Dear Lesbian

Dear Generic Lesbian,  Standing-in-for-all-lesbians Lesbian, Capital “L” Lesbian, Lesbian Captain Sir,

as a bisexual/ femme/ queer woman

via Facebook when I stumble across lesbian sites and lesbian events like http://www.lowdown.org.nz that extend an invitation to me as an afterthought “lesbians and their friends (of both genders)…” (and believe me this is not a new phenomenon)

I wonder if you have noticed that I have been out as long as you, marched on the same parades as you, danced at the same parties,  and fought the same fights. We have been lovers for a long time now, long-term friends, and once I even married you. There is no running away from this.

When I am invited, but the event or site is not “for me”, it is not “us”, I know that you do not see me as equal to you. A lover certainly. Perhaps even a partner. But not some-one that you need to recognise or give space too. Not “one of the team” in the same way you see your butch mates. That you see me as circumspect, able to slip away, able to “pass”, not someone who is worth investing in.

I am angry and I am over being polite. I have spent 20 years speaking queer politics out loud. I am femme and feminist and I have done my own work and I am not going to carry your butch insecurities for you.

So let’s get real clear about where this lies:

1.The fact that you forget me because I am not “the same” as you makes you the worst kind of lazy, egotistical lover.

2. The fact that I lose queer credibility because you are afraid that I might leave you for a man  is outdated, possessive and misogynist. We do not own our lovers. Who else I love is nobody’s business but my own.

3. If your sense of butchness/ masculinity is not enough for you regardless of who else I love or have loved, then that is your problem. And also the problem with butchness/ masculinity.

I respect and value myself enough not to invest in intimate relationships with people I can’t trust. That goes for political alliances too.  Until you can treat me as an equal, not as second-best, you can go your way and I will go mine.

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Karangahape Road:The Need to Protect Queer, Trans, Migrant, Poor and Vulnerable Presence in the City

I’m nervous about discussing the dry and rectangular world of city planning, and more fluid, mutable worlds of spirit, community and creativity in one blog-post. And yet, I am called to action by my fierce loyalty towards Karangahape Road.

Wayne Thompson (no relation) wrote an article in the Herald on friday about the changes afoot for Karangahape Rd.

Auckland City Council is seeking feedback on their draft K’Road plan by 14th May, and are having a public drop-in feedback session with the council’s planning team this Monday 5 May 11am-2pm, Methodist Church, Pitt Street (It’s the last of four but I only found this out sorry).

Struggling through the policy-speak of draft plan (lots of vague words like ‘colourful’, a word I will come back to), the Council knows that Karangahape Road area is going to be a vital site because of it’s centrality to the future city rail link. Think lots of moving bodies. They also know as the city population grows, Karangahape Rd is going to need to accommodate a bigger population; think more businesses, more accommodation, more people wanting to have fun. They have already consulted with Karangahape Business Association, but to my mind there are other vital stakeholders whose views are obscured or missing from the current draft, and a risk that the jargon of planners will lead to Karangahape Rd being banal and soul-less.

Wayne Thompson writes:

“Karangahape Rd has long been known for its character – which includes everything from quirky stores and trendy cafes to a vibrant nightlife and prostitution.

For some, that mix is what makes the area unique and appealing. For others it’s a mix that needs to change. A road that needs to be cleaned up.”

His article usefully draws attention to the tensions expressed by Karangahape Road Business Association, who want to see the road cleaned up, and yet retain its current atmosphere. Thompson quotes Waitemata Local Board Member, Vernon Tava, who says:

“The problem is how to keep the colour and yet make it a safer place for business”

This statement is really the heart of it.

What bothers me most is that making it “a safer place for business” is not the same thing as making it a safer place for people, and even then, we need to think about which bodies we are protecting, and from whom. Making Karangahape Rd “a safer place for business” is not really about safety at all – it is about protecting capital, wealth and assets, for private business owners. Safety for people is a different matter all together. It is about the absence of harm or violence, respect, dignity and compassion. Some businesses the Herald article spoke to complained about “binge drinkers” and “sex workers” in their carparks and doorways; and one businessman complained about “the street people”.

