dispatches from blue mountain, page 2

October 14, 2004

I loathe getting onto the computer, facing my emails, which is limiting my additions to this journal despite my excitement about getting back to writing on make. Who reads this? I have no idea. I feel a little out of touch-and especially since I hardly read websites, always eager to get away from the computer when I'm not at work, I'm not even sure what kinds of dialogue are going on on sites like this now. I think its been maybe 4 years or something since we put this up, inspired by so many sites and the idea of mass non-commercial distribution of ideas and models of activism. Those things seem as important as ever, of course.

So one of the things that happens at this residency is that people share their work in little half-hour presentations once per session. Two nights ago my new friend Ellen O'Grady showed her incredible work. She mostly read from a book she's made that is about to come out that is a collection of her paintings with accompanying text. Her work chronicles stories from the 6 years (plus additional shorter visits) that she lived in Palestine. Her stories of curfews, bulldozed houses, children killed by soldiers, people dying because of roadblocks between their towns and needed medical care, sexual harassment and assault of Palestinian women at roadblocks, are somewhat familiar to people who have been to report backs from ISM folks or read Joe Sacco's book. However, I found her images and words far more powerful than any other representation by an American visiting Palestine that I have seen. The simplicity, humility, and beauty of her work was astounding, and I was very excited to think about who I would share that book with, who I would encourage to go see her presentations as she travels around.

Ellen's work created very strong reactions amongst our group of residents, and resulted in conversations that reminded me of many others I've had on this topic with people who identify with Left politics but either support Israel overtly or become upset when asked to consider the conditions under which Palestinian's live. I won't go in depth into the conversations I have had since the presentation in various groups but I'll mention a few of the arguments. The most common charge against Ellen's work was that it was "unfair" and that she should present a more "objective" or "less political" position. The underlying issue seemed to be that because Ellen did not blatantly condemn suicide bombing, and because she did not represent the life lost because of it on the Israeli side, she was showing a biased view. This was repeated despite her clear articulation during her presentation that she was only representing stories of Palestinians she had been friends with because that was who she lived with and what she witnessed and she didn't feel authorized to tell Israeli stories, and also because she felt that U.S. audiences had more access to stories of Israeli suffering than Palestinian suffering. What has been most remarkable to me in these conversations has been the inability of many people to distinguish state violence, backed by military power and funded by the U.S. tax dollars, from violent resistance on the part of occupied people. I do not feel, personally, that it is my job to condone or condemn suicide bombing, being that I don't live under the circumstances which have led people to feel that is their best choice. I do think, however, that I can make a principled assessment of opposing state violence against an entire population, and that the current endless "War on Terror" is designed to disable our ability to make that assessment, making it ever more important for us to do so. I think about how there can be a picture on the cover of a newspaper of Palestinian children throwing rocks and Israeli tanks, and this can be taken as evidence of the misguided violence of the Palestinians. Resistance movements that include armed resistance, or even property destruction, are continually framed as instigators of violence, while the state violence they oppose (always resulting in far more deaths than the resistance, it seems) is continually invisibilized and neutralized. [See Ward Churchill's "Pacifism as Pathology" for more on this.] The move being made in these conversations, where the bodies of the people killed by suicide bombers are made more visible and valuable than the bodies of Palestinians killed by the occupation, is more than a little reminiscent of the endless war being waged in the name of 3,000 people killed on 9/11, justifying the killings of tens of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan, and prompted by US policies that killed tens (hundreds?) of thousands before 9/11/01.

I guess the final thing that is frustrating me about this is people always throwing into these conversations "well, it's a complicated situation." I think people in the US revert to that a lot when thinking about Palestine/Israel. It gets painted as an even-Stephen battle of two groups caught up in their own religious interpretations or something. I can't stand that. It is occupation. It uses the technologies of apartheid. Even if you find it complicated, that doesn't let people in the US off the hook because people are being killed with bullets you paid for, so you have a responsibility to determine whether you think those deaths are justified.

