Thursday, October 30, 2008


Vanilla bean ice cream
Here's another installment of my Great American Lesbian Novel (in progress), Ginny Bates. If you are new to reading GB, go to the section in the right-hand column labeled Ginny Bates to read background and find out how to catch up.

September-October 2014

With Gillam's return to teaching, Myra and Ginny altered their daily routine once again. Mornings found Ginny dividing her time between canning produce, creating silk screens for baby and child T-shirts, and painting furniture. She "interviewed" Jane and Gillam as to their life dreams and goals to elicit ideas for the art atop their big dining table, instead of using her own vision. When this was finished, at the onset of Rosh Hashanah, both households had a joint housewarming party where they requested all gifts be either recipes, garden plants, or baby toys. The gate between their yards was propped open and Myra later estimated 150 people attended. Mimi came down with diarrhea and a high fever the next day, her first prolonged illness, leaving Jane and Gillam rattled and overprotective for a while.

Ginny was also working on Myra's entertainment cabinet, which had once been a specialty cupboard in some sort of science lab. She stripped it down to steel and chose new hardware before priming it and painting its visible surfaces with one-foot television screens, both vintage and modern. Each screen displayed a different scene from one of Myra's favorite movies or shows, with the original characters replaced by friends and family. When it was completed and coated for protection, it became the focal point of their family room. Myra said it "blew out the pipes" on all their other furniture.

Myra spent her mornings writing, unless Ginny needed her for a specific task. At 1:00, Jane went off to classes or to work on her thesis at the library, and Mimi came to spend afternoons with her grandmas. She wasn't sleeping as much as she had while a newborn. When Mimi did slumber, Myra kept her buttressed between pillows on her daybed as she wrote. When Mimi was awake and restless, Ginny put her in a Snugli and carried her as she preserved fruit or painted, managing to keep Mimi's hands just out of reach of knifes or brushes. Mimi generally found this engrossing. When she did not, Ginny would put her on one of the mats with homemade safe-for-ingestion fingerpaints and a variety of washable plastic toys, and Mimi would make an unholy mess of herself and everything within a five foot radius. Her subsequent bath was be turned into swim time.

At 5:00, Gillam and Jane would both return to eat dinner with Myra and Ginny most nights, and twice a week Gillam had to pull himself away from Mimi to rush off to night classes. When he was free, after helping clear the table, he would walk out to the fishpond with Mimi. He would light the torch and they'd feed the fish together. Myra heard him singing to Mimi the song she'd used as a lullaby for both her babies:

You're my little potato, you're my little potato
You're my little potato, they dug you up
You come from under ground
The world is big, so big
It's very big
To you, it's new
It's new to you

Let's talk about root crops (they dug you up)
And lamb chops (they chew on you)
And things to eat
Like apples and cheese
And 'nanas and cream
Jelly and butter
It's late at night, I hope this little bottle
Helps you go to sleep
They must have grown you wild
You make a grown man a child
I'll go and play in the mud
To be with you, my spud
Potato, when you came out
Looking red as a beet
You had wrinkles on the bottoms of your feet
Oh, now you are so sweet, potato

Except for Fridays and weekends, he and Jane spent the evenings at their home with Mimi. Gillam still got up with her in the early mornings to feed her and get her dressed before he ate his own breakfast and left for work, slipping Mimi back beside Jane as she woke. On Saturdays, he and Jane “hogged the baby”, as Ginny put it, staying home without inviting others over. However, they did go out to Pike very early, and Myra started getting up to accompany them, saving her shopping for this time as well. It was always stirring to see Gillam leaning over with Mimi in his arms so she could rub the brass pig. Her body remembered doing the same thing with Gillam at this age. He'd grown up seeing Pike as the source for most of his food, and now a third generation would have it as a lifelong memory as well. She felt right with the universe at these moments, and she could tell from Gillam's expression that he did, too.

