Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Academic Symposiums and Gender Queering Walmart...

Ok...I should be writing a paper. I have a million things to do and several nasty deadlines gaining on me. I owe a part two post that is sitting in my draft box waiting for me to finish it. But this needs to be written and gotten out of my system. If I can find the words to get it to make sense...

This past Friday, Dreamweaver and I ditched work and school and all, and went to a GLBT symposium called Bodies of Knowledge...we had been to the first one, which was a huge success and gotten to hear Helen Boyd (Author of "My Husband Betty" and "She's Not the Man I Married", two books I heartily recommend!) This year, when my friend Light brought to my attention that Bodies of Knowledge was coming around again, I said very wistfully, as she looked up the information on it's web site for me, that I wished that the speaker this year was Bear Bergman, another of my favorite authors, who wrote "Butch is a Noun" and "The Nearest Exit May be Behind You." - two more books I cannot recommend highly enough.

Guess what?

Bear was indeed one of the key note speakers! I let out a most unmanly fannish "SQUEEE!" and did the happy Tigger dance! I could not believe it!!! So, with great happiness and anticipation, Dreamweaver and I both set out for Bodies of Knowledge last Friday at the local university branch that hosted it. We met up with Light and her mother Java, and went on in.

Um...well. Ehn. We did indeed had a good day. There were really neat things that occurred and some really great papers presented. It was also a mixed blessing laced with annoyances and difficulties that were completely unforeseen. For some bizarre reason, there was a DJ hired to play what I would consider fairly obnoxious music at appalling volume between speakers and during breaks. Is this normal at scholarly symposiums? While many seemed to enjoy the music, it was a profound aggravation for me, as I am pretty severely hearing impaired and wear hearing aids. My hearing aids are little magnificent miracles which allow me to function beautifully, but they are not perfect and loud music can overwhelm their ability to sort out sound and spoken conversation. Strike one. (an appeal to the DJ to turn down the music was basically ignored.)

We went all day with two breaks for light ordeurves served at 10:30 and at 2:00...the first symposium served a sit down dinner, and incorporated a lunch break. The ordeurves were "light" enough, though classy and tasty, to constitute token starvation. I may be a barbarian for thinking with my stomach, at a time like that, but by the time we approached the last key note speaker, the growling of my tummy was competing with the obnoxious music. Also, the brevity of the "brunch" and "tea' did not allow for people to converse. (Which we couldn't do over the music anyway...) Strike tw0.

The first Bodies of Knowledge Symposium we went to was a combination scholarly symposium and community out reach for the GLBT area, and it pulled off both functions beautifully! For this one, however...the scholarly research paper presentation aspect of it was dominant, to the exclusion of the general community. Now, Dreamweaver and I are intellectuals who love to wallow in erudition...I considered ponying up to present my own research paper there, except that I missed the deadline because we found out too late for submission. On the other hand, a lot of these were student papers. Oh my aching head. Some were good papers, but the presenters were nervous and inexperienced. No fault to them, but after all day long, that got a little old. One paper was appallingly short on research and validity, and the assumptions made in it were offensive. (took us about 30 seconds of online research to refute it, never mind digging any deeper....) If that had been my student, that paper would have never seen the light of day in that form! Some were droningly mediocre, 2 of them (Not student papers) were bizarrely constructed and convoluted, though sound enough. (Note, yes, names and subject matter omitted to protect the innocent and the guilty.) Several of them were excellent and well worth being there for. As I read this paragraph over, I suddenly realize I must sound a little arrogant. I am, after all, an undergrad myself...if I had gotten word of the symposium in time to submit my paper, I would have been one of those student presentations. However, I must defend myself and say in honesty - writing papers (on a graduate level) and presentations are something I am very good at. I don't have any fear of speaking in public, and do it well - and I should indicate that I have a great deal of compassion and sympathy for those whom public speaking terrifies. It is the top fear that most people have and it is no joke. So I do need to say here, that over all, everybody did well. I just, by experience and the grace of God in bestowing on me a little ability in reading, writing and talking good on my feet, do have the ability to perceive when someone else is doing it well also. My apologies if I sounded a little snooty above here...