I want the City Council Plan to protect city dwellers who live rough, sex workers and other vulnerable users from the micro-agressions inflicted on them by business owners. In fact, that’s only scraping the surface of what I would dream for Karangahape Rd.

I am reminded of the work done by queer theorist, Michael Warner (2002) who has described how attempts to “clean up” edgy parts of the city, privatises sex, and marginalises queer, gay, lesbian and trans visibility and culture. Warner described the rezoning of New York City in the 1990s, where these actions led to the loss of public expressions of gay culture, and a public space that was more mainstream, and heteronormative.

I want to tell you my own history of Karangahape Rd.

In 1997, I was 17 and had my first lesbian love affair with a girl who lived in a dingy flat above shops on K’road. She might have been 18 or 19. She had long dreads. Grunge was still in, and I can remember her wearing op-shop cardigans, smoking roll-your-owns and wearing doc marten boots. At the time it felt worlds away from the chaos that was unfolding in my conservative family. We could walk down K’road holding hands and feel safe, and ‘at home’. We could sneak into nightclubs like Legends, or the Staircase. Once I remember a girl took a photo of us at a party; she had never seen ‘beautiful’ lesbians before. Quite simply, Karangahape Rd was a Queer St. A street of glitter covered drag queens, of gay men in tight tee-shirts ,or else wearing leather and handle-bar moustaches. It was overtly sexual. It was the place you escaped to from the suburbs.

Now, I know that over 20 years gay politics have changed. Last year’s recognition of marriage equality would have been entirely unimaginable to my 17-year-old self. There’s been a shift from a politics of radical visibility, to a politics of seeking equal recognition. There’s no question that for many gays and lesbians, sexuality is no longer that important because of the high level of mainstream acceptance.

But I have a few concerns.

Firstly, when the current draft of the Karangahape Rd plan mentions “colourful”, or refers obscurely to it’s “character”, it doesn’t mention the significance of GBLT community. When it talks about preserving “culture” and “vibrant history” it doesn’t mention preserving the relationship between Karangahape rd and sexual and gender diversity. It’s frustrating that queer community has provided the bodies, the energy and creativity, but then are not explicitly consulted about it’s future, and our stake in it.

While there have been tremendous gains made for some members of the GBLT community over the last 20 years, there are still those of us that do not have the privileges of Pakeha middle-class gays and lesbians, and who have some way to go before they experience gender or sexual justice in their lives. Particularly young queer folk, including those who may be trans or gender-queer. I want Karangahape Rd to retain it’s character as a queer hub through the presence, safety and comfort of queer people. Currently, Karangahape houses Rainbow Youth, an organisation for GBLT young people. Community organisations like Rainbow Youth are enormously susceptible to the pressure of market rents. We need to future for Karangahape rd that maintains it’s connections to queer young folk.

In the plans there are a few references to public spaces that will be made “family-friendly”. Now, in general, of course I would want public areas to be family-friendly. But in the context of an area with a current and historic association with young, brown trans, fa’afafine, fakaleiti, and whakawahine sex workers, I don’t want the creation of “family-friendly” public space leading eventually to the pushing out of these street-based sex workers (who may be unable to get brothel work because of racism and transphobia) into areas that will make them more vulnerable.

Cities can have a creative presence that is difficult to pin down. It is something about the rub of different bodies, the movement, and the different textures that emerge from the juxtaposition of diverse worlds. A frission if you will. So Karangahape road has also been a home to artists and writers. The plan mentions consultation with creative industries, but I wonder whether the planners understand that the presence of artists and writers is also dependant on materialities (e.g. affordability of rent), exposure to diversity, cafe culture, and the ability to cultivate relationships with the eccentric, the non-productive and the under-employed. I can often be found drinking coffee and writing at either Alleyula in St Kevins, or at Revel. If it gets too commercialised, it will die.

