Thursday, September 27, 2018

Me Too

I’ve been obsessively mesmerized by this whole ramming through charade known as the Kavanaugh "confirmation" hearings. I even got up early this morning to watch the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Of course, I believe Ford as well as Kavanaugh's other accusers, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick. This whole morass has been compelling for me. It obviously strikes a deeper chord, resonating with something I haven’t wanted to think about or speak to for over fifty years.

Dr. Herbie Duber was our family doctor. In the fifties my family lived in tract housing on the East side of Cleveland. He was a neighbor who live with his wife and children just two doors away. I believe he purchased life insurance from my father but he was also a well-known physician in the Jewish Community. Looking through old photographs of parties, photos of him and his wife appear, almost always with drinks in their hands. Lots of booze, what was called then, "wife swapping" and plenty of general bawdiness were all part and parcel of my parents social life. Although Herbie was not a pediatrician, he became the default general practitioner for both me and my sister.

As a child, my mother came with me during these physical exams which happened only once a year at the most. When I grew older, my mom would sometimes not come into the room but stay outside chatting with the receptionist. I think I was about thirteen when I went for an exam now that I was a "woman." Because I started menstruating at nine years old, by thirteen I was a child in a woman's body. Nonetheless, I wasn't sure of the parameters of what a "physical" for a woman would be. So when he began pushing at my tiny breasts, I thought well breast cancer is a problem. By the time he was sticking his fingers inside me, breathing hard and asking if I had any boyfriends, I was fairly sure that most physicals didn't proceed this way. After hastily dressing and meeting up with my mom, I left his office feeling humiliated and confused.

I never told anyone until very recently. Not my mother, not my friends. I did say that I didn't like Herbie Duber and wanted a different doctor which, by then, was not a problem since he had come up in the world and was no longer lived in our neighborhood. It took a while for me to realize how far out of bounds this examination was. When the charges came out against Larry Nasser, doctor on the Olympic Committe who sexually assaulted patients, I began pondering my experience. And now, with the "Me Too" movement I have been considering the role of this incident in my young life. Dr. Duber has been dead for many years. But don't relax or get the idea that anyone is safe. Worldwide, there are millions of men like him being born every minute.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Beyond the Gender Binary

In the fifties era of butch-femme relationships, those who played the role of butch or femme, switching at will, were known as “ki-ki”. In later Second Wave Feminism of the sixties and seventies, butch-femme role playing fell out of favor in middle-class circles. The word for lesbians with gender-neutral identity was “androgynous.” The androgynous lesbian was a preferable alternative to the dehumanizing sex-role stereotyping that had been the norm in the fifties and earlier. 

In today’s world this option is known as “non-binary.” Ideally, this would mean that everyone would be free to select ideas and behaviors from a smorgasbord of choices. People of many genders and orientations can fit under this umbrella because we are all so much more than the bodies that we happened to have been born into. 

The thing about both transgender identity that confuses me the most is the way that sex role stereotypes are idealized, romanticized, even fetishized. When I hear about a little boy who loves pink and playing dress up, or the little girl who wants to play sports or be a cowboy I don't automatically think that these are children occupying the wrong bodies. I first wonder if they're just having a hard time coming out as lesbian or gay. 

Yes, some people are genuinely transgender. But other people are truly in pain and confused about their identity. Some are looking for a simple solution to a complex problem. In Iran the government will pay for transgender surgery when it means that the person will no longer have same-sex attraction. If a man who loves men becomes a woman, he will present as straight. Surgery can be used as a means to insure heterosexual normativity at any cost. 

After my uterus was removed for medically necessary reasons, the doctor told me about groups organized around grieving this loss. As a sixty year old lesbian who has remained childless by choice, I found this ridiculous. The body parts I have emotional attachment towards are ones that either can be seen, make my body systems function well, or propel me physically through the world. I never developed an attachment to my uterus and have always viewed the prospect of childbearing as far too similar to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

When I was working as a reference librarian  in San Francisco a regular patron, male the day before, came in and announced s/he was now female. I knew this person’s gender-neutral name and don’t have the greatest memory, so it was inevitable that a few days later I referred to that patron as “he. Very upset, this apprentice transitioner said, “I’m a woman, just like you.”

Okay then, if you’re a woman just like me, you don’t give a damn if people mistake you for another gender, unless you’re planning to sleep with them, in which case, hopefully, they would already know. A “woman like me” has zero attachment to behaving “like a woman” or presenting as such. You would want only to be accepted for what you do and how your mind works, not how you look because you would not see yourself as decorative, but as functional. A woman just like me would believes that the concept of acquiring “femininity” is both ridiculous and a huge waste of time. 

