Friday, May 18, 2012

Set it Off: On Obama, Marriage, and Visibility

It's been about a week or so since President Obama declared his support for same sex marriage. And even though I haven't wanted to necessarily weigh in on this conversation, I have been asked, several times, what I think about it at the same time that I have been trying to reconcile what was a stunning three days. Here's what happened: North Carolina passed the hateful Amendment One, President Obama comes out (to Robin Roberts, who I have a major morning anchor crush on) in support of same sex marriage; Queen Latifah came out. Or not. John Travolta was accused of sexually harassing three male masseuses. And, three white women were featured breastfeeding their a little past toddler age children in and on Time magazine.

So there, I'm in it.

And here's what I think: I applaud Obama for coming out in support of same sex marriage the day after many voters in North Carolina decided that marriage was the only way that heterosexual couples--because queers don't count--should relate to one another. I think that was a smart, ally-like stance. However, as others have pointed out, his stance won't change my life any. And, here's the thing, I. don't. care.

And, I'm married.

You know, for all intents and purposes. And Joan and I plan on being parents together. I understand the heteronormativity that those last statements exude. And I feel it creeping into the queer community that I adore: most of our friends have had a wedding ceremony and some are legally married and almost all of them have children. I get it and I struggle with it.  Lesbians have long committed to their partners, adopted and/or had children, and built amazing community families outside of the political context we are currently steeped in.

And I long for those times. This may not sound like where this post should be headed, but I refuse to fight for same sex marriage. This is not what we should be fighting for and this is not what I want--federal recognition that I have entered into a legal union that was based on exchanging women as property and that allowed husbands to rape their wives until, you know, the 1980s in this country.

Here's what I,  as a queer Black feminist do want: I want to be safe, physically. Will marriage ensure that I and my transgender, queer, lesbian and gay family won't be physically attacked or killed for walking down the street? Because that's what I need. When the majority of my workplace is queer and out and students still willingly tell some of us that they think that "gay things" are disgusting and they don't want to hear it anymore or write "fag" on professor evaluations and we have to take the time to address it as a department. Will same sex marriage make that disappear?

Also, a couple of weeks ago, Joan and I took a quick trip to the Midwest (Michigan) for her godson/nephew's first communion. We spent four days together with Joan's family in the Northern part of the state. A lot of it was fine, I really like Joan's family and they totally dig me, so it's a win win. And, yes, even the Catholic church with the Crocs-wearing Bishop felt fairly accepting of us, you know, when we made eye contact with folks and recognized where we were.  But, outside of that, we felt regularly threatened. And I don't mean threatened because each of us have a solid dose of internalized homophobia and heterosexism that lingers and we were with her overwhelmingly straight and lovely family, but I mean really threatened. Like: keep walking and get the f*ck out of here kind of threatened. See, my boo is what one might typically call "butch" (<3). Maybe tomboy butch, but not a traditionally feminine woman, in any case (kind of like Cleo in Set it Off--I'm getting to it) And, apparently, that doesn't sit well with Michigan men--or many men inside and outside of our rainbow bubble known as the Bay Area. And her presentation, coupled with the fact that we are two women of different races hanging out together, sets people off. I implied Set It Off twice in this post <3.

Because we were celebrating our one year wedding anniversary, we spent a night away from her family in a B&B on the Lake. And this is where it became clear that we weren't in Maxwell Park anymore. There were three straight couples staying there and, not one, but all three men stared her down as she went to get her breakfast. And they weren't just noting her Michigan State (vs. Michigan) sweatshirt. It was more of an "the f*ck? keep walking." The women didn't look at her that way, I watched. I didn't get those kinds of stares and I don't. But I'm on the ready when I see it. I'm not going to instigate a fight, but I'm not a "turn the other cheek" kind of person. You mess with me or my people and it's on. I'll kick my heels off--er, Campers--and fight back.  Like Cece. Will same sex marriage protect us against those stares, those feelings, that stance? Unless it will, I don't care. I'm not gonna fight for it. It also feels especially hard to fight for, when it feels incredibly white, particularly when it is compared to interracial marriage and civil rights--actually calling it the new civil rights movement. It's not the same thing. And, just a reminder, you deny my existence every. single. time. you make that claim (there are two smart and more nuanced statements over at CFC).

And it also feels incredibly normalizing when we are obsessed with visibility equaling verbal utterance of the words, "I am gay" (at the same time that we collectively imply that John Travolta is a molester and a closeted gay man). What happened to fantasy? And queer readings of folks? I mean, really, does it matter if Queen Latifah is gay when she can do this:

See? Doesn't that make you happy? Because every time I see it...

And when the popular discourse on motherhood is still based in and on young, white, and feminine bodies (For a minute, swap out the covergirl for a poor or young Black, Latina, or Native woman; the conversation, the headline, the debate would be different), how do our proclamations of our love and families being just the same change the structural inequalities that young, of color, and/or queer mothers face?

Until we can answer and address those questions fully, with real answers in a conversation that addresses the complexities of straight and queer lives, I'm not interested in the question.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Let it Flow Like a Mudslide...Tears for MCA


This is another post about death. And, even though death in its various manifestations is a part of life, I'm tired of writing about it.  But, Adam Yauch died last Friday and that fact keeps gnawing at me several days later. I was on a mini vacation/family gathering with my boo (and celebrating our one year wedding anniversary :), so I didn't write. But there were times, especially Friday and Saturday, that I wished I could have found a corner to cry, a lot.

