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Over at AfterEllen: A Dying Breed: Navigating Butch/Femme After the Death of Leslie Feinberg

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I’ve got a new piece running today over at AfterEllen reflecting on what it means to be a young femme in the wake of the death of butch icon Leslie Feinberg.

When word reached me on Monday afternoon that Leslie Feinberg had died, I felt as though the air had been ripped from my lungs. Perched on a couch in the women’s studies lounge after my morning class, I read the text message from my partner and found myself speechless, and then compelled to speech – who could I tell who would understand the depth of loss I was feeling in this moment? While it would seem that a women’s studies department would be an ideal place to mourn the loss of such an important queer writer and activist, instead I struggled to pin down a classmate among those filtering in and out of the lounge who might understand how I was feeling. Even the faculty I spoke to did not know ze had been ill. In what could have been a moment of community gathering, I felt deeply alone. I felt the weight of a significant political shift.

 

Both/And: The Fallacy of the Academia/Activism Divide (originally in Broad Magazine)

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Two years ago, as one of the liaisons to my undergraduate Women and Gender Studies department, I found myself participating in the search and hiring process for a new professor.  Presented with four candidates, my classmates and I attended talks, asked questions, and ate meals with the potential hires.  We learned about their intellectual investments, what they thought mattered in the teaching process, and what formed the basis of their methodologies.  After all four visits, the liaisons came together as a group to discuss who would be the best fit for our department in preparation for presenting the candidates to the search committee.  Instead, we found ourselves engaged in a debate over the relative merits and presence of activism versus more theory based academic perspectives in our department, as well as on a larger scale.

The particularities of the faculty in our department notwithstanding, the liaison group was dominated by women who framed themselves as activists, and although I could gain some traction in my defense of theory and life in the academy, it was slow going.  While I discussed the intellectual challenge that comes with reading Foucault, my fellow liaisons talked about the importance of translating academic work into their communities and participating in grassroots organizing.  We continued in this vein for a while and finally veered off to make a decision in regards to the candidate we would support, but the conversation continued to come up over the course of the semester.  We didn’t realize that we were all advocating for the same thing.

Activism and the academy are inseparable and always have been, and to separate the two into discrete realms is both facile and false.  First, there are many people who are explicitly academics and activists, who write and publish and teach, but are also community organizers.  One of my undergraduate professors built community organizing into her curriculum, teaching theory alongside trips to low-income housing rallies, for example.  On a grander scale, academia and activism feed each other, functioning reciprocally to expand both social movements and academic fields.  The historic trajectory of feminism follows this pattern of interaction; the fight for the franchise was a social movement, as was the reproductive rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.  In the last few decades, however, feminism has been institutionalized as an academic discipline, but still the activism/academia division finds its edges blurred.  Many people in feminist non-profit organizing have Women’s Studies degrees, as do lawyers, social workers, and other people in fields more focused on outreach than intellectualized introspection.

In that original liaison conversation, I advocated for the theory side of this oft imagined split.  Since then, however, I have realized that as an academic, I couldn’t do the work that I am engaged in without activists and without framing my own work as a form of activism.  In focusing on the intersections of queer and disability studies, I am listening to what those communities are saying and am paying attention to any organizing that is happening by people with those identities.  Moreover, I am part of the queer and disabled communities, and my academic work reflects a world that I both experience as real and hope to change.  As such, when I talk about selective abortion of fetuses with disabilities in the classroom, it is not merely an academic exercise.  Rather, it is about examining the issues to produce policy change, to ensure the continued existence of disabled communities.

As aware as I have become of the fluid boundaries between activism and the academy, I still often find myself aligning with academia.  It’s a gut response, and I think it’s a reasonable one for me to have as a graduate student.  Further, time in the classroom tends to emphasize the existence of this divide rather than downplay it or demonstrate the relationship between activism and academia.  In the classroom, we speak a different language, analyze problems without necessarily seeking solutions, apply critical theoretical perspectives to academic and popular texts.  Often we work alone.  These things are distinctly other from the evident characteristics of community organizing and activism.  As an academic, it is easy to see protests on the news or hear about people organizing letter-writing campaigns and to categorize those things as activism without thinking about their relationship to your writing, or to the wider concept of activism.  I will admit to doing this.  But when I return to my work, I see pages of writing detailing new imaginings of interdependence between disabled and able-bodied communities, writing that considers new possible alliances and different manifestations of these interactions.  When I return to my academic work, I see the activism that I forget is always and already there.