I don’t comprehend the need, in this culture and many others, to place gender markers on everyone and everything. Everywhere I go now people call me “Mam.” I hate it. Not just because of the age reference but because of the explicit gender. I wouldn't like "Sir" either. Why is it necessary to continually point out each persons gender? Can’t you just ask a question without tagging it as female or male directed. What’s wrong with, “Can I help you?” period. Or if you have to add something why not “friend” or another gender neutral word. Even worse are words like poetess or aviatrix, the height of condescension for people with female bodies.

We are all unique individuals. I find sex-role assignment dehumanizing. I aspire to neither of those limited definitions. We all deserve the freedom to do what we want with our bodies and that includes modifying them for any reason. At some point in the future, we might have a society where every person is accepted and accepts their body no matter what shape, size, color, age, orientation or ability it presents. Unfortunately, that Utopian vision is far removed from the reality of the world we do our best to stumble through today.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Lessons From Foremothers and Former Selves


Carol Seajay, Pell, Tiana Arruda, Kit Quan, 1982 
We were either closeted or forcibly ghettoized in the those decades. The late sixties, seventies and early eighties brought so much change to the lives of women and lesbians. A lot of us looked different and distinctly lesbian but none of us aspired to the female sex-role stereotypes. Obsequious, flirtatious, decked-out, made-up heterosexual women were the norm then and seem to have made a comeback since. But we really had to be circumspect in dealing with the outside world. There were no job or housing protections and, we were vulnerable to discrimination. Organizing was imperative. There was so much work to be done.

I defined myself as a radical lesbian feminist in those early days. I went to San Francisco State and took groundbreaking women's studies classes from pioneers like Sally Gearhart. I hung out at bars like Scotts, Maude's, Kelley's, Pegs Place and A Little More. It wasn't just the Michigan Women's Music Festival that was happening. Old Wives Tales Women's Bookstore opened, followed by Artemis Society. Plexus newspaper emerged. Osento Hot Tub flourished in a Victorian on Valencia Street. The Women's Press Project began printing pamphlets and books by lesbians. The laws were against us, lesbians were hated and under attack by fellow citizens and police, but it was a heady time in our community, full of hope and promise.

I think my first break with the radical feminist philosophy was when the realization dawned that I didn’t necessarily believe that women were special and could save the world. I was attracted to women. I loved and respected many of them. But I could look back at history and find women falling on the morally incorrect side. Some early suffragists supported racism. In every struggle against fascism there were lots of women taking a stand with murderous dictators. Fighting for more than just lesbians rights seemed necessary. As a Jew and a working-class affiliated woman, often a strictly radical lesbian feminist analysis didn’t speak to every aspect of me. Because I found many lesbians ignorant of these other components of struggle, the romance between me and this simplistic take on the world, faded.

The political work I did with lesbian groups like Lesbian Schoolworkers, Lesbians Against Police Violence and Revolting Lesbians were organized around lesbian liberation but also tackling other issues of oppression like...racism, poverty, and class struggle.

During the day I was a working stiff. To survive in that arena required me to make alliances with all different kinds of people. The line between gender and demographic groups. I’m an odd individual. The folks I liked, and who liked me, varied tremendously. I made friends where I could, usually with people who minimally identified with the workaday world and had other, more interesting and creative pursuits. They helped ease my way through the forest of b-s and artifice. I never stopped going to concerts or conferences or music festivals for dykes, I just stopped seeing that road as the only possible path through life’s jungle.

As organizational work toward lesbian protections found some success, I felt less confined to one small community. My friends became more eclectic, square pegs but not necessarily lesbian ones. Maybe coalition was possible. Perhaps we can explore our place in a broader society. I left the so-called safety of lesbian community for the prospect of a larger life, much the same way I’d left the Jewish community in which I was raised, to take my chances with the larger, multi-racial, diverse world. My family warned me often that, because of hostility,  I would regret that decision, but that was not the case. 

So where does all this leave me today? Older, but still much the same. I incorporate new information and curse the times we are living in. I still despise sex roles for humans but respect each person's right to call themselves whatever they want. And I do the same. As a writer and an individual, I have no desire to generalize or tar everyone with the same broad brush. But I am not willing to toss aside the fore-mothers of lesbian-feminism either. When I see young women throwing out the baby with the bathwater, it saddens me. I want to tell them to read, to study, to learn about what we were up against, the obstacles we encountered and faced down making life a bit easier now for everyone.

It is foolish to place leaders of another time in current society to decide how you feel about them. In order to see the Second Wave generation of feminism clearly, you must first rise to a height where the entire picture comes into view. Many young people are incapable or unwilling to do so. But not all. There are folks, like myself, who will value those who came before them, the lessons that ancestors teach. Violence and hatred have moved large groups of people throughout history, but have left behind nothing which inspires goodwill or pride.

