Take me to the river, Shakesville.
Melissa McEwan's post For The Record has been seconded many places on liberal, woman-respectful blogs in the last week, so you may have already seen it. But if you have not, I say "Read it" and then "Me, too".
I have never voted for Hillary Clinton. (Though I did vote for Bill, twice, and am not a bit sorry for it.) I even wrote once that I agreed with Molly Ivins when she said she was giving advance notice, she would NOT vote for Hillary for President. But I had to publicly take back that blustering statement when Hillary became an equal contender for the nomination because, the fact is, if Spongebob Squarepants turned out to be the Democratic nominee this time around, I AM GOING TO VOTE FOR HER/HIM. The alternative is unthinkable. I found Hillary and Barack equally acceptable and equally unacceptable, although I do agree with Howie Klein's assessment that Hillary is/was demonstrably more liberal than Barack.
Yet any time I commented on a so-called progressive blog to protest hate language which was being aimed at Hillary on the basis of her being a woman, a wife, an older female, I was assumed to be a Hillary supporter. Not just that, a Boomer identity-politics-troglodyte racist C**T of a Hillary supporter who could not understand change or hope or vision if it bit me on my white, fish-smelling ass.
Yep, that's me to a tee.
Despite my best efforts, it got to me. And I've been sick inside as I've watched the testosterone-fueled fist-pumping victory dance. Because for some of these guys, too many of them, it was not just Hillary who was going down in flames. It was all the uppity bitches who ever denied their male superiority. We really can tell the difference, you know. You asswipes fool NOBODY but each other. And your exalted candidate did not lift one fucking finger to interrupt it. Which means when it's time to let YOUR values get assaulted, he'll choose silence if it serves him in the long run there, too.
PUH-LEEZE don't begin with your lizard-brain rebuttal of all the things Hillary's campaign did or said that were racist. I've read them. I agree. One does just not justify the other. Can you fucking understand that much? It's not a goddamned football game, nobody is keeping score of racism vs. sexism (except for you morons). I have and will continue to speak out just as much against racism, in all its forms. It's completely unacceptable.
And so is woman-hating.
I'm going to excerpt one part of Melissa's post here:
"...these women have witnessed this despicable but spectacular marriage of aggressive misogyny and their long-presumed allies' casual indifference to it, and wondered what fucking planet they were on that dehumanizing eliminationist rhetoric, to which lefty bloggers used to object once upon a time, was now considered a legitimate campaign strategy, as long as it was aimed at a candidate those lefty bloggers didn't like.
"And these women felt, quite rightly, like feminist principles were being thrown to the wolves in a fit of political expedience.
"And these women felt personally abandoned. By people they had considered allies.
"And while they struggled to understand just what was happening, while they were losing their way along well-traveled paths that no longer felt familiar or welcoming, they were admonished like children to stop taking things personally. They were sneered at for playing identity politics. They were demeaned as ridiculous, overwrought, hysterics. They were called bitches and cunts. They were bullied off blogs they'd called home for years.
"(But don't take that personally.)"
You have all shit in your beds, and you are too dumb to understand how. But nonviolent, steadfast refusal to cooperate with your cherished machinery will eventually get your attention. I'm asking all my sisters, mothers, daughters, and our allies to ELECT THIS DEMOCRAT, we have no healing option otherwise. He'll do some good, and he'll stop some of the death and destruction that's eating us alive. Boycotting this vote is suicide, and if you hint such a thing my way, I'll consider you self-destructive and unreliable.
After the election, though? The bot-boys are OUT. Lock the door. We know who we are, we know who stayed clean in the blogosphere, we took names and paid attention. Jesse Wendel, Lower Manhattanite, Shakesville, Crooks and Liars, Digby, Orcinus -- at the top of the list of those who can manage to fight injustice without resorting to racism or sexism. (Feel free to give praise to others in the comments here.)
Playing fair means, eventually, that only other fair players will sit down at a table with you.
But you'll always have Bush to whine with.
For those of you with energy to deal with denial, recommended reading to help you not feel crazy:
From Dave Neiwert at Orcinus, How right-wing crap polluted Democrats' political waters
Shakesville keeps a simultanous Hillary Sexism Watch and Barack Racism Watch. The latest I could find are Hillary Sexism Watch #104 and Obama Racism/Muslim/Unpatriotic/Scary Black Dude Watch Part Forty-Goddamn-Six.
A request by Melissa McEwan at Shakesville to provide concrete evidence of posts and comments on "progressive" blogs of woman-hating directed at Hillary produced this depressingly long and detailed list:
List of Leftie Misogynist Hate Against Hillary
Saturday, June 7, 2008
Two days after the anniversary of the White Night Riot, posted about on this blog, the City of San Francisco unveiled a monumental statue of former Supervisor Harvey Milk in the rotunda of City Hall. It would have been Milk's 78th birthday.
An Associated Press article about the statue relates "The bust, sculpted by Daub Firmin Hendrickson of Berkeley, Calif., and based on a photograph taken by a friend, shows Milk with a wide grin and his tie fluttering in the San Francisco wind. It sits atop a solid granite base inscribed with a prophetic statement he had recorded in the feeling he might, indeed, be slain. 'I ask for the movement to continue because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give 'em hope,' it reads."
"The bust stands in the ornate ceremonial rotunda outside the Board of Supervisors chamber, a spot where couples frequently choose to get married." Jill Manton, director of public art for the San Francisco Arts Commission, "she expects the bust to be popular with City Hall visitors, especially now that California has legalized marriage equality."
(1974 campaign photo for Elaine Noble)
Three other items in the article deserve mention. To begin with, there is a statement that Milk is "the first openly gay person elected to prominent public office anywhere in the United States". This is definitively incorrect. Two years before Milk, out lesbian and women's rights advocate Elaine Noble began serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. She served two terms as representative for the Fenway-Kenmore/Back Bay neighborhoods of Boston (which was working-class, NOT queer-friendly turf), winning 59% of the vote and making her election all the more groundbreaking. I met her in 1975 when she came to a statewide lesbian and gay political conference in Austin, Texas. I later wrote her a fan letter and she wrote me back personally. In most authentic histories (herstories), she is credited as the first out lesbian/gay person elected to public office.
Additionally, in the early 1970s, Nancy Wechsler —- a member of the Ann Arbor, Mich., city council —- came out as a lesbian during her term. In 1974, Kathy Kozachenko, also an out lesbian, was elected to fill Wechsler's seat on council. Janna Zumbrun (an open lesbian-feminist activist) was appointed to the City of Austin Human Relations Commission in October 1975, making her the first lesbian to serve in Austin city government. There are examples I easily pulled from memory; I'm sure there are others which predate Milk. First in San Francisco DOES NOT EQUAL first everywhere.
Next, the article has a quote from Anne Kronenberg, who is identified as Milk's "former aide". She was, in fact, a politically-savvy motorcycle dyke who was very close to Harvey, had been his campaign manager, and was his heir apparent.
(Anne Kronenberg, 2008, standing next to signs for Milk and her own campaign in 1978)
However, the misogyny of the Castro area was so high at that time, despite Milk's request that if something happened to him, Kronenberg be allowed to fill his shoes, the boys (and new Mayor Dianne Feinstein) would not hear of it. Eventually Harry Britt, even less of a liberal than Milk but a white gay boy (which is all that mattered to the neighborhood) was appointed to replace Harvey. I remember him as doing a mediocre job, representing no one except white gay men.
