Ad from Matrices: A Lesbian and Lesbian Feminist Research and Network Newsletter, XI: 2 (Winter 1996).
Ad from Matrices: A Lesbian and Lesbian Feminist Research and Network Newsletter, XI: 2 (Winter 1996).
As a huge queer and an equally huge fan of sport, I was totally brought in by NBA centre Jason Collins’ Ellen Degeneres-style “Yep, I’m Gay” announcement yesterday. But instead of feeling excited, pleased, even ambivalent, I felt mostly dread and anger from the minute a friend sent me the article, moments after it went up on sportsillustrated.com.
The story of North American sexual exceptionalism that is being used to frame the Collins story is what troubles me the most. Jasbir Puar has called this “homonationalism,” the idea that the civic embrace of “alternative” sexualities is testament to a broader progressive modernity, one that is coded as white and set against images of Muslims and Arabs as “non-modern” and “homophobic.” These are the new perverts, pitted against the new Gay Normal, epitomized here by Collins. He is everyman, jock, upwardly mobile African-American, and hardworking, journeyman center who puts his body on the line 82 games a season, taking charges like a not-faggot.
Bill Clinton’s statement (Collins and Chelsea Clinton were bros in college) epitomizes the GAYSARENORMAL, GIVE THEM RIGHTS ideological formation to which the Collins story was quickly articulated, including its biopolotical, citizen and family-making function. Said Clinton, “It is also the straightforward statement of a good man who wants no more than what so many of us seek: to be able to be who we are; to do our work; to build families and to contribute to our communities. For so many members of the LGBT community, these simple goals remain elusive.”
It’s not just that I would rather Collins had worn Venus Xtravaganza’s number on his jersey instead of Matthew Sheppard’s, or that I wish this story wasn’t overshadowing the one about Brittney Griner, dreamboat lesbian basketball hero; rather it’s that I’m skeptical about what it is that this representational politics about sport and non-normative genders and sexualities actually offers as a critique of the institutions in which it operates.
Sports is purportedly the great equalizer; a site that is often thought to transcend, even resolve class and racial antagonisms. It is precisely this everyman—not everywoman—quality that shores up the ways in which professional sports is enmeshed with some truly awful politics; the kinds of things that queerness should work to oppose, such as the celebration of militarism, the racialized exploitation of workers (head injuries, union busting), nationalism, and normative gender roles.
I love sports so so much, but I want my pleasure in sport to keep open all its ugly parts. Because the politics sports offers is found, I think, in the complexity of these bad feelings, queer unbelongings, and in the ways I manage to inhabit both my pleasure and discomfort. The political hope sport offers is far greater than just a representational big tent where Collins and Griner get their butts patted just like everyone else; it is found, I think, in feeling our way through why sport is an uncomfortable home for so many queers whose bodies, sexualities, racialized histories, or colonial critiques don’t find such an easy role on the team.
So instead of celebrating this Big Gay Jason Collins jam, I’m going to ramp up the feminist killjoy function of this tiny essay and remember a few other recent BIG GAY MOMENTS in professional sports, ones that I like because they antagonize.
Remember last year when 49s cornerback Chris Culliver used a pre-Superbowl media scrum as a podium to say: “Ain’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff.”
Remember last year when MLB shortstop Yunel Escobar wrote the Spanish equivalent of “you’re a faggot” on his eye black?
Remember last year when Kobe Bryant called a ref a “fucking faggot?” I’ll always remember the face he made when he said it:
I’m headed to New York for a month tomorrow where I’ll be visiting graduate scholar at The New School, under the supervision of Dr. Kate Eichhorn.This will be the first of a couple extended research trips I’ll be making there this year as part of my dissertation research on digital media in queer archival contexts.
While I’m in town I’ll be working at a few archives, mostly the Lesbian Herstory Archives but also the New York Public Library and the Fales collection at NYU. And also trying to to get a bunch of writing done for some upcoming deadlines, in that very precious way that only seems possible when you’re living somewhere that isn’t home.
