By Arturo R. García
Top image from Transposes, by Dylan Edwards
By Arturo R. García
The documentary Women and the Word would be worth spotlighting any day, but it’s an especially good time to consider it on Spirit Day. The all-woman project spotlights a group of queer women artists as they hit the road for a series of shows that, as the trailer promises, has “an energy, an attitude, a swag, that’s never been seen before in literary art.”
Filmmakers Andrea Boston and Sekiya Dorsett’s follow visual artist Elizah Turner, musicians Be Steadwell and Jonquille “SolSis” Rice and poet (also known as Dappho the Flow-Er), T’ai Freedom Ford, as well as executive producer and “tour mastermind” Jade Foster, who called the nine-city series of shows “The Revival,” after a 2009 gathering that gave Foster the idea to put it together as a showcase and safe space for queer women of color. The film also features interviews with Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Kim Katrin Crosby, and members of the Earth Pearl Collective, among others.
The project is also currently raising funds on Kickstarter to cover the final $15,000 in post-production costs, an all-or-nothing campaign that ends on November 12.
“A successful Kickstarter campaign is critical, not only for the creation of our film, but for the advancement of queerwomen of color,” Dorsett says. “Our beautiful stories should be included in the cultural discussion and shared by members of our community and beyond. We exist. And our voices must be heard.”
By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson
It isn’t until the end of director Marta Cunningham’s new HBO documentary film Valentine Road, the gut-wrenching chronicle of the 2008 classroom murder of 15 year-old Lawrence King, a homeless gay youth of color, that the viewer learns the significance of the film’s name. Valentine Road is the location of King’s Oxnard, California grave, the final resting place of a caring, intelligent child whose death became a lightning rod for a racist homophobic heterosexist nation ill-equipped to see much less affirm King’s personhood. Place is a central character in this film, which dubiously frames King and white working class “boy next door” murderer Brandon McInerney as bookends in an American tragedy set in multicultural Oxnard. The film opens with a collage of the moments leading up to King’s execution in a classroom at E.O. Green Middle School. We are treated to the sterile interior of the school, the gray tyranny of the computer lab where King was shot at point blank range, the blood-soaked floor that cradled King’s head after the slaying. Throughout the film King is represented in still photos, in the blurred fleeting footage of a campus security camera, in whimsical stylized animation that attempts to capture King’s transition from Larry to Letisha/Latonya (which friends say was her preferred identity before her death). The recollections of schoolmates, teachers, social workers and a foster parent touch on her fragility and kind-heartedness, yet in many of these testimonies her emerging identity is reduced to the “ungainly” performance of “cross-dressing”, crudely applied makeup, and awkward high heel boots. It is clear that King’s “inappropriate” gender expression was construed by the school as an embarrassment, a behavior problem that school administrators sought to contain with vapid compliance memos which downplayed the culture of structural violence against LGBTQ youth.
While King’s narrative plays out in fragments, the narrative of 14 year-old McInerney is vividly nuanced. The product of a violent home, McInerney’s drug-addicted mother and homicidal gun-toting father appear as deeply flawed yet loving. When he is cross-examined after the murder by a police detective he is treated with dignity, respect, and sensitivity. When his case is taken up by two “juvenile justice” advocate attorneys enraged that he may be tried as an adult, the female half of the duo expresses her devotion and undying love for his so-called beautiful spirit.
