking collection of Black Gay prose and poetry published in 1986. The editor of that first volume, Joseph Fairchild Beam, was laying the groundwork for Brother To Brother when he suddenly, tragically chose to commit suicide. The unfinished project was then taken up by his grieving mother, Dorothy Beam, and by Essex Hemphill, a highly-respected poet and activist.

I submitted my poems "Comfort" and "Jailbait" to Joseph Beam just prior to his death, so I don't know whether it was he or Essex Hemphill who chose them for the final manuscript. Whatever the case, I was altogether thrilled to learn that I'd made the cut. I had the honor of seeing my name listed on the contents page with those of seasoned scholars and artists like Assotto Saint, Melvin Dixon, Ron Simmons, Issac Julien and Marlon Riggs. Brother To Brother was lavishly praised in the Gay press upon its release in 1991, and went on to win a Lambda Literary Award. Its critical and commercial success inspired subsequent anthologies devoted to writings by Asian and Hispanic Gay men.

Fast forward to a year ago. I was contacted by Lisa Moore, the owner of Washington DC-based Redbone Press. Redbone is one of this country's main outlets for LGBT writing by people of color. Lisa recognized Brother To Brother as a milestone publication, and was determined to get it back in print. She painstakingly tracked down the 35 contributors (and in some cases, their survivors; several, including Essex Hemphill, have since died) and got from all but one signed permission to republish their work.

This month, Brother To Brother hit bookstores again in a fresh binding, with 95% of its original contents intact and new contributions by Moore, journalist Chuck Tarver, and Jafari Sinclaire Allen, an instructor from the faculty of the University of Texas. It's a classy reprint and a proud testament to Lisa Moore's persistence and hard work. When you want to get something done, put a Black woman in charge!

The reappearance of this literary triumph should prompt nothing but celebration, and for the most part, it does. Unfortunately, there's a shameful stain on the pages of the refurbished Brother To Brother! The stain didn't have to be there; it could've easily been avoided. It's there as a result of reckless insensitivity and a misguided attempt to appear "cutting-edge". Its presence speaks to how minority groups often allow majority group ignorance to creep into their thought process!

It's especially bothersome when an academician falls prey to ignorance! I'm talking about Dr. Jafari Sinclaire Allen. I'm talking about the adolescent love for the Q-word he displayed in his introduction to the 2007 edition. At the climax of his essay praising the rise of Black Gay literature, his rhetoric suddenly became insulting:

. . . what do we make of the fact that there are now nearly as many Black queer (sic) academics as there are Black queer (sic) writers and artists? . . . it is clear that the new, brilliant work of Black Queer (sic) Studies . . . located in the queer (sic) section of Blackademia, the Colored section of queer (sic) theory, and in small pockets of various disciplines, is still inappropriately and inadequately matched to the task of substaining liberatory Black queer (sic) praxis.

Dr. Allen's usage would be ludicrous if it didn't resonate with such a strong Jim Crow sensibility! "Queer section?" "Colored section?" I couldn't believe my eyes.  I said out loud: Is this dude for real? A wave of nausea overcame me when I finished reading his ill-conceived outburst. It both saddened and enraged me that he had not only called all the Brother To Brother contributors "queers", but also every other Black writer and/or artist who happened to be Gay, Pansexual or Transsexual.

I don't blame Lisa Moore for not editing out his degrading language. Regardless of what she may have thought about it, I know she didn't want to censor anyone. Lisa wanted both old and new contributors to express themselves freely in their own words. Therefore, I place the blame squarely on the one who expressed himself in such an offensive manner! Freedom of speech should never be free of accountability for what's been said. After obtaining Dr. Allen's email address from Lisa, I made my feelings known to him in a message dated 6 December 2007. Here's an abridged version of it:

Sir, when you talk about your same-gender-loving brothers and sisters, please take care what language you employ! I was highly alarmed to see you repeatedly refer to Black Lesbians and Gay men as "queers". To say that I was insulted doesn't even begin to convey the depth of feeling I have about what you did. I regret that you chose to take something positive and turn it into a vehicle for ignorance. If that sounds harsh, I'm sorry, but I want you to realize what harm you're doing.