It isn’t easy to give up the division between the academy and activism, or rather, to relinquish our hold on that idea.  There is, in fact, nothing to give up.  Both worlds would stagnate without the other, and that is what often gets forgotten or lost when we pursue what is framed as an academic or activist goal.  It is always an ‘or’ question, rather than ‘both/and,’ and that is the error in this conception.  When my classmates advocated for an activist professor rather than what they saw as my notion of the staunch academic, none of us realized we could have been talking about the same person, envisioned through our own critical biases.  What we saw in those candidates had less to do with their experience as activists or teachers and much more to do with the fallacy of the activism/academia divide in which we had all invested.

Know Your History over at Equally Wed: Who Paved the Road to Marriage Equality?

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With the recent Supreme Court decision to stay out of the marriage debates, the statistics in this article were out of date almost immediately after its writing – the number of states with marriage equality just keeps rising! Take a look at some of the movement forerunners over at Equally Wed – this piece will take you from the Renaissance to the courtroom in an attempt to trace the long arc of queer history.

STIR Journal: How Queer Radicalism and Gay Progressivism Can Meet in the Middle

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Check out today’s piece over on STIR!

I always swore I wasn’t going to get married. At first, this may have been compensatory—when I was first coming out in 2005, marriage equality hadn’t reached my home state of New York (or many states at all). There seemed to be no point in aspiring to a social and political status that was clearly a long way off, that still had an extended fight ahead of it. When I left for college in 2008, headed in fact to Massachusetts where marriage was legal, my position remained unchanged. The marriage fight was going strong in several states by then, but I just wasn’t personally interested. At the same time, I believed strongly that marriage should be legal, and this was also the prevailing opinion among my classmates. Attending an historic Seven Sisters school, throughout my first year the marriage question seemed sacrosanct; certainly my classmates had a range of political priorities, but gay marriage typically featured prominently among them.

Keep reading to hear about my personal evolution and vision for political common ground.

It Happened To Me post at xoJane

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A little less than a year after moving to Atlanta, I tell the story of renting as a queer couple in the south over at xoJane:

… after gathering information regarding available apartments and rental rates, my partner raised the critical concern. “The website says you only rent to married couples, and I would be moving with my partner,” they explained, “but we aren’t married.” The leasing director cut in, “I’m sorry, but we don’t allow that. You see, we’re a Christian complex.”
 
This came as a surprise. It hadn’t mentioned the religious affiliation anywhere on the website. Still, we had a defense. “Well,” my partner explained, “we’re a same-sex couple and we can’t get married in Georgia.”
 
It was as though we had spoken some secret code, causing the leasing director to reverse course. “Oh, then of course you can rent here,” she assured us. “That’s fine. You know, it’s just that we’re concerned about premarital sex.”
 
Keep reading to find out what happens next…

Guest Post at The Rose & Chestnut

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Check out my piece “Two Atlantas” today over at The Rose & Chestnut. It’s a feature in their wonderful “Where I Live Now” series.

A sneak peek at the opening:

When people ask me how long I have been living in Atlanta, I typically say about six months. Or since August. Both brief measures of time mark my most recent stint in the South, where I go to graduate school and play at being an adult, quartered with my partner, also a graduate student, in a one-bedroom apartment. There are more books than we have room for here, as well as a sweet but temperamental cat, a more recent transplant than I from my parent’s home in New York. The kitchen may be too small and the furniture rented, but this is more than making do and I am grateful for that…

The Same Instructions

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This essay appeared in Broad Magazine in December 2012.

At the end of the Apostles’ Creed as recited every Sunday in church during my childhood, there are the following lines:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and life everlasting.

This piece of the liturgy was easy for me to grasp – even as a child I knew I believed in all of these things.  I would recite along confidently until I came to one small detail: the word “catholic.”  As I stood between my mother and grandmother each week, I knew that I would stumble there as two different words reached my ears, as my mother said “catholic” and my grandmother said “Christian.”  My grandmother was louder than my mother and each week I would become confused, losing the rhythm of the Creed as I tried to assimilate the difference.  Finally I asked my grandmother about it.