On Sundays, Jane and Gillam usually came over for a large family meal. Afterward, they would nap in the family room while Mimi was passed around between whoever had come to eat with them. In early October, Jane requested that Sunday suppers become a standing potluck at their house, with music in their family room afterward: She said she wanted Mimi to grow up being part of a family who sang together, as hers had. Myra thought it was a brilliant tradition. She organized the rest of the family to go in together on a newish baby grand piano for Jane's Christmas gift, which Gillam said wouldn't replace Jane's upright but instead join it as a new addition to Jane's collection of instruments. Mimi took to “singing Sundays” immediately, making her version of vocalizations in an increasingly on-key, loud voice, her face radiant, her arms waving.

Mimi was somewhat thrown, however, by the approach of winter. She didn't like wearing sweaters or coats, and she preferred her feet bare as well. The need to dress against cold she took as a personal affront, something she appeared to expect the adults around her to “fix”. They all listened to a great many weeping spells about the air being cold.

Mimi's eyes were now a perfect replica of Ginny and Margie's. Her hair was their Bates color as well, glossy, but with more of a wave in it. Her arms and legs remained long, and Gillam frequently said appreciatively “She's going to be a tall one.” She had picked up baby signing right away and knew how to ask for more, for milk/nursing, say yes and no, and suggest swimming. She appeared to recognize names, and Gillam was convinced she was already saying “Dee” for him, “Mee” for her mommy, and “Lee” for Carly. Myra couldn't sort this out from Mimi's wettish babble, but she didn't disbelieve Gillam, either.

Myra's publishers had moved up the release date for her book and asked her if she wanted to have her launch event in Seattle instead of New York, as they had been planning. She and Ginny decided on Bailey Coy Books in the neighborhood for the premiere, but Myra called Elliot Bay and promised to have a featured reading there as well on her return. She hung up missing Red and Black, as she often did. Ginny designed an invitation and it was sent out to a publicity list that Myra found staggering, when her agent gave her a copy.

Margie took the train up that Friday morning. Ginny and Myra were flying to DC on Saturday for Ginny's show on Sunday, and Margie was going to travel with them. Allie, Edwina, Chris and Sima were flying on Sunday morning. Carly and Eric had reluctantly decided to stay in Seattle as back-up support for Gillam and Jane.

At 5:00 on Friday, everyone gathered at Myra and Ginny's for an early buffet of take-out from Aux Delice. Gillam had left work at noon to help Myra, who was obsessing over her power-point presentation images from periodicals. Myra kept asking Ginny if this or that woman from her past might be there, and Ginny always answered “I would, if it was me”, which didn't reassure Myra one bit.

After eating, they lit candles and said prayers. Myra calmed a little, watching Mimi's face in the flickering light. Ginny had silk-screened a few long-sleeved jerseys for Mimi and she was wearing one now, a beautiful print Ginny had stolen from a Royal Chicano Air Force poster. “You be stylin'” Allie assured Mimi as they filed out to cars.

The bookstore was already crowded. Mai met them out front and led them to saved seats. Myra was temporarily distracted from her apprehension by the stack of new books and CD-ROM disks at a side table, her name in big letters. The back cover showed Ginny's painting of her, “Myra With Hands On Fire”. Myra felt Ginny step in close behind her as she whispered “Zowie, who's that gorgeous babe?”

Myra leaned into Ginny and pretended to look at her table of contents as she scanned the room. When she kept repeating “Oh god...oh shit” under her breath, Ginny said “What did they get wrong?”

“It's not the book” Myra whispered. “Fern is here. And Judit. And Carole Johnston. And oh god, Myra is sitting next to Blue Rosenthal. Fuck, I'm a dead woman.”

“It's okay, honey. They're here because it's their movement, too. They're part of your army of lovers. I meant that in a good way, quit saying 'fuckfuckfuck', Myra, people can hear you. This is not your memoir, nobody's going to object to your work tonight. Look, here's Annie Gagliardi. And Nika just came in the front door, let's help her sit up front so she gets her share of attention.”

