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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Why the Nate Parker Case Matters Now

Over the weekend old news about Nate Parker surfaced. 17 years ago Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, who he co-wrote The Birth of a Nation with, were involved in a rape case while they were roommates at Penn State in 1999. The victim said that she was raped by the two men after passing out in their room following a night of drinking while Parker and Celestin said that the sex was consensual. Parker, who had consensual sex with the victim on an earlier occasion was, somehow, acquitted and Celestin was convicted and then had it overturned in an appeal. The victim, whose name we don’t know, dropped out of Penn State, attempted suicide twice, and committed suicide in 2012 according to recent reports. Fast forward to 17 years later…

Parker is at the height of his career with his film The Birth of a Nation being talked about as an Oscar contender. But now his past has come back to haunt him and some discussions of it are inordinately focused on how it may affect his chances at an Oscar:

Fox Searchlight, Nate Parker Confront Old Sex Case That Could Tarnish ‘The Birth Of A Nation’

Nate Parker’s College Rape Trial Raises Questions for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Release

Is This the First Controversy of the 2017 Awards Season?

The industry is concerned that they may not see a return on their investment and their rising star might fall. This feels kind of familiar to me, as familiar as a father who, during his child’s sentencing for raping an unconscious woman said, “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Turner was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault, sentenced to six months in jail, three years on probation, and will have to register as a sexual offender. His lenient sentence was attributed to his whiteness and privilege and his people’s desire to see him flourish after this hard time in his life. In many ways, Parker’s case reads the same.

There seems to be a need to protect men in power or on the brink of power in sexual assault cases. Parker is joining a line of men in Hollywood–and other men in power–with sexual assault cases on their personal resumes: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, and the scores of others we don’t know about. I’m reminded of a story I pitched a year ago on Bill Cosby, rape culture, and Christian silence only to have a man in a position of power tell me that “outing” Cosby at the time–which was around the time of the South Carolina confederate flag debate–would be a distraction. As if we couldn’t address both. I was discouraged and felt like this man also shared a part in rape culture by keeping silent and trying to keep me silent–don’t worry, I did end up writing about Cosby, Christian Silence and Rape Culture on my personal blog. But this is just another example how men in power protect other men in power. (Want another example, check out this season of Orange is the New Black.) Hollywood’s interest is to protect these men because of the investment they made in them and Parker is just the latest. This isn’t an attack on him because he’s a black man on the come up, it’s par for the course for his position in the industry and for this day and age when talk of sexual violence is becoming commonplace. Given this, Parker’s PR has clearly been on their grind if his mealy-mouthed statements are any indication:

“I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”

“The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up. … I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college.”

Maybe “mealy-mouthed” isn’t a fair description of his statement, it’s more than a mealy-mouthed statement and yet it is still less than what is necessary at a time when narratives of sexual violence are still more determined by men than they are by the women who are most affected by it. Parker tries to pay general attention to those affected by sexual violence, but in his particular role in enacting violence he, nor Celestin, take explicit responsibly for their actions and that feels violent to me.

I have a problem with the fact that the discussions of this are being couched in terms of how this will affect The Birth of a Nation‘s chance at the Oscars or its general release. That ought not be the issue and Parker’s deflecting from the problem of that framing is disheartening. I get it, Parker wants to tell Nat Turner’s story and wants America to face the truth of its history. But this encounter with his own part in the history of sexual violence is also an opportunity for him and America, particularly American men, to face the truth of the role they play in normalizing sexual violence. Parker’s statement turns away from the gross reality of how sexual violence narratives are scripted for men in positions of power. They are swept under the rug and a “not guilty” sentence is interpreted as innocence while the victim suffers in silence. Their stories can be revised and edited in such a way as to make the men the victims and cancel the real victim out. In this case, the spotlight is on Parker and Celestin but they are using it to focus on the wrong thing, themselves, their project, and their families as some kind of scapegoat that absolves them from anyone ever thinking they could do harm. All of this is the result of failing to recognize how easy it is for sexual violence narratives to be minimized and how they–Parker and Celestin–are a part of the problem.