My grandmother was the first relative on the maternal side of my family to convert from Catholicism in order to join the Lutheran church.  Defecting in her late teens, she began to attend church with her Lutheran friends.  In doing so, she found that she preferred the simplicity of Lutheran practice, the direct access to God through prayer rather than only by way of intercession.  She also observed the comparative lack of politics in the Lutheran Church, in opposition to the Catholic Church; politics not in the specific sense of positions and social policy but rather the apparent belief of the Catholic hierarchy that people were worthy to judge the choices of others.  In light of this long history, when I asked about her rhetorical choice in the Creed, she replied passionately that she simply could not bring herself to say ‘catholic.’  She was too deeply alienated by her upbringing to utter the word in her new church home.

I objected to this immediately – I had learned quite young that the term “catholic” in the Creed was a term meaning universal; it bore no relationship to the faith of my paternal family, or earlier generations of maternal relatives.  Why, I wanted to know, if she understood this distinction, could she not bring herself to say the Creed correctly?  Her other answer seemed to reflect a lack of understanding that I knew to be false.  This second inquiry never received a satisfactory answer, but instead, week after week, my grandmother would pronounce her belief in “the holy Christian church” as the rest of the assembled declared our belonging amongst the general catholic masses.  I tried a number of other times to press my grandmother into the switch, but she would have none of it.  The vehemence of her response, in fact, led me to refer to elaborate Catholic rituals at “the Catholic terror,” a term applicable to everything from incense to Hail Marys.  I joined my grandmother in rejecting the majority of such practices, but we continued to speak our profession of faith differently.

* * *

If my grandmother has caused me some confusion in regards to the appropriate phrasing of the Apostles’ Creed, or some frustration at her adamant stance about saying “holy Christian church,” the strength of her beliefs has taught me an important lesson.  That strength does not make itself known in bull-headed refusal to engage in conversation or to respect other people’s beliefs.  No, she is more than willing to explain her thoughts, and will adapt her beliefs if some new light is shed upon them, as she notably did in regards to creationism after a particularly good sermon about evolution.  Rather, my grandmother’s strong faith causes any note of outside challenge to fall away, to vacate its hostility or tendency towards oppression at the moment of encounter.  Her faith contains a kind of certainty, placed entirely in God.

To my grandmother then, phone calls from politicians trying to lobby her Republican vote against gay marriage and abortion rights are the perfect sites for the exercise of faith.  Answering the phone, she listens as the person on the other end constructs a leading question, one meant to draw her further into the cause.  After all, a person in her seventies, a registered Republican, she seems like an excellent target for conservative politics and pandering.  Instead, she pauses before answering, “I don’t think that’s up to me.  Only God can decide that.”

In those moments, my grandmother becomes a surprising breed of feminist in the eyes of these poll workers.  Unwilling to enact her will in the place of God’s, my grandmother’s answer echoes her profession of faith, her belief in “God, the Father, the Almighty” and in the forgiveness of sins upon the day of judgment.  Her feminism is centered on her faith, on her belief that she has the same right to speak to God as a male priest, that she has no more knowledge and no less than those priests of what God desires of us because we are all working from the same set of instructions.  Until further notice, then, she will not be the barrier to any one else’s autonomy or decision-making.

In the wake of such phone calls, my grandmother has told me she is retracting her Republican Party membership in favor of the status of Independent, but that is not the whole truth.  Rather, instead of independence from party-line values, my grandmother’s political shift is towards a location that doesn’t believe itself to be the arbiter of sin.  She doesn’t need someone else’s values to tell her what she believes, but only the word of God and the patient belief that it will all be decided in time.

My grandmother’s God may or may not be a feminist, but I will just have to wait in order to find out.  I suppose I can say no more and no less about my own God at this juncture.  While politically I may hold more points of contention than my grandmother around social policy, her answer is ultimately the only accurate one for our shared eternal lives: only God can decide.  Until then, in both religious and political community we can only protect each other’s autonomy, hold each other’s choices up to the light of respect and be still.  So that when my grandmother says she believes in the holy Christian church, what she believes in is this respect, and when I say I believe in the holy catholic church, I extend a hand with that same meaning.