Kronenberg now serves as deputy director of policy and administration for the San Francisco Department of Health.
Lastly, the article mentions "A film on Milk's life, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn, was shot in San Francisco in the spring and will be released in the fall." I will predict here and now that the strong lesbian content of the real story surrounding Harvey Milk will be scrubbed from the film -- no mention of us leading the riot, no mention of Anne Kronenberg being prevented from taking Harvey's place, and no mention of Elaine Noble or any of the other (female) pioneers who paved the way for Milk.
To read a 2007 interview with Elaine Noble published in the Windy City Times, go to A Talk With Elaine Noble.
Friday, June 6, 2008
Over at the Dykes To Watch Out For thread, a commenter has posted a link to a Coco Wang's comic strips about the devastating 12 May earthquake in China.
These are simply extraordinary. Wang introduces them with:
"...Almost all the TV channels in China are broadcasting 24 hours non-stop of every development and stories of all the rescue operations in all damaged locations.
"I don't know how much information the BBC or any UK media received from us, I imagine the UK audiences were presented with the major developments of the incident, but you are probably unaware of many important and inside details which are only known to people inside China.
"The amount of incredibly moving stories of victims, rescuers, volunteers is simply shocking at the moment. I have been collecting newspapers of all the stories, and telling them in the form of comic strips. I hope these stories could show the UK readers the love, warmth and courage of the Chinese people, also the sad and cruel reality of the horrible 5.12 Earthquake."
Please, go read the strips. Let them boil the grief out of you. Pass it on.
(Fresh doughnuts at the Daily Dozen Donut Company, Pike Place Market, Seattle; photo by Adriana Grant, printed in Seattle Weekly)
Here's the next segment of my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. This will follow my post of May 29th.
If you are already a familiar reader, begin below. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.
The next morning at breakfast, Myra pushed over a sheet of paper to Ginny as she was finishing her tea. "It's a newish poem. I've redone it, and I think I should send it out" she said.
Ginny read the title, "Anna Cortez", and gave Myra a searching look before she read on. When she was done, she lay it down beside her teacup and said "Well. Do I get to ask questions?"
"That's why I gave it to you" said Myra.
"Who is it about?"
"Nobody. I mean, not in particular. There are parts where I was thinking about you -- most of the second stanza, and that short section near the end."
Ginny picked it back up to re-read the pertinent sections. She licked her lips and said "What about these lines where you are semaphoring across the silent void, to one who never said goodbye -- is that about Karin Barbaras?"
"Huh. Hadn't considered that. No, Gin, I was thinking about Mama there."
"Who do you know with red hair?"
"No one currently" said Myra. "That's an imaginary section."
"You have exes with red hair -- Myra the Second, and Blue Rosenthal."
"It's not about them, Ginny."
Ginny handed the paper back to Myra. "It's very good, and I'm sure it will get published. Which means a new wave of speculation about what it means. Who it means, to be specific."
"Well, we weathered the Skene rumor mill" said Myra, grinning. When Ginny did not grin back, she added "As we got through the reaction to that nude you did of a woman clearly in afterglow and clearly not me. I'm still amazed all the gossip-mongers never put together how much it looked like Bonnie."
"It did not look like Bonnie, Myra, not if you'd ever seen her naked or...." Now Ginny did smile. "All right, I get it."
Ginny stacked her cup and silverware on her empty plate and began to push back from the table.
"Gin, I'm seeing Nancy at 11:00, an extra-long session. Would you like to go with me?"
Ginny met Myra's eyes. "Yes. I think that would be good."
On the drive to Nancy's, Ginny said "I'm concerned about Margie. I think there's things she's not telling us. I can't figure out if she's unhappy or just overworked."
"Well, if there are things she's not telling us, what can we do about it?" asked Myra.
Ginny sighed. "Do you believe Frances loves her, for real?"
"I do. It's not our kind of love, maybe, but it's solid and it's the kind Margie wants" said Myra.
"I never hear about her having conversations with close friends there" said Ginny, continuing to worry out loud. "And now Amy has moved to Houston, so Margie won't even get to see her on visits home. At least Frances has Imani."
"What do you mean?" Myra kept her voice neutral.
"Another dyke to bond with at work, a chance at friendship in Frances' nutty schedule. I can't believe Margie chose to partner with someone so chronically unavailable" said Ginny.
Myra decided not to comment on this, even though they were now in front of Nancy's in case they had a blow-up. They had other issues to address.
After check-in, Myra leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, and said "I still don't know what the run to Anacortes was all about. Not entirely. I have this absorbing writing project, I have Gillam and Carly at home, I'm working on my demons, but..." She trailed off.
Ginny waited half a minute, then said "At the risk of being told I'm making it all about me, Myra -- is it something to do with me?"
"Maybe" said Myra. Ginny was very still. Nancy scooted beside her and began her hocus-pocus.
Myra continued in a weary voice, "I don't know why I'm discontented. Maybe it's a midlife crisis. The thing is, Ginny, I can't think of what I'd ask for you and me to do differently. I'm glad for our new freedom. I think, 'Well, I could cook less', but I love cooking, even if it's just for me, and I don't feel exploited around it which makes me a very lucky woman indeed. I think about getting a kitten or puppy, but I'm about to start traveling on and off for months, I can't have a baby animal waiting at home for me. When I go over the list of what I see as my purpose in being born, I've achieved most of my goals, and the few that remain, like restoring human justice and respect for women, well, I figure it's going to take more than my lifetime. Although I am depressed about that, I have to admit."
"Maybe that's it, then" said Ginny.
"What? Not achieving the Revolution?"
"No, I meant your list of reasons for existence. Maybe you need some new reasons" said Ginny.
Myra leaned back to stare out the window. "Where would I start?" she said to herself. She looked back at Ginny. "Are you feeling discontented?" she asked.
"No. Scared, often" said Ginny. "I'm doing my best not to run it at you -- "
"I know you are" said Myra. "But we read each other too well." She kept watching Ginny's face. She folded one hand into the other on her belly and began speaking slowly.
"You've shared everything you can with me, Ginny. Your body, your eggs, your art, income, nights, hell, half the food I eat comes from seeds you started. I honestly don't want to change that. I can say, unequivocally, I want you close and open."
She saw Ginny's shoulders go down. Scared to death, she thought.
"I know I fucked with our way of doing things by haring off for Anacortes, Ginny. I know it will take time to come up with clear balance again. But how can I do that if I still don't know what's wrong? And if you're right, which my gut says you are, about the life goals thing: I'll have to ask you to take even more risks with me. Most of those goals we agreed on, we shared, at the very beginning of our relationship. Even if you are in on my process of coming up with new ones, there's no guarantee you'll share them. What will we do then?"
Either Nancy had broken through in what she was doing with Ginny, or Myra's honesty had turned the tide, because Ginny's face was resuming normal color. Ginny said "Then I'll change, or we'll split up. Sometimes people do split up for healthy reasons, Myra."
Her voice was astoundingly calm. Myra said "I don't think I could bear that."
"Nor I. But if it has to be, we'll find a way."
"This is your worst nightmare, isn't it, Ginny?"
"Has been for a few weeks. It helps to have it out in the open, a little."