Finally, lets talk about the relationship between Karangahape rd and people who live rough in the city. The draft plan for Karangahape Rd does mention the Homelessness Action Plan (I couldn’t find a live link to it on the council site) but from my limited understanding, it is a multi-agency strategy for assisting those people sleeping rough into long-term accommodation. This occurs on a case-by-case basis via support workers who can help them those sleeping rough access services (via say, WINZ and Housing New Zealand). Obviously I haven’t looked at the plan in full, but in terms of where rough sleeping intersects with Karangahape Rd, I still think there could be a more meaningful acknowledgment of the relationship between cities and rough sleeping, and an approach of explicitly acknowledging the safety  and well-being needs of the rough sleeper population and recognises they are likely to be a continuing aspect of the city. I imagine that plans to move people into long-term accommodation often have some kind of lag while bureaucratic wheels turn, and that there might be gap in meeting the short-term and immediate needs of the city-based people who are vulnerable.

I thought about how in Tory St in Wellington’s inner city, there is the is the amazing soup kitchen at the Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre. Firstly, before people get worked up about the suggestion, Tory St is still a thriving and popular street which houses trendy cafes, graphic design companies and the like. The Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre is an accepted and welcome part of Wellington inner city at least partially because the soup kitchen has been there (albeit in different forms and at different venues) for over 110 years. It has become part of the public culture of Wellington. Despite this, of course, it is only possible because of a group of nuns, and probably, private church wealth and low property prices.

In 2014, in a highly, secular culture, it doesn’t seem appropriate that we leave the role of public compassion to the work done by church organisations. There is no equivalent social body to say, buy inner city property to create soup kitchens (certainly not with the same level of public uptake). Which brings us back to the Karangahape rd plan of the Auckland Council. How could the needs of the most vulnerable street users be made more central?

Please get involved and give the council feedback by May 14. I want to leave you with an anecdote about a recent Karangahape rd experience. I drinking coffee and writing on my laptop at Alleyula in St Kevin’s Arcade a few weeks ago, and a kid came up to me. He must have been 12-14, but his skinny frame and oversized jumper made it difficult to tell. His skin was pale but the rims of his eyes were very red, and he had a very slight tremor. He asked me for two dollars so that he could catch a bus “to get home”. I looked at him and knew it wasn’t for bus money. I said, “Sure, dude” lightly, and reached into my purse to get change. He continued talking, “The other people won’t help me because they think I’m just a bum, like one of those K’road bums? But I’m not a bum”. I could see that he was trying to represent himself  – via an imaginary bus ride to an imaginary home – as someone I would help and speak kindly to. That we are often prepared to help those we are ‘like’; a kid who has plausibly forgotten their bus money, but not the same kid who has been living rough and using drugs to survive overwhelming distress. So I gave him a couple of dollars, but said, “Yeah, but you know, no one is really bum. They’re just people who are having really rough times”. He thanked me and moved on to asking other tables, evidence that he did not just need a trip home. But he turned and waved to me when he was leaving, giving a grateful smile.

Nearly twenty years ago, when I was a teenaged lesbian and when lesbians were still outsiders, Karangahape rd taught me about safety, joy and community you get from other outsiders, no matter how much of an outsider you are. Please lets protect Karangahape rd’s relationship to outsiders, queer folk of all stripes, migrants, artists, poor folk. If it has to be a “safe” place, let it be a safe place to be different and vulnerable.

 

 

 

 

4 Ways To Really Push Back Against Your Privilege

Mia McKenzie is a fab QPOC writer, but her post on “4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege” totally irked me. The premise was great. She explains that privileged folks sometimes get as far as acknowledging their own privilege, but then think that is all they need to do. What was more difficult for me was that the strategies she outlines are very self-focused, they focus on reducing your privilege as if it is a private stash of social capital, instead of actually dismantling the structural systems of oppression we actually need to dismantle in order for things to change. The problem with seeing your own privilege as a guilty stash of opportunities that just need to turned down is that a whole lot of well-meaning, academically-educated, left leaning folk can do exactly that and the only tangible effect will be that they feel less guilty. The systems that bring about structural inequalities will still be in place. So here is my poor Pacific queer woman version of how you can really push back against your privilege.