In this regard Valentine Road ably, perhaps inadvertently, captures how the criminalization of people of color shapes American presumptions of white innocence. Despite McInerney’s apparent fondness for Nazi paraphernalia and use of racial slurs to refer to black classmates, prosecutors dropped a hate crime charge against him. His defense team trotted out the repugnant “gay panic” defense (which was prohibited for use in criminal trials under a 2006 California law named after Gwen Araujo, a transgender teen who was brutally murdered in 2002) egregiously portraying McInerney as a victim of King’s unrelenting sexual harassment. Unable to reach a unanimous verdict, the jury in McInerney’s first trial deadlocked. Some of the jurors voted for voluntary manslaughter and others for first-degree or second-degree murder. After the mistrial we see telling footage of white female jurors expressing sympathy for McInerney over pastries in a spacious suburban kitchen. In their minds King was clearly the aggressor; the dark sexual predator whose moral deviance sent the troubled young white boy into a (justifiably) murderous tailspin. Indeed, at least one of the jurors mailed prosecutors Religious Right propaganda excoriating the “abomination” of King’s sexuality and the injustice of “poor Brandon’s” plight. And in a show of motherly solidarity, the white female jurors even display “justice for Brandon” slogans.
In order for white hetero-normativity and heterosexism to flourish, violent masculinity must be fiercely protected by white women. The recurring theme of straight white innocence is one of the film’s most powerful subtexts. At every turn McInerney is humanized and contextualized; redemptively positioned as a son, boyfriend, brother, lost boy, conflicted student and victim of abject circumstances that were beyond his control. As per the national narratives of so many young white high profile murderers—from the Columbine shooters to Newtown killer Adam Lanza—we are carefully guided through McInerney’s world and made to “understand” his emotional turmoil and “damaged” psyche. While McInerney’s family members testify to his horrible upbringing Cunningham does not include interviews (save for one that was conducted with a short term foster parent) from King’s family members, guardians or adoptive parents, Gregory and Dawn King. The film never attempts to place King’s homelessness, her foster care status, biracial cultural background and history of sexual abuse in the broader context of systemic disenfranchisement of queer and trans youth of color. We learn from a classmate’s passing reference that King was “part-black” and that she strongly identified with and perhaps saw herself as an African American girl. Yet the implications of her biracial ancestry are never seriously explored with respect to the jury’s biases.
Aside from Dawn Boldrin, the instructor (who was subsequently terminated) who attempted to counsel and mentor King through her transition, many of the adults at the school policed and pathologized her behavior. Throughout the film, King’s queer and trans Latino classmates comment on the impact of her murder and how it influenced their own courageous struggles for empowerment. In one of the film’s most glaring oversights, it is unclear what, if anything, the school and district did in the aftermath of King’s murder to address the culture of institutionalized racism, homophobia and transphobia that contributed to her death.
After the outrage of the mistrial, McInerney eventually received a 21 year sentence for murdering King. He will be released at the age of 39. One of the final scenes shows him rejoicing in juvenile detention with his family after receiving his high school diploma—a beneficiary of the criminal justice system’s devaluation of black queer and transgender lives. Despite the advocacy of Larry King’s friends there is still no monument to or recognition of King at E.O. Green Middle School.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of the newly released Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.
From “How Society Shames Men Attracted to Trans Women and How This Affects Our Lives”
This anti-trans woman ideology is harmful, misogynistic and pervasive and travels way beyond the comments section of gossip blogs, and as Sylvia Rivera once said, “I will no longer put up with this shit.”
I am a trans woman. My sisters are trans women. We are not secrets. We are not shameful. We are worthy of respect, desire, and love. As there are many kinds of women, there are many kinds of men, and many men desire many kinds of women, trans women are amongst these women. And let’s be clear: Trans women are women.
The shame that society attaches to these men, specifically attacking their sexuality and shaming their attraction, directly affects trans women. It affects the way we look at ourselves. It amplifies our body-image issues, our self-esteem, our sense of possibility, of daring for greatness, of aiming for something or somewhere greater. If a young trans woman believes that the only way she can share intimate space with a man is through secret hookups, bootycalls or transaction, she will be led to engage in risky sexual behaviors that make her more vulnerable to criminalization, disease and violence; she will be led to coddle a man who takes out his frustrations about his sexuality on her with his fists; she will be led to question whether she’s worthy enough to protect herself with a condom when a man tells her he loves her; she will be led to believe that she is not worthy of being seen, that being seen heightens her risk of violence therefore she must hide who she is at all costs in order to survive.