Carly set up the video camera on a tripod as people got settled. Gillam stood at the side with Mimi, ready to make an exit if crying started up. Myra conferred with the signer, who had gotten a copy of Myra's intended remarks earlier in the week but would still have to translate anything not captioned. Ginny wet her fingers to adjust Myra's cowlick one last time and kissed her gently, saying “Knock 'em dead, girlfriend” as Myra took her place behind the podium. Mai introduced her. Myra began seeing other faces in the crowd, writers she loved and respected. Oddly, this gave her confidence: She wasn't a messy part of their past.

People were still arriving. The store was definitely at capacity. The lights were turned down except for a spot over her, and she grinned, first at Ginny, then her friends and family, then everyone else. Even Fern.

“'Look at me as if you had never seen a woman before'” she began. “'I have red, red hands and much bitterness.' Judy Grahn wrote that for us almost fifty years ago. She spoke for us all in her warning to the world, her admonition to drop any definition they had prior to this point about the meaning of woman. We were about to reconfigure the idea in every way imaginable.”

She breathed in, feeling joy suddenly loosening her shoulders. Sisterhood feels good she thought. Mimi gave forth a long string of emphatic babble. Myra grinned in her direction, and Mimi declaimed again. She made a motion with her hand that looked very much to Myra like an M arcing to her chin – the sign they used for Myra. Mimi was looking at her urgently.

Myra set down the clicker for her presentation and reached a hand toward Gillam, saying “I think she wants to be up here.” He looked doubtful, but Mimi extended her arms toward Myra and said something else in a declarative voice. Several people laughed, and Gillam walked Mimi to Myra. Mimi pushed into her arms with gratification and Gillam took a few steps back, still doubtful.

“I'd like to introduce the light of my existence” Myra said to the room. “This is Jemima Jane Bates-Josong, known to us best as Mimi. Yes, you – who is Mimi, sweetheart?” Mimi placed her hands on her chest with a pleased expression. “Absolutely right. And who is Grandma?” Mimi thumped Myra's neck with her small fist. “Brilliant. Now, I'm going to read aloud to these people, would you like to stay with me and listen?”

Mimi gave the sign for “yes” and allowed Myra to balance her on the hip farthest away from the tempting clicker and manuscript. Mimi looked at the signer with high interest. Myra began reading, and Mimi's body radiated absorption even as she kept her eyes on the signer: This was familiar territory, Grandma reading aloud. Every so often, when Myra paused, Mimi made a comment and Myra responded as if she understood, just like at home.

Myra skipped around her book, weaving together an overview from various chapters. Mimi made it to the half-hour mark before becoming restless again. As Gillam came to retrieve her, Myra grabbed his sleeve and introduced him as well. She whispered to Gillam “She's filled her diaper” but it went out over the mic and caused another wave of laughter. Mimi joined in the merriment as she was carried to the bathroom for a change.

Myra began clicking through her images. At one point, a cover of Pearl Diver was on the screen and she reached beside her to hold up the original journal, now ivory with age. She opened it to display a detailed line drawing of two black women dancing. “This illustration was done 1978 by Allie Billups, whom you all will recognize as the author of Ashante Alabama and the about-to-be-released graphic history Mother Continent to New World: The First Africans in America. Allie's friendship made me who I am today. Al, stand up so they can all show you some love.”

Allie stood, red-cheeked, and got a huge round of applause. Myra blew her a kiss as she sat back down. A few minutes later, she paused with another image and again held up the original journal, a copy of Women Artists Group News. “This is another Seattle rag, and the cover, from 1982, was painted by Ginny Bates, as she was known then. My partner and coparent, and now co-grandmother.” Ginny didn't wait to be asked to stand, she was already on her feet. She walked up to the podium and kissed Myra's cheek, saying into the mic “Having Myra center of my world is art itself.”