1. Fight The Power

McKenzie’s first method to push back against privilege is to “Relinquish Power”, which on the surface seems quite good. I’m all for white, able-bodied, straight, cis-people thinking about the ways that the social ease they are given produces rewards they don’t really deserve, and then figuring out ways to redistribute them. My problem with McKenzie’s explanation is that it shifts privilege too simply into something which can be given up by an individual. She gives an example of a white manager “pushing back” by taking on the opinions of her POC workers. My problem with this is that even when white managers take on the opinions of POC workers, the structural inequalities that so often hierarchically position white workers above POC workers are intact. There is no real challenge to structural racism, or to global capitalism as a system that produces racialized hierarchies. If you really want to push back, you can’t just turn down the advantages that forms of privilege give you and think that you are doing enough. Why? Because structural inequalities (via gender, race, class, ability, sexuality or gender identity) reproduce forms of violence and harm for some at the same time as they reproduce privilege for others. The real issue is recognizing that when you are being privileged someone else is being harmed. And even when you are privileged by a system, that doesn’t mean you are the only winner. Class privileges middle-class, first world kids, but the real winner is capitalism. You can turn down your labelled clothing or your entry ticket to a top-notch university, but unless you are doing more to protest against multinational corporations, trade deals, the pervasive spread of neoliberalism or poverty, you are still part of reproducing the status quo.

2. Speak Out.

McKenzie’s second point is that when you have access to something that others do not, just don’t go. She gives the examples of not going to an event which isn’t wheel-chair accessible when you are able-bodied, or to a woman’s event that excludes transwomen. She’s pointing out that privileged people need to sacrifice things that they are used to being given automatically. And this is a fair call. But really, it’s not going to undermine privilege in any way because privilege is often institutionalised, and reproduced through long histories of exclusion. And while you might have the luxury of not going and therefore feeling good about your cis-privileged and able-bodied self, people who are marginalized don’t have the same opportunities to be heard. So instead, complain loudly to everyone who will listen about how such-and-such event is unjust. If an event you are interested in doesn’t have disability access, email the organisers and complain. Don’t just leave it to people with disabilities to have to fight for their own right to be included. Exclusion is about everyone.

3. Name it and Figure out how to Change it. Dialogue.

Okay, so this is really reiterating the last points. McKenzie suggests that people with privilege “Shut up” in those spaces where their privileged voices carry more weight. And I think that’s a great start. But so often what I find really challenging is when power dynamics are at play and one person or groups systematic advantage is not named. It’s not enough to be quiet. Here’s why. The way I’ve really witnessed male privilege being reproduced is when “nice, average guys” stay quiet and don’t name the way sexism or misogyny is playing out. Staying quiet can work covertly with the way privilege is made invisible. Recently in Aotearoa, there has been a lot of ongoing public dialogue about rape culture. It’s frustrating to me that women have been having to bear the brunt of this by talking out about our experiences of rape culture as survivors, while men have stayed relatively silent about the impact of rape discourses on their own actions.

4. Be careful about what ideas and structures you reproduce.

McKenzie’s final point is to “Be careful what identities you claim”, arguing that you shouldn’t claim a marginalized identity if you don’t have a marginalized experience. She uses this unjustly to challenge “white-presenting” POC who apparently:

” claim POC but by their own admission don’t experience oppression based on race”

This statement is scary enough to me that I’m considering writing a whole blog-post about oppression and being a fairly pale POC (admittedly as a Pacific woman in Aotearoa we are discussing very different contexts), but what I want to focus on here is the way that making sense of racial or ethnic identity as solely based on skin-color buys into the system of imperialism, colonization and racism that we are trying to undo. Like McKenzie, I think attending to marginalized experience is really important. But sometimes even in well-meaning activist talk, categories of people get reproduced in very binary, rigid and stereotypical ways. We need to be careful that we are not reproducing violence through perpetuating a system of meaning that was created by the oppressors. I get really frustrated with how well-meaning Pakeha (white New Zealanders) sometimes talk about the negative social indicators connected to “Pacific peoples” in ways that seem to reinforce messages of social futility. Likewise when middle-class people talk about people living with poverty, or when straight cis-privileged people talk about diverse gender expression in ways that naturalize heteropatriarchy. For example, it’s not ” respecting gender diversity” to give a masculine-identified trans-kid a toy gun. It’s reinforcing the heteropatriarchal ideas that masculinity is about the ability to use violence, and that force is a valid way to solve conflict.