Finally, this has all become increasingly interesting because this weekend Ellen is going back to Durham for the Palestine Solidarity Movement Conference at Duke. The conference's sponsors have come under attack because though they are in favor of non-violent opposition to the occupation, they will not condemn people who engage in or promote violent strategies, and they will not exclude them from the conference. In response to this, a campus group has flown a mangled bus in which a suicide bombing occurred to the campus to display during the conference. If you're in the area, I recommend you attend and support the conference organizers.

In other news, today I took a 12-mile canoe ride. The water was perfectly still and the trees and rocks and impossibly gorgeous sky were perfectly reflected. I had a nightmare last night that I had to go back to work. One of the things I brought here to take another look at was this zine I was making by myself right around the time I was starting the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in 2002. Its called Town, and it was my attempt to see if I could write something less political-ranty, more beautiful. It is all about New York City, a magical wonderful place to me. Its name comes from the fact that I grew up in country (with only a general store and a post office and maybe 100 people though no one counted), and was always begging my mom for a ride to town. I swore that when I grew up I'd live in town, and since then, I've done nothing but that (LA, NYC, SF). Reading back a little on Town now, which I never distributed out of embarrassment and fear about my writing, I'm struck by my current feelings of longing to live somewhere with a slower pace. I look at the people's lives who I've met here (those who don't live in NYC) and I think about the mental space I have that is really still indescribable to me, being in this environment. Also, I look back on Town and see that so much of what I wrote about-the ruins of the old piers on the west side in the streets above 59th, and so many other bits and pieces of New York, have already given way to mallification. Before we know it, the entire west side of the island will have that roller-blader, green glass, brushed steel, park police, curfew feeling that is already undermining everything I love about the City. I love the struggle to stop it, but it still hurts.

I've also been talking a lot to Michael MacDonald, another writer who is a resident here right now, who wrote a book called All Souls that I haven't read yet about his experiences growing up in a violent poor Boston neighborhood and doing violence prevention work there. It's making me think a lot about personal narrative. He really thinks that I should use more of it, that my stories about the poor people I grew up with, the corporal punishment/race-segregated school buses/xenophobia curriculum public schools I went to, my west-virginian foster family, and all the rest of it is something people should know about, and a way that they could digest the messages I try to get across in my writing. I have to say, I'm so hesitant about personal narrative these days-I feel like its all trans people are allowed to write, and I feel like everyone feels entitled to trans people's personal history and I'm sick of it. I constantly consider taking down essays I have posted on the transmissions page on this site-concerned about how dated they are, concerned about being seen through them in my work. Most recently, I'm co-teaching a law school class and we're using a textbook with a trans chapter that includes an excerpted version of my article "Resisting Medicine/Remodeling Gender." It was awful to me to have the students, who I have insecurities about taking me seriously anyway, read what's in the textbook (of course the personal narrative section about my struggles to access mental health permission to be trans are excerpted in full, my analysis of juridico-medical regulation of gender in part). In general, I think years of strategically telling my biography to get scholarships and other forms of charity that should be entitlements, and then identifying as trans publicly and experiencing people constantly doubting my authenticity, demanding personal information about my medical history and genital status (like my lawyer when I was arraigned during my bathroom arrest), has made me feel that sharing personal narrative includes having those experiences become an external strategy and speech act, no longer my own. At the same time, I felt really good about the experience of writing the article I worked on with my sister, Lis, in Michelle Tea's book Without a Net, and I'm doing a lot of exercises right now while I'm here trying to rebuild my memory of my life in Virginia in order to have some adult analysis about things that went on that I suspect are still affecting me. Revisiting those stories, and seeing their direct link to the development of methods of analysis that underlie my politics, is exciting. I have such a strong appreciation for accessible writing about radical politics, and I see how so many radical political writers use personal narrative in honest ways that connect the dots between day to day life and revolutionary methods of analysis that of course, are at their core common sense. It's getting me thinking, wondering about taking different kinds of risks. Michael promises that writing some of these stories down would only show me how much more I kept for myself. I think a lot about how much harder it was for me to write the piece (and awful to read it publicly!) for Without a Net than all the stuff I've written about being trans, because my experiences of poverty, my mother's early death, foster care, and all that have such a deeper level of trauma, shame and erasure for me.