At almost the end of Myra's presentation, she held up a third publication, this time Moccasin Line. “This has an article in it about how organizational outreach doesn't mean sending a notice of your meeting to the three women of color you might know. It was written by my friend Chris Kash-Kash, who last year gave the world the first modern dictionary of Nez Perce, or Nimipu. Chris, you wanna take a bow?”

“I'd rather not” drawled Chris. She got a roar of laughter and extended applause as Myra shook her head, grinning.

Myra finished her array of images and stopped for a break, announcing she'd take questions in ten minutes before moving on to book-signing. Sima went to get Myra a drink while Chris bent over to say, not quietly enough, “By my count, there's eight women here you've been in bed with. Depending on how you define it, of course.”

Margie was close enough to overhear this and immediately asked “Can you point them all out?” Myra said “Not near me, please.” Chris and Margie moved down the aisle, and Myra offered to hold Mimi again, this time allowing her to hold and slobber on the clicker. They were visited by a crush of folks wanting to chat with Myra, strangers as well as women she might not have seen in decades. Fern was the only person Myra specifically didn't want to talk with, and it was apparently mutual, as Fern stayed her distance.

When it was time for her to speak again, Myra reluctantly gave up Mimi to Jane and sat down in the chair behind her table for the booksigning instead of staying at the podium. She wanted the comfort of a seat and a barrier. She asked all the lights be turned up. Right before she began, Jane said to Myra and Gillam, “She's getting frettish. I think she must be hungry. I'm going out to the car to nurse her. If she drops off, we'll stay out there, come find us when you're done.”

“You want me to go with you?” offered Gillam.

“Nope. If you could nurse her, I'd let you, but I know you don't want to miss this. What are we doing afterward?”

Gillam looked at Myra. “You should have a chance to celebrate. How about if we go back to your place? Mimi can sleep in a quiet room and I'll make snacks, you can invite anyone you want.”

“That's a great idea, I hadn't thought that far ahead” accepted Myra. She jotted a list of names and handed it to Margie, whispering “Invite these folks back to our house for a gathering afterward, will you?” She turned to Mimi and squeezed both her little hands as she said earnestly “It has meant the world to me to have your company for this event. You made it perfect.”

Mimi knew a goodbye when she heard one, and as she Jane began carrying her toward the door, she launched into screaming protest. Several people laughed, and Myra Two called out to Myra “She's got your lungs.”

Myra said “A mixed legacy, perhaps.” People got quiet and she asked for questions or comments.

The first two speakers offered lavish praise followed by inquiries about the technique she had used to gather her database. Myra made sure to distribute her thanks during this, not only to her family and friends but particularly stressing Nika's role in making this research possible. She spelled Nika's name for any reporter who might be present. She kept pausing so the signer, who was entirely free-lancing now, could keep up. They really should have a second signer, but the publisher had refused to pay for even one, so Myra had only hired a single woman who was willing to try it on her own. In the future, she'd shell out for a pair to relieve each other.

The third questioner was a white woman her age who seemed to be asking her to repeat, or synopsize, Myra's long chapter about how racism had actually played out in the women's movement. Myra considered simply picking up her book and reading aloud. Instead, she thought for a few seconds and said “Here's a question back for you: Can you name a social change movement, whose main focus was not race itself, that successfully managed to avoid maintaining white supremacy in its culture and process?”

There was a long silence. Myra said “We don't have role models for how to take on even a single issue for revolutionary change, much less how to address all of them at once, which at least some feminist theorists understood was going to be necessary to address sexism as well. The Third Wave talks a lot about intersectionality and seems to believe they invented the notion, or that at least bell hooks did, but it's not new. And it's still mostly lip-service. I'm not generally interested in handing out credit for good intentions, which in our addictive world is used to avoid self-responsibility more than it is used to relieve the pointlessness of guilt. However, in the case of feminism, I will at least state that many of us, perhaps most of us, who were on the ground working in the movement held as a core principle the need to undo mechanisms of racism and classism simultaneously with the mechanisms of woman-hating. We knew it had to be done, and we longed for it all equally. We just didn't know how to do it. And our failure is no worse nor more excusable than all the other change movements who likewise failed, and are failing as I speak. When we get it right, it will be most of us out there working for change who get it right in concordance. It will ripple and build on itself, and cut new channels like rapidly moving water.”