Finally, challenging oppressive structures takes a lot of hard work over time, often for small gains. So often what we really need to do is to build a critical counter-public, and it’s hard to know how to work together. I’d love to get some feedback about these ideas and how to practically challenge privilege and the systems that produce them.

Pacific, Queer and Feminist All the Time? The Evolving Practise of What it Means to be Multiply-Situated.

The modus operandi of my blogging for the last year has largely been to add to the critical voices amassing around various Government and policy decisions in Aotearoa (and sometimes the UK and Canada), media speak, and corporate actions that have harmful consequences for those vulnerable to them. More broadly, I am critical of the globalised neoliberal agenda and global capitalism, processes of racism and imperialism, patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia. My viewpoint is multiply informed by being kai loma (mixed race) Fijian/ Tongan/ Pakeha, a second-generation Pacific migrant in Aotearoa, a woman who is also genderqueer, feminist and queer.

Starting afresh in 2014, I’ve been reflecting on what aspects of my blogging practise I want to retain and what I want to change.

I’ve definitely enjoyed being able to respond quickly to emerging issues in New Zealand’s media landscape, and bring a feminist or Pacific migrant angle that might otherwise be absent. I’ve enjoyed the dialogue that has emerged between myself and other Pacific women as a consequence of our online presence. I’ve enjoyed challenging myself to write and then post poetry about social issues, which has meant making some of my emotional world very public.

A challenging aspect of blogging critically in Aotearoa is that you don’t have the same invisibility that I imagine bloggers in other parts of the globe might have. I didn’t anticipate that because people are mostly driven to the blog by readers sharing links on facebook or twitter, it gets read by people who would never intentionally read the blog of a Pacific queer feminist.

As I began anticipating a more “mainstream” readership, I started to write more events-based, shorter blog-posts in an more journalistic style, as opposed to taking risks with my writing by being more poetic/ creative, more self-reflexive, or offering more complexity. The frustrating thing is this process has been good for my blog, but not so good for me as a writer. I’m not really taking myself out of my comfort zone. It reminds me – as Sara Ahmed has discussed in Queer Phenomenology – that social ease is a consequence of accrued privilege, and some of us don’t have lives where we are made to feel comfortable. The public nature of blogging in Aotearoa has meant that I haven’t wanted to feel vulnerable in a site where I could be judged by mainstream New Zealand.

 I’ve started to fear the limits of allegiance. That readers who are left-wing and supportive of posts about poverty might not be down with my feminism. Or that Pacific readers who might share posts about Pacific or migrant culture might not be okay with posts about sexuality. And really, this comes back to how I am multiply-situated ALL the time, and I don’t get the privilege of treating ethnicity, gender, sexuality and class as if they are one-dimensional because ALL the time my lens is as a Pacific queer woman.

So this is what I’ve decided. Pakeha middle-class straight men don’t need another writer/ media commentator pandering to them and the things that they may or may not be able to withstand. It’s not helpful for my writing to feel stuck in “explaining” mode. I need it to get more complex and messy and personal in order to be more critically challenging for me. I need to be able to explore issues that run a mile from mainstream but which are rich and thought-provoking in my own life. And for that I need to feel fed and sustained by a critical community of readers and writers who are non-white, queer, and feminist.

So I guess what I’m saying is things are going to change. This might not be the blog you are looking for, and frankly, I’m okay with that. If you feel like sticking around, you can expect more poetry, more complexity, and lots more queerness. Imagine that evening has fallen and I’ve lit a few candles. There are less people but we can pull our seats closer. Everything is in shadow and more beautiful.