I’ll also be trying my best to track down one of these tote bags (so dreamy):
From “She Who Owns the Press: The Physical World of Early Feminist Publishing” by Barbara Sjoholm (2012):
It’s difficult to convey the sheer butch glamour of printing. This black-fingered, muscle-building blue-collar work was just the sort of thing that many women found we really liked doing in the 1970s and early 80s. The Second Wave had more than its fair share of car mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, and electricians. Some women went into the trades because the paychecks were much better, and some forced their way up from apprentice to master because they were tough rabble-rousers. Others founded carpentry collectives or car garages so that we women didn’t have to depend on know-it-all men to build our fences or repair our cars.
Some women went into the printing trades for some of the same reasons as women fought to join the United Brotherhood of Carpenters—better paychecks and the love of loud noise. The majority, I suspect, were more like me—strong enough to haul boxes, determined enough to learn how a press worked and to stand on my feet for hours, but not really all that interested in trouble-shooting printing problems and dismantling and reassembling machinery. Like me, they were in printing for the thrill of it, lured by the vision of a process that created words on paper that could be turned into pages, bound into books, placed on shelves, bought and sold, held in hands, and taken into the heart and mind. That could transform the world.
There was often an obstacle between the woman writer and her public. That obstacle was a printing press. In the 1970s, that changed.
The other day I was talking with a friend who does a lot of art writing. Gabby was nervous about a text she had just submitted to a “serious” art journal. Worried it was “too personal,” she anticipated disapproving notes from her editor, a VERY SERIOUS LADY. I get it—art writing is notoriously detached and prone to posturing—but I also felt a bit of, “REALLY, is this still a thing!? We still have to feel self-conscious about making work that’s “too personal?”
I had just finished reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother (2012), a totally shattering account of the artist’s relationship with her mom, heavy on childhood gay shame and told against the backdrop of psychoanalytic and feminist theory. In it, Bechdel reflects on beginning her career with Dykes to Watch out For (1987–2008), a comic strip that represented her world but was at arm’s length from autobiography. Later she transitioned to working on explicitly personal material through her memoirs about her mother and father (Fun Home, 2006). She credits this transition to the influence of Adrienne Rich:
The question of “writing the self” is of course an old debate in feminist theory. Our French sisters—Cixous, Wittig, Kristeva, Irigaray—were all about l’écriture feminine, taking a poststructural approach to following the gendering of texts and language. American lesbian feminists like Audre Lorde and Rich told us about feminism by telling us about getting cancer, embodying the sting of racism, feeling ambivalent about the motherhood we’re supposed to love without question.
So if we already know all this stuff about women’s genres as bound up with autobiography, why the renewed interest in this debate right now? This is the question that’s been guiding a great deal of my reading over the last six months. I’m especially curious about framing this question in relation to media.
At the end of February I had the chance to help some super smart ladies—cheyanne turions and Hazel Meyer—throw together some readings for an iteration of the salon-style reading group, No Reading after the Internet, hosted on the occasion of Hazel’s exhibition No Theory No Cry at Art Metropole in Toronto. The centerpiece of the readings was Kate Zambreno’s “semiautobiography” Heroines (2012), a non-fictionish, experimental text that offers a speculative history of the wives of modernism—Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, and others—set against Zambreno’s reflections on being the precariously employed academic wife of a tenure-stream research librarian. Zambreno writes with impunity about the necessary messiness of telling our stories; the body and the psyche figure prominently, and crying, sweating, avoiding the shower, getting our periods, or dealing with a rash are all valued epistemologies for communicating our emotional selves. Alongside Heroines we read selections from Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling (2012) and Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). The reading group took place at Art Met; we sat amongst the work and began the reading by listening to Hazel talk about her practice, which is very much engaged with these questions about thinking through the body, the messy self, and the inseparability of emotions and politics.
