Browse Category: Blog

Challenging Gender Binaries in the Motherland: Could Transgender and Intersex Activism Unite Africa’s Movements?

About a year ago, I hosted my first Kitchen Table Conversations podcast on Media, Culture, and Identity. 

The podcast featured four LGBT Africans in the Diaspora, a few of which described themselves as gender non-conforming. Shortly afterwards, I received a really sweet message from someone who had listened to the podcast. It read as follows:

For a long time I have been trying to get involved in the LGBT arena and be a voice to my community but have not been able to find such a space or create one. It takes a lot to actually be in such a position to do so with limited resources.  I listened to the Kitchen Table Conversation with a lot of admiration to the Passionate Voices of My Queer Sisters and felt so empowered. I  am a sincere admirer of all your effort in highlighting these serious issues that affect us as African LGBT Community.  These are the voices I have been waiting to hear for a very long time addressing such issues other than someone else speaking for us. How can I also participate as a transman in diaspora?

I remember feeling touched by the message, but sad, too; it stood out to me that a fellow queer African had waited till the very end of his message to come out to me about being transgender.

I thought to myself, did he really think that I would care if he told me that he was transgender? I’d been working within a small coalition to connect the straight and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer and/or Transgender African diaspora within the US (and to my peers leading the queer African movement at home). My vision of the LGBT African movement certainly included transgender, intersex, and other gender non-conforming Africans. But did everyone else’s?

The delayed disclosure has stayed with me since then; the last thing I want is for Africa to repeat the same mistakes as the LGBT movement in the US and UK, which has historically (both intentionally and unintentionally) excluded transgender, bisexual, and intersex people from gay spaces in order to push forth a “less complicated” agenda i.e. one that doesn’t necessarily aim to challenge society’s oppressive binary perceptions of gender to create more tolerance, but reframe our alignment with the status quo so that we may “fit in.”

Incidentally, when I came out, my parents were surprisingly okay with my dating women; it was the “dressing like a boy” part that made them very uncomfortable. They worried that I’d be drawing too much attention to myself, that I’d stand out and cause unnecessary controversy, and that I’d be saddled with the very complicated question of which “role” to play at my wedding (bride or groom? seriously). Up until then I hadn’t really considered my gender presentation as a deal breaker. I mean, homophobia stems from an intolerance of gay people, right?  But where does the intolerance itself come from?

A quick rehash of comments from Africans about their opinions on gay people suggest quite a bit about their unwavering stance on gender roles:  “Men are not supposed to dress like women…,” “Two people of the same sex should never lie together…,” “If there are two women, which one is the husband?…,” and (my favorite, from Christian extremists), “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” The existence of LGBT Africans ultimately challenges the view that Africans are naturally attracted to people of the opposite sex (i.e. the Homosexuality is UnAfrican mantra). However, this pigeon-holes the entire continent — straight and LGBT Africans alike — into addressing homophobia from just one angle: sexual orientation.

The danger in this approach is that it leaves out transgender people (who have a different gender presentation from that which they were assigned at birth), intersex people (whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly male or female), and a whole slew of people — including straight Africans — who do not conform to traditional gender roles. For instance, at a forum I hosted last year, human rights defender and religious leader, Reverend Kapya Kaoma, shared a heart-breaking story about a woman whose husband was beating her, but — due to her traditional duty to remain a wife — was not permitted to leave, and was unfortunately killed. That woman was his sister. She was not gay.

To me, it seems clear: we should consider thinking about homophobia as a fear of people not conforming to traditional gender roles, and the direct correlation between that fear and the same fear that fuels sexism, and transphobia. By addressing homophobia in this way i.e. through the lens of gender justice, Africa could not only avoid repeating the mistakes of the west re: inclusion of transgender people, but achieve what the west has not been able to (at least, until very recently) — achieve unity across its many disparate social movements. Luckily for this idealist, I don’t have to wish, pray, pine away hoping that someone will take this on; a press release I read yesterday has presented Africa with a very timely gift.

According to Behind the Mask, three African transgender and intersex rights advocacy organizations have formed an alliance to enhance the trans and intersex movement on the continent. They include South African based Gender DynamiX (GDX), the first organization in South Africa (and Africa) to specifically advocate for transgender people, Uganda’s Support Initiative for People with atypical Sexual Development (SIPD) , the only intersex health and rights human rights advocacy organization in the East African region, and Transgender and Intersex Africa (TIA), an organization which focuses on black transgender and intersex issues in the rural areas and black townships of South Africa.