She saw Ginny mouth “My poet” at her, and grinned.

Someone else, not waiting to be called on, said “So you don't think women's oppression is the foundation oppression, upon which all others are laid?”

“God, no” said Myra. “I understand the socialist pragmatism of trying to find a keystone which, when loosened, would bring down the whole structure. And in the case of sexism, the institutional valuation of one gender expression over all others, well, that's ancient and world-wide. It looks pretty universal. But so is class exploitation in innumerable forms, and so is oppression based on body type, which includes racism. So is xenophobia, which also includes racism. If I were going to argue for a primary bill of rights, I'd vote for full humanity to be accorded children. It's during childhood that all these evils get taught to us, before we can resist or survive on our own. Even so, since it will have to be adults who accord human rights to children, it's still up to every one of us to take on every form of dehumanization that exists. I think it's fine for you to choose your battles, based on your limitations and strengths. But beware commemorating your individual scar tissue as political theory.”

Myra suddenly realized her children had almost never seen her speak in front of a group like this, putting forth ideology in a persuasive manner. It was part of her core identity, but she'd given it up while they were still small, except as a writer putting speech to page. Yet it was what had first attracted Ginny, she was fairly sure, and it was a big part of why she, Allie, and Chris had forged their bonds. She was glad this was being taped.

Alveisa raised her hand. Smiling, she asked how Myra would define her class identity at present and how that might have affected how she wrote this book.

“Wow. A great question, and from someone who might know the answer better than me” said Myra, saluting Alveisa. “Well...I was raised poor, or working class during a few good years. I worked for my living, which was more less subsistence, until I was 30 years old. I never had anything I didn't earn, usually at minimum wage or slightly above that rate. I lived mostly in collective households where income was shared, to some extent, which is definitely a class advantage compared to the alternative. Anyhow, for 30 years my economic survival was always up for grabs. Then, at age 30, I became permanently rich. I didn't earn it, but I do think I deserved it. Let me rephrase that: I deserved to not be scared about starving any more, or dying young from lack of health care, or being wretched from deprivation. I'm the only member of my family for as far back as I can trace who has been freed from that fear and worry. And, as a direct result, I'm the only member of my family of origin who is still alive.”

She took a long breath. The room had gotten very quiet.

“When I got rich, I made sure I'd never feel alone or guilty about being rich.” She looked at Allie, hesitating. Allie nodded at her. “The first thing I did was to set up a trust fund for my best friend, Allie, so she'd have plenty of money for the next 25 years. She was brilliant and talented, as was I, but – I think it's okay for me to say this – neither one of us would probably have books to our names without that money coming our way. In all but a tiny percentage of instances, folks who get famous for their art have a serious financial assist along the way. Part of the myth of American upward mobility, which does not in fact exist, is that people are succeeding without that assist.”

She heard Ginny say “Myra's money is why I got to paint, too. She brought us all along with her.” There was a murmur in the room as people identified the speaker.

“So...” Myra took another breath. “I've been rich almost as many years as I spent poor. But it doesn't feel equal to me. I don't know if it ever will. I'm secure, will remain secure, I'm not deluded about that. But the view of the world I learned as a child, my reaction to it which defines my class, is still my baseline. Despite decades of therapy – paid for by wealth, let me remind you – I'm still mostly working-class or poor in my reactions to things. Conditioning is another word for personality, and reconfiguring personality takes a long, long time. My partner is middle class, and I think she'll vouch for what I'm saying.”

Ginny spoke again. “I will. You have worked on sorting out truth from lies about class more than anybody I ever met, and you are still deep down working-class. I adore it about you, by the way.”