I'm not exactly sure what I'd be crying about. Perhaps the fact that a man I've never met, but whose music (and activism) moved me for 25 years is gone. Maybe because I just wrote that last sentence and realize that another person that I grabbed onto in my teenage years fought and "lost" a battle. Or just simply that MCA, a rapper whose rhymes emboldened me at times—but if you’re hot to trot/you think you’re slicker than grease/I got news for ya crews/you’ll be suckin’ like a leech—has died.

(I don’t know what’s gonna happen when Prince dies, I’m just letting you know now).

Like others, I've loved the Beastie Boys since I first heard "Paul Revere" at a house party in the Fall of 1986. Our resident deejay, Juan Alexander, put it on after Club Noveau's "Lean on Me" so the party was already hyped and ready for:

Lookin' for a girl/I ran into a guy
His name is MCA/I said 'howdy' he said 'hi'
He told a little story/It sounded well rehearsed
Four days on the run/And now he's dying of thirst

I had already listened to Licensed to Ill when it first came out, upstairs in my Uncle Charles’ room, at my grandma’s house, where we listened to all the latest albums. “Listen to these white boys,” he said, as he moved the needle to the second track on Side Two. "Here's a little story..."was it for me. I was hooked. But I hadn't heard it at a house party before, over loud speakers, in an empty house, watching folks do the wop. I loved those house parties, watching folks packed tightly onto the “dance” (living room) floor, exploding when a song came on that we collectively agreed was the ish. "Paul Revere" was that song. Standing in the corner (I was more shy back then), I listened as AdRock's singular, high-pitched delivery was broken up by the hoarse, throat dried voice of MCA:

Now I got the gun/You got the brew
You got two choices/Of what you can do
It's not a tough decision/As you can see
I can blow you away/Or you can ride with me

It was “Paul Revere” that made us simultaneously forget and remember that they were white boys (unlike "Fight For Your Right to Party," which we all could barely admit we enjoyed listening to at times). Nor could I admit that I secretly had a crush on Yauch and, to a lesser extent, Horovitz. Side note: since his death, a number of dykes and straight women of color have been coming out with early tales of love for our boyfriend Yauch. Who knew? For me, it was because he was cool: a little older, still goofy like the others, but also kinda serious. And he had a beard. And a leather jacket. And his coolness, growth and maturity as a musician and a man developed on subsequent albums, solidifying his status within and outside of hip-hop. Paul's Boutique was a welcome surprise although, at the time of it's release (my senior year), I thought it was a sophomore slump. While I came to appreciate the sampling, at the time, I wanted more of the energy and maybe even guitar riffs of their first album. 

By college, I had put away Licensed to Ill, as it didn't really mesh with my emerging feminist politic. There wasn't a lot of room for "We rag tag girlies back at the hotel/Then we all switch places when I ring the bell” in my strict feminist training and really, no room for the merging of hip-hop and feminism in the early 1990s. That all changed for me with the release of Check Your Head in 1992. It represented a level of creativity and humor that I had been missing. Sampling lines from Wild Style,

Yo I don’t hang with those guys/man I ain’t got nothin’ to do with those dudes
Man and I saw your female with them too/What’s up with her?
I been hearing that she’s been giving it out/To all them graffiti guys
Man shut the fuck up Chico man/I’d paint three murals for some of that ass

In some ways that album, which I couldn’t really ignore , with songs like “Pass the Mic,” “The Maestro,” and “So Whatcha’ Want (and my boyfriend at the time played it over and over)." The skill, force, and playfulness of that album pushed me to stop hiding out in a feminism that didn’t entirely fit who I was. It (as well as A Tribe Called Quest, Me’shell Ndegeocello, and Queen Latifah) allowed me to straddle the feminism I was embracing in my adulthood with a working-class, hip-hop identity I had set aside when I left for college.  Now, I’m not gonna "front" and say that the Beastie Boys and Adam Yauch were responsible for an early hip-hop feminist politic that I now hold dear…but I did pull Licensed to Ill back out of the closet shortly after that period. My commitment deepened when MCA ordered something "long overdue," in the "Sure Shot" lyrics, "The disrespect to women/ Has got to be through/To all the mothers/And sisters/And the wives/And friends/I want to offer/My love and respect/To the end." Those lyrics, from a rapper with a popular and large audience, demonstrated a growing up that I, at twenty-three and several years younger, was also coming into. His was a good model of the activism, combined with playfulness, that I grew into in my twenties and thirties.

All of this to say, as Joan said the other day, Yauch's death is truly a loss: for the music industry, for activism, and for those of us who love and were raised on hip-hop. And while I'm grappling with getting older--just turned 41 last month--and having a hard time with the death of my early icons, it's nice to reflect on what this music has meant to me. How it raised me in lots of ways and shaped who I am today.  So thank you, Adam Yauch, for being a part of that and for bringing the depth of perception in your text to my own movement and growth.

Maybe the tears can come now. Tears of recognition, gratitude, and loss.

You can't front on that.