Nancy switched her attention to Myra. "Let's focus on how you're feeling about it, instead of you trying to empathize with Ginny" Nancy suggested.
"I have no...examples for how to do this kind of transition" said Myra. "It feels like it took me 30 years to be able to take the first leap, and I lucked out with Ginny."
"Sounds like you're as scared as she is" said Nancy. "Do you believe she can make a commitment to go through this with you?" She muscle tested, and it was a resounding "No".
Myra began crying. "In my world, if you ask people to change too much, to take on your own struggles with you, they either say no or they can't do it. Except for every now and then."
"Can't push your luck, is that what you're thinking?" asked Nancy. "Better not poke the bear?"
"It isn't only how much I love her" wept Myra. "I like her more than anybody on the planet, she's my best buddy, how can I risk losing that?"
Nancy kept clearing aura underbrush, until Myra was still again -- shaky, but still.
Ginny waited until Myra's gaze returned to her before saying "This is for my good, too, sweetheart. Not just because I want to keep you in my life. It's an -- opportunity. I know, like the joke. But I believe it. I watched my mother refuse to ever, once, leave her shit-filled little hole -- "
"You are not your mother, Ginny Bates" protested Myra.
"I know. I'm still learning from her example, though. I have to embrace this, or I'll stay scared in that sick way instead of an interesting way. You know what I mean. So, let's try reinventing our relationship. Where do we start?"
Myra blurted out, "I do want you to travel with me while I do research, I want to sleep with you and tell you what I learned that day over dinner, but I -- I want the focus to be on me. Even if you're painting in the hotel while I'm out at the archives. I want it to be my turn while we travel."
Ginny was jolted, she could tell. After a minute, she said "I didn't know...I've been...You got it, Myra. We'll step it out, like a new dance."
Myra cried again, relief mixed with ancient grief for her mother. Was there no end to it?
By the time she finished crying, the first line of a poem was in her head. She pulled out her pad instead of taking the tissue Nancy offered her and jotted it down before blowing her nose. Ginny laughed in delight. "Now that's a good sign!" she said.
On the way home, they went to Pike, ate clam chowder and shopped. Ginny remarked "Frances says we should be drinking a glass of wine every night, that it has serious health benefits", so they corralled the most experienced clerk at the wine shop and stocked up on bottles of recommended but non-alcoholic vintage. Myra went to the Daily Dozen for a box of doughnuts, Ginny found lychee nuts and a new kind of lox, and their overloaded arms got a break when they piled their bags on the floor in Metsker's Maps to buy city guides to all the places Myra needed to visit. They detoured to rub the brass pig before heading home.
After the perishables were stashed, Ginny spread out the big U.S. map they'd just purchased on the dining table while Myra retrieved her research itinerary. Ginny pretended to channel Margie as she created a color-coded guide to travel based on Myra's most far-flung wish list. They were still at it when Carly and Gillam arrived home.
Myra looked up with a grin and said "We went to Piroshky Piroshky. Two dozen of all kinds, heat me up some too, please. And if that's not enough greasy white flour for you, there's doughnuts."
"Plus all kinds of fresh produce" Ginny had to add. Gillam headed straight for the kitchen, but Carly came to lean on Myra's shoulder and say, with an appreciative whistle, "This'll take you months."
"I know" said Myra happily. "I'm waiting until September to begin, however." He squeezed her shoulder and gave in to the siren call of eclairs.
Ginny got some magic stick-um and helped Myra hang the map over her Skene screen at the end of her study. She copied the list of cities and said "I'll research my own attractions for each place, but I promise, I'll fit my schedule around yours."
"Half the time" said Myra. "I don't want to keep you completely away from Painterland."
"Are you sure?" Ginny's look was keen.
"I am right now. We'll keep talking."
Their high spirits were infectious. After dinner, they played wild water volleyball in the pool with the boys until Myra had used her inhaler twice and stopped to rest. She sat on the chaise longue and threw Beebo's webby toy into the yard over and over, while Ginny harvested zucchini complete with blossoms, and Gillam kept spiking the volleyball down on Carly's head, yelling "Resistance is futile!"
Allie stopped by for lunch the next day. Myra had made spaghetti carbonara while Ginny put together an artichoke heart and cherry tomato salad. Allie said "I see Frances is having a strong impact on ya'lls eating habits."
"This dish is so easy" marveled Myra. "I could see having it for breakfast."
"How'd the visit with Nancy go?"
They filled her in, and she caught them up on her latest creative and business dealings. After eating, Myra took Allie to her study to show her the map.
"Listen, while I got you here -- one of the things I need to cover is the women's bars, or woman-friendly bars if that's all they had, in American cities. Before clean and sober closed most of 'em down. I was trying to make a list of those in the Bay Area, can you tell me what you remember? I'll get addresses from city directories at the local libraries, but I have to have a name to start with."
Allie sat down on the daybed and said "Amelia's, Peg's Place, Scott's." All of which she had frequented.
"Got those. Plus the Bacchanal in Berserkly, and Ollie's in Oakland" said Myra.
"Ollie's was later" warned Allie. "Are you including coffeehouses, too? Like Mother G's?"
"Forgot about that one, it was closed by the time we got there but everybody was still talking about it" said Myra, making a note. "Yeah, I've got a separate list for other kinds of gathering spots."
"Maud's" said Allie. "Uh, that one at Mission and 20th -- Irish name..."
"Kelly's" said Myra. She had a memory of being hit on at the bar there.
"Kelley's Saloon!" said Allie. "With a second E. Oh, and that older dyke place, butch-femme kinda, on the way to South San Francisco -- Hart's Delight. Good pool table."
"After hours, I know everybody, men and women, went to The End Up. Anything else?"
"Wild Side West" said Allie. "Plus some club off Precita, and there was one in Marin County we went to that night after some event up there. Sorry, I can't come up with a name for it. Listen, get hold of a copy of the Women's Yellow Pages, or old issues of Plexus, they'll have listings, I bet."
"Good idea" said Myra, writing steadily.
"I know for a fact they was a dozen women's bars if you include East Bay and down south" said Allie. "One night Donnie and I decided to try to have a drink in each one. We couldn't drive after six places, though."
Myra grinned. "You must've been having more than one drink in each, if you got tanked that fast."
"She was buying me Chivas" Allie said reminiscently. Ginny, who had joined them, looked a little uncomfortable as she always did when they talked about their boozing days.
"So, listen" said Allie, changing the subject. "We all done with our renovation at our building -- what a trip, to say our building and mean it really MINE -- and we want to host the Fourth over there. If that's okay with ya'll. We can some back here for swimming in the evening, if you like."
"That sounds great!" said Myra. "Your new grill is way better than ours, and we can bring whatever dishes you want, come up with a menu and let us know."
Allie was pleased. "Margie gonna make it?"
"Don't know yet" said Ginny. "If she does, she'll have Narnia."
"We only got a deck, no grassy pooping zone" said Allie.
"We'll walk her" assured Myra. "She'll be thrilled to have a new territory where she can beg for handouts."
"If Carly's mom is coming to town, ask her and Thea too" said Allie. In a low voice, she added "Thea be worlds better than Jughead." As they were laughing, she turned to Ginny and said "I got these proofs with me, and they have some art suggestions that I'm iffy about, can I run 'em by you?"