In a press statement issued yesterday,  Julius Kaggwa, the SIPD director, states:

“The main focus of this new entity is to support a growing transgender and intersex movement and to engage regionally in advocacy for the human rights of transgender and intersex people.

Following his statement is an overview of the new organization’s strategy:

The vision of Transitioning Africa is to see a strong transgender and intersex movement in sub-Saharan Africa, based on human rights principles, while the mission is to strive for gender recognition within social movements in Africa.

The three organizations’ collective issues of focus, regional positioning, and programmatic expertise not only make for a very powerful collaboration, but a unique opportunity for Africa to test this gender liberation theory. The question remains: will Africans be more willing to address their homophobia if more intentionally framed under the umbrella of gender justice?

When I consider my personal experience with various African movements thus far, I think about how often I’ve been ignored in male-dominated spaces because (even though they’re gay) they’re not used to outspoken women like myself speaking up taking the lead, how rare it is for me to find solidarity with many straight African women because my sexuality and gender presentation are a point of contention due to their cultural beliefs — I can’t think of a more timely and critical undertaking to create a better shared understanding (and respect) of our varied experiences as Africans. It is critical that Africans recognize how gender binaries oppress us all — LGBT or not, transgender or not — so that we can become unified in tackling our oppression(s) from as many angles and frameworks as possible.

Saying No to Media Saviorism, Celebrating Africa’s Resistance

Dear Readers,

You may wonder where I’ve been for the past month. The answer: RESTING.

But, I’ve also been contributing to some of my favorite media outlets — Racialicious.com, plus now, Gender Across Borders — working on a chapbook (so fun!), and finally, developing a fierce editorial advisory board for my new media project highlighting diaspora voices. It’s all been very exciting, but has kept me very busy (ok, ok — I totally lied about the resting). The head-first dive into the global media blogosphere has left me with thoughts. And you all know what happens when I get thoughts.

For Gender Across Borders, I just published my first intro piece, “Celebrating Africa’s Resistance.” I invite you to read, share with your networks, and of course, use the comment section to leave me your thoughts. I look forward to reading your own reflections on the state of media coverage of African, the global south, and people of color, in general. So excited to be back!

Warrior Love,
Spectra

Say No to Media Saviorism: Celebrating Africa’s Resistance
Originally published at GenderAcrossBorders.com

When I hear “Gender Across Borders” the images that immediately come to mind are tragic: African women who face violence and sexual assault during times of war, groups of Afghan women in burqas shuffling through the unsettled dust of conflict resolution in silence, poor and starving African girls being nursed back to health for the premeditated purposes of child trafficking, and much worse. A quick google search for “gender justice” and “human rights” returns an inspiring list of organizations and websites (including this one) dedicated to addressing these issues in a myriad of ways: media coverage, non-profit direct service, volunteerism, advocacy, cause campaigning, etc. Yet, I found that as I clicked into each site, I was met with even more bad news, “shocking” reports, and yet, again, the same images: women being oppressed all over the non-western world.

As a daughter of Africa, who is currently based in the US, I wonder to myself if a time will finally come when cable networks will include coverage of Africa beyond the saviorist commercials that urge me to save poor and starving African children, if major news outlets will consider Africa’s resistance and self-liberation newsworthy enough for morning shows (not just “breaking news”), when independent blogs will consider amplifying more than just the “atrocious” acts that are often committed against us to also include our resilience — how African women continue to get back on their feet and march forward – every – single – time. Undoubtedly, many of these media organizations mean well and, despite the negative news coverage, are creating a positive impact by raising awareness; in my mind, the desire to bring to light the injustices that women face all over the world (given a white male-dominated media) is commendable. But, is oppression truly all that we can cover?

How about we — as global gender justice advocates — subvert the idea that women are perpetual victims by covering our collective resistance (at least much more often than, say, our male counterparts)? How about we more frequently discuss the kind of rebellion that may not necessarily inspire political protests as large in scale as the Arab Spring, but affirm brave acts that carve out new territory within the scope of women in government? How about we spend less time sharing negative news stories that go viral during major national crises, but focus on highlighting the slow and steady work of the underdog that is happening under the radar? How about we cut back on the sensationalism — the shock tactics and controversy we once deployed to get mainstream media to pay attention to issues important to us — and now spend time amassing an archive of positive happenings that could inspire legendary bed time stories of the many feminist heroes and heroines that have been paving the way to our liberation?