Words have power; if they didn't, then neither you nor I would be writers, would we? Depending on the context in which they're used, certain words have the power to either educate and uplift, or denigrate and confuse. I often wonder why, when it comes to epithets like "queer" and "d*ke", the sensitivity of LesBiGay scholars like yourself seems to evaporate into thin air? I'm sure you'd never, ever casually refer to Jews as "k*kes", to Latinos as "greasers" or to Black folk as "n*ggers" in an academic context. Yet, you've somehow convinced yourself that it's empowering and progressive to saddle Gay and Transpeople with sexual slurs, and you fling them around like they're going out of style!

"Shaming The Brotherhood" concludes with Part Two.

24 December 2007

Shaming The Brotherhood (Part Two)

The Late Essex Hemphill

My letter continued:

Do you know what "queer" means, sir? It means abnormal, sick, aberrant and wrong. It is not a synonym for "different"! The word has a pronounced negative connotation, and contrary to what you may believe, that connotation hasn't been diminished by casual use. "Queer" is not the kind of name to hang around the necks of people who suffer disproportionately from internalized shame. It reinforces the pariah status we try so hard to shake off, both in the public mind and our own minds.

Also keep in mind that this word is not indigenous to the Black community; it's White idiom. In fact, a 2002 survey of Black Lesbians and Gay men by the NGLTF revealed that we overwhelmingly reject "queer" as an identifier. To try and shove that word down our throats is to engage in a hostile act. Are you a friend or a foe? I think it's safe to assume you're a friend, but given the language you use, it's hard to tell!

We surely don't have to pick up on every trend White Gay folk initiate, and we should purposefully avoid dumb-ass trends like "queering" ourselves. Too many times in the past, I've been called ugly names by Black men. I simply won't tolerate it anymore! Where is a Black Gay man to turn when even his own brothers attack him with insults? Sir, I would appreciate an apology.

I'm still waiting for that apology. Dr. Allen hasn't yet seen fit to contact me, and I doubt that he ever will. Looks like I was wrong about him being a friend! Well, It's not the first time I've given someone the benefit of doubt only to be disappointed later.

Well, there's going to be an apology today, even if Jafari Sinclaire Allen won't be the one who offers it!. I'm going to apologize on his behalf. I apologize to my fellow Brother To Brother contributors. I apologize to the Black LGBT community. I apologize to all of us who aren't enlightened enough to realize we deserve an apology. And I'm not being sarcastic, either!

I truly am sorry that Dr. Allen thinks it's clever to insult Gay identity. I'm sorry that he has such a strong need to identify with his oppressors. I'm sorry that he wants to give our oppressors more power over us. I'm sorry that he wants to give them control over our language. I'm sorry that he chooses to reinforce prejudice instead of disable it. I'm sorry that he thinks LGBT folk should claim the filthy trash our enemies fling at us! I'm sorry that he wants to shove every Lesbian, Gay, Pansexual and Transsexual person of color into a lavender box labeled "queer" and slam down the lid!

Please forgive him, Lord, because the man doesn't know what he's doing. And while you're at it, please forgive me for being so naive! I thought everybody involved with Brother To Brother was interested in uplifting Black Gay men. I thought we were united in a desire to break the shackles of ignorance, validate our life experiences, express our shared pain, and speak truth to power. I didn't anticipate that some of us would want to perpetuate the lies of the powerful. I didn't realize that some Black Gay men would see themselves through heterosexist eyes, and talk about themselves with hetero-fascist tongues!

Why didn't I realize that? Wasn't the evidence right there in 1991, on the pages of Brother To Brother? I ask myself today, had I ever really read Reginald T. Jackson's heartbreaking essay "The Absence Of Fear" before? Jackson wrote:

We must disarm the word "f*ggot" in order to move closer to our true selves. Whether we like it or not, we are the f*ggots we were cruelly called in grammar school . . . we have to endow "f*ggot" with alternative meanings that empower us . . . I'm willing to be judged and called names because I am, at the very least, a f*ggot, and that's all right. In fact, it's the way I want it . . .