As a blogger—Heroines began as online writing—Zambreno is interested in how her access to a network of other feminist writers, and her own publishing platform less bound to ideologies of genre, alters the experience of being a woman artist, but also raises totally unresolved issues from modernism such as “what is the work? Who is the author?” (282). She writes:
“Online we negotiate and navigate what it means to be a writer, for some of us what it means to be a woman… . Yet of course many of us don’t write every day. That’s why I think of this form as a form of l’écriture feminine: a rhythm of silence and raw emotion, these fervent utterings… . A dialogue, a communication: the Internet. So intimate. These writings are the shudderings of the ego and lamenting the wound. We blubber and ooze. Texts that are raw, vulnerable, bodily and excessive. Sometimes freaking out in public. We are naked, like Karen Finley. My blog at times feels like a toilet bowl, a confessional, a field hospital” (286).
For the last couple months this blog has turned into a series of images about feminism and computing or the Internet. This is partly about me being too preoccupied to do much writing, but it’s also a way of reflecting on Zambreno’s suggestion that networked computing is a key moment for feminist modes of expression. Now that we write or make art online we are simultaneously freed up from the isolation imposed by the gendered political economy of print publishing or art criticism, but also acutely aware of how some of the problems faced by the ladies of modernism stay the same across media forms: for example, women’s work can now be dismissed because it’s “just on tumblr.”
Computers appear often in Bechdel’s reflections on her process in Are You My Mother. Bechdel at her desk working on a series of macs over a twenty-year period is a backdrop that’s easy to miss in the text because it’s so quotidian; but then attention to the ordinary is sort of key to this whole question about feminist genres.
On that note, I’ll end this with an image from Are You My Mother.
Feminist Computing #3: Alison Bechdel’s macbook pro with ergonomic stand:
Therapy by Eileen Myles
I like therapy because I don’t need my glasses
I can sit there naked like the animal I am
a beautiful honest animal
a landscape of rolling reasons.
So amazing that an artist would use a cup
for a prayer; and no less amazing
that another animal would choose to be one
I considered being a cup
somewhere in my journey
between stars and thinking changing fonts was a revolution
standing in my green kitchen
Four years I’ve been to sea
so much is left on the old computer
things written in that place
one night getting rimmed
and then she fell asleep
spending hours mopping up the next day
in place of doing work
missing a party after all
I say always go to the party
which doesn’t mean I do
some friends left early
I stayed and the sea spoke next
Last week I read Ann Cvetkovich’s new book Depression: A Public Feeling (2012), half of which is a memoir of the two years during which she finished her dissertation and started her first job. I loved it for many reasons, some of which are intellectual engagements. But I think what will stick with me most from this book are the parts about swimming.
Cvetkovich writes about swimming as a “utopia of everyday habit”: a repetitive, physically engaged practice through which we build new worlds that show us ways out of political depression, via ordinary, everyday routines. The full text of Cvetokovich’s mini-essay on swimming is here (PDF).
Swimming is something I’ve always loved and have always done, but swimming lengths became a regular practice a few years ago when I was getting over a running injury. I think a lot about why I swim, and, unlike the other activities I do, it has very little to do with “getting exercise.”
For me, the pleasure in swimming comes from having to move in and out of the world. Underwater there is a singularity and a solitude that is utterly unlike the aloneness I experience at my desk, facing a word document like this one. I’m so physically engaged in moving through the water well, and with rhythm, that I let my mind wander. The nagging voices of imposter syndrome, an overdue article, a stack of marking, or a proposal I’m nervous about are quieted by the ways in which my body has to be completely engaged. And then I come up for air, in the world and aware of others in the pool for just long enough before I’m back with the quiet. In this way, swimming is a repetitive break with the pressures of capital and the thousand tiny anxieties that can make this kind of job hard to bear.
This oscillation is one of the meditative aspects of swimming that Cvetkovich expresses so well:
“Swimming is just an extension of breathing. I can keep moving without really thinking about it or exerting a lot of effort. Moving lets me off the hook a little bit