Immutable.

Because I lived in South Carolina for years, right-wing arguments for flying the Confederate flag are as familiar to me as right-wing arguments against marriage equality. They’re similarly disingenuous:

  • “Heritage, not hate!”/”I love homosexuals; I just don’t agree with their lifestyle.”
  • “The flag has always flown in front of the State House!”/”It’s not for us to change God’s definition of marriage!”
  •  “The Civil War was about states’ rights; not slavery.”/”This is about religious freedom, not bigotry.”
  • “This is a matter best left to individual states.”/”This is a matter best left to individual states.”

Simple, thinly-veiled hostility, mixed with appeals to tradition, individual rights, capitalistic terror, a persecution complex, and the Lord God Almighty Himself. These arguments dry up and blow away if you have a basic understanding of our secular legal system and/or the Old Testament, which defines marriage in a drastically different way than anything now sanctioned by the strictest Southern Baptist, including polygamy and marrying your rapist. (Google that stuff. Also, remember never to wear a cotton-polyester blend or cook a young goat in its mother’s milk, OK? I went to Bible school, so don’t mess with me. We can quote Scripture back and forth until Gabriel’s trump).

The above arguments are a cover for the real arguments, which are:

  • “I despise African-Americans.”/”I’m freaked out by the thought of a penis going into an anus, as well as the idea of two women tasting other’s vaginas without a man in the room.”

We can move on now! Right-wingers are what they’ve always been. What I’m fascinated with are the progressive arguments against same-sex marriage; from people with whom I agree on most other things and who ought to be celebrating Friday’s Supreme Court decision. This set of arguments goes like:

1. All systems and modes of oppression have not yet been eradicated, therefore we shouldn’t care about marriage.

2. Marriage is a heterosexual institution and therefore unimportant for gays.

3. Marriage is a patriarchal institution about “ownership” and therefore bad for women.

4. You don’t need a piece of paper to prove the stability and truth of your love.

This set of arguments is egregiously balls, because:

1. I can care about, and work on, lots of things at the same time! Like, the other day, I did a Jillian Michaels workout involving a squat with a shoulder press! Also, why do gays and lesbians need to put on everyone else’s oxygen mask first? Why do we always have to eat the burned one? What’s up with the guilt trip? Are we everyone’s mommy? Finally, where (besides during the second wave) was all the weighting and measuring of marriage when it was only for heterosexuals? Why all of a sudden are we line-editing it as an institution?

2. Heterosexuals don’t own marriage, just like they don’t own any other integral social institution or benefit. As long as human beings feel a deep, primal need to couple up and build lives together; we all have a vested interest in the legal equality of those relationships. You’re a same-sex couple who doesn’t want your relationship sanctioned by law? Fine! My wife and I won’t choose for you; you don’t get to choose for us. It’s a lot like how I find abortion morally reprehensible in most cases, but still support its legality, because I don’t get to decide for other people. I don’t have to live with the consequences of their decisions, so I don’t get in the way.

3. Marriage is only patriarchal if there’s a man in the marriage. Let’s go ahead and name the agent: Men, historically, have oppressed women in marriage (as well as outside it). Women don’t oppress one another in this way, nor can they (if you have any class analysis at all). I’m sorry if this hurts your feelings. If you’re using this argument, you’re likely a young person who wants to subvert and resist and who has never filed a federal tax return; or someone who is deeply bitter for personal reasons. It’s your own Very Special Journey. But you don’t get to dictate to me.

4. Of course you don’t need a piece of paper to prove the stability and truth of your love – but you do need it to prove you’ve made one specific, legal, and protected commitment – a commitment in which you sign on for over a thousand rights, privileges and obligations that can’t be taken away. Once you make that commitment – namely, federally-recognized marriage; not a civil union or domestic partnership – your situation doesn’t change whenever the political winds blow. You are not at the mercy of people who do not wish you well. The thought of what you do in bed squicks them out six ways to Sunday? Tough. They don’t have to host your reception at their particular church; they don’t have to send you a gravy boat off your registry, but – and this is all that matters – they can’t make you less-than.

And, a special message to the heterosexual “progressive” women who’ve always been able to marry and who dismiss marriage equality as unimportant? Fuck right off out of here. I’ve spent years caring about things like male domestic violence and your right to contraception, and you presume to tell me what is and isn’t important in my life, or what ought to be done first or beforehand?

How’d you like it if my wife and I took an Andrea Dworkin line on your relationship? Your sex life and relationship is oppressive and coercive by its very nature, ladies. How’d that feel?