Myra looked at her steadily. “For example, Ginny insisted I get a new outfit for this reading. I have a closet full of perfectly good clothes, but she said I would like the feeling of being in something new, it would affect my confidence, and we could afford it. I listened to her, and she was right, as usual. Without her push, though, I would not have bought these clothes I have on.”

“You look lovely” came a voice Myra didn't recognize. She was momentarily swamped with embarrassment.

“To answer the second part of your question: Well, again, I had to have a lot of support and encouragement along the way to write this book, because as much as it mattered to me, the cost of research was enormous and may well cancel out any income I eventually earn from book sales. I can't tell yet. Most writers don't earn much of a living from books. If they are poets or nonfiction writers, they tend to earn even less. Writers who produce something that can get turned into a movie or play or TV, yeah, they can sell those rights for a big chunk o change, way more than you'd expect. The rest of us hope to break even, pay for groceries and electricity the year it takes us to put out a book. So, Ginny's constant reminder that I could afford to write this particular book was, in fact, essential to contradict the working class voice inside me which kept saying 'You're not really earning money.'”

She saw Margie in her peripheral vision, and her expression was astonished.

“Another part of the answer is that working class ethics value cooperation and first-hand experience over institutions and experts. I knew the movement I'd been a ground warrior in did not much resemble what was being written about it, and that sources for all those so-called theories out there about us were being cherry-picked. I wanted the entire picture available, not just a chance to put out my own opinion. I wanted women – people – to figure it out for themselves. That humility I identify as working class. So, I chose to create a volume containing all the primary source material at the same time I wrote my interpretation of that material. Thus, my being the first of us to compile all the writings of the Second-Wave into an available form is the result of two different realities: The fact that I was rich and could afford to do so, and the fact that I was poor and understood why it was needed. Does that make sense?”

Alveisa nodded, and there was a smattering of applause. Myra finished the water in her glass and wished it was a Coke instead.

Another hand went up, a white woman in her 30s. She stood and shoved her hands into her jeans to ask “Speaking of cherry-picking...there's a great many publications left out of your bibliography. And that negatively affects how you cover the sex wars, which barely gets mentioned, relatively speaking.”

Myra felt rather than saw Chris sit up straight, turning to look at the questioner. After a few seconds, Myra said “Would to care to make that a question? Other than implying I lied, of course.”

“Why didn't you include all the sex-positive magazines produced from the mid 1980's on?” said the woman, sounding belligerent now to Myra's ears.

“Well – do you have a list of these omissions? No? Can you name one or two of them, perhaps?”

When the woman shrugged, Myra said “Feel free to send them on to me, I'll review them and issue an addendum, if need be. But let me ask you this: My criteria was women's publications, which means they were produced primarily by women for women. Do the omissions you're claiming fit into that category?”

“Oh, right, of course it has to be essentialist” the woman said with unattractive sarcasm. “Not everybody was limiting themselves to reading only the words of those who had a uterus, you know.”

I don't have a uterus any more, either, Myra almost said. “Ah. Sounds like maybe you're referring to sex magazines intended for S/M, mixed gay, straight and/or queer consumption, rather than a women's focus.” Myra named several. The questioner looked shocked that Myra knew the titles.

“Those don't fit the criteria of the list. Nor did Gay Community News, or Christopher Street, or Utne Reader, all of which I and most of my friends did read during that time. The criteria of the list was as I've stated. I couldn't possibly include everything that women read, because that would in fact be a list of every publication in the country, right?” Myra wasn't about to really stop for the woman to aim another jeer in her direction. She continued “And, you're using 'essentialist' incorrectly, I fear. One of the basic tenets of Second-Wave feminism is 'Biology is not destiny', which is an anti-essentialist call to arms. The majority of feminist thought advocated the learned and constructed gender role was reality, as opposed to believed gender is innate. Thus, it didn't matter whether or not one had a uterus, what mattered was whether or not someone had been on the receiving end of female conditioning. In point of fact, much of modern queer theory is far more essentialist than what we wrote and believed.”