"Come into my parlor" said Ginny, standing to go with Allie into her studio. She gave Myra a kiss and whispered "I ate organic bacon for you today, and liked it. Think about what you might want to do for me in return." She left before Myra started blushing.
© 2008 Maggie Jochild.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
(Childhood diary entry of Maggie Jochild. Date corresponds to date in Brasil, where we heard of the news.)
In December 1967. when I was 12, my family moved to Aracaju, Brasil for a year. We lived on a one-block-long street near the edge of the city, our house facing north. Two or three houses to our east, on the same side of the street, was the residence of a young woman named Lucia, who was around 18 years old. Not long after we moved in, she came to introduce herself and was a frequent visitor, primarily to practice her English, possibly also to keep the rest of the street informed about our Yanqui ways. She was very nice to us.
However, she had older brothers living in the same household who were hostile to us, apparently because we were from the United States. I don't remember how many brothers there were -- somewhere between 3 to 6 -- because there were also other young men usually hanging out there as well. They were all thin, shorter than U.S. men, and most of them wore berets. My mother said they were Socialists. They either did not speak English or refused to, and whenever we walked by with our mother, if they were out front, they called things out to us. Things which did not sound friendly or nice.
They never harassed me or my little brother. It was my parents, particularly my mother, who were their target. One day, one of them gave the Nazi salute as we walked by on the way to market. My mother's face, already wooden, flushed with rage. She gave them an involuntary glance. Immediately all of them lined up, hooting and yelling "Heil fuhrer!" as they stood in Nazi salute. Mama was angry the rest of the day. She refused to explain it to me, aside from spitting out "They were just trying to find the most offensive thing they could do, and they nailed it". As a result, for several years, I associated Socialism with Nazis, until a high school teacher helped me disentangle the two.
I myself wasn't offended. Intrigued, is more like it. They looked a lot like the iconic black-and-white shading of Che that I saw on T-shirts when I was a teenager, and I wondered why they hated us so. I even asked Lucia about it. She was embarrassed, said "They are in the University, I'm sorry", and could not offer further clarification.
Most nights at 10:00, once the liquid heat of the day was beginning to abate slightly, my mother would turn on our shortwave radio and we'd listen to BBC news. It was the only immediate source we had for what was going on back in the States -- we had no TV, and there was no English-language newspaper in Aracaju. We could get copies of Time and other American magazines at the bibliotecas, but they were anywhere from two to four weeks after the date of publication. Hearing the U.S. events of 1967 and 1968 filtered through British sensibilities was strange and, at times, infuriating to my parents. It was exhilarating to me, however.
It increasingly sounded like our nation had taken complete leave of its senses, that year. Like dispatches breathlessly sent out from a revolution.
Early on, we had learned to be wary of telling Brasileros of where in the United Sates, exactly, we were from. At first we had tried to explain that most of our family lived in North Texas, near Dallas. But Dallas was a red flag: It was where JFK had been assassinated. The next questions would be "Did you see Kennedy get shot? Are you related to the people who did it? How could you allow that to happen?" We changed our story to simply "Texas", but often, even that was enough to invoke association with JFK. Bill and I eventually began claiming "Oklahoma", unless we were talking to another American or a European.
(Bobby and Jackie Kennedy grieve during JFK's funeral, 1963)
The day Robert Kennedy was killed, we did not need to wait for the BBC broadcast. Early that afternoon, during the hot part of the day when people stayed indoors on their beds in front of a fan, there was an growing ruckus coming from the street. There were shouts and wails of anguish. I went to awaken Mama, and as we stood in the living room window, wondering with the fear common to that year, what dire thing had just occurred, one of Lucia's brothers appeared at our front gate, screaming and shaking his fist at us. The words we could understand were "Kennedy!" and "Texas!". Within a minute, the rest of his cohort plus several neighbors were in a livid cluster in front of our house. All of the young men were shouting -- they could see us, though Mama was ineffectually trying to make Bill and I get out of sight.
Our housekeeper, Suliadora, came to the front of the house from where she, too, had been napping. She listened for a minute, and her beautiful dark face went ashy: Roberto Kennedy had been killed. Shot by a madman. In California. He was dead.
I was beside myself with grief. Surely it was a mistake. But I could not go out and ask Lucia, who stood on the sidewalk, silent, even her friendly eyes now accusatory. We were somehow complicit in his death, and I didn't know how to bear that, either.
We had no phone, no way to call my father out in his field camp or to request assistance. Suliadora sat in the front room, listening to Brasilian radio with Mama and translating what she could. I went back to my bedroom and lay on my bed. In two months I would turn 13. I didn't know how to live in the world as it was. Even with my hope and determination, if they were killing off anybody who actually tried to make things better, what chance did I have?
By the time Daddy started for home, riots and anti-American protests were many places in the city. He sat in the back of the jeep, with the cover on it, while his Brasilian crew chief Joaquim drove and another local guy sat in the passenger seat, to get them safely through the angry crowds. When he got to our house, Joaquim took Suliadora home -- she was his "second wife", a common practice in Brasil at that time. This meant we had no vehicle. My father got his shotgun and slept on the couch in the living room. By the next morning, things were calmer. Still, he didn't go to work that day and we did not go out to the market or anywhere else for several days.
(Robert Kennedy visits with California farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez during Chavez's 25-day hunger strike in early March, 1968)
I thought about my state of mind those few days in September 2001, after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Then, also, I and those closest to me simultaneously grieved and tried to understand how events had gone from A to B. Terrorism is insanity but it never occurs in a vacuum, and some of the circumstances which foster it can be prevented. I learned that in Brasil.
For a few days in 2001, it seemed as if we might, as a nation, consider the bigger picture, try to take leadership and an honorable route in the face of madness and destruction. Then Bush and his End-Timers began their drumbeat of revenge and cynical exploitation, and any chance at honest, effective grief was interrupted. That unsiphoned grief now sits like an abscess underneath our national skin. There are those who hope, who believe a new Presidency will give us a chance at curettage.
I would believe it much more possible if the reins were being assumed by someone experienced in more than political machinery. The Kennedys were raised to assume power but also to assume responsibility, to maintain emotional and spiritual connection to those less fortunate. They were taught to see it as fortune, not virtue. This ethic is seldom found in the owning class now. Certainly it is completely absent from the Bush dynasty.
John Edwards, I believe, has it, and probably also Joseph Biden. Since, given our current process, only those who are from the elite classes have a chance of being elected to high office (despite mythology to the contrary -- and there are many ways to be elite, don't kid yourself), I look among those ranks for the precious few whose conscience and idealism overrides arrogance and fear of losing their place on the ladder. Content of character, as Dr. King put it -- another radical, unafraid voice we lost in 1968. He had the guts to speak out against Vietnam and ALL war, ANY war, as immoral and a racial issue. He got it.
As did Bobby. From what I've read, he was more radical than Jack, more determined to use this nation's wealth to make life better for all of us, in the belief that working for the common good raised us all higher together. (How can it not? When has that honest approach ever failed?)
Our nominee is going to inherent an unspeakable mess, and that's if the elections are allowed to occur honestly, which is in some doubt. He's going to need worlds of help to face the temptations of power and secret exploitation handed him in his upgraded office. Sadly, he is no Bobby, nor even a Jack. I, and all of us, must help him as much as we can, with both support and keeping him on task, until we can find and elect leaders who change and grow with experience, who care more for right than appearance, who struggle daily against insularity and expedience, and who do not act on fear. Even when fear is justified.