Those who dismiss their elders will get their comeuppance with time. Life is impermanent, yours as well as ours. If you believe you know everything and will live forever, time will prove otherwise. The past is not your enemy. Those who cleared the path before you are not your foes. If you willfully choose to ignore history, it will rear up and bite you at the most inopportune moments. Who knows? Years from today, you may find yourself writing a piece, like this one, engaged in the very same argument. And then, perhaps, you will choose to reflect back on your former self with wisdom and compassion. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Consider Class Identity

Meaningful Work?
The hardest and most-fraught struggle of my life has been an economic one. It is often difficult to explain what this means this to people, for whom this was not the case. Unlike contemporary kids who go back to their parental home when they are having trouble being self-supporting, many of us don’t or didn’t have that option. By age twenty-two, because of deaths and remarriage, I no longer had a family to return to if I had nowhere else to go.  My family of origin was never wealthy to begin with. My parents, an insurance salesman who worked on commission and a secretary were not regarded as accomplished in this culture. And following our mother’s untimely death, my seventeen-year old sister and I took off for California in her car, to try to make a life for ourselves.

Yes, it was easier to make a living in those years, even in the Bay Area. Working part-time, paying rent and eating was possible then. But there were things I had to learn. To act obsequious and smile were two feats I found particularly difficult. I learned to swallow my pride when gays, lesbians or Jews were insulted, and this happened more often than I’d expected. Even though I was a chronic insomniac, I managed to get up early and go each day to a place where I was neither welcomed nor respected. You could call it prostitution. It was certainly soul-draining, humiliating and degrading. I did it for money, because it was necessary. I did it because I had no other options.

In lesbian activist groups in which I was a participant, friends would tell me how odd it was that I did such politically incorrect work. They said they could only perform a job if it was meaningful and fulfilling. I listened politely not bothering to explain that I didn’t have that luxury. Some of them didn’t procure work until their early thirties. Many never did get paying work and lived on trust funds while pursing art or politics. They put their energy into activities that had the potential of changing the world and looked down on folks like myself. I envied them. They were often very nice people who knew the right behavior for every situation. This knowledge of propriety was a totally new concept to me. I had trouble holding on to jobs, partly because I was too honest.

On three different jobs, all of which I was hoping to hold for a relatively long time, I was fired. It usually happened after I came out as lesbian. On one, after being outed in the SF Chronicle in a Sunday Gay Pride Parade, I was fired Monday, the very next day. Were these firings homophobic? Of course. But they were also class-related because of my poor social skills.

When I visited Cuba, two years ago, I met lots of very poor people. They had tons of issues due to poverty but fear of having no food and no place to live because of lack of money was not among them. Their rent and some basic food staples were given them by the government, but most make less than the equivalent of twenty dollars a month. Insufficient as it was, they had a safety net, unlike the potential free fall in a deep well that we have here in the USA.

I don’t need to worry and struggle anymore. In later life I learned my lesson. I went back to school, Because I could keep only union jobs, I looked for that protection and my work life as an older worker was easier. But my entire journey is part of my identity. When a political person who never experienced the anxiety and pressure of needing to earn their living, speaks to me as though our allotment of “privilege” is the same, I get extremely angry. If I bring up class issues in response, it is often dismissed as a sour grapes thing. “She can’t help her background,” might be said. Of course, she can’t change her circumstances, we are all born with some assets and liabilities.

But now, more than ever, white folks are acknowledging the way race has helped them move through the world. This is a change for the better. It is the same with class advantage. No-one is saying they hate you but our identities are not the same. Never make assumptions that your story is true for anyone else. Open your eyes to the many different routes we all must take to arrive at the same place. And like all members of a wide variety of groups, try to see people in all their identities, all their colors. Life is not just where you wind up. It is also an equation involving the distance traveled.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Reality Show (Rising Phoenix Review)

