Lost in Trans-Relation: A Reflection on a Bathroom Encounter

She and I are in a seminar together and during introductions she, who I originally thought was he because of my perception of her presentation, stated her pronouns as “she/her.” I accept this and made the note to self that anytime I speak of her, if I’m not using her name, I will use her preferred pronouns.

Before this, it had been three years since first I encountered the concept of preferred gender pronouns. It was during a week-long sexuality institute at San Francisco State University that I discovered there was such a practice and that someone who I perceived as either male or female would go by another pronoun. I remember hearing someone who I perceived as a woman saying their pronoun is “him/his/he.” I remember the moment when I heard someone say that they prefer to be called “it” and I was incredulous because I couldn’t understand why someone would choose to eliminate their human being-ness to be called “it.” Nevertheless I decided that all I needed to do was accept and embrace the pronoun someone chooses for themselves. That was three years ago and, since then, I haven’t held close space with many people, that I know of, who are explicit about preferred pronouns, until now. But this isn’t just a story about preferred pronouns…

Pronouns and all introductions aside we take a break before jumping into a discussion of the readings. I run to the women’s restroom where a line of my classmates is already forming and we pass the time by talking about how we like the seminar thus far. As we are talking she walks into the restroom and I’m certain I do a double take. If not a double take with my head, an internal double take. “What is she doing here?” I thought to myself. I was conflicted. She stated her pronoun yet, what I perceive to be a male-gendered presentation wouldn’t let me be comfortable with her in the women’s restroom. Nevertheless, she joins our discussion and I ease up, but still I wonder what she’ll do when she walks into the stall. When it is my turn to use the toilet I linger wondering if I will see her toes facing the toilet or facing the door. Alas, I also had my phone with me so, in no time, I forgot to watch her and I end up reading an e-mail instead. I finish up in the restroom and go to send a text to two close friends that says, “Can I just say, the first time a trans person comes in the bathroom with you is jarring as hell.” I don’t send the text, instead I sit with the thought for the rest of the seminar. Why was I uncomfortable with her in the restroom when she claims she and not he?

The second portion of our seminar presses my thinking on this further as we discuss authenticity and blackness as presented in an article by Michelle M. Wright entitled, “Can I call you Black? The limits of authentic heteronormativity in African Diasporic discourse.” Wright focuses on the assumptions of a normative and authentic blackness that exists in the dominant discourse in African Diasporic studies. This skewed focus results in marginalizing anyone who falls outside of those categories. Wright analyses the aftermath of the discovery that Olaudah Equiano’s was born in North Carolina and not Nigeria and how that shifted people’s perspective of his authenticity and place in the annals of history. She talks about Black Brits and how their authenticity is tested by Black Africans and how these views of authenticity are deeply rooted in the practices of a Eurocentrism and patriarchy. Of this she says,

“…the origin of blackness as an identity does not begin in Africa (and why should it? Why would millions of people with distinct histories, cultures, languages, and the like invent a generic term to categorize them all?) rather in prejudiced writings of European Enlightenment figures going through yet another era of deep historical amnesia that produced Africans as an undiscovered primitive rather than a continent whose coastal nations were central to the story of Mediterranean civilizations in antiquity” (Wright, 9).

Our professor welcomes a discussion on authenticity and blackness but encourages us to also think about the purpose of a demand for authenticity in relation to other identities integral to the study of women, gender, and sexuality. I didn’t recognize this as an immediate opportunity but realized it when I came home that day and am still reflecting on it now as I write. The discomfort I experienced in the restroom was caused by a few things one of which was my particular claim to an authentic womanhood that I didn’t believe my classmate possessed because of what I perceived about her. Another part of my discomfort is a reckoning with the so-called Other. (I use “Other” with great discomfort. I dislike the language but I’m using it here because I believe it goes toward my point.)

What is an authentic woman? This is the question that must follow my own claim to authentic womanhood over and against hers. I can’t answer that question right now, but I acknowledge it as part of the problem with my issue of her. The more I think about her and my reaction to her, which is unbeknownst to her, I wonder how it would make her feel. I’m troubled by the fact that it would make her feel anything less than welcomed and affirmed when she must hold close space with me. I dare say that my inability to accept and affirm her ought to make me the one who is not an authentic woman–if we want to define the authentic woman as one who unconditionally embraces all. I’ve been socialized to believe the only women that truly exist in the world are those who are born as such and only recently am I learning what it means to take someone at their word. Her word ought to count and, to an extent, it does count theoretically, but practically speaking I have catching up to do. I’m challenged by what it means to lend theoretical support but to falter practically.