Thank you for living a life that endures, Bobby. Thank you and Ethel for a passel of civic-minded children and grandchildren. I'm sorry I could not keep you safe. I am sorry for us all.
(During his brother's 1960 presidential campaign, Robert Kennedy enjoys a light moment)
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
(Amanda as she looked when we were newly friends, in Austin, TX 1998)
It's the birthday of my dear, great friend, Amanda. We've known each other since 1995, when Amanda was working at WATER House (Women's Access To Electronic Resources) here in Austin. The very first time I got on the internet, it was Amanda who sat at my elbow, teaching me how to join the cyberworld. Yep, she's the one who started me on this path. What Amanda hath wrought.
Amanda has seen me through several incarnations, with unfailing support, honesty, and humor. I love her unconditionally.
She now lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts with her wife Allison. Two years ago, Amanda called to tell me they had decided to get married and to ask me if I would not only attend, but also write something for their wedding ceremony. She was a little nervous about asking me. She's a Generation X dyke, and she was afraid I'd tell her all the reasons why marriage sucked, even (or especially) for lesbians. Instead, I was deeply honored, genuinely thrilled for her and Allison, and it started me thinking...
(Allison and Amanda, 2006)
This was early June 2006. I was trying to imagine myself as a young dyke who was able to overcome my sexual abuse history far earlier than I did, able to choose the right partner for myself and make a lifelong commitment. There were other influences at the time -- particularly my brother Bill's yartzeit and a haunting video of this guy named Matt dancing at various places around the world. But the three came together in my unconscious and I began dreaming a series of magic dreams which, on June 20th, came down on paper as the beginning of my novel Ginny Bates: About two women who were able to do what Amanda and Allison are doing. (With all the details drawn from my life, not theirs, let me add for the sake of privacy and ending groundless rumors.)
The best parts of the characters Sima and Edwina in Ginny Bates are from Amanda. Likewise, Allison is found here and there in various characters, although, paradoxically, not in Allie who is named in her honor. Other tie-ins are that in GB: Myra writes a series of science-fiction novels (which become best-sellers) based on future life on a planet named Skene. Skene is located in the Alhena solar system -- and Alhena just happens to be Amanda's stage name as a belly dancer. Also, on Skene there is a personage named the Sigrist who is central to life there. Turns out, Sigrist is an ancient Scandinavian word that means sexton or watchkeeper. It is also a family name from Allison's lineage. Thus, Myra pays them homage with Skene.
Well, okay, it was me who wrote Skene. (All of which appears online at this blog, by the way, Chapters One through Fifty-Five. If you want to explore gender from a non-binary view, if you want to think about social organization when environmental limits are extreme, if you'd like to see a culture that has moved beyond class and race as constructs, and if you want to read some extremely hot woman-on-woman sex -- well, kinda woman-on-woman -- you'll like Skene.)
(Allison and Amanda leaving their wedding, 8 July 2006, Belmont, MA)
Amanda also appears as one of the major characters in my short story, "The Muffdivers of American Literature Tour", which can be read at this blog in my Emily Dickinson post.
Amanda and Allison are both the children of divorce, lost their mothers far too early, and not only accept feminism as their due but understand it as well as those of us who invented it. They are living proof that childhood pain and misinformation can be worked through to find happiness and a healthy relationship.
She cuts a huge swath in this world. In addition to running WATER, she worked at Austin's only women's bookstore, BookWoman, and was the website designer for Feminist Bookstore News. When we lost her to Massachusetts, she was for several years a high administrator in the Boston Jewish Film Festival. Now she is web and publications manager for a large New England gay and lesbian advocacy organization.
(Amanda at PSAW in Burlington, VT, November 2006)
I always think of Amanda when I watch that great Hepburn/Tracy film, Adam's Rib, because of the comedic dirge in it, "Farewell, Amanda" (written by Cole Porter but not credited at the time). However, instead of leaving you with those sad lines, I'll invoke another Porter song, one which completely expresses my feelings for Amanda: You're The Top.
(Bing Crosby, Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, and Zizi Jeanmaire in "Anything Goes")
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
(Yellow Hat, painted 1936 by Norman Lewis)
This is another short story I wrote several years ago. It, too, is almost literally true, about the beginning of a great friendship with a coworker who went on to become my business partner in San Francisco, and I became godmother to her eldest son. We insisted on communicating across boundaries, without being defensive, and it worked.
And yeah, there's an incident in this story that made its way, in an altered form, into Ginny Bates.
One morning after Frankie had worked there three months, Phylecia looked over her keyboard and said, “Can I ask you something?” Frankie thought this might not be how to spell a word; she suspected it coincided with the absence of Evelyn, their boss, from the office. She nodded. Phylecia demanded, “Do you like men?”
I stopped being a separatist two years ago. But that isn’t what she’s asking. “Which men?”
“Don’t matter which, that’s not my point. Do you li-ike men?”
“Oh. Well, not in that way, no.”
“I could tell. And that scrawny-ass girl who come for lunch with you, she your girlfriend, right? No offense, about the scrawny-ass, I mean.”
Tyler’s ass is scrawny. “Yes, she is. How could you tell?”
“You look in each other eyes. And you don’t dress yourself in a way any man going to look at. You don’t use make-up, and you could use some, you know, with those dark patches around your eyes, no offense.”
I have severe asthma; they’re called allergic shiners.
“And your hair so short you could scrub out pots with it. And you don’t got on a bra, I can see your ta-tas floating around under there. Why you wear men’s undershirts?”
“They’re not undershirts, they’re T-shirts with things written on them.”
“Like what things? Show me what that one is you got on now.”
Oh, shit, was this the one that said Fuck The Police? “It’s just slogans, like bumperstickers.”
“So what you got against men?”
“I just prefer women.” Phylecia’s arms were crossed and her head tilted back. Frankie leaned forward, “I mean, you’re always telling me about the things you do with your friends Laquita, Pamehla, Marquita, and all your sisters and sisters-in-law, especially your favorite -- (Watch out, it’s pronounced like vagina) -- Regina. I mean, I know you’ve got at least a couple of boyfriends --”
“I got one boyfriend, K.C. That Jamal, he on the side.”
“Okay, but my point is, most of your free time you spend with women. You tell each other everything, you support each other when you’re down, you look after each other’s kids...you’re like a small town of women that the men just visit sometimes. And that’s how I live, except we don’t even have the men over sometimes.”
“I hope and pray you did not mean what you just said.”
“Me and my girlfriends, my kin, we not like you and your bunch. We do not do what you all do.”
“Well, not exactly, no--”
“I’ve read that Farrakhan trash about how black women be too close to one another, how we drying up the balls on black men, how the fact that we keep each other alive to raise the next generation somehow keep our men from getting jobs, make them take crack. We too strong for a man, he say. Well, I’m not too strong for a real man, and I am NOT no dyke. And don’t you get any ideas that way. You don’t know what the hell you talking about!”
“So how I live does keep men away, but how you live doesn’t?”
“You don’t know what the hell you talking about. You never been to my house, you never met my friends.”
“So ask me over!”
“You think I can’t? All right, I’m throwing a baby shower for my niece Janine this Saturday afternoon. You invited. You don’t have to bring a present, but dress nice. And no Taylor.”