By Guest Contributor Pier Dominguez
It is perhaps a queer time to be writing about Whitney Houston. After all, she died over one year ago and the many memoirs and remembrances that trickled out since then–on television, magazines, newspapers and countless blog posts–have been replaced by fresher news in the celebrity gossip industrial complex. But nostalgia has its own rhythms.
It wasn’t until I saw Oprah Winfrey’s recent interview with Whitney’s mother about her memoir, in which she discussed Whitney’s relationship with Robyn Crawford that I thought about Whitney again. And it wasn’t until I heard James Blunt’s sad, poignant tribute to Whitney, “Miss America,” that the nostalgia led to more thinking.
I remembered that, at one time, I had been a pretty invested Whitney Houston fan. I wasn’t around for “How Will I Know” Whitney because I wasn’t old enough to follow pop music and she wasn’t a big star in Colombia—where I’m from–in those early stages. I missed her 80s pop princess moment, in which she brilliantly continued Diana Ross’ lineage of black feminine beauty and glamour and combined it with cheerfuly melodic Dionne Warwick-style pop music. She wasn’t part of my pop culture landscape either as the leather-jacketed, Babyface-produced, R&Bish “bad girl” of “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” My initial interest in Whitney came at the most obvious moment, during “The Bodyguard” era, when her worldwide celebrity was arguably as big as it would ever get, aided in part by the scandalous frisson of the heterosexual interracial pairing at the center of the film.
Before that, Whitney was perceived as having a perfectly prissy image in her shiny gowns. “There she is, Miss Black America,” Time magazine once exclaimed, and it was an image so overwhelming–such a model of racial achievement and gendered comportment–that even after Whitney’s death, Madonna said she envied her “innocence.” In truth, though she negotiated the public sphere differently than Madonna, she was always a liminal, contradictory figure.
From the start of her career she was accused of “selling out” and making pop music that was too “white.” The film pairing with Kevin Costner was part of that logic arguably. Her real-life pairing with Bobby Brown seemed to disrupt it, because he seemed too “black,” and some saw her wedding to the bad boy of R&B as a career move to appease less pop-oriented followers. According to Brown himself, it also seemed designed to manage other contradictions. Because it turned out her liminality was not only racial.
I had no idea then that there was a Robyn Crawford in Whitney’s orbit, always haunting her image, like some queer ghost. While Whitney was alive, every major profile of her, from Time magazine’s “Prom Queen of Soul,” to Vanity Fair’s “Thoroughly Modern Whitney,” would allude to the intense relationship between her and Robyn Crawford, which had started when they met at 16. It was brought up, often as a parenthetical aside, and left as an open question, denoting the relationship to connote queerness. Whitney would either deny it or say it wasn’t anyone’s business.
Black women’s sexuality is so often misread by mainstream culture as excessive and/or queer, that it’s arguably too easy to assume there is something beyond the eroticism of friendship going on between Oprah and Gayle or Whitney and Robyn. Yet after Whitney’s death, there were numerous non-punitive attempts to claim her as gay and contest the media’s representation of her persona. Peter Tatchell, a white gay LGBT activist writing for The Daily Mail, remembered meeting her with Crawford: “When I met them, it was obvious they were madly in love. Their intimacy and affection was so sweet and romantic. They held hands in the back of the car like teenage sweethearts. Clearly more than just friends, they were a gorgeous couple and so happy together.” Obvious. Clearly more than just friends. A desire for certainty.
In an evocative essay provocatively titled “The Widow,” black gay New Yorker critic Hilton Als remembered the early days of Robyn Crawford in the Cubby Hole on Christopher Street, where they “knew” she was going out with Whitney. With obvious warmth he calls her “our” Whitney, a queer, black Whitney before she was swallowed up by the racial and sexual protocols of stardom: “Whitney Houston’s alternately powerful and bland resonance for us was not inseparable from our queerness.”