And Bear Bergman was FANTASTIC! He speaks like he writes - with great humor, compassion, irony and cohesiveness. His talk was remarkably accessible and to the point, and addressed cogent issues facing the Transgender community. (Side note - Bear Bergman is a trans-masculine identified speaker and performer who addresses transgender and queer issues. Ze, to use the preferred gender neutral pronoun, is simply amazing...) But the community that showed up was sort of lost in the scholarly jargon and queer theory, since many of them came expecting what had been there the first time, support and community discussion as well as academic presentation. To be honest, while a number of people around me did seem to share that opinion with me, my reaction needs to be taken with a grain of salt. If I had been fed, and not been deafened by blaring music, I might have been less grumpy. But there it is.

So, a mixed bag of a day...

And one complicated by further occurrences. First of all, with regard to certain incidents, what should have been a very trans friendly environment, became very psychologically unsafe and devastating for transgenders due to certain behaviors by other attendees who SHOULD have damn well KNOWN better. Due to the nature of said incidences, that's all I can say about that,
but I am royally pissed off.

Secondly...eleven years ago, when I came Out as Gay, I lost a friend to the scenario, who informed me that if I was gay, I was no longer her friend and no longer a Christian, and she would have nothing further to do with me under those circumstances. Given that I met her in 1978, and we were dear, dear friends and family of choice to each other until that moment, she took a 21 year friendship and threw it away in about fifteen minutes, and never looked back. All because I was gay. I had not seen her in eleven years since then...not once, though I have been able to keep up with how her life has been since then due to a mutual friend.

So, at the symposium last week, during a break between papers, Dreamweaver and I went to the car to grab drinks that we had brought with us, and escape the damnable music for a moment. We boarded the elevator, went down to the first floor, the doors opened...and my friend that I had not seen in eleven years and I collided face to face. In a way, the identical "Oh shit" look on both our faces was probably humorous! Surprisingly enough, we found ourselves very much in a bear hug of an embrace, and I came to a heart breaking realization. My friend still loved me as much as I still loved her. And stubborn woman that she is, she will probably never budge. We spoke momentarily - she had moved recently. We both said the other looked good. We even agreed that we really ought to talk, without keeping up with each other through our other friend. I introduced her briefly to Dreamweaver, who was NOT expecting this tall, confident woman who had just embraced me with such joy, to turn out to be the individual whose rejection had broken my heart over a decade ago. Needless to say, Dreamweaver's jaw dropped and she just barely recovered enough to do the polite, "Pleased to meet you" thing. And then the elevator was moving on, and the doors closed...and my friend, whom I now realize IS still my friend, despite our unresolved cut off, was lost to view. Probably for another eleven years, for all I know. I leaned on the wall, and sorta went limp. Whew. That was unexpected. Yes, I knew she worked at this university campus, but its a BIG place, and I had been over there numerous times without ever encountering her, or truly expecting to. Somehow, running into her, while attending a GLBT symposium, underscored the pain and the loss and the surrealism of seeing her again so abruptly. It complicated an already overly interesting day...

And the day wound down to it's ending. We went home, happy, confused, disgruntled and weary. We enjoyed ourselves, but had mixed feelings about the whole day, and it left us feeling very ambiguous about the whole thing. Then I made a tactical error. We were out of cat food. So, I doubled back out and went to Wal-mart.

Do not ever go to a Walmart in the deep southern Bible belt, immediately after attending a radical queer GLBT symposium and listening to queer theory lingo all day long. Just...don't. I should have known better.