As I said before . . . heartbreaking! Given such a twisted notion of empowerment, why should I be surprised now when Jafari Sinclaire Allen denigrates Gay identity so gleefully? Why should I be surprised when I turn on Pacifica Radio as I did yesterday morning, and hear a young Gay activist of color attacking "queers" who want to do mainstream things like marry and serve openly in the US military? Why should I be surprised when prominent Black Lesbians like Pam Spaulding and Irene Monroe refuse to even consider the possibility that their routine use of sexual slurs might have a corrosive effect on the psyche? I should know by now that the oppressor has programmed us to marginalize ourselves and undermine our own equality struggle. I should know by now how successful that programming has been!

Well, I may be naïve, but I'm not suicidal! Anybody expecting me to bond with other Black Gay folk over derogatory names is one brick short of a load!  Stuffed Animal don't roll that way!  Wicked epithets like "n*gger," "b*tch", "hoe", "f*ggot", "bulldagger", "d*ke" and "queer" are murder weapons! They target the intellect, the self-image and the soul. What "alternative meaning" can you give to an instrument of death? How does it "empower" you to aim it at yourself? It's impossible! You can place a murder weapon in a vase, spray it with perfume and stick blossoms down the barrel, but it's still a murder weapon, dammit!

When will we ever wake up to the fact that we're playing with lethal force when we toss these slurs around? We act like thugs who terrorize their own communities with illegal firearms; just like they do, we subject one another to drive-by shootings! The only difference is that we kill with insults instead of with bullets. Insults filled with internalized shame!

A brotherhood based on shame does not make for strong family ties. On the contrary, it destroys a family. If you doubt that statement, just remember the recent ENDA debacle, where Transfolk, the ones we felt most ashamed of, got kicked to the curb like yesterday's garbage!

Shame on the peddlers of stigma! Shame on the monkey-see-monkey-do mentality that facilitates sale of their disgraceful product! Shame on Jafari Sinclaire Allen and all Gay people of color who try to impose abnormality their brethren! Shame on academics of any orientation or ethnicity who serve up intellectually-sanctioned marginalization to Gay people! As Pete Seeger so mournfully sang in his lyric to "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" . . . when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

05 December 2007

Gay Pride: A Place We've Never Been?

In a January 2007 essay titled "Doin' Time In Gay Man's Hell, Parts One and Two", I described how centuries of criminalization and ostracism had infected Gay people with a deep sense of shame. I wrote:

Thirty years ago, there was nothing like the affirmation of LGBT identity that we see today. Society taught us that our love was illegitimate and perverse, and like impressionable children, we accepted that teaching. The Stonewall rebellion notwithstanding, we had very little self-esteem. Closeted or not, we were willing to perpetuate a clandestine culture born of oppression and shame.

It was a separate culture centered around disreputable dive bars, dangerous wooded areas, reeking public restrooms and sleazy Adult book/video shops. Unfortunately, there are a lot of LGBT folk who still think of these venues as being the center of "Gay culture"! Worse, they think Lesbians, Gay men and Transfolk should confine their leisure activities to such venues.

I got a painful reminder of this when I recently picked up a booklet called Out In Canada; distributed to Gay businesses in the United States, this handout is aimed at promoting LGBT tourism north of the border. Of course, you'd expect such a publication to highlight places of potential interest to Gay tourists. What I didn't expect is how limited and narrow that interest was perceived to be by the Out In Canada editorial staff!

As an example of what I mean, here's an excerpt from the booklet, directed at American Lesbians who plan to visit the Canadian province of Québec:

To make sure I was up-to-date, I asked friends what "d*ke places" I should (go to) . . . it seems that Toronto d*kes tend to patronize Straight bars and restaurants; comfort, cost and quality seem to be more important than queerness (sic).