Just to clarify, I do not intend to create a hierarchy of media coverage (i.e. good media vs. better media) within the context of global gender justice; any coverage of women’s issues (whether positive or negative) is much-needed coverage of women’s issues. Organizations like Gender Across Borders, the Caribbean feminist collective, Code Red, Women, Action and the Media, South Africa’s LGBT news hub, Behind the Mask, the LGBT Asylum News online portal, and hundreds more doing similar work to raise marginalized voices within have already made considerable gains in this arena, and thus, granted me the right to be greedy — now, I want now to see women’s and gender equality issues covered more thoroughly; I want it all — the good, the bad, the ugly.

The desire for more coverage of women’s proactive, creative solutions to Africa’s problems in part from one of my Afrofeminist principles; namely, it is just as (if not more) important to live from a place of hope, than from a place of fear and constant criticism. But surely, I’m not the only one who’s craving more positive news. I can’t be the only African, LGBT activist, trans* person, immigrant etc who cringes at the thought of having my experience manifest as projected by public health reports and/or “cold hard facts.” (Apparently, as an African gender non-conforming person, I’m expected to live till the age of 35. I just turned 30, by the way).

There is obviously more discussion to be had about western media’s loyalty to third world suffering, its incessant feeding on plight of the global south, but that is not the focus of this post. I intend to explore this idea more fully in the future, but today, I’d like to focus on what I’m going to do about it. Today, I’d like to assure you of just one thing:

I will not be using my column on Gender Across Borders to talk about the plight of African women. Whereas, in the past, I’ve contributed my fare share of critique, one of my new year’s resolutions as an afrofeminist (more on that later) is to focus more on highlighting positive media (versus constantly reacting to negative news).

Instead, I’ll be covering women all around the world who use their art, performance, and media to raise awareness of critical issues and under-the-radar uprisings. I look forward to sharing my favorite musicians, artists, writers, and media organizations with you.

I want to cover LGBT Africa’s resistance — one that doesn’t place sexual violence, political warfare, and death at the focal point, but reiterates over and over again that every day citizens are standing fast against oppression, speaking up for each other in the face of the west’s infantilizing media.

I want to cover women’s movements happening around kitchen tables, in hair salons, within the sanctity of religious and spiritual spaces, and familiarity of traditional ceremonies. I want to give young people a chance to understand that real movements happen within the scope of every day, and not just within political discourse.

I want to show the world that Africa can — on its own — walk and run; that our continent has caught up (and, has already been leading) many parts of the world in various areas — social entrepreneurship, women’s political participation, innovation and technology, and more.

Due to my own background, there may be some initial focus on Africa, but I am determined to highlight acts of resistance as they are happening all across Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world, as well. As I will be contributing to GAB weekly, please feel free to send me any artists, performers, media and/or filmmakers, and organizations who are creating positive change (not just reacting to it) by commenting under this post, via my GAB email, or my Twitter handle @spectraspeaks.

If the work is creative, inspiring, and impacts women and/or gender justice, I want to hear about it. I want you to hear about it. The world must hear about it.

Viva Africa.

[ps — none of this negates the fact that I’m known for my ranting, and thus, will continue to do so, just in moderation]

Inspired by Pariah: My Personal Story about Coming Out as a Nigerian “Boi”

Originally written for and published at Autostraddle.com

“Oh, what you think you’re a boy now?

My cargo shorts and graphic tees weren’t exactly what my mother had in mind when she envisioned showing off her daughter who’d “just returned from America with an MIT degree!” to her friends at church.

The prodigal daughter, I’d returned home to Nigeria for my high school bestie’s wedding. We hadn’t seen each other in five years; during that time I’d not only come out as queer, but founded an organization for immigrant and/or queer women of color (QWOC+ Boston), cut my hair into a frohawk, and started dressing as a boy. I’d pretty much gone from a lip-gloss-wearing straight girl to the gayest person ever, but nobody had witnessed the transition, not even my friend who was getting married. I hadn’t reached out to her for fear that I wouldn’t be able to lie about who I was, and that soon after she’d tell her mom, who would tell other moms, and eventually the rest of Lagos where my parents lived, forcing my mother to endure becoming the center of gossip and ostracizing her from the very social networks she needed to make ends meet. My mother relied heavily on referrals from her religious community about various contract jobs — event planning, hotel management etc; the last thing she needed was a taboo subject like “lesbianism” turning off potential clients.

Needless to say, I hesitated when my friend invited me to be part of her bridal train, but I couldn’t refuse an invitation to be part of my girl’s wedding, even if it meant wearing a bridesmaid dress. I tried to get out of it but she firmly insisted that the dress wasn’t up for negotiation. “Well, what then if you don’t wear a dress?” she’d asked laughing, “So, you’re going to wear a suit and stand with the boys?” It hurt my feelings, but I laughed along with her and rhetorted, “Obviously not. That would be ridiculous.” That was just the beginning.