This is a seriously long entry. Just a few more brief things. First, being in the country makes me want to almost exclusively listen to Iron and Wine and Bonnie Prince Billy, but that isn't stopping me from my daily practice, attempting to master "It's Gonna Be Me" by N'Sync on the ukulele. Look for me on MTV soon. Second, I read Robin D.G. Kelley's book "Yo Mama's Disfunktional!" and I found it riveting (and fascinating to read something from 1997 and think about how things have changed). His writing style is really amazing, and he not only traces the inadequacy of many scholars approaches to anthropologizing (pathologizing) black families in the inner city, and examines the real conditions under which people are living and working and dying, but also takes the much needed step of talking about the innovative activism people are engaging that demonstrates the complex multi-issue, multi-community, people of color and immigrant-led strategies that he envisions as the most promising. I'm looking right now for options to read other writers who clearly outline their vision for how change will be made, how we'll win, what works, especially in these times, so if you have ideas please email me your leads.

Finally, really the last thing, I started reading Judith Butler's new book Undoing Gender. I haven't gotten far at all, just started reading in the middle as I like to do in the chapter where she analyzes that the Money/Diamond debate about David Reimer, the person who experienced a mistake during a medical procedure during infancy, and was raised as a girl under the recommendations of Dr. Money, and later self-determined to be male and lived as male. Butler does a great job talking about why all the doctors involved, those who think David should be raised as a girl and those who think he should be raised as a boy, are both using terribly regulatory and reductionist theories of binary gender not to mention cruelly subjecting a child to experimental and traumatic treatment to prove their theories. The thing that surprised and annoyed me was 1) butler refers to the "transsexual movement, which is internally various, [and] has called for rights to surgical means by which sex might be transformed, [but at the same time] there is also a serious and increasingly popular critique of idealized gender dimorphism within the transsexuality movement itself" and 2) she acknowledges that David identified as male and nods to the idea of calling him by what he went by, but then selectively refers to him by his old name and female pronoun. First, what the hell is the "transsexuality movement," especially in 2004-who calls it that? Every trans 101 training explains to people with far less access to detailed analysis of terminology than Butler that "transsexual" is no longer used as an umbrella term (if it ever was) for trans people or movements or political struggles and that it is the self-identity or descriptor for just one part of that "internally various" movement that is questioning gender dimorphism increasingly. Second, also from trans 101, talking about people in their current name and gender is the right way to discuss people whose name or gender has changed over their lives. Her use of David's old name and female pronouns reminded me of this New York Law Journal writer I worked with when we won a case for a trans woman being illegally and transphobically denied a name change. The writer wrote about the trans woman under her old name and male pronouns for most of the article, and only changed these when she got to the part of the article where the name change was granted-as if it wasn't until that legal moment when her name changed that she suddenly became female (gender was never determined by the court). I guess I was hoping that Judith Butler, whose work I rely on when explaining complex gender issues and the complexity of personal identity to students and other, and who I know is friends with trans folks, to get these two 101 issues right in the book. I'll keep reading and tell you more. It sure has a pretty cover.

On that note, now that I've provided you with every single thing I ever thought, I'll close with my favorite line from a movie about class struggle ever. It's Some Kind of Wonderful, and art fag/outcast Keith (Eric Stoltz) is explaining his crush on prep girl Amanda (Lea Thompson) to his dyke best friend Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) who is judging him. He says "you can't judge a book by its cover." Watts replies "yeah, but you can tell how much it's gonna cost."

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