 

Love Radically: Some words about trans/ cis romantic and intimate relationships and intersecting axes of difference.

Okay, so I just read Mia McKenzie’s interesting and challenging list on 8 Ways Not to be An Ally. Mia is a writer I hugely respect. But the item on dating sat uncomfortably with me, and awoke some tensions I’ve been trying to work through in my own thinking and politics – not because I don’t think that fetishism and exotification are important – but instead because I think we need to make sense of relationships in even more complicated ways, and make sense of the way intersecting axes of difference can operate differently across different aspects of relationships. Mia McKenzie writes:

 Some folks seem to think that the quickest way to lifelong allyship status is to just date all the people who resemble those that one claims to exist in solidarity with. Anti-racist? Date all the POC! And be sure to do so exclusively and with no analysis whatsoever about fetishism, exotification, or the ways your white body might be interrupting POC space! Cuz, hey, you’re an ally and stuff. Right? Ew.

I want to discuss some aspects of my long-term relationship with my ex-partner as a means of extrapolating what I mean by intersecting axes of difference and power, and the way these complex intersections play out in relationships. And simultaneously, I want to use an intersectional feminist analysis to deconstruct some of the uneasy assumptions about what it means to be a partner and ally, and raise important questions about how we think about partners – as either allies, limited term allies, or as non-allies (because of the potential for exotification or fetishization).

Firstly, Mia’s statement is about making sense of people who don’t just have one relationship with someone from an Othered or marginalised category (i.e. a POC or a trans person say), but who continually date people from that group. Is that fair enough? Is that just a reasonable means of identifying people who may be threats, who fetishize a particular group? Here’s where it gets more complicated for me.

I am a Kailoma (mixed-race) Fijian/ Tongan/ Pakeha queer femme genderqueer cis woman from a poor background. My ex-partner is a white middle-class bisexual trans woman. While we were together, I sometimes experienced hostility from other white trans women who felt that I was ‘cis privileged’ and didn’t like my participation in trans events. I was also called a “tranny chaser”, and when I spoke to other lesbian cis women who were partnered with trans women, I found that they had also been called “tranny chasers”.

So my then-partner and I had a big talk about how we saw privilege and power operating in our relationship, and between us. We agreed that while there were a small handful of situations where my cis privilege meant that I experienced more social ease than my love, by and large her whiteness and class privilege trumped my cis privilege in most areas of our lives together. This doesn’t mean that the social ease given to cis people wasn’t real or relevant in our lives. It means that class and race are such forceful social mechanisms that in most situations being non-white and from a poor background made me relatively disadvantaged in relation to her.

We need to think carefully about how axes of difference play out in intimate relationships. It’s not much that one person holds privilege and that necessarily extends to “power over” the other person. It’s often more that privilege creates access to wealth or resources that the other person might not have to hand. And that, in an intimate relationship, if one person continuously experiences less access to resources, that may amount to a relative lack of power. This relative lack of power might play out as a diminished ability to make decisions in the relationship that effects both people.

But of course, what happens in a relationship like mine where a couple are negotiating multiple differences is that you experience privilege differently in different sites. So in lesbian nightclubs or queer events that were more multicultural, my status as cis would mean that I would experience more social ease than my partner (women might exotify me, but my identity as a woman wouldn’t be questioned). But at university, my partner’s whiteness and class background created an pervasive ease and sense of belonging that I didn’t have. Her whiteness acted as a buffer in an educated academic setting. And because under capitalism, work and education have more impact on our overall lives than social relationships do, she was relatively privileged in relation to me.

But what does this mean when a couple might – like us – negotiate different cultures and classes alongside different gender identities or sexualities? Does it mean that her whiteness acted as the most powerful lens and I was racially exoticized? Does it mean that my cis status acted as the most powerful lens and she was fetishized? What if I told you that her previous partner was also non-white? What if I told you that another former partner of mine is currently exploring their gender identity? Are we both freaky perverts for daring to border-cross? Or were we delusional for imagining that we could find genuine love, intimacy and fairness across differences?