I spent the entire two weeks of my first visit home since my queer transformation absorbing my mother’s daily jabs at my clothing (and eventually, anything I said): “So you’re earning all this money and can’t even afford some nice tops?”, “You really should dress your age”, “What, you think you’re a boy now?” Gender binaries. If there was ever a place for them to thrive unchecked, it would be Lagos, Nigeria, a place where being gay is not just viewed as a choice, but a crime, and — pending the new anti-LGBT bill being deliberated — holding hands with your best friend or choosing same-sex roommates could be made punishable for up to 14 years in prison. But while I was plenty aware of the political debate around my identity as a queer African, I couldn’t have cared less about the law; I was still trying to survive within the confines of my own home.

The night before the wedding, my mother was chaperoning me through the bridesmaid dress fitting. As the strapless lilac dress found its awkward place on my body, the delicate layer of my personal confidence dropped mercilessly to the floor. I felt naked and invisible at the same time. As the zipper went up, I felt increasingly suffocated. The silver, high-heeled shoes my mother had purchased for me earlier that afternoon didn’t help either. The entire ensemble felt like a ridiculous costume.

Long before that moment, it had been easy to “dress up like a girl.” I even had a nickname/alter ego for that person “dressed up like a girl” — “The Empress.” But now, being forced to wear drooping earrings and high-heeled stillettos felt less like “performative drag” and more like the real me didn’t matter.

When my father said I looked “pretty,” I immediately went on a dramatic tirade (more dramatic than usual) to assert that this wasn’t who I was. “You only compliment me when I’m wearing clothes I don’t want to wear,” I complained, “I don’t feel pretty. I feel stupid.”

He laughed then, dismissing my gender non-conformity as me being “a rebel.” He’d been a “rebel” too, he told me (although I can’t recall seeing any pictures of him in dresses). My mother, on the other hand, was on to me. She eyed the dress silently; it was a fitting disguise and I could tell she was relieved I was wearing it.

Throughout my stay in Nigeria, the micro-aggressions continued: from things as silly to being called “feminist” (as an explanation as to why I had a puzzled look on my face when some girl said that all women should cook for their husbands to avoid making them angry), to my mother dragging me through stores to purchase large, obnoxious earrings, and to straight up homophobic rants, which I suspect were directed at me — “We don’t have that rubbish here in Nigeria — all those gay people in America, why should we be copying them? This is Africa!” Thanks to America’s media, my friends’ perceptions of gay people were limited to comic relief — white gay men dancing glittery and half-naked down the streets, lipstick on, “dressing like women.”

When I vented to my friends in the US, I was met with well-meaning — albeit privileged and individualist sentiments — “Who cares what they think? You should be able to wear what you want and be yourself. Fuck ’em.”

Except, I did care what Nigerians thought of gay people; I cared that I had no proof to show them that “gay people” could include Africans. I cared that I had no proof to show them that “gay people” included me.

Admittedly, even I had my doubts that I was who I said I was — a gay Nigerian? After all, just after I’d come out and I’d filled my Netflix queue with every recommended film from the Gay and Lesbian section in search of narratives that aligned with my experience. But I could barely find any films that included women of color, let alone African lesbians.

I realize now that I was searching for affirmation of who I was because a part of me was still internalizing homophobia; “I’m Nigerian, we’re not gay. I must be the only gay Nigerian in the world.” And even when I finally met another queer Nigerian, I dismissed her because she “hadn’t been raised at home.” If I was so quick to dismiss queer Nigerians, what chance did I have that my Nigerian family would ever come around?

 

But then I saw Pariah, and I knew instantly that this was the film I’d been searching for. Pariah could save me from endless arguments over laws, policies, and tradition currently in Nigeria’s media. Pariah could humanize me — turn me from “issue” to “person — and earn me empathy instead of judgement.

For the group film screening I’d helped put together for QWOC+ Boston, I’d dragged a whole crew of people: my partner, a few friends, and my straight Nigerian, Christian brother, who’d always been supportive of me, yet still had moments when he dismissed my masculinity and/or gender presentation without knowing it; like the time my mother had forced me to wear our traditional attire for his graduation (I wanted to wear the men’s kaftan, but she’d put me in the elaborately feminine women’s counterpart — the iro and buba), and he’d told me to get over it, saying flippantly, “It’s not like you never wore this stuff before.”