Reality Show By Joan Annsfire

Reality Show
I was weaned on fear,
marinated in bitterness;
My grandparents fed me stories
of fleeing the Czar,
the Cossacks, the pogroms.
Growing up in Ohio,
the fifties were difficult years
my Jewish family, outsiders, determined
that the events in Russia, in Germany,
would not happen again,
could not happen here.
With this election the universe shifted.
Words, like bullets, ripped through
a veil of pretense leaving us
stranded on an ice floe
of worse case scenarios.
Distortion, dystopia;
Daily news coverage
has become a reality show
in which I am powerless
to change the channel.
A ship of state,
tilting menacingly off balance,
leaning precariously
over a roiling sea.
Unlike the frogs in the pot,
I am aware of the heat rising.
I move in sometimes in anger,
other times in hypnotic denial.
Witnessing the frontlines of a culture war
that has enveloped us
without warning.
In nightmare visions
I dodge cars, teargas, bullets,
escape down totalitarian streets,
covered in the toxic white dust of nationalism;
a caustic mixture
of hatred and despair.
Perhaps I will get used to it, become inured,
the same way that online comments
about lampshades, ovens and gas chambers,
one day lost much of their capacity
to shock or wound.
Now casualties mount
and desperation rules.
I re-examine history, mobilize inner strength
and measure resistance
against the weight
of authoritarian forces.
History’s clock is unrelenting.
It ticks off minutes, hours;
we watch, mesmerized,
as the needle of racial memory
moves closer to zero.
The longest night has just begun.
Shapeless as shadows,
my ancestors surround me;
gather like exiles,
hover like phantoms,
whisper in foreign tongues.
Awake, alive, afraid,
I understand every word.
By Joan Annsfire

Monday, July 2, 2018

Young Women Attack Dykes their Grandma's Age

Oh my god, they really are old!
It was a nightmare scenario. Imagine the Lavender Menace meets Lord of the Flies. Twenty-something participants in the Dyke March swooped down on our small contingent of old lesbians like crazed predators thirsty for blood.

There were eight of us marching together at that point. Many were old friends from the seventies. Each one of us has different political views that include leftist activism, mainstream liberal Democratic politics and radical feminism to name a few. Three of us were holding signs. The rest were not. I was wearing a t-shirt from the 2004 Dyke March that read, "Uprooting Racism," with a creative graphic of a brown, tree-root woman holding the earth in her branches. I am 67 years old. Another seventy-something woman wore a Dyke March T-shirt from the year 2000.  A younger woman was carrying a cane and wearing a t-shirt that read, "My favorite season is the fall of the patriarchy."

Suddenly the youngsters were surrounding us. One was yelling through a bullhorn which made answering back nearly impossible. She was calling us TERFs, an acronym that stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. The background story would take three more blogs, but just be aware that "Kill TERFs is a favorite slogan of this population. And, if you're old, you are automatically under suspicion as a target. When she belligerently yelled, "Don't touch me!" when my shoulder accidentally brushed hers, I knew she wasn't kidding around and moved away.

Two of our group carried signs they didn't like. Ironically, one sign said, "You Cannot Silence Us with Violence," and underneath that, "Stop Lesbian Erasure." I knew that was currently in the news and certainly didn't consider that sign "fighting words." That sign was torn up by the end of the march. Another sign about puberty blockers I knew was controversial in the medical community but I (wrongly) assumed that lesbians, like other members of society, have a right to differences of opinion, just as doctors and nurses do.

But these baby-faced gals couldn't figure out that we were all individuals, let alone old friends, or that free speech is still the law in this country. They descended screaming "TERFs go home!" and "Down With Trans-phobia," although no-one had spoken a word against transgender folks and most of us are progressive activists in various communities. It was strange coming from these females who certainly looked like cisgender girls barely pushing twenty-one. They all wore the smooth, impenetrable faces of pampered youth, strangers to adversity who, most often, live with their parents.

I tried to reason with them, explaining that falling for Trump's agenda of rabid hate is playing right into their hands. But their eyes were on fire, their bullhorn loud, their white faces contorted in a distinctly unattractive way. I was surrounded by flying hands and hula-skirt hair, you know, the kind that dances around heads in strands and is produced only by round follicles found on the heads of the master race. As they screamed their hatred at me, I politely informed them that I was Jewish, just in case they ran out of insults.

But for the likes of us activists, our crime was not trans-phobia. Our offense was obvious. You could see it in the sag of our lined faces, the soft outlines of our not-so-svelte bodies. We could not deny it. Every one of us was guilty, guilty, guilty of being old. Yes, that terrifying state that, if all goes well for these young tormentors, they would reach one day.

At that moment, my partner and I absconded to take a break in the shade. By the time we caught up with our contingent, mob mentality had set in. Two signs had been torn up and their bearers repeatedly knocked down. The whole group had procured a police escort to help them leave the march in safety.

We certainly have fallen a long way since the early, heady days of the lesbian movement. Elders' horror stories of being beaten, spit on, fired from jobs and refused all kinds of services simply for being lesbian or gay are clearly not of interest to many of this generation. Learning from history has become a concept discarded and forgotten. I suppose it's much easier to hate the people around you, folks to whom you have access, than to direct righteous anger toward the real enemy, the corrupt, fascist administration we live under, in other words, the powers that be.