It’s worth recalling Braidotti’s claim that in the West, difference is colonized to denote relative power –  so our delineations of ‘self’ and ‘other’ become a means of creating and reinforcing social hierarchies. Difference outside of this context of meaning-making might be neutral. So we can question the ways in which we view ourselves and others in light of the cultural value we assign, and how this produces power relations.

One of the biggest problems I have with the “tranny-chaser” perception of trans-partners is that perpetuates another binary between the “good” trans-partner/ally and the “bad” “tranny-chaser” that doesn’t speak to the complexities of relationships and ongoing need for dialogue between partners. In the first year of our relationship, I probably unequivocally saw myself as the “good” trans-partner/ ally. That’s because we hadn’t been together long enough for me to know that we would eventually need to have hundreds of difficult and painful conversations about gender. Not because I wasn’t entirely on her side, whatever that might be. But because over time we realized that we understood gender entirely differently, and we had different perceptions of what ‘woman’ meant, which was as much about our different racial backgrounds as it was about our cis/ trans status. My belief that I was an ally – on the basis that I believe trans women are women who should have equal access to rights and dignity as cis woman – didn’t necessarily amount to a shared understanding of my partner thought was important about her gender. And as much as I wanted to truly recognize my partner the way that she saw herself – because I wanted her to feel recognized and validated in our relationship – I couldn’t always understand gender in the way that she did. Equally, we have had hundreds of difficult conversations about cultural appropriation, classism and racism.

Hundreds of conversations about differences probably sounds exhausting, and it definitely could be. But I actually think that overall it is something we did pretty well. It’s hard to have to constantly be trying to put your own preconceptions to one side, and listen wholeheartedly to someone else. It takes a lot of love and compassion to carry you across that gap in worldviews. And strength of character to hold on to different perceptions where they are important for your own sense of authenticity and self. You need to talk heaps about gender and race, and at the same time hold on those feelings of love and connection that make relationships worthwhile.

I like how Sandoval has talked about love as creating radical possibilities for alliance across differences. I guess if I were talking to a trans and cis queer couple contemplating a relationship despite differences in culture and class background, my advice would be to love radically. Fetishization happens when someone views another person as less than who they are, because their viewpoint is obscured by a cultural stereotype. They classify the person as an erotic Other. I loved my ex-partner as a whole, complex and unique person. I wasn’t afraid to love her trans-ness, but I also loved the complexity of her story, her ideas and insight beyond being trans. I loved her enough to listen carefully, and ask questions, and disagree and try again. You need love, mutual respect, and a commitment to ongoing dialogue about how salient social differences impact on your ability to relate to each other.

Ghost Stories: A Review of Amber Dawn’s ‘How Poetry Saved My LIfe’

Amber Dawn spoke at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC recently. In person, she was self-confident, directing questions back to the audience in a relaxed, conversational way, and flicking her trade mark bottle-red curls behind her shoulder as she talked. Her hair is really Mermaid hair. It felt like an activisty community meeting instead of a book launch. UBC is her alma mater, where she completed a MFA in Creative Writing, so it might have been that she was on home ground, albeit the manicured politeness of home ground she was careful to disrupt. I’ve just read her new book,  How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir.

Amber Dawn’s first novel Sub Rosa won a Lambda Literary Award in 2011. Sub Rosa is about a group of magical sex workers, and Amber is keen to return to speculative fiction in the novel she is working on, a ghost story set in a carnival in her home town. How Poetry Saved My Life already had its own ghosts, despite her sometimes raw and ruthless words, you sense the ethereal presence of others left unsaid.

How Poetry Saved My Life is a memoir, but a deceptively narrow one in that Dawn is really holding her sex work history like a multifaceted stone, and showing us the plays of light across her palm.  The memoir is told in poems and essays. At the end, you have overheard conversations, the sense of having met a redhead queer girl in the middle of a bus trip, but not the sense of having gotten to know her story. In the title poem, Dawn writes, ‘Moreover, poetry reunited me with the girl/ who didn’t mind the endless backwoods tree line/ and was thrilled by the sounds of coyotes screaming at night./ Someday I’ll write about her’ (p.56). You hope that someday she does.