I remember holding my breath during pivotal scenes in the movie — like when Alike was forced to put her earrings back on before she returned home in an effort to hide her gender identity from her parents. I wondered nervously if my brother saw then the direct parallels to his own sister’s life, if he could finally understand that my protesting the outfit my mother had brought with her from Nigeria wasn’t just about defying norms for the sake of being a rebel; I really did feel more like a boy than a girl.

During the Q&A portion of the screening, Adepero Oduye (the Nigerian actress who plays Alike in the film) told us, “When my mother first saw the film, she said, ‘People here [Nigeria] need to watch that movie. You wouldn’t believe all the things they are always saying. They need to see it. They need to understand.’” 

After I emerged from the theater, deliriously happy after seeing a gay character whose experience I could finally relate to, my brother relayed that the film’s exploration of masculinity within the women’s community was similar enough to his own experience that he too deeply connected with Alike. And therein lies the power of Pariah: whether or not you are part of the LGBT community, expect to “aww” and cringe several times per scene, as both the acting and directing create a winning combination for unlocking the most powerful tool in social change: empathy.

The world is watching Nigeria right now, turning their noses up at our senators who proudly proclaim that “homosexuality is unAfrican”. Nearly every other day I read a new press release from a human rights organization that condemns the latest version of the anti-gay bill. Hilary Clinton’s riveting speech about protecting human rights around the world may have brought temporary solace to many of us who are directly impacted by the move to criminalize homosexuality in various African countries, but I know firsthand that rhetoric alone will not change the world. I know from experience that my happiness will not come from winning legislative battles, but winning hearts, and films like Pariah have the power to do just that; it is films like Pariah that can and will change the world.

For Nigerians to accept its LGBT citizens as Nigerian, they need to experience queer stories as part of our own cultural landscape (as opposed to an American sitcom on Showtime) and framed within every day issues Nigerians like my parents can relate to: lack of electricity, overbearing mothers bickering over whose daughter will get married first, and simultaneous deep-rooted disdain and yearning for modernization. Pariah may not be about LGBT Nigerians or Africans, but Dee Rees’ bold narrative has certainly opened up the possibilities for such films, at least for people like me.

So as my country deliberates the new anti-LGBT bill, I pray for LGBT Africans to find their own Pariah, and I look forward to my mother finally seeing the film so that, just like my brother, she will finally be able to hear me when I say “I am Alike:” a proud queer, Nigerian boi, but more importantly, still her daughter.

My Straight African Brother’s Reflections on a Very Queer Christmas: “Two Couples and a Sibling”

My Dear Readers!

Sibling love forever...

This post — written from my straight, Christian brother — is what I got for Christmas, and I am so thrilled to share it with all of you! My brother spent the holidays with me, my partner, and our two very good friends and, it seems, felt so moved by how much of a great time he had that he announced he would be writing about it. We didn’t believe he would — maybe he’d been caught up in the moment (after several glasses of wine, and so much turkey!) — but then this afternoon, I received his post in my inbox.

I’m in tears as I write this; both my siblings have now contributed to my queer afrofeminist blog. It’s surreal — first my sister in Confessions of a Straight Girl: How to Be an Ally, and now my brother.

I can’t say this any plainer: I never would have imagined this possible. But look at this… look what happens when you stay holding on to hope.

For any of you feeling hopeless about your families coming around, I want you to read this post and see this as your future, see this as where your own family members can arrive after going through their own journeys of self-reflection. They will get there. You will get there. We will all find happiness.

Love,
Spectra

“Two Couples and a Sibling” (guest post by Spectra’s Brother)

For quite some time now my sister has been wanting me to either read at least one of her blog posts (I know, it’s shameful that I haven’t been as engaged), or write something for her that she could put on her blog. I can’t say why I haven’t been paying closer attention to her writing up until this point but at least I’m finally doing it. I think for whatever reason I always felt that she was writing for the masses and not for me; that I wouldn’t learn that much from her writing as I would from the many conversations we have, one on one. I know … crazy, especially from someone who prides himself on how much he learns from reading books! But anyway, let’s move on.

A few days before Christmas, my sister (spectra) woke me up at 7am to ask me a huge favor: she wanted us to spend Christmas with a couple — we’ll call them Sukky and Shana — that she and her partner were very good friends with. She explained that they were both still struggling to find acceptance within their respective families, and would appreciate being among friends. I had met these particular friends briefly at a birthday celebration and they seemed nice enough, so I figured why not. The visit seemed very important to my sister or she (not being the warmest fuzziest person in the world) wouldn’t have given me a puppy dog face as well and a huge hug after realizing that I’d actually be up for an 8-hr roundtrip drive to New York. So on Christmas morning, we set off early, really excited at the idea of spending time with what Spectra described as “intentional family.”