OK, let's imagine that I'm a Lesbian reading this. (I look like a butch Lesbian, so that shouldn't be hard to do!) This writer assumes that I only want to visit places in Québec where Lesbians are known to congregate. The writer also implies that there's something odd about Lesbians patronizing mainstream bars and restaurants popular with Straight people, and that as a rule, Lesbians shouldn't spend their leisure time in establishments that are comfortable, affordable and pleasant. Why not? Evidently because Lesbians are "d*kes", and "d*kes" don't rate such luxuries! A patently offensive idea, don't you think? In this next excerpt, the writer solicits perspective on the local scene from a Gay Québecoise:

Alison Kemper, a Lesbian activist, says . . . "we don't go to queer places, but cheap ones . . . restaurants that are used to families with kids are used to queer (families) . . . . my personal favorite, Golden Thai, is on Church Street, the main queer drag . . . it's rare to go there without seeing other d*kes . . .

Reading this quote, you'd think it was unusual for restaurants to let Lesbians dine within their walls! I know there've been isolated cases of restaurants refusing service to Gay people, but that certainly isn't the norm. Yet Ms. Kemper makes it sound like I'm risking discrimination by going to popular cafés! She stresses that it's safe to patronize Golden Thai because it's located on the "queer drag", and that I'll feel comfortable because "other d*kes" will be there with their "queer" families. She also characterizes Canadian Lesbians as unique in their preference for inexpensive eateries, thus playing into the myth about Gay people being an élite, well-to-do class. Excuse me, but when have LGBT folk not patronized cheap restaurants? Most of us aren't rich!

I live in the midwest, the so-called Bible belt, and I often see women and children eating at chain restaurants like Red Lobster and Denny's . . . no men in the group. Sometimes it's pretty obvious that the women are Lesbian couples, but nobody ever raises a fuss over it. If it's no big deal in Independence, Missouri, why would it be an issue in Canada, where Gay weddings are legal? And who makes a habit of announcing their sexual orientation when the hostess shows them to their table? Nobody I know!

There's no reason why a Lesbian couple and their children shouldn't feel free to dine anywhere in Québec they want to. Why does the writer seem uncomfortable with the concept of Gay and Straight folk eating together in public? If the objective is to have a good meal, what difference does it make if you're the only Gay couple in the dining room? These excerpts leave the distinct impression that Lesbians should avoid mainstream venues; I wonder, was there a valid reason for leaving that impression, or is it just Out In Canada's editorial position that Lesbians belong in "d*ke places"?

Farther along, the writer talks about a venue in Toronto where same-gender couple dancing is welcome:

. . . not a queer-only location, the Gladstone Hotel functions as a hotel, bar, meeting place and entertainment venue . . . the Gladstone also holds . . . a queer midweek dance night.

Once again, there's a distinct odor of separatism in the air! Granted, LGBT folk should feel free to go to the Gladstone Hotel if they like . . . but for "queer midweek dance night"? Doesn't that remind you of John Waters' movie Hairspray, and "Colored People Day" on the Corny Collins show?

Why would any self-respecting Lesbian want to attend an event like this? To show how badly she wants to dance at the Gladstone? To make the hotel's activity staff think they're doing Gay people a favor? Why isn't same-gender couple dancing allowed every night? What's wrong with LesBiGay couples sharing the dance floor with Straight couples? It's been happening for years at Gay dance clubs, and the world hasn't come to an end!

Later for this kind of incremental liberalism! It's insulting. When LGBT folk go out on the town for a good time, there shouldn't be any Jim Crow stigma attached to it!

Another supposed mecca for Lesbians (evidently a "queer-only location" this time) is a club known as Goodhandy's:

Goodhandy's bills itself as Toronto's first truly Pansexual playground . . . (it) provides an often sexualized party atmosphere. Fridays are the night for . . . queer women . . . it can get downright sexy and dirty, so be prepared!

Why would the writer assume that, as a Lesbian, I would want to go dancing at a club where people act out sexually? And am I correct to assume that Lesbian dance partners aren't welcome at Goodhandy's on any night other than Friday? Gender-segregated dancing on designated nights is no better than what the Gladstone Hotel does! If a venue doesn't welcome me and my kind all the time, then I don't consider myself welcome there anytime. I'd much rather go someplace where the gender of couples on the dance floor isn't an issue. I'd also rather dance where club patrons don't feel free to paw me!

Evidently, the writer of this piece thinks Lesbians should be satisfied with crumbs flung at them from a sexist table. She (he?) also seems to think what Lesbians traveling in Canada most want to do is buy sex toys!  I didn't know a woman had to leave the USA in order to find them!