I’m so certain that, rationally speaking, I’m here for her using the women’s bathroom, but my reaction to her actually using suggests otherwise and that is troubling me. In general I support the rights of trans people to use the restroom that they identify with but I recognize my ability to say that has been mostly abstraction, something I can say because I’m not faced with the so-called Other. And now here I am, having to step away from the abstract into the real and make my theory of advocacy into, not only, a practice of advocacy but, more importantly, of care and embrace. This seems like the missing step in the academic’s project of advocacy. We know how to theorize from above but we don’t travel below to work it. I know how to theorize and speak well for the marginalized and oppressed of this world, but I’m still working out how to be well with them. So here I am. I’m wrestling with this and find irony that I’m wrestling with this in context of a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminar. That is the last piece of this narrative puzzle.

I met her in a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminar where the core question of the class is, “What is Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies?” That introduction I mentioned earlier included answering the question, “Why Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies?” My answer to this question in the seminar was all about the practice of engaging women, gender, and sexuality studies as a field of inquiry useful for bridging what I perceive as gaps in theology and ethics. But given the chance to answer this question again, I would say that Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies is as much a personal project of inquiry as it is an intellectual project. I need Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies to interrogate myself and deconstruct years, if not decades, of closed theory about what constitutes woman, womanness, gender, and sexuality because my life is steeped in dominant views of normativity and authenticity about those categories. I need it as someone who has both a personal and professional commitment to the Christian tradition who wants to truly welcome all. I need it because I don’t just want to speak about welcoming and affirming all, I want to be about the business of it; a business undergirded by the discipline/field’s knowledge, nurturing understanding, and, most importantly, cultivating relationships, starting with my relationship with her.

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A Not So Sweet Spot: Questioning the Performance of Sexual Liberation

Note: The following post has strong sexual language and content. 

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend Sweet Spot, an evening of “high energy, heart pumping, fist pounding, laugh out loud pop erotica performance art.” The evening featured spoken word artists, singers, burlesque dancers, a sexologist, comedians, a miniature sex toy shop and much more all focused on one thing, sex and the acquisition of pleasure. I must admit that from the onset I was hesitant about attending this particularly after I watched a promo video for it. It looked like it was above my sexual pay grade and like it would be filled with moments that would make me clutch and break my non-existent pearls. It turned out that it wasn’t above my sexual pay grade, it was–in my opinion–beneath me and did a particular kind of violence.

The show started out innocently enough with some jokes, a pledge that included putting our hands over our “hearts”–hearts defined as private parts–and the rules of engagement otherwise known as “How Not to Cockblock Yourself.” The host for the evening, a petite young woman wearing a bedazzled ringmaster costume, told the women that the two ways we cockblock ourselves is sitting with either our arms or legs crossed. She directed us to uncross both and allow our “hearts” to breathe and be free. I appreciated this opener for no other reason than it was clever, not for its ability to help a room full of men and women keep their legs open for whatever may come. What followed the opener was a series of performances which started with a woman reading erotic fiction. I’ve never read erotic fiction, so it was interesting to listen to someone do a dramatic reading. It was also the moment when I realized that “dick” and “pussy” were the only words I would hear for the next few hours and it felt like an assault each time I heard it. This was the beginning of what I felt like was a particular kind of violence. But I tried to suspend that judgement until I saw more.

sweetspotphoto

The son of a preacher man reciting erotic poetry–and I’m not talking about Songs of Songs either.

The show continued with a burlesque dancer from Jamaica who was actually pretty good and had the most amazing back tattoo I’d ever seen, so that was a moment of reprieve. After her were two spoken word artists, the first was the son of a preacher reading from, “Fellatio 3:16.” I’m sure you can imagine my shock at the title but that was just the beginning of the profane as he said things such as,

I will read a scripture off your clit.
You can suck Lazarus back to life.

The violence of those words struck me particularly because I am a Christian woman. I understand it was the play on words given his context and upbringing, but I couldn’t help but be bothered. He invoked the homiletic style of charismatic black preachers to get the crowd riled up and aroused, but, to me, it just felt profane and reckless. I teetered between a dropped jaw and nervous laughter, and trying to find something redemptive about what I was hearing.