She was on a roll now. She might not be an academic but she could talk shit back to them, when necessary.

“The magazines you claim I excluded, deliberately you made it sound, had a main object of promoting sex and thinking about sex – well, the main object was usually to make money, honestly, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. And the truth is, prior to 1985, we didn't need encouragement to think or talk about sex. We lived an existence saturated with sex. I understand there's this whole idea that post-war America was sexually repressed, and the counterculture created sexual liberation to go against that. But the contradiction to inhibition and repression is not compulsion, it's something more close to indifference. Lesbians and feminists were just as obsessed with sex as other groups of people; the obsession was merely expressed differently among us. In large part this was because we were deliberately attempting to suss out what sex would look like, what it would mean, if the overlay of male definition and control were removed from it. When the charge of 'anti-sex' is levied against women, it almost always means 'you were standing in opposition to traditionally accepted male definitions of sex.' Which is correct. We were. And do still, some of us.”

“The 'Sex Wars' were a complaint levied by intelligent, powerful women, most of them writers, against what they perceived as feminist denial of their desire. I admire and respect the women who made the charge, but I don't agree with them. I don't know anybody who did agree with them. I think they were a minority, a vocal and well-expressed minority. I gave it as much attention in the book as it received among women at the time outside of small academic or sexually-defined circles. I know one of their beliefs is that female conditioning teaches us to not see ourselves as sexual beings, and that conditioning had been carried over into lesbian-feminism. I'd agree that for about 10%, perhaps, of the lesbian-feminist community this was accurate. But the rest of us were running compulsion for at least a decade. And when we began to try putting on the brakes for ourselves, to re-think our sexual compulsion, it was not because suddenly our female conditioning had taken over.”

Myra paused to breathe. Someone, she thought it might have been Jen, said “Why was it, then?”

“Several things were happening at once. This would be the early to mid 1980s, I'm talking about. One is the appearance of AIDS, which for lesbians who weren't having sex with men was not a direct threat but we were still the first group to step up and assume the work of helping our gay brothers. For lesbians who were fucking men, and for straight women, it was, shall we say, a chill on proceedings. To argue that women having to contend with a new fear about sex causing death is somehow giving in to repression is dishonest, akin to those who accused gay men trying to outlaw unsafe sex at bathhouses as being homophobic. It's not cut and dried. A second factor is that at least a third of the lesbian community were addicted to drugs and alcohol; with the Clean and Sober movement of the early 1980s, all kinds of compulsive behavior came under scrutiny. Sex becomes much less frequent when you become sober. A third factor is that Reagan was elected and immediately set out to destroy the financial fabric of the country, beginning at the bottom which is where the incomes of most lesbians were found. We began having to work longer and longer hours just to get by. Sexual expression is a casualty of exhaustion and overwork. So is activism, by the way. Fourth, a critical mass of us were also getting into our 30s and 40s. Sex stops being the center of existence organically as you mature, like it or not. For those of us who had already rejected the heterosexual definition of lesbian as someone defined by who and how she has sex – a definition which has come back into vogue, unfortunately – it was easy to admit we had other things more interesting to think about. The fifth influence was the creation of incest survivor theory and the recovery from sexual abuse movement. I personally am convinced that 40%, at least, of the women's community were survivors of some form of sexual assault. Deciding to face those demons from our past meant rethinking sex, desire, trust, consent, a whole host of ideas. Some women went the path of therapy. Another contingent, of equal number I believe, decided to pursue structured sex and S/M as a means of reclaiming power. I tried both. One worked for me, one didn't.”

Myra found herself looking at Ginny. “I didn't have a value judgment then and I don't now about those who took a different route to healing the damage done to them as children. I do, however, object to anyone claiming my personal choices were somehow obstructive to their finding their own sexual desire. My choosing to not get into bed with you is no indictment of you, and if it hurts your feelings, honest to god, that's your problem, not mine. It's not the basis for a political manifesto.”