“Tyler.” Saturday was when her group was writing flyers for the Chiapas benefit. Well, they’d have to get along without her. “Where do you live?”
The next Monday when Frankie arrived at work, Phylecia looked up to grin at her. “I got to say, I didn’t think you’d show up Saturday.”
“Well, neither did I. But then I thought it’d be good for me to be the only white person in a room for a change.”
“I figured you come to make me eat crow.”
“Yeah, that too. I had a good time, everyone was really nice to me. But, tell me honestly, was I dressed all right? I mean, I didn’t have on gloves or a hat.”
“You okay. But I told you no present.”
“Why--didn’t Janine like the baby counting book?
“She from EMERYVILLE. They don’t speak Swahili there.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Thanks for having me over.”
Evelyn was out of the office much of the time now, drumming up business. One of her best sources was the concierge at the expensive hotel across the street, full of executives needing last minute reports and revisions. When Evelyn ran over there after lunch, Phylecia waited till they heard the elevator ding down the hall.
“You know, Frankie, I used to date this white guy, professor at the university. I went to a do at his house once, and they was this fairy there, no offense, another teacher from his school. So this white boy starts telling me how he is OPpressed just like me, how me and him are on the same side ‘cause people hate us just the same. I let him say his piece, and then I say there ain’t no way we the same. I say, he probably the only one in his family turn out that way, but all my folks is black like me. I say, maybe his kind mostly be florists or hairstylists, but that pay a whole lot better than hotel maid or cafeteria work. And I say, wherever I go, I stand out, but if he just quit waving his pink little hands around in the air so much or bobbing his head like he Katherine Hepburn, he could drive through Contra Costa County without worrying about where to stop for gas.”
“Did you really say the Katherine Hepburn thing?”
When Phylecia arrived at work the next Monday, she dropped her purse with a sigh. Frankie looked up from her desk.
“Did you have a good weekend?”
“No, ma’am, I did not. I suffered what you’d call a disappointment. I went out Saturday with Shareema to the club, K.C. being in Florida and all, and struck up with a fine-looking man. Buying me drinks, talking sweet, and when I got me a chance, I checked out his hands, and girl, that man had thumbs as big as corny dogs.” Phylecia paused significantly.
“Girl, don’t you be telling me you don’t know what I’m talking about!”
“Honestly, I don’t.”
“THUMBS, Frankie. I mean, even you being the way you are, no offense, you surely heard you can tell the size of a man’s business by how big his thumbs are?”
“You have got to be kidding.”
“Never failed me yet. So, I took that man on home with me, and after preliminaries, I go put on my baby doll gown, come back, turn down the sheets, and what do I see?”
I don’t think I can ask.
“It wasn’t even as big as my pinkie, and that with it HARD! I got a two-year-old nephew with a bigger one. I said, uh-uh, this’ll never do. I got right back out of that bed and asked that man to move on.”
“Sure did. I ain’t got the time to be wasting on midgets, not me. Who do he think he is, not telling a woman about his problem?”
“Oh, Phylecia, I mean, there’s a part of me that doesn’t care, you know, but you must have just about killed that guy.”
“HIM? I’m the one who got cheated here, remember. I told Shareema, that man must have had thumb augmentation surgery or something, only if he did, he had ‘em work on the wrong part.”
“I’d never have figured you for a size queen.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You won’t have sex with a man unless he’s got a large penis?”
“Listen at you, saying ‘penis’ with your mouth all prissed up. I like to be FULL, girlfriend--technique don’t have nowhere to go if it ain’t snug.”
“Well, actually, we look at hands too, but it’s a more direct kind of measure.”
“Now you’re being nasty.”
On Friday Phylecia arrived in a peacock blue linen suit with a cigarette skirt and cropped blazer. Her high heels matched exactly. Frankie said, “Wow.”
“I spent way too much money on this, girl, but this my color. This blue and some kinds of dark green, they go best with my coloring what I got from my daddy, him mostly geechee. Or so LaShann say.”
“La-SHANN is a she, and WE all don’t be confusing boy and girl names like you and Taylor do.”
Well, shit, LeVar is a male name but LeShann is female? And what exactly is Geechee? Maybe Tyler will know.
“You’re right, that color is stunning on you.”
Just before lunch, Frankie finished a job for a VIP staying at the hotel. Evelyn was out again, and Phylecia offered to run it over. Frankie thought she wanted to show off the new clothes, and couldn’t blame her. After Phylecia left, Frankie turned on the radio and was so engrossed in zydeco she didn’t notice Phylecia come back until she crumpled in a heap on the floor just inside the door.
“Oh, my god, Phylecia, what’s wrong?” She was crying; she’d never seen Phylecia cry.
“That COCKsucker!” Phylecia’s mascara-stained tears threatened to drip on her collar. Frankie grabbed a Kleenex and wiped her cheeks.
“I went to the concierge’s desk, but she wasn’t there. I stood there a minute waiting on her--I wasn’t sure if she’s supposed to pay right away.” Phylecia was crying so hard the words were coming out in bursts. “These businessmen come out of the elevator and pass by the desk. One of them stops and don’t even look at me, he just say ‘I need a cab’, and he reach out a hand with a five in it. He just let go of it, not even looking at me, sure I’ll snatch at his fucking money. It flutter to the carpet, and that catch his eye. He stare at me like I’m DIRT. He would never have done that to you, no matter how you dress.”
Frankie’s brain went slick with anger. She squatted down by Phylecia and said, “You’re right, and he’ll never do it again. I’ll be back.” She started for the door.
“Wait, what you doing?” Phylecia pulled herself up. “I’m going with you.”
In the hall they met Evelyn. Before she could ask what was up, Phylecia began shouting, “That HOTEL of yours full of cocksuckers, we’re gonna kick some Armani ass.” The elevator closed on Evelyn’s protests.
At the hotel, Frankie demanded, “You see him in here?” Phylecia looked carefully and shook her head. The concierge was still absent. Frankie went to the front desk and said, “A group of men just left here in a cab. I’d like their names, please. This woman can describe one of them for you.”
“We don’t give out the names of guests.”
“You’ll either give it to me or to the police.” Frankie deliberately upped the volume another notch.
“Let me get the manager.”
“And the concierge while you’re at it.” She heard a muffled snort from Phylecia.
The manager tried to wave her into the back, but she stood her ground. “A man, a guest here, just verbally assaulted my friend. We want his name so she can file charges against him.”
“Which room are you in?”
“We work across the street, ask the concierge, we do jobs for your guests that she arranges. We are, for all intents and purposes, in your employ, and we do not have to tolerate racist attacks from your clients!”
“Yes, racist. I understand that you are in a business where you frequently have to eat out of people’s butts, and I don’t disrespect you for that, we all choose our battles. But as a white woman, I will not tolerate racism in my presence. I will not patronize an establishment that allows hate to be spewed in its public spaces. I want that man’s name, and I want him to be told he cannot behave that way here.”
The concierge arrived, pale and bewildered. “Frankie?” But before Frankie could go on, the manager said, “I don’t know who you are talking about. We can’t give you his name because we don’t know who he is.”
“Phylecia here can describe him to your desk clerk; she’ll be able to put a name to him.”