Out On The Street is your one-stop destination for rainbow paraphernalia . . . a large variety of lube and dildos are all available here . . . those looking for a more sexual shopping adventure should head to one of my two favorite sex stores . . . Good For Her (offers) toys, videos and books (and) is focused on women's sexual pleasure.

Can you think of any legitimate mainstream travel magazine that would single out a lube and dildo shop as an essential sightseeing destination???!!! As if that weren't bad enough, read this excerpt from another Out In Canada article called "Seven Reasons To Say 'Oui' To Québec City":

To say Le Drague is Québec's only Gay bar is true and false . . . it's more like four bars in one . . . Base Three (is) their butch guy/leather zone. It's a cool space utilizing sexy mannequins in very creative ways. The 'pees de résistance' is the upstairs washroom, where six naked mannequins surround a bathtub . . . you pee into a hole in the mannequin's back, and, well, use your imagination . . . this spot sees plenty of cruise 'n' grope!

As they say in France . . . dégoutant! If you still haven't got the message as to what kind of tourism this booklet encourages, elsewhere in the handout the editors provide a few language tips to help you navigate through French Canadian territory:

A few key French terms: Penis = bout. F*ck/Have sex = bourrer. Underwear = calbombe. F*cked-up/Messed-up = f*cké.

Rude French Canadian slang for tourists whose purpose in visiting the country is sexual cruising, fetish play and getting stoned out of their minds! And who else but the Gay tourist would want to prioritize such activities?

Call me "politically correct" if you like, but I found the tone of this booklet extremely heterosexist!  If an uninformed Straight person (i. e. most Straight people) were reading this copy, he would have his anti-Gay prejudices reinforced big-time! The words "queer", "homo" and "d*ke" are peppered liberally throughout the text. The writers portray Lesbians and Gay men as deviant human beings whose families are "queer", who know they shouldn't go where normal folks go, who are predisposed to depravity, and who are bent on sex tourism. Segregated dancing . . . a tourist draw? A bar bathroom, cited as a must-visit locale? Essential French phrases, all sex-related? I don't know about you, but this kind of travel writing doesn't exactly make me want to buy a plane ticket and pack my luggage!

The editors and writers who put Out In Canada together obviously suffer from a Pervert Mentality. It shows in their product! Their best intentions got compromised by their own internalized shame. They sat down at their keyboards meaning to write Gay-friendly articles, but they ended up creating a flyer that drips with barely concealed hetero-bigotry. They didn't think about what harm they were doing!

Without thinking, they habitually referred to Lesbians and Gay men with derogatory names. Without thinking, they sent a message that Lesbians and Gay men don't belong in the mainstream and are better off sticking with their own kind. Without thinking, they directed Lesbian and Gay tourists to segregated venues. Without thinking, they played up the stereotype of Lesbians and Gay men as a promiscuous and depraved people. Without thinking, they told LGBT readers to come to Canada, have a good time, but don't forget, you're still abnormal!

As I surf the Gay blogosphere and sample Gay media, I am disturbed more often than not. I find that a majority of us write and say denigrating things about ourselves and each another without thinking. Isn't it high time we started thinking? Thinking seriously about the poisonous language we love to use. Thinking seriously about the consequences of clinging to stereotypes. Thinking seriously about rising above juvenile obsessions with sex. Thinking seriously about assuming our rightful place in mainstream society!

A person who answers to names like "queer" and "d*ke" is marginalized in his or her own mind, and a person who calls his or her LGBT brethren by such names is identifying with the oppressor! Neither person has liberation as a goal. Both people have shame as an underlying motivator!

If we don't find a way to crawl out from under our collective burden of internalized shame, we'll never progress any farther. We'll never succeed at making this world a good place for LGBT folk to live in! We've got to believe ourselves deserving of mainstream acceptance before we can achieve it.

From my point of view, there isn't much daylight between hetero-fascists' perception of us and the way many of us perceive ourselves! Could it be that Gay Pride is a place we've never been? I'm beginning to think so. I pray that we finally have the courage go there someday.