You, and everyone else who purports to know what’s best for us, can throw all the shade you want. Because this one’s done. This one, as Justice Kennedy wrote from the highest court in the land, is immutable.

nowhere

Nine years ago, the editor of the newspaper I wrote for sent me to Africa to do a story on the Somali Bantu emigrants flooding into our state from a refugee camp in Kenya. Many local residents were freaking out about this in a particularly zenophobic and tiny-minded way (“What if they catch people’s cats in traps and eat them?!”) so it was a hot topic and we had to jump fast.

“Hey, sign this,” my editor said, flipping a triplicate form onto my desk. “We upped your life insurance. Just a formality!”

I signed, then toddled off to get shots for various 19th-century diseases, all of which hurt like a bitch. The doctor gave me a package of syringes along with my anti-malaria pills.

“You don’t want to get an injection in an African hospital,” he said, “but if it’s unavoidable, make sure the nurse uses YOUR syringe. And don’t open your mouth in the shower.”

Before the trip I researched the camp, which housed 130,000 (mostly Muslim) refugees who’d fled war, genocide and famine in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Congo. The refugees lived crammed into small tents next to outdoor pit latrines. Each morning the women lined up to collect strict rations of water, corn mash and salt. Rape was as common as the dust storms. People waited years for good news: It’s time to fly to America or Canada and start new lives free from machete-wielding militias.

The camp’s name, in Swahili, means “nowhere.”

My first night in Africa, I stayed in the U.N. compound and as the sun rose saw my first dik-dik, a little antelope named for the alarm calls of the females. After breakfast, where I did not try any of the goat stew, we caravaned into camp under armed guard in the back of a rattly van. Also along for the ride were various NGO people and Peace Corps kids, every one of whom was redolent with tea tree oil (keeps bugs away) and patchouli (just because).

“Cover your hair,” said a girl with blonde Wellesley dreads and gold-tanned skin, tossing me a bandanna as I stared at a band of Masai warriors walking through the desert, armed to the teeth. “It’ll make your interviews easier.”

Along the bumpy road, my photographer and I hissed our way through an argument about female genital mutilation – he said it was a cultural practice and none of our business and that I shouldn’t go into camp with an “agenda”; I said it was a barbaric, life-ruining human rights violation and a person didn’t need an “agenda” to want it stopped. I asked if he’d feel the same if FGM involved little boys having their penises split open in such a way that thousands of them died and, for those who lived, urination and sex would be a lifelong agony. He said he would.

I questioned his veracity. In fact, I think I may have called him a liar. No, I’m sure I did. We didn’t speak much for the rest of the two-week trip. Later that day, he got outrageously sick (having opened his big mouth in the shower).

Dozens of children waited by the gate as we pulled into camp, some just barely able to walk. They wore cast-off American T-shirts so long they fit like nightgowns – giveaways from bars and shows, with a smattering of Britney Spears and N’Sync. They kicked a soccer ball made of twine and rubber bands behind the caravan until we parked.

I stepped out of the van and the dust attacked. It was in my eyes, my ears, between my teeth. It collected under my bandanna and melded with my sunscreen to form a chalky dirt paste. My cold bottle of water quickly turned the temperature of blood. I had never been so hot in February; hadn’t realized in my rush to prepare that February was African high summer. The kids surrounded me, peeking into the pockets of my cargo pants. My guide/fixer/Maay Maay translator, Abdu, scattered them with a swoosh of his handmade switch.

We walked a mile into camp, passing blocks of tents and latrines and the occasional goat, until we reached a long, low building.

“Cultural orientation class,” Abdu said in his formal, British-y way. Inside, a group of women and teenage girls were prepping for life in America. They practiced turning a mock light switch on and off; pushed buttons on a mock dishwasher; passed around a santitary napkin.

I thought about all the things these women could never prepare for; things that were really going to matter when they hit stateside. Like me: I’d mined the State Department website for everything I could learn about Kenya, but nothing readied me for the women’s gazes; the torch of their curiosity burning through the bandanna on the back of my head.. No story I read prepared me for what the women themselves told me through Abdu:

They came to the village with machetes.

They burned everything.

We ran but they were in a truck.

They took my daughter.

I do not know where my parents are or if they are still alive.

My husband is in another camp.

I do not know how many years ago it was.

“Americans are very conscious of time,” Abdu translated for the teacher, who stood in front of a giant map of the U.S. “They wear watches and keep clocks in their houses. Americans do not like it when people are late. You must check the time often in America.”