17 years later this still matters because the effects of sexual violence have no statute of limitations, not for the victim, not for the suspect, not for anyone involved. We need a different word from Parker and Celestin, one that doesn’t deflect to their project and who they’ve become before it takes a long, hard look at the effects of a crime they committed 17 years ago and how the stories we tell about rape always matter. An accusation of rape always matters. A rape case always matters. The victim of rape always matters and Parker and Celestin seem blithely unaware that, 17 years later, this still matters as if it happened yesterday because rape matters.

 

 

 

Why I #SayHerName for Korryn Gaines

korryn-gaines-e1470164217813We’ve been grappling with the case of ‪#‎KorrynGaines‬ for five days and it has been fascinating to watch people’s perspectives. I’m grieved that she isn’t here to tell her story while everyone tells it for her based on a couple of videos. How quickly it seems like people forget that “There but for the grace of God, go I.” And this is not to suggest that the grace of God wasn’t with Korryn but to suggest that we all may be just a moment away from encounters and decisions such as she made. 

‪#‎sayhername‬ because I’m grieved that it came to this and grieved that she was ready to die at the hands of a system that was never working in her favor as a double minority being black and a woman. Has anyone really asked themselves why she was so ready to die?

I #sayhername because it doesn’t add up, so-called mental illness or not, shotgun or not, her life didn’t have to end that way and we know this because of people who still live to tell their stories. Lest you forget the scores of so-called mentally ill white men who shot dozens of people and are now living in jail cells and getting hit in the face.

I #sayhername because we are still battling against the powers and principalities of a system that clearly stands in opposition to black bodies, and certainly black women’s bodies. It’s interesting that people forget the history of the black woman in America whose genesis in this country was her body in captivity used for reproduction and then abused in front of her children, family, and friends. The body remembers its history and some point that body must respond in contradiction. You don’t have to work with all muscle memory.

I #sayhername because I get it. The Korryn Gaines we’ve seen broadcast all over our timelines wasn’t created in a vacuum nor was she created from exposure to asbestos, but in her mother’s womb and then raised, possibly being exposed to the hardness of life and learned to build a wall 20 feet tall and possibly abused by those in power and she got tired as some–or all if you’re honest–black women are wont to do except all of us don’t fight back.

I #sayhername because it’s important to remember that we are fighting for the value of black bodies, black people, to be regarded differently which also means law enforcement’s best option is not to kill us in order to disarm us.

I #sayhername because I am my sister’s keeper and that ain’t conditional because I wouldn’t want my sister to look at me and wage the judgement I’ve seen waged against her and decide she ain’t worth keeping, especially when I don’t know the whole story.

I #sayhername because I don’t want to have to say her name. I desire for her to live and tell her story to shut all of us up but without my saying her name, that won’t happen.

Amber Rose v. Michelle Obama: The Problem with the Respectability Meme

It was just a few weekends ago that Amber Rose became the umpteenth person to attempt to “break the internet” with her balcony bikini shot. But this past weekend I saw this:

photo

A man posted this on Instagram along with the caption, “My mother always told me there are only two types of women in the world…Those you marry and those you ‘date.'” Needless to say, I was mad for Amber Rose and tired of comments like this.

For the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about respectability down to what it means for a woman to wear a certain color suit to an interview and risk not being respected because of it. I realized that respectability is largely in the eyes of the beholder and for women that beholder is usually men–but also sometimes other women. In this instance, the beholder is a black man–although quite a few black women chimed in to affirm the message of this image and his caption and, of course, his mother is the origin of this thinking. But there are so many problems with this respectability meme.

Amber Rose at the VH1 Movie Awards (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Is she respectable marriage material now or nah? (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

First, to juxtapose Amber Rose in her bathing suit with Michelle Obama in a dress on two clearly different occasions and imply that one deserves respect while the other doesn’t is not logical. This was Amber Rose relaxing on vacation not Amber Rose in the supermarket or at a formal event. It’s comparing apples to oranges. How about using an image of them both in similar situations and seeing where you land then? (Although it’s pretty hard to find a picture of Michelle Obama in a bathing suit.) Making the case that Amber Rose doesn’t deserve respect because of what she is wearing here–and what she wears on the regular–is no different from claiming that a woman is asking to be raped or otherwise violated because of what she chooses to wear. (Yes I made that connection and I don’t think it’s a stretch because we have evidence to affirm that some use what a woman wears for the “She was asking for it” argument.)