Another spoken word piece was performed by Sweet Spot Nation founder, Ainsley Burrows, and featured yet more lust-filled allusions such as,

I will eat the magnesium out your cum
I’ve got enough dick to raise your IQ and make you lower your standards at the same damn time.

His performance was slightly more invasive because he stared me and my friend down intently during moments in his routine.  By this time my reactions were part laughter, part silence, and part observing everyone around me to see their reactions.

In the midst of all of this there was also the condom throwing that was off-putting. Yes, condom throwing. A multi-pack of condoms and lubricants sponsored by the Stand Up 2 HIV Atlanta campaign was provided for each seated guest. I thought it was a nice touch for the evening given the public health concern that HIV is within urban cities such as Atlanta. But at no point in my time there–it could have happened after I left–did I hear a plug for the program or even gratitude for contributing the condom gift bags. Instead I saw many of the condoms being thrown at the artists and performers as if it were a form of currency. I was disappointed, to say the least, in the extreme waste of an important resource in the fight against HIV.

Though I’ve mentioned my feelings about the violence instigated through language throughout the night, it actually didn’t occur to me what was taking place until a sexologist hit the stage halfway through the show. She focused on teaching women and men how to get and give the best possible orgasm and she claimed that many don’t get there because of the aggressive nature in which some approach the sexual event. She encouraged men to take their time with women instead of acting like attack dogs and encouraged all to acknowledge the sensitive and delicate nature of our sexual organs and told women to breathe. But it was the juxtaposition of hearing someone talk about how we should be more gentle and patient in sex while hearing coarse, abrasive language that made me realize the entire situation was troubling and mimicked a particular kind of violence.

So what is this violence? I believe that violence is not just in the realm of the physical, it can be verbal and mental. Thus when I speak of the violence at Sweet Spot, it was violence through speech and through making the sacred profane. Whether it was through using Scripture as a template to talk dirty or language that made sex seem like one long rough porn fantasy, I wasn’t convinced of any sexual liberation.

As a culture we’ve long struggled for and against sexual liberation for years. Those who have fought for it are the pioneers and offspring of the sexual revolution. Those against it have primarily been conservative Christians. I want to clarify that though I am Christian–I consider myself progressive–I am not opposed to sexual liberation. I am, however, opposed to sexual liberation that results in uncritical ways of being sexual. I believe in responsible freedom which still requires some limitations and reflection on what is expedient. As it pertains to sex and sexuality narratives, I’m interested in what repeated narratives do and how they form and/or inform us. So, in the case of my time at the Sweet Spot where I was assailed by coarse language–and flying condoms, I wondered what that language did to people. How that language might have been the reason that men attack women in the sexual act–I’m not talking about rape here but the aggressive way that some men descend upon women in the sexual event because they heard that is the way. I thought about what it means to be a black person whose sexuality has almost always been regarded as animalistic and aggressive and I wondered if words such as “dick” and “pussy” play into that or are they part of our culture’s way of expressing ourselves sexually. Are the words our own or did we get them from someone else who is still determining our sexual selves? Are there different ways of speaking about sex that don’t rely on an allusion to violence? (Think about the popularity of the phrase, “I’ll beat the pussy up” in urban music.)

There are so many questions that came out of my Sweet Spot experience that made me wonder if the artists and audience were truly sexually liberated or sexually oppressed and just performing an idea of liberation. And of course the question of whether I’m the sexually oppressed or repressed person is up for discussion too. That is another reflection I’m taking up, but that is also much too predictable a conclusion to draw at this point. It’s too easy to say that the person who walks away from an event such as the Sweet Spot feeling anything but aroused and liberated is sexually repressed. It doesn’t leave room for a critique that could be useful to all parties involved. This is not to disregard pop erotica as a genre, but it is to stretch our understandings of the genre’s form and function in our communities, psyches, and selves.

PS: Lest anyone read this and think I had a completely bad experience I did enjoy myself during the break between acts when they played a lot of ratchet Top 40 music and, like I mentioned earlier, the burlesque performer and her awesome back tattoo was great too. Maybe my next excursion should be to a burlesque show. 