Her questioner looked dogged. Myra had noticed there were two other women flanking her who seemed to be urging her on. This was an organized confrontation, then. The woman said “So, you're claiming vanilla is not a political choice?”

Ginny's head turned toward the questioner, fury bulking her shoulders. Myra couldn't help but laugh.

“Vanilla? Well, if you were a foodie, you'd know that vanilla as a natural flavoring is more complex and satisfying than many others.” Most of the room began laughing with her. “But to be more direct – whether or not a personal choice is political only comes into general discussion if my choice is being governed by oppressive training. By 1985, I decided I had to stop my own sexual compulsion. It was ruining my life.” Myra stopped for a second, noticing how she was choosing to move back into public vulnerability despite an attacker being in the room. This is Ginny's influence, she thought.

A voice from the back of the room said “I'll vouch for that.” After a second, Myra recognized the voice as Blue Rosenthal. Her tone was not hostile, however. There was nervous laughter. Myra grinned in Blue's direction and said “Thanks for the testimony, sweetheart.” Ginny was craning her neck, trying to see where Myra was looking.

“There was no sex mafia” said Myra. “There were only troubled, imperfect women trying to unravel a skein of lies as best we could, with whatever means felt right at the time. A lot of the women who said they were being mistreated by women have gone back to primary relationships with men. I think we all should stop the nickel analysis of one another and accept our personal decisions at face value. If how you choose to get off involves behavior that I can't consider having in my bed, we're simply different, not better/worse than. As long as real consent is in place, of course. Which is another whole chapter. Another one I suspect you only skimmed, if at all.”

Myra leaned over to Gillam, whose cheeks were dark red, and whispered “I need some more water or something, would you get it for me?” His abrupt standing, and the subtle anger in his posture, raised doubts in the minds of several folks, apparently. Myra said “While I'm waiting for a refill, how about another question?”

It was easy after that. She'd refused to give up her dignity or her honesty, and those who loved that in others loved it in her. After another half hour, Mai stopped the questioning and Myra began signing books. Allie came to sit beside her, lounging back in a chair with Edwina close on her other side. Ginny made a beeline for Blue Rosenthal, and after watching for a minute, Myra decided it was a positive reconnect going on there. Gillam excused himself to drive Jane to their house. Chris took Gillam's Leica and sat where she could photograph every person who came to talk with Myra.

One enterprising woman arrived at the table with a copy of Ashante Alabama as well as Myra's book, and Allie cheerfully signed her copy. Several folks followed this example, which was great for the bookstore, Myra thought happily. Fern left early. So did the Sex Interrogator, as Myra had come to think of her.

Two dozen invitees followed Myra and Ginny home, where Gillam had sandwiches, crudite, cookies and brownies spread on the table, tea and lemonade in pitchers on the counter. Myra went to hug him exuberantly, asking “How's Mimi?”

“Sacked out” he answered, holding up a baby monitor. “What would you like to eat?”

“Not eating first” said Myra, turning to grab Ginny. “Dancing first.” Margie headed for the stereo as Ginny pushed her hips into Myra's. She whispered in Myra's ear “These pants were rather revealing, I decided, so I put on underwear when I got dressed. Ripley underwear.”

“How very vanilla of you” replied Myra.

© 2008 Maggie Jochild.


kat said...

I see, now, why you got blocked.

It's great that Myra finds her way back to public speaking and activism (not that she left, per se). And the depth of coverage that you (and she) achieved is astounding.

Jesse Wendel said...

I so love your work.

Yeah, the relationships between characters are amazing, and yeah, I'm always curious and interested to discover where the story is going.


What makes Ginny Bates The Great American Lesbian Novel are chapters such as this where Myra -- it's almost always Myra -- throws down.

Better than a post-graduate seminar in feminist studies. *smiles*


Liza Cowan said...

I really want that book.