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.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Starbucks Opens its Bathrooms

The policy has officially changed
So there might be a silver lining to that racist scene involving two Black men in a Philadelphia franchise who tried to use the bathroom while waiting for a business colleague and wound up in police custody. Starbucks has now announced that, unlike other capitalist enterprises, it will officially make their bathrooms available to anyone who enters their premises, whether or not they purchase anything at all. 

It's about time as far as I'm concerned. Why should libraries and hospitals be the only institutions that cater to the public biological needs? Those of us in the tiny bladder brigade salute them.

Restroom philosophy varies depending on the country and culture. Public markets and spaces in Mexico usually have bathrooms available for a small fee. They are run as a business enterprise, kept clean and waiting for customers. It can be a drag to always have change available but it's well worth it for the easy access.

However, sometimes paying to pee is a slap in the whatever. In Peru, at Machu Picchu you have to pay an arm and a leg for admission and then pay extra to use the pisser. This is an unfair tax on women and old people. If you spend, say six hours, there (and it's a big place where it's easy to spend the day) you might, if you're like me, have to go three times. In that case you should be able to purchase an express pass or something. But if you're like my partner Deborah, who is a woman with a super-sized bladder, you may only have to go once. It's simply unfair.

Then, there's Paris. Well, it's different everywhere but in Paris most cafe/restaurant owners were not thrilled if I snuck in to find a toilette. I had to be single focused and pretend I didn't understand them when they used that francophone logic in a futile attempt to deter me. It's not that I'm cheap, well maybe a little, but ordering another drink of something because you have to pee too often is counterproductive, to say the least.

Ah, but Madrid, my beloved city. Any haven for drinkers of wine and beer will inevitably be heaven for perpetual seekers of the aseos, their name for the old servicios where you aseo belongs.  Spanish bathrooms are plentiful and easy to find. They have a lot of small rooms with full walls for privacy. In fact, most espanoles find the type of public restrooms in the US, that consist of a row of stalls, disgusting and invasive, a kind of TMI of bodily functions. In Spain, even in hotel lobbies, people will kindly point you to your destination, even if you are not a guest.

So Starbucks is making its mark on US restroom history finally providing all Americans that proverbial pot to piss in. We have lost so much of late, it's the least they can do.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Remembering Uncle Norman

Uncle Norman and 16 year-old me, arguing on Xmas.
Many people have an Uncle Norman. He's the guy at the family gathering who shouts and sputters about right-wing politics. My Uncle Norman stuttered. He was alt-right half a century before the term was invented. He made family gatherings interesting, if verbal warfare is something you enjoy. He was my mother's brother. My father called him "Stormin' Norman."

He lived in Akron Ohio which was only about 30 miles away. Even so, we only got together once a year on December 25th.  My family was small and everyone was there. My father's mother Josie and Norman's parents, Ruth and Al. We celebrated in a secular, Jewish fashion which involves and lot of drinking, eating, yelling and animated talking.

Norman and I argued about politics: the Vietnam War, protests, feminism, the police and their powers, self-expression, women's fashion, you name it, we fought about it. At that time the big issue was the war in Vietnam which he considered a fight for freedom. He loved the police and would dwell on how powerless I would be as a young woman to defend myself against rape without them. In the Roy Cohn tradition, he loved capitalism and hated commies. I honed my debate skills in these sessions.

I wasn't totally out to myself as lesbian in those years, but I knew I was desperately different than my friends. When Norman would tell me that I would change after I got married, I responded that marriage wasn't in the cards for me. He said that I'd change my mind. When I replied that he never married and that I was like him, he turned red, stuttered and changed the subject. Same gender marriage was so far off the map in the sixties, no-one even speculated about that.

I have reason to believe that Norman never had an intimate sexual relationship. Of course, I don't know this for sure but I know that he never talked of female friends or acquaintances. He was socially unskilled. He worked as an engineer. I think he was part of a bowling league. When my father and mother first met, my father paid a prostitute to try to seduce him. She was unsuccessful. I'm almost positive he was gay and I'm also sure that it was something he never acted upon. Although he didn't believe in religion, he scorned gay people. It was not a group in which he desired to participate.

He was fully Jewish in a racial sense, and deeply ashamed of it as well. He was the only Jew I've ever heard state, seriously, that Hitler had a point. It astonished me the way he took self-hatred to new levels.

Stormin' Norman died September 22, 2017. I only know that because I got a legal, registered letter in the mail that I had to sign for. It said that if Norman had died without a will (intestate) my sister and I would be the ones to inherit his estate, but since that's not the case they legally had to let me know that we are not in his will in case we want to pursue legal action. The will becomes a public document in a few weeks. The lawyer says it will be online. It will be interesting to see if he died with money and what people or groups he left it to. It wouldn't surprise me if it has gone to organizations like the NRA or groups fighting to turn back same-sex marriage.

Oddly enough, now that he is no longer in this world, I miss him.