“No, she won’t, she doesn’t know who you’re talking about either. Now, I must ask you to lower your voice--”
“Why?--So the other guests won’t hear you trying to cover up for some bastard of industry who thinks he can pay for the right to treat people of color like shit, as long as he’s in your hotel?” She had the attention of everyone in the lobby now, even the suits at the payphones across the entryway. Behind her, Phylecia murmured, “Uh-oh, rent-a-cops here.”
Frankie wound it up. “What’s the difference between him behaving like he did and you protecting him from confrontation? Is this the official policy of your chain? What’s your name?--I want to spell it right in the letter we’ll be sending.” She took a step toward the manager, who flinched back before he realized she was reading his nametag. With a flourish, she wheeled, linked arms with Phylecia, and they exited out the side door a few steps ahead of the security guards.
They made it as far as the bus stop before collapsing into laughter.
“My lord, Frankie, that man will be making his maids check everybody’s luggage for Klan robes! You act like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth most of the time, but girl, I just wish I’d had a camera on you!”
“Come on, Phylecia. Let’s go to North Beach and have some cannoli, I’ll buy.”
“What about Evelyn?”
“Be my guest.” Still giggling, they started down the street.
“So, what you and Taylor got on for this weekend?”
“Well, our group has an action planned for Sunday--”
“Listen at you, saying ‘action’ like most of the time you sit around real still, discussing how you finally gonna move. You make it sound like my Aunt Alva talking about her bowels.”
© 2008 Maggie Jochild
Sunday, June 1, 2008
(Mary Jo Atkins, Midcontinent Supply, Bowie, Texas, 1945)
When I was 13 we moved back to the tiny North Texas town where my mother, her mother, and three generations before that had grown up (and gone to the same school). What remained was the school, a gas station, and an occasionally-meeting Baptist church, plus houses and trailers of people who had not yet moved away.
My mother was valedictorian in high school. She was also two years younger than her classmates because she had twice been moved ahead a grade. Smart as hell. And, I slowly learned, had a wild streak. Her father was a Wobbly and that whole line was radical as well as bookish, so I figure it comes from them.
After we moved back to that town, from the people who knew my mother when she was a teenager, I learned things nobody else in our family had a clue about. Because of our relationship, I was able to go to her and ask her about these rumors. Most of them turned out to be true. The one that was false is that she had an abortion as a teenager -- which did seem far-fetched, given the region and the era.
Mama used her young age as an excuse not to date boys individually. She'd go out with groups of friends, but her scrapbook was choked with photos of the girls she knew, not boys. When she was 16 and had just graduated, that summer she had an affair with another girl, some years older than Mama, named Mary Nell Howard. Mary Nell had a motorcycle, which was an extraordinary rarity in 1943 in rural Texas. She would pull up to the farmhouse, Mama would run out and hop on the back, and away they'd go. Montague County was dry (as was most of North Texas). You had to cross the state line into Oklahoma to get liquor. But Mary Nell knew an Italian immigrant in the county seat who made bootleg chianti, so they'd roar over to his place and pick up a bottle, which Mama would hold in public view as they zoomed off to wherever they went -- some place out in the boonies -- to drink and make love.
One weekend Mary Nell didn't show. Mama had gotten a job in the nearby Big Town, Bowie (population 3000) as a secretary, so she went off to work on Monday worried sick. That evening, Mary Nell showed up wearing a cheap gold band. She had gone to Wichita Falls with some folks, gotten drunk and married an airman. The breakup was just that brutal. Mama nearly died. Her childhood friend, Son Henry (a distant cousin), talked her through the next few weeks.
Thing is, Son had been in love with Mama all their lives. His sister Margie was Mama's best friend, same grade, and Son was waiting for Mama to love him back.
Mama instead focused on her job, and quickly got promoted from secretary to bookkeeper at Midcontinent Supply. She still ran around with her friends, but she garnered the attention of the manager at her job, a married man named Johnny Cooper. Johnny was half Comanche, and his wife was not just full-blood but a member of a prominent tribal family across the border in Oklahoma. Johnny lived in Bowie during the week and went home to his family on the weekends.
Eventually Johnny hit on Mama, and, with no word ever from Mary Nell, she said sure, why not. They began having an affair. Despite Johnny's efforts, the scandal of course broke. After a few months, one day while Johnny was out of the office, a well-dressed older woman pulled up in a nice car and came in, looking for Mama. It was his wife, driving down from Oklahoma. She said, in a voice everyone else could hear, "So you're the piece of trash who's been shacking up with my husband. Well, honey, have fun while you can. He'll never leave me -- I've got control of the money. You're not his first and you won't be his last." Then she turned and left.
Mama was beside herself. Once again, she turned to Son Henry. She wanted to be done with Johnny, but she was afraid if she broke up with him, he'd fire her. And she really wanted that job. It was her doorway to independence. So she and Son came up with a plan. They let themselves be seen on main street in Son's open roadster with a bottle of whiskey on the seat between them and a folded blanket in the back seat. They headed slowly out of town and went to the lake, where Mama sat on the blanket and drank steadily, weeping not over Johnny but Mary Nell, while Son tended a small fire and kept his hands to himself. In the morning, they made sure to be seen at a local diner.
That's all it took. Word got back to Johnny swiftly. He confronted Mama, saying everybody knew Son was in love with her (which was jolting news to her) and now she'd cheated on him. He did fire her, after all. When I was in high school, Johnny was elected mayor of another nearby town. I never caught a glimpse of him, though.
Mama went to work as a soda jerk at a drugstore. Crappy pay, but one of her good friends worked the same shift with her and they were both lookers, got some tips that way. A crew of doodlebuggers was in town, looking for oil. They heard about the gorgeous babes making ice cream sundaes at the drugstore, and one night after work, a few of them dropped in to order shakes and have an ogle. One of the young men asked if he could come back after the drugstore closed and walk Mama home to her boarding house. She said sure, why not. Five weeks later they got married by a Justice of the Peace. That was my father.
He told me, several times, that he fell in love with her the minute he laid eyes on her. My mother, on the other hand, said that Daddy looked kind and he promised they would live in Bowie so she could find bookkeeping work, advance a career but stay close to her friends. She was right about the kind part, but not anything else.
When I was 17 and fell in love with my high school history teacher, and our affair was the talk not just of our town but the entire county, Mama pulled me into her bedroom one day after school and told me about her and Mary Nell, about Son and Johnny. She said I was going to get shredded, that this teacher would leave me to return to her husband. Then she said "I learned to stick to men, honey, because they'll never get close enough to break my heart."
But I had a date to meet my new lover out in the country, and I sat there impatiently, finally saying "I'm not you, Mama. Can I go now?"
I have a photo of Mary Nell. I'd give a hell of a lot to talk with her, but have not been able to track her down. After Mama died, I was the only person in our family who knew any of this. But the only reason I knew it, really, was because of the stories I heard from Mama's high school friends. When I began turning out like Mama, well, you can just imagine the gossip. And, of course, I followed up on what I heard with Mama. She and I talked, really talked. Even when it was godawful uncomfortable. I've kept her secrets until now. The rest of my family is dead, and it was a benign secret.
Or maybe not. Maybe Mary Nell took real advantage of my mother, as I have come to understand that the high school teacher, five years my senior, had no business on earth becoming lovers with me. I insisted it was love, it did me no harm, I wanted her. Now, thirty years on, I can see it was in fact part of my training as an object of abuse, welcoming the sexual attention of someone older and much more powerful than me. Despite the fact that we lasted five years, and I got a daughter out of it, I still wish I had not been lovers with her, after all. Some lessons come harder than others. We had no chance of ever being equals. And I've learned that power imbalance is actually not erotic, after all.