Evelyn C. White, author of a biography of Alice Walker—a powerful artist who never denied the queer complexities of black experience—wrote in the comments, “Thank you so much for this honest offering of true black love. You’ve said what those of us in the black lesbian community have known in our hearts — for decades.” Truth, race, love. Race and sexuality, knowledge and heart.
Robyn Crawford herself, in an as-told-to article that appeared in her “voice” in Esquire, finally said her piece/peace without any mention of romance. Towards the end of the article she says, “I have never spoken about her until now. And she knew I wouldn’t. She was a loyal friend, and she knew I was never going to be disloyal to her. I was never going to betray her.” Speaking, silence, loyalty, betrayal. Betrayal of what? Speaking about what knowledge? Why the silence? As Eve Sedgwick has taught us, sexuality and knowledge have always had a fraught, messy relationship.
Perhaps that is why, in the Oprah interview, Cissy Houston seemed so surprisingly candid in admitting that she didn’t “know” the exact nature of the friendship between her daughter and Crawford. Beyond friendship, she didn’t know. It was precisely her admission of not knowing which seemed so rich with possibilities, seemed to say so much and speak so loudly.
Many commentators focused on her homophobic outburst, when she said she wouldn’t have approved of queer Whitney. For some, queer Whitney means white Whitney. This prompted discussions of homophobia in “the black community” and a reconsideration of what had led to her downfall: it wasn’t “too black” Bobby Brown who had ruined Whitney, it was keeping her sexuality secret from her mother (and the world) that had done her in. Life is incredibly complex, and it seems like biographical reductionism, part of the need to make everything into a cohesive narrative, to claim Whitney’s problems all came from having to “hide her sexuality.”
Yet I understand the feelings of sadness and anger upon sensing that it had turned out to be “true” that there was a queer Whitney. I was saddened and it was an overwhelming feeling because of the totalizing way we are still made to think of sexuality, as if it’s a matter of true or false, black or white, all or nothing. That is part of the problem—though perhaps also the pleasure–of sexuality as we currently conceive it. It can create such an alienating wedge between oneself and someone, even while celebrity identification can feel so full and intimate. As James Blunt sings in his tribute, we thought we “knew” her through the bars of a song and her face on the silver screen.
Whitney’s queer afterlife divides her public once again: Whitney, we hardly knew you. Whitney, we knew you too well. What does it mean to “know” somebody? Why do we align sexuality and race with truth and knowledge? Whitney, who was such a big star, teaches us something in her afterlife. She teaches us about the size, color and emotional resonance of “sexuality.”
Now we have James Blunt’s white soul tribute to Whitney. Blunt has himself teased the public with “knowledge” about his sexuality, falsely “coming out” and later denying it. Gay or not, he has created an affecting, cross-racial, queer tribute to a diva—one as delicate and haunting as Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” about Marilyn Monroe. He sings, in the melodious way she might have sang it, “No Goodbyes/You’ll always be Miss America.” But the resonance of that innocent pose will always strike everyone differently. Queer Whitney haunts us all.
The weekend after the George Zimmerman verdict came down, Erica Woodland of Oakland stayed close to home. She could identify with the righteous anger expressed at the protests. But rather than join in, she canceled plans with family, postponed a trip to the laundromat and limited outings to work and the grocery store.
“I decided for my own safety, I need to stay in the house,” Woodland recalls”I knew I could be putting myself at risk for anything.”
The possibility of being targeted by police or by a fearful, overzealous civilian on account of her race was one consideration for Woodland, who is black. But so was gender. She describes herself as masculine of center, which means that her way of expressing herself – clothes, mannerisms – falls toward that side of the spectrum. It also means that like many of the black men and boys at the center of the recent conversation advanced by everyone from President Obama to Questlove, she’s been profiled as criminal or suspicious.
“We walk through the world and some of us pass as male,” Woodland, 33, says. “We get left out of this conversation.” Read more…