Defending Descent: On Cinematic Rape and Retribution

Disclaimer: One, the conclusion of Descent starring Rosario Dawson is given away here so if you’d prefer not to have this spoiler you may look away now, but I encourage you stay for it is that conclusion which paves the way for my broader analysis. Two, this blog touches on the topic of rape which may be touchy subject for some because of their direct or indirect experience. Please know that I write this as a woman has not directly or indirectly experienced rape in reality but only through cinema. If you have experienced it, I’d encourage you–if you can–to stay and read along and add voice to this discussion so that it may be full and not lacking in perspective. Thank you for reading.

This weekend I watched a man get raped by another man and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was in a film entitled Descent in which Rosario Dawson plays a college woman who gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor and exacts revenge by planning for the perpetrator to get raped by another man. I watched the film with a close male friend whom, during the rape scene between the two men, turned  to look at me a several times and each time my eyes were glued to the screen. He couldn’t draw my attention away from it. It was 10 minutes of violent thrusting, name-calling, and shaming and I could not be moved to either talk about how excessive it might have been or turn it off all together. After the film was over I sat on my couch in silence with my eyes still hooked on the television screen. My heart was beating quickly and my mind was running a million miles per minute. My friend commented on how excessive he thought the rape scene was and all I could remember saying is that it made sense. He repeated that he felt it was excessive for the film and still I repeated, “It makes sense.” My logic throughout the 10 minute rape scene and in conversation with my friend was that for decades we have watched women get raped in film and on television. I watched Kristy Swanson’s character Kristen get raped in John Singleton’s college campus drama Higher Learning. In the second season of a Different World Freddie Brooks almost gets raped by her date Garth Parks. I watched Buffy almost get raped by Spike. In Gossip Girl I watched Chuck Bass attempt to rape two women in one episode. In For Colored Girls Only, Yasmine/Yellow gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor. There is the rape scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange which is edited out in most versions. I also hear that there is a rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in which the main female character gets raped through sodomy. When I saw each of these movies or television shows I didn’t anticipate having to sit through a rape scene, but alas I did. And sadly, these movies don’t add up to even half of the movies with rape scenes in them.

Countless are the movies and television shows in which women get raped or are in another way sexually assaulted. As a woman, I am almost too used seeing other women get defiled in the media either through the dramatic portrayal of rape, sexual assault, or through the popular coerced or voluntary objectification of women in music videos. But when I watched the rape revenge in Descent I felt something. Maybe it was redemption for all the years of women being raped in cinema and real life. To be clear, I don’t believe in this type of personal retributive justice, because in the end it most likely will not resolve anything. This is illustrated in Descent‘s final scene as Dawson turns toward the man raping her assailant and, with tears in her eyes, silently conveys that this is no revenge at all. One reviewer of the movie, called it a demagogic feminist exploitation revenge drama, but to do so is to misunderstand the project of feminism which is not employed well in this film. For it to be a true demagogic feminist exploitation revenge, the movie would not end with the man in power but would end with Dawson’s character reclaiming herself. I believe the true feminist revenge is to not let rape define and shape you into anything other than a woman who reclaims herself–but maybe I have just been reading too much Camille Paglia and the movie does indeed represent feminist revenge.

But,lest I get too far away from my original point,  I do think watching that scene, unwilling to turn my eyes away from it, made me much more certain that personal retributive justice is not what I believe in. I derived no pleasure from the scene but in refusing to take my eyes off of it, even when my friend tried to divert me, was me implicitly saying, “Sit through this, get comfortable with it,” because I have gotten comfortable with rape over the years. And yes, I admit that is part of this, that I wanted a male to sit through a scene of another male getting raped without averting his gaze, I wanted him to be comfortable with it. The day after I asked my friend if his maleness affected his ability to accept the prolonged rape scene to which he said it didn’t, he just believes that it was excessive in film and not right in reality. We also had a conversation about the possibility of females being a little more open to watching it unhindered because it could serve as cinematic redemption to the pervasive rape culture. We have no answer to the aforementioned query. So maybe my reaction was my own and not representative of what many women might find agreeable, but I am curious to know if there are any women or men out there who may find this type of revenge dramatically portrayed helpful or harmful to rape culture as we know it? If you have seen Descent what might you suggest as an alternative ending? If you are a feminist or a womanist–because I can’t neglect that a part of this film was the power dynamic between this white man and Dawson’s “ethnically ambiguous” self which he insulted during the rape–what is your response to this film? And, generally speaking, what do we make of the rape in cinema, its prevalence, its portrayal of the act, the power dynamic, etc?