Not that anything bad happened. Not that anything even in particular happened. But lets face it...around here, Walmart is a seething hive mind of southern, sometimes redneck heterosexuality that militantly expresses itself in extreme ways. Women are definitely southern feminine. Men are aggressively masculine. Clothing states clearly the sex, gender and orientation of each and all - to the point of being southern charatures. There are no obviously GLBT individuals. There are no obviously trans individuals. Not saying they aren't there...but if they are, they are as closeted as they can possibly be. My gaydar with the queer upgrade on it, goes flatline in Walmarts around here. Whats worse, since I do present as male in dress and manner, I DO stick out. If there is a gay/queerdar in to be found in a Walmart besides my own, there is no doubt I set it off. And the mundanes sense it. I get funny looks in the bathrooms. I get uneasy looks in the aisles. People know on a subconscious level that I am "different", even if they can't put their fingers on it and they react to it subliminally, and sometimes obviously. So, when I walk into a Walmart, I gender queer it by breathing the air in it. (check with Dreamweaver on this...I am not exaggerating)

Going to Walmart on the heels of having spent my day happily identifying as trans masculine and butch lesbian openly and freely, was a shock to the system. I could barely manage to use the restroom. The correct one...either one. And restrooms are where I get most of my suspicious, "Just what ARE you, anyway?" looks. "Should you be in here?" After spending a morning with happily androgynous or flaming people who were queering every gender marker in the book, the extremes of heterosexual expression around me at Walmart were unsettling, and sinister, even if most of my feelings were created by my situation. It felt like enemy territory. It did not feel safe. The exagerated presentation of the heteronormative gender binary was overwhelming and felt like I was in an alien dimension. It was a profoundly unreal experience! Take my recommendation. Stay out of Walmarts in the deep south if you have just spent your day with your GLBTQ community in pursuit of GLBTQ academics and queer theory. Give yourself time to reaclimate, to reset your defense mechanisms.

It was a not so great ending for an interesting day. I will go back to the next Bodies of Knowledge Symposium, irregardless of some of the annoying things that occurred. It's too valuable, in this area of the country, to NOT go. I am glad I went this time, and I will continue to support it. I will stay out of Walmarts too, next time. I will remember what it's like moving between cultures and gender paradigms. But I am glad I went....and besides which -

I did get my picture taken with Bear Bergman! *big happy grin"!


  1. And what can I possibly add to that???!

    Truely, the day seems surreal in retroflection. Transmasculine women can gender bend and get away with it in the south, yet the heteronormative peradigm will not budge to allow transwomen the same respect...but then you had a feminine name on your nametag, and we didn't have much opportunity to talk to a lot of people with the music blaring in the background. Then again, you fit the transmasculine paradigm. Wonder what might have happended if I had neatly printed "George" on my name tag?

  2. Dreamweaver......anyone reading said tag would giggle and wonder what your parents had been smoking. you are the girliest of all the girlies I know.

    Cameron.... HUGS just HUGS.
    Wal-Mart traumatizes me and I'm straight and fairly female looking until I open my mouth then I present Marine - go figure.

  3. I knew you'd had a rough day, but didn't know about the Walmart trip. I'm sorry you feel out of place at Walmart, but you have just as much right to be in there, and be yourself, as the rest of us Walcreatures.

    The same day this happened to you I went to a local Walmart and saw double - two sets of identically dressed "twins" which I will call Mutt & Jeff and Carol & Alice. They were not all together, to make it even weirder.
    Mutt & Jeff (97 lbs and 320 lbs?) had on dirty white shirts with grease smeared all over the stomachs, and dirty green camo pants. As they walked, they were moving in synch and kind of trucking, heads bobbing in time to each other & their own internal rhythm. Buds.
    Carol and Alice wore matching pink t-shirts, pink baseball caps, and plus-size gray camo britches with waists belted tightly, which made their camo parts even harder to camo. They chattered and gestured happily as they browsed. Friendgirls.
    Why do they fit in? Because they have a soul-mate, or, they have no concept that they don't fit in. Nobody at the store as any moral (or fashion)ground to judge you, so go ahead and get your catfood in peace. You are not any stranger than a 400-lb elderly lady with half white half red frizzly Bride-of-Frankenstein hair, black coke-bottle bottom glasses, who's toodling around on a Walmart cart with a look that says, "if you walk in front of me, I'm gonna run you down!" You're gonna have to trust me on this.