Yes Amber Rose’s livelihood comes from posting pictures such as her balcony bikini and for being a public figure who makes people clutch their pearls, but I don’t regard her as less worthy of my respect than Michelle Obama. If anything, I must constantly remind myself that my respect for her and women like her shouldn’t be based on what they wear but on who they are on a fundamental level–there’s a quote from a theologian or philosopher about loving human beings as ends and means but I can’t find it. And yes, I will address my “women like her” classification because I acknowledge the problematic nature of that statement. Who Amber Rose is, on a fundamental level, is a woman and a human being who deserves respect and regard before she puts a thread of clothing on. She is more than her body.

I hate that man’s IG post and caption because it relies on the thought that a woman’s worth is in her presentation rather than other defining characteristics. It is dependent on making the body the primary site of respectability and for Amber Rose, being as endowed as she is, whether she wears clothes or not, her respectability will always be in question. Is Amber Rose not more than her body–even if all she shows us is her body? And that’s another issue, as people we struggle with issues of embodiment and women such as Amber Rose end up bearing the brunt of the struggle.

I’ve long struggled with body issues related to what it means to grow into being a “shapely” or “curvy” woman–as I’ve heard people call me–and being such as a woman of faith who has lived under a special type of politics of respectability. I’ve watched myself go from being fairly thin to developing larger thighs, hips, and a noticeable backside. I didn’t start wearing figure-flattering clothes until my mid-to-late 20s when I realized that I didn’t have the problem, it was the world around me that made me afraid of my body. Yet, I’m still sometimes weary of what I wear to certain places because I don’t want to draw attention to myself or have someone think I’m “that kind of girl.” That there is even a “that kind of girl” in my mind is all thanks to a society that likes to judge a book by its cover. Bodily comportment matters in our culture and should you choose to put something on your body that is figure-flattering or just revealing, you risk being ostracized or considered a “fast-tailed girl,” a “THOT,” and whatever else they are calling women nowadays whose presentation doesn’t conform to the norm. Or it doesn’t help men flee temptation–because let’s be honest, a part of the problem is that some men project their lack of self-control on women and make us feel bad for dressing a certain way, but we are not the problem. As Jessica Williams from the Daily Show said, “Get some impulse control!”

But Amber Rose is not the only victim of the politics of respectability, even Michelle Obama, our current icon of black female respectability, has been criticized for wearing clothes that are too figure-flattering, revealing, or that are just too glamorous. So maybe we can’t win for trying. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case because there is still more room in the annals of respectability for Michelle Obama than there is for the Amber Roses of the world.

I commend Amber Rose for deciding, day after day, to live out who she is in this moment and obey her truth instead of conforming. I commend her for her expression of her womanhood because that is just what this is, one woman’s expression of her womanhood. I want more people, not just men, to get in the habit of thinking about what is at stake when we judge the Amber Roses of the world. Or anyone else whose lifestyle leads them in a different direction than what we were taught is the respectable way–and I wish we could do away with respectability altogether.

It will always be troubling to me that men, who have fewer options with which to present themselves, have the audacity to judge a woman who chooses to present and express herself in one way over the other. It is also troubling to me that a woman could tell her son that there are only two types of women in the world, the ones you marry and the ones you date. If I have a son I will never reduce women to an either/or. If I have a daughter, I will encourage her to find ways to express her womanhood however that feels natural to her–when she comes of age of course. She may grow up to be like Michelle Obama or like Amber Rose or like another woman who isn’t on the limited spectrum of women who represent respectability and non-respectability that the meme proposes. There are a lot of women between and beyond Amber Rose and Michelle Obama that a little girl could grow up to be like and all of them are worthy of the same respect and love.