The ride down to the city was great! I’m a speed demon so leaving early on Christmas day meant no cops. Saweet! (If any cops are reading this post I apologize for doing an average of 95mph which is why we got to Brooklyn in just under three hours — hey, wasn’t like I was the only one).

On reaching the couple’s apartment we were immediately greeted with a shriek from one of the girls (Shana) because her partner (Sukky) had kept it a secret we were coming. It’s a very nice feeling to be able to surprise good friends especially on a day like Christmas. And you must understand this too, any friends of my sisters are automatically friends of mine so I was equally as thrilled with the response. The entire day was spent cooking, laughing, cracking jokes, playing cards, taking naps, and for me specifically watching five basketball games back to back … ! Absolute heaven. Plus, I also had a few double Blacks on ice to take the edge off.

I don’t know if I’ve had such a good time quite like I did with these four girls. But in reality it had nothing to do with any of the things we did but everything to do with the people that were in that apartment. And I guess here is the message I wanted to communicate to whoever may be reading this: I’m a straight guy, a straight black guy, a straight black conservative guy, a straight black conservative guy from Nigeria, a straight black conservative guy from Nigeria who happens to have a queer black sister, who is in love with a queer Latina from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic! My world got turned upside down when my sister came out to me a number of years ago, but I can’t say I was surprised.

I’m the middle child, and only boy. I never had a brother who I could borrow or steal stuff from. I never had any hand-me-downs either. My dad is 5’5 and I’m a little over 6 feet tall so that definitely wasn’t happening. But for as long as I can remember my younger sister was always stealing stuff from my older sister (Spectra), and Spectra in turn was always stealing stuff from me! I remember out of all the items of clothing she had she was always more excited about the more masculine items: the jerseys, the large T-shirts, the boots, etc. All this never quite made sense until she came out to me.

But, please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying here. Just because I had a feeling I knew what she was going to tell me doesn’t mean that when she finally told me it didn’t put my life on pause. My personality didn’t allow me to act alarmed. In fact, my reaction was the total opposite. I was extremely calm and told her that I’d known for a while, which was true. What I didn’t know was how I really felt about it.

It has taken me years of getting to know my sister again, years of getting to know her new community of friends, years of challenging my own beliefs (pay attention to this people), not for some “greater good”, or because it’s “politically correct”, but for the sake of having a real relationship with my sister. I went through years of self-reflection, years of pushing myself towards personal growth, and of course years of asking the question, “Why?” And here’s what I have concluded:

When you really love someone, when your sister or brother or whomever tells you they’re queer or gay or whatever (I’m still learning there are many different ways gay people describe themselves), it simply shouldn’t matter.

I’m so glad I had enough wisdom to realize that love isn’t love if it’s conditional. If you’re ashamed to affiliate yourself with someone because of how you think other people are going to perceive YOU … I feel very sorry for you and you need to go into whatever wound you have that is keeping you from experiencing life to the fullest. If there are two things I know for a fact it’s this: the quality of your life will be directly related to the quality of the relationships in it, and you will be miserable until you get over worrying about what other people think about you.

This Christmas was the most amazing Christmas I’ve EVER had. I was a single straight guy with two queer couples, and I had a blast. Why? Not because I spent time learning about an “issue”, but because I was with real people, who were really in love; who had real problems and real challenges, real arguments and real fears about the future, real hopes and dreams, and, quite frankly, that’s way more important to me than the fact that they identified as “queer.”

After this experience, I find myself hoping even more that people are braver; that they find the courage to engage themselves in learning more about how to love, and less about how to control. Because any question of “why” that comes from your own small sphere of beliefs — which by definition is egocentric — is absolutely a question of control. For me, slowing down my beliefs and just simply getting to know Spectra’s friends led to a bittersweet realization: I had way more in common with them than I do with a lot of people I have known for years.

For instance (and don’t laugh), the highlight of my visit was bonding with Sukky (a tomboy like my sister) over the film 300 about the Spartan army that stood up to the Persian empire in ancient Greece! I was pleasantly surprised to find that she shared my passion for the raw, over-the-top masculinity of the men portrayed in the movie. It was such an eye-opening moment for me because I always felt that the movie in itself could only be really appreciated in that way if you happened to be a straight guy! But, once again, my belief-system was challenged and I am all the better for it.

I urge you this coming year if you have been closed-minded about anything in your life, dare to think and dare to love. If the human race did more of those two things there’s no doubt in my mind the world will be a better place for our children, their children, and generations to come.