Ten years ago I ran across a photo of Mama's mama, Hettie, wearing a man's suit and bowler, in a passionate clinch with another woman. I pointed to the photo and hoarsely asked Hettie's sister, my Great-Aunt Lee, what that was all about. She laughed merrily and said "Oh, your grandma, she liked to dress up and play-act. It didn't mean anything." But Hettie married late, and only after the woman in the photo, Nora Armstrong, left for Fort Worth to work in a department store as a sales manager. Nora never married. Hettie died a year after Mama was born, so neither of us knew her. Still, I consider myself third-generation Lesbian.
Except we all collected our identities in different ways. I used what was available to me in the mid 1970s, a freedom they could not have imagined. I didn't ever have to bend my will to that of a man, not with regards to intimacy. I can't speak for them. I can pass on Mama's quote for what it's worth, but she also did come to love my father. Though I very much doubt it was ever as much as she loved Mary Nell. That's my bias. I could be wrong. If someone appears to shed more light, I'll be sure to listen.
I just found out Paula Gunn Allen died two days ago.
I can't write about it right now. You can read a great tribute to her at Women's Spaces. Or you can read what I've written about her by searching my Labels in the right column.
We've lost someone we can hardly do without.
(Mae Snyder and friend, unknown date and place, from Isle of Lesbos Vintage Images)
In my early 20’s, I didn’t think people were beautiful. It wasn’t just that I had rejected society’s rigid definition of beauty; I didn’t find the appearance of human beings attractive, even people I loved. Until I went to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival for the first time, I never let anyone see me naked, not even my lovers, but this was not modesty or shame – I didn’t want to see anyone else naked, either. This was painful and confusing to me, and I learned after a time or two that trying to talk it over with someone I trusted was not a good idea. (People can be so insecure.)
At 25 I came out as an incest survivor, part of the first wave in this country. My entire personality heaved up to the surface like boulders in a field, broke apart and demanded I walk differently in the world. After this process was launched, one Sunday afternoon I was driving myself and a woman who soon would become my girlfriend up to Mount Tamalpais from Sausalito. Still on the leeward side of Mount Tam, we came up behind a solitary bicyclist struggling with this steep, winding ascent. There were no turnouts on this narrow road within sight, passing was not possible, and we weren’t in a hurry, so I geared down and dropped back a respectful distance to prevent the young man ahead of us from feeling harried.
We drove several minutes this way, in silence. The day was brilliant, and with no ocean wind penetrating even the top of the canyon, sweat was cascading down the biker’s bare torso. His back was brown, his head was bent forward, and as he pushed each pedal arduously down, swiveling his hips from one side to the other, it seemed as if every muscle in his body was being flexed and briefly outlined under a lacquer of oil. Just before we reached a small lay-by where I knew I could safely ease around him, my friend remarked, “He’s really beautiful, isn’t he?”
To my amazement, I had to agree. His body WAS gorgeous. It felt like some kind of rescue, to be able to see this. A minute or two later, I recovered enough to turn my head and look at my friend. She, too, was beautiful. I sucked in air at how perfectly she was formed, her snub nose, the gap in her front teeth, the rolls at her waistline. I stared at her until she laughed with embarrassment and told me to watch the road.
At that time, in the Bay Area and elsewhere, lesbian feminists were exploring and promulgating the theory of looksism: The idea that any kind of opinion based on someone’s appearance was a lie and inherently oppressive. The theory arose partially from the revolution of rejecting gender imprisonment imposed by makeup, tight clothes, bras, and high heels. But it had, I think, an equal genesis in our struggles with how class judgments were linked to clothes and to the racism of all common beauty standards, a racism first brought to public attention with the mind-blowing affirmation of “Black is beautiful”. Looksism tied all these superficialities together and, in a logical extension, also demanded that we find the beauty in fat, in disability, and in age.
It’s hard to realize how revolutionary this concept was. Looksism has been among most attacked and ridiculed positions identified as “PC” in origin. But the backlash, especially from the many industries who profit ceaselessly from our hatred of how we look, is an accurate gauge of how right we were. If we could easily, instantly, see the beauty in every kind of human appearance – or, more to the point, if that ability to recognize this were not systematically stamped out of us very early – justification for all kinds of oppression would melt inside us and be cleansed away by our sifting hearts.
A decade later, I was again on the edge of Mount Tam for a weekend workshop. One of the workshop leaders, Caroline, had been in a wheelchair since a car accident at 20 had left her hemiplegic. I just plain adored Caroline, and despite some serious obstacles (mainly, the fact that she was straight), I often devised scenarios wherein she might come to desire me. It’s likely that these imaginings were not completely concealed by my actions or my expression. But Caroline was generous to me, and liked me for who I was, and kept me in arm’s reach.
That evening, we ended one group session very late for dinner, and everyone rushed out the door toward the cafeteria. I needed something from my dorm room and headed for it by way of the connecting bathroom. When I swung open the door to the bathroom, I heard a voice call “Hello? Who’s there?” It was Caroline, struggling with a stall that was not really wide enough for her chair; this was not the designated disabled bathroom.
She was defensive as soon as she saw me. “I know, but I couldn’t wait, it’s been too long since I changed….” I picked up where her voice trailed off, with a questioning “Catheter bag?” She nodded fiercely, not meeting my eyes, focused on trying to get her pants unzipped.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“Well, you can lift me, right?” I was enormously strong in those days, and could, easily. “Okay, once I get my pants down you can lift me from my chair and put me on the toilet, because I can’t get close enough to make the transfer myself.”
She still wasn’t looking at me. “You’re gonna see my twat.”
Since I had more than once had fantasies about seeing her twat, this was definitely not a hardship for me, but I was pretty sure I shouldn’t reassure her from that angle. Silently I moved her from the chair to the toilet. She interpreted my silence as discomfort, and fumbled as she tried to detach the catheter tubing. Suddenly, it jerked free, spraying an arc of urine over the door of the stall.
Her humiliation was complete. “God fucking DAMMIT” she cried. She looked like she might rip the catheter out of her, and I gently took the bag from her hand. She began pounding on her numb legs, crying and yelling “FUCK” with every blow.
I have raised a child, and seen several animals into decrepit old age. Piss and shit are just a fact of life for me. Further, my particular chore at this workshop was to clean this bathroom every day. There were supplies near at hand, and a drain in the middle of the tile floor.
“Hey” I said, trying to get her attention. She looked at me with fury and grief dripping from her eyes. “Wanna see what it’s like to be a guy?”
I turned the valve on the bulging catheter bag so the tube was open and a vigorous stream of piss splashed out into the floor. Pinching the tube, I could aim at the wall opposite the stall and a satisfying yellow arc cascaded down the tile. Caroline gave out a shriek, then said “Gimme!”
We emptied the bag in all four directions, hitting sinks, mirrors, windows, and, Caroline’s achievement, the light fixture. The only thing I felt like I had to throw away was the toothbrush left behind by a workshop participant. The rest came clean with Pinesol in hot water, and Caroline saved a plate for me in the cafeteria as I mopped up.
(© 2008 Maggie Jochild; originally written 6 February 2001)