Yet, there is a satisfying messiness about Dawn’s life that is left on the page, instead of being forced into plastic ill-fitting labels. She is a sex worker, she is queer, and femme, and genderqueer, and feminist and a poet all at once. She is unapologetically everything publishers should be afraid of in a country so soaked through with middle-class politeness. She is funny and angry. She is both pensive, and loud: ‘those Powerpuff Girls and Bratz dolls that are doing so well in the marketplace. They wear booty shorts and speak in baby voices but, by god, are they introspective. I mean, their heads are as big as those of the Eight Immortals of Tao.’ (p.73).

In one deliberately challenging essay “Lying is the Work”, Dawn tells us to ‘Forget about hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotypes. Survivor heroism – disregard that altogether’ (p.119). It’s a hard ask when bravery bubbles out of each page: the bald-faced naked and naive bravery of her younger self with little except resilience ‘Drugstore red lipstick/ is all I need – a Lincoln Town Car/ will pick me up in the gas station parking lot/ Watch’ (p.42), the astute political bravery of demanding a return-in-kind of her reader ‘What personal and public rituals do you perform to be seen?” (p.112), and the matured bravery of being a writer that lets her vulnerability show through: ‘Sex work changed the way I fucked. Confessions don’t come any harder than this one’ (p. 141).

As a queer, femme, genderqueer and feminist reader I wanted to underline phrases in pencil, leave sticky notes in the margins, and pass my copy on to my own crew: the queer and lesbian and femme and genderqueer and feminist people that I share words, and wine, and sometimes lovers, with. In one essay Dawn invites us – the queer community – to consider how to bury our dead. In another, she reminds us of how butch – femme love creates our own ways  of being held, and seen, and safe. How Poetry Saved My Life is painful but also nurturing. I suspect it will act as a radical gathering place for all of us  – queer femme folk – who are road-weary, and have lives to grieve and lovers to remember.

The Tragic and Preventable Death of a Lesbian Asylum Seeker to the UK Highlights the Need for Global Queer Activism

Ugandan woman Jackie Nanyonjo came to the United Kingdom five years ago. She had escaped from a forced marriage. Her husband had tortured her when he discovered she was lesbian. I imagine her feeling the heavy weight of relief and loss as she participated in campaigns for gay rights and asylum rights in her new home. I hope she had moments of uncontainable joy in living openly as a lesbian, and being loved by another woman. I hope friends told her how incredibly brave she was – to survive her torture and escape – during the dark hours.

On January 10, the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) told her she was to be deported back to Uganda. Despite evidence from her lesbian partner and others in the GBLT community, UKBA refused to believe she was lesbian. They turned down her application for asylum.

She was beaten brutally by the four security guards who accompanied her on her flight back. After she was held by Ugandan authorities at the airport, her family rushed her to a medical clinic. Unfortunately, her health declined over the next two months with insufficient medical treatment for her injuries, and she died on March 8.

A protest outside the home office called for Home Secretary, Theresa May to resign. You can read more about how to participate in protests here. There is also a Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/movementforjustice

Jackie’s death highlights the flaws in the refugee system. Asylum seekers – those who most need our support and trust – are treated as criminals. Asylum seekers on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity still meet the institutionalised heteronormativity and structural racism of first world nations. What made Jackie seem “not gay enough” to the case officer assessing her application? How much did the fear of a shrinking public sector and need to lower costs – the inability to accept everybody – loom in the case officer’s mind?

Jackie’s death signals to us –  queer and migrant communities – that our allegiances to so-called “just” and homonormative nations are less salient then our allegiances to each other and those who are most vulnerable. We need to use our collective voices wisely and powerfully.

With the shrinking authority of the Commonwealth, Britain is much more reliant on public diplomacy – engagement with foreign publics – than ever before. Global public outrage about the needless death of Jackie Nanyonjo is perhaps the only thing likely to bring about much needed changes to the system for asylum seekers.