... and ever :)

I titled this entry, “Two Couples and a Sibling,” simply because that is exactly what was most important about our time together, the memories I created with Spectra, her partner, Sukky, and Shana. This Christmas, for me, wasn’t about “two interracial gay couples and a straight black guy.” None of those things are as important. Two couples and a sibling — two families coming together to celebrate life and the future together; that’s important.

I hope other guys get this message. It’s really not that complicated. 

Happy Holidays!

Not (Just) Another Queer Movie: My Afrofeminist Review of Pariah

Originally published at Racialicious.com

Wait a minute, not all lesbians in movies are white, rich or middle-class with no bills to pay? You mean “life” doesn’t get put on pause so that all gay people can experience the thrill of coming out at summer camp? And, there are other LGBT issues worth talking about besides marriage? Gasp! And Hallelujah for Spike Lee protégé Dee Rees’ Pariaha film women of color (and other marginalized groups) can truly relate to.

On the surface, Pariah is a coming of age story about an African-American lesbian, Alike (pronounced “Ah-LEE-kay”) in Brooklyn. But dig deeper, and you’ll see a smart and layered tackling of gender, sexuality, religion, and even class — an essential layer of complexity needed to accurately portray the diverse experiences of queer people of color, long been absent from mainstream LGBT films. Rather than depicting homophobia as the only kind of oppression experienced by the LGBT community, Pariah’s world is a varied socio-cultural landscape in motion featuring an all-POC cast, led by Nigerian actress Adepero Oduye’s performance as 17-year old Alike.

Pariah’s urban setting almost eliminates the need to discuss race at all (or, as in popular case of experiencing race through white characters, explain it). The audience is plopped, un-apologetically, right in the middle of a story filled with black characters, making way for intersectional observations about class and gender roles within the story’s cultural context.

SPOILERS UNDER THE CUT

The film opens with an unfocused, low-level street shot of baggy jeans, dangling belt chains, hard-soled shoes, and the dirty pavements of Brooklyn. We hear the sound of women socializing, and then some unexpected song lyrics:All you ladies pop your p-ssy like this. We’re immediately placed in the scene of a nightclub, in front of a stripper who is somehow managing to slide up the pole, and slapped in the face by Rees’ over-the-top interpretation of coming of age as a young lesbian of color: loud club music, a hyper-sexualized social environment, a group of tomboys (“studs”, “butches”, “aggressives”) throwing money at a stripper in a bothersome (yet, admittedly, amusing) re-enactment of heterosexual masculinity, while a small voice in our heads may be wondering if we’re supposed to be down with all of this.

But just as we are beginning to question what we’re doing in the theater, we meet Alike and see that her world is upside down, too, literally. The frame is rotated upright to reveal a slender Alike, dressed awkwardly in a wide-striped, oversized polo, black do-rag, and fitted lid, staring at the pulsating pelvis of the stripper, and doing so with a confused, yet curious expression on her face.

Her discomfort is made even more apparent when we meet her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), a huskier and much more aggressive tomboy (who claims to “get more p-ssy than yo’ daddy”), acting as Alike’s enthusiastic chaperone in this bizarre rite of passage. Dressed in a red lid and popped-collar track jacket, Laura embodies masculinity more confidently; after she finally gives up trying to get Alike to “get that punani“, she proceeds to grind with a heteronormatively feminine (“high femme”) black lesbian in a gender-polarized mating dance.

Conversely, as Alike heads home on the bus alone, we see her vulnerability exposed under fluorescent lights: she begins to slowly strip herself of the masculine lesbian identity she’s hiding from her family. She reluctantly slides the lid and do-rag off her head to put her natural hair (twisties) in a ponytail, pulls off the over-sized polo to reveal a fitted tank top hidden underneath, and finally, puts a pair of earrings back on her ears in a heart-breaking act of gender conformity.

Despite the nuanced depiction of gender and class, Pariah doesn’t hit us over the head with analysis: the characters don’t explain why they each dress differently (urban streetwear to preppy to chic, and more), why they are of different financial circumstances, or why their accents are different; they just are. Alike, for instance, is evidently a “softer” tomboy as described by some girls at her high school. She’s also an aspiring writer, and (most likely due to the part of the city in which she was raised) has very different diction from Laura, whose vernacular is filled with slang, curse words, and the N-word as a term of endearment. In turn, Laura’s friends behave in a manner that’s very similar to cisgendered masculinity: they wear all men’s clothing, drink beer, play poker, and (of course) have beautiful girls sit on their laps as trophies. Yes, lesbians can be sexist too, but Dee Rees’ thoughtful character development steers the screenplay away from the danger of telling a single story.