After class, I asked Abdu to see if anyone would give me an interview. He scouted the crowd, then returned with a woman about my age. She wore a red-and-gold head covering and held a happy squawking toddler.

“What do you most look forward to about America?” I asked, pen poised. My interviews were going to make up more than half the story, which I was already writing in my head: Refugees fleeing terrible lives make the journey to new, better ones!

“Safety and security,” she said, kissing her baby’s head. “Where were you born?”

OK, cool; I could be the interviewee for awhile. I walked over to the U.S. map and pointed to the dark line separating Arizona and Mexico. “Right here,” I said, “but now I live here.” I pointed to the middle of South Carolina.

She was confused. “Why did you leave your homeland?”

Homeland. This was several years after 9-11, so I only thought of that word in the context of Homeland Security. For an American, the word is foreign, only slightly less retro and weird than “Fatherland” or “Motherland.” I was a 31-year-old American woman who’d spent the last 10 years moving from city to city with no real roots or even loyalty. “I took a job,” I said. “I work for a newspaper.”

“But what do you make?” she asked.

“I make…” Now I was confused. What the hell did I make, really? I wrote a popular women’s column; some feature stories and film reviews. Once every two weeks I did the cops-and-courts beat and drove to a City Council meeting or a house fire. I couldn’t hem a dress, hang a straight curtain rod; or change my own oil. I bought my meals ready-made at the organic market.

“I make words,” I said.

She changed the subject. “Where is your husband?”

“I don’t have one,” I replied, but didn’t explain further. I had come out at 28 and was still struggling with the differences between the life I’d dreamed of as a kid (traditional family; acceptance in the wider world) versus the life I actually had (solo homeowner; non-monogamist; childless).

There was, as far as I knew, no word for “female homosexual” in Maay Maay. There’s a word for “male homosexual,” but it’s a pejorative; plus, homosexuality was – and still is – punishable by death in this part of the world. Best to let it lie. “I have a house and three cats.”

“Cats?” she repeated in Maay Maay, looking to Ashur for confirmation. 

Small cats,” I clarified, miming little paws and ears. “Not like lions.”

“What do the small cats do?” she asked. “Do they give milk or meat?”

“No no no,” I said. “The small cats are for companionship. So I don’t have to eat or sleep alone.” (At that time in my life I wasn’t doing a whole lot of sleeping alone, but again, I wasn’t about to get into it). I thought of the cats; their slim, tough little bodies figure-eighting around my legs when I got home at night. It pissed me off when people called them “child substitutes.” They were cuddly and comforting to hold, but I knew they weren’t the same. I loved having a bit of unpredictable wildness in my house. I loved being stalked from atop the refrigerator.

She leaned back and looked at me like, Let me get this straight. “The small cats do not give milk, neither do they give meat or labor. They eat from your plate and sleep in your bed. They are your only companions at home. When you are not at home, you make words.”

Looking at my life through a reductionist lens bummed me out a little. She was right, but also not, and I suspected this went both ways.

“Well…yeah,” I said. “But I have friends, and, uh…I read a lot. I go out to hear music…I spend my time…”

My time. I would never be able to explain to her how I spent my time; could hardly explain it to myself. I couldn’t explain “friends,” couldn’t tell her how women sluiced in and out of one another’s lives like water. No combination of words could articulate my fear that I was moving at a stately pace toward something irrevocable.

Eyes limpid with sympathy, she handed me the baby. We played with him and forgot all about the time.

do you think they know that sunday brunch is the gayest meal of the week?

Internet, I should tell you what happened afterwards! Bullet points are the most merciful choice here because it was a long-ass weekend:

  • Parents, stepmother, grandfather and cousin declared unconditional support
  • Dad sent pointed email (cc’d everyone!) to homo-loathing family member. Email included words such as “cruel,” “exclusionary,” and “apologize”
  • Dad’s repeated viewings of heartwarming GLBT films (beginning with “Go Fish” in 1993 – my fault!) inspire request: put anger aside; high road; French toast and forgiveness; c’mon. Dad’s vision: victory of tolerance over bigotry; dignity over dehumanization; set to triumphant Ani DiFranco musical score, heavy on percussion. Dad said, “teachable moment!”
  • Dad so sweet
  • But am not educational documentary made flesh; sorry. Buy homo-loather Andrew Sullivan book or Advocate magazine, OK? Find high-school production of The Laramie Project!
  • But then self began wavering! Self was suddenly Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” when redheaded daughter takes up with non-Jew! (“On the other hand…”)
  • “THERE *IS* NO OTHER HAND!”
  • Homo-loather pressured from all sides to apologize
  • Have not heard from homo-loather yet
  • Am OK with that: Apology nice; no apology also fine
  • People allowed opinions! Even terrible/wrong opinions!
  • But do not have to subject self to them if can help it, right?
  • Family did brunch thing
  • Invented new veggie casserole for lone self to enjoy with beer while watching Seasons 3 and 4 of “Queer As Folk” to help maintain militant attitude
  • Chuckled warmly at “Queer As Folk,” which was filmed in Toronto and should have been titled “Earnest Canadian Acting With Buttsex”
  • Girlfriend (“beloved life partner” to YOU, homo-loather) canceled visit due to legit family emergency of non-emotionally-wounding variety
  • Two family members emailed “family photo” of the brunch
  • Never has such a well-meaning gesture been so insensitive OR so poorly received
  • Was pretty buzzed by then
  • What else, what else
  • Oh yeah, Dad said aunt by marriage showed up wearing horrible Civil War-era badger neck-fur coat (not fur solely FROM badger neck; complete badger fur worn AROUND aunt’s neck) with badger head on one end fastened to badger tail on other; so badger looks like eating own tail, and aunt said something SO HORRIBLE! SHOCK AND AWE!  that karma was, at least, a little bit served.

UPDATE: Received – and accepted – heartfelt, genuine apology/promise to do better from (former!?) homo-loather. Also received chocolate cake. The mind boggles, pleasantly.

UPDATE 2: No one will repeat what badger neck-fur coat aunt said. By all accounts was not homo-related though. Small blessings, self. Small blessings.

My family threw a bomb, so I threw one back. Here’s the email.

Dear family,

I’d like to explain why I won’t be joining you for any of the lovely weekend events planned for Grandpa’s birthday: It has been gently, kindly explained to me (via text message) that my beloved partner’s presence makes one of you uncomfortable;  therefore, I am not welcome to bring her along.

I would like you, dear family, to imagine being told by someone you adore and admire that the sweetest, best person in your life – the person you have waited and hoped and worked for until the cusp of middle age – is a source of discomfort. Imagine that the smartest, wisest, most full-of-integrity person you have ever known; the one with whom you are finally your best self, is not welcome among the people you have loved since the day you were born.

Imagine being expected to understand this and just sort of be cool with it.

Now imagine being un-invited to the Sunday brunch you bought a new outfit for; all the while excitedly telling your partner: I can’t wait for you to spend some time with my family! You’ve never even met my grandfather; my uncle John or cousin Mike!

Imagine the person you love. Go ahead. Really bring that person to the forefront of your mind. Let him or her wash over you in all his or her inimitable verve. Think about the way he or she forgives your mistakes; encourages your dreams; gives your life form and color and meaning.

Now imagine, if you can, that your family requires you to treat that person like he or she doesn’t matter; doesn’t even exist. You are only welcome if you come alone. You are only welcome if you STAY alone. Like, for the rest of your life.

You are only welcome if you lie.

Never. That’s a thing that will never happen. If you’re surprised by this in the slightest, then you don’t know me at all.

Because that is a denial of my full humanity, dear family, however kindly it is put to me. Every gay and lesbian person knows that this denial will come, and often, but we hope it is delivered by strangers or cable television personalities with bad hair. Better the rock; the brick; the can of spray paint; the loud, ugly scream of “FUCKIN’ DYKE” from a stranger, than the gentlest denial of our humanity from our own families.

I hope you have a beautiful weekend together.  I love you all very much.

But also? I love myself.

 

— Your daughter, granddaughter, niece, and cousin,

Phonaesthetica

 

 

The best educational diagnosis of all time

I was looking at some ESL (English as a Second Language) paperwork today and discovered it. Ready?

“Weak oral.”

Which, I guess, means “not so good at spoken English” but do you think I care? No, I do not. I’ve started a Weak Oral Awareness Foundation 301(c) in my head for all the sisters failing to reach state-mandated standards in re: this essential lesbian skill.

“Won’t YOU give…to stop weak oral?”

“Because weak oral…is preventable.”

“Because weak oral…can happen to anyone.”

“Dedicating to fighting…weak oral. Because it’s never too late.”

I’ll head up the foundation. All I need is funding and a logo.

Nicknames Of A Dozen Of My Lovers From 2006-2010: Final Exam Matching Section

My favorite part of any test is the matching section. Remember the matching section, from high school? It usually comes after the multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank, but before the essays. I got bored writing the Macbeth final, so:

Nicknames Of A Dozen of My Lovers From 2006-2010

Please match the following nicknames with their owners:

1. Cluster B

2. Camp 14

3. Unobtainium 

4. The Big-Footed Mindfucker

5. Hathor

6. Temple Recommend

7. The Rosetta Stoner

8. Recyclopath

9. The Process Server

10. Add To Cart

11. 404

12. Eva Braun

***

a. Like the Cake song, she was never ever there.

b. Spoke three languages; needed to smoke pot every morning to stay within commuting distance of her sanity.

c. Recovering Mormon. Have you ever tried to sex someone wearing sacred underwear?

d. Meticulously documented in your old Abnormal Psych textbook from college.

e. Trial attorney with a lot of feelings.

f. Anarcho-environmentalist who wouldn’t let me flush the toilet at her house.

g. description redacted

h. Amazon Warrior. Also Overstock.com.

i. MTF WTF transwoman who loved me but didn’t but did but maybe was into men after all but  maybe not.

j. Married blacksmith

k. “Feet off the couch. That’s MY black shirt. Who was that text from? Where have you been? You tracked snow all over the entryway. We’re going to stop eating meat.”

l. For months, people told me I’d be sorry. I was.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Tinky Winky, If Only For One Night

Like I said, I never meant to fuck a Teletubby. But it was Halloween night in Toronto and I was cold (having dressed, as I usually do, as a generic Slutty Witch). I was at an outdoor bar with a few women from the Pillow Fight League, wishing I’d brought a jacket to go over my lace slip.

Soon enough, a hot little number in a Teletubby costume sent over a Jack and Coke. She was there with three other Teletubbies, but the others kept their giant head masks on.

“I’M TINKY WINKY,” she yelled over the music as we danced.

“COOL,” I yelled back, because I am known for my lady-conversating skills.

One thing, as it is wont to do, led to another. Tinky Winky, her friends, and I bar-hopped around Church and Wellesley — they in their giant Teletubby heads, me in my pointy hat — until it was just Tinky and I standing in the searing cold air in front of a mini high-rise.

“I live up there,” she said, like it’d just occurred to her. “Want to get warm?”

Did I want to get warm? Did I want a million dollars? Did I want the sky to fill with rainbows?

As we walked into her apartment, I panicked: Her Teletubby head looks different. It’s purple. Wasn’t it green before? Did I go home with the wrong Teletubby?

I held my breath as she unmasked. She was the right Teletubby. She was absolutely the right Teletubby for the next three hours. But in that moment, before I knew for sure, I realized it didn’t matter — if she’d been the wrong Teletubby, I’d have rolled with it.

Which was a new thing. Until I was almost 30 and started sleeping with women, I thought of sex as a sacred promise that bonded me to someone else forever. This ruined the sex itself, since I was so focused on forcing the relationship that my body went numb.

After I re-filed sex under “Research and Development,” I relaxed: What did I want? What did I like? What was I willing to try? My sexuality had been obscured by malecentric narrative and desire, so I really didn’t know. Self-objectification: we’re all soaking in it, until we’re not.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want just one woman to love. I did. But I wasn’t going to keep my lace slip on until she arrived. I was going to find something to love about a lot of different women: Her hair; her laugh; the way she could run a mile in under six minutes. And I was going to discover what I wanted in bed — not what I assumed I wanted, but actually enjoyed.

I cooked a lot of eggs during the next nine years. Scrambled, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, poached — if you liked it, I could make it for you. I’d squeeze you some fresh juice, too, for the road. And I wouldn’t (usually) agonize over whether you called again or not.  I slept with a semi-famous folk singer and got a song written about me, which was fun.

But the best thing I learned from sleeping with lots of women wasn’t about sex, it was about secrets. Women told me things in bed that they wouldn’t have told me anywhere else — stories about their childhoods; their insecurities; their hopes; their ongoing sense of nameless dread. The more they told me, the more I understood how not-alone I was. Things I’d been afraid to share, or even admit, were de-fraught and de-fused, and it created a new kind of intimacy — not “We’re sleeping together, therefore we MUST be bonded,” but something natural and healing: Here we are, in this human thing together.  

And when I fell in love again — whether it worked out or not — sex with that woman was better because of the sex I’d had with women I didn’t love. I knew what I wanted. I knew what was real and what was someone else’s fantasy. I was present and powerful, not acting out a pre-fab script. So when I read things like this, or hear my students slut-shaming, I remember Tinky Winky and her warm, fuzzy hands. And I am so grateful.