In the past, the dominant movie narrative that existed for lesbians on screen, for many, depicted an unrealistic social context: all lesbians are white and heteronormatively feminine (AKA “lipstick lesbians” like Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in Bound), they have sex by making a performance of moaning the same way the women in straight porno films do (too many to name, but the most annoying sex scene for me comes from indie flick Chloe — an extended makeout session, really?). Meanwhile, no one seems to have any money problems as they can throw huge weddings they don’t even show up to (Imagine Me and Youthe infamous L Word non-wedding) and 2-dimensional side characters with no real lives of their own, exist simply to react (whether negatively or positively) to the “lesbian” issue (a la the saintly and unfortunate husband archetype in The Hours).

In many of these films, homophobia (besides the expected relationship drama) was often presented as the singular obstacle to the main characters’ happiness. Thus, the combination of the afore-mentioned archetypal elements and the perpetuation of single-issue hurdles for LGBT characters, for me, wove together a series of feel-good lezzie flicks that all said the same thing: “Please leave these two pretty and privileged white girls who just want to fall in love and live happily ever after in their color-blind world (which, by the way, contains no people of color) alone, okay?”

Considering what the film industry was like even just a decade ago, most people would concede that in the face of Hollywood’s focus on hegemonic straight relationships, movies that featured gay or lesbian characters at all were pushing the envelope. Indeed, many of us queer women were thrilled when The L Word came out. After all, it was on Showtime — widely accessible to our straight friends, who we eagerly organized viewing parties with so we could watch them experience what our lives as lesbians were like, sort of.

We didn’t all wear high heels and runway dresses; the lesbians at the clubs I went to certainly didn’t sport that level of Hollywood glam. Many of us were puzzled by the main characters’ financial means to spend lavish amounts of money eating out at fancy restaurants, throwing parties in LA mansions, and getting married, but we tuned in every week to follow the lives of a group of rich white feminine lesbians, because there weren’t any alternatives. Plus, sitting through a film with gay characters was a sure way to test a reaction from your friends before you came out. The show’s false sense of reality gave us hope that if we were to come out to our friends and decided to live our lives openly as gay people, life would remain relatively normal; we’d have girlfriends, get married (that’s what all gay people want to do, right?), adopt children, experience the occasional awkward family dinner, but ultimately, live happily ever after.

This is what sets Pariah apart from (white) singular-narrative LGBT films; it debunks the myth that life begins and ends between the point of self-acceptance… and a wedding.

The movie’s skillful orchestration of empathic story-telling and strong performances enables us to move beyond the scope of Gay and Lesbian 101 to tackle other kinds of oppression, including the further marginalization of LGBT people of color. Alike’s family lives comfortably, allowing her to spend most of her time socializing and pursuing her interest in the arts. But Laura, who is the same age as Alike, was forced to drop out of high school when her mother kicked her out, and works overtime to help her sister (who she lives with) pay the bills while studying for her GED. Through Laura’s narrative, the audience is given a glimpse into the experience of many LGBT youth, who are forced to seek refuge and community outside of their families, risk being homeless for being themselves, yet, must keep on.

It’s a sad observation, but then again isn’t it high time that gay films which grab major distributor attention do more than just perpetuate extremely tragic or fairytale conclusions to a now-engaged and curious public, and present LGBT stories in all their diverse manifestations, which does include the narratives of people of color, working class people, homeless youth, and sometimes, people who are all of the above? It’s no wonder thatPariah — along with peer releases Circumstance and Gunhill Road — has received critical acclaim for its much-needed exploration of LGBT people of color living life at the intersection of many types of societal challenges.

But don’t get it twisted. Pariah is definitely not a sob story. In fact, the movie is filled with timely and endearing moments of humor and awkwardness that make the hold-no-punches backdrop easier to swallow; the familiar sibling banter that ensues when Alike’s younger (and brattier) sister threatens to tell on her for having a “gross” flesh-colored dildo, a cringe-ful dinner table scene during which her parents describe how they “hung out on prom night”, and Alike’s frequent and ill-timed giggle spells whenever she’s around the girl she likes. The film’s strong undercurrent of family and relationships guarantees that there is something in it for everyone (no need to fear the discomfort of watching a lesbian sex scene with your parents either — Dee Rees keeps it PG).

Dee Rees has created a motion picture that the larger LGBT community can be proud of, and in which people of color can see themselves carefully and sensitively projected. She may be the black lesbian Tyler Perry (in a good way). Let’s hope we see more of her.


Plugin from the creators ofBrindes Personalizados :: More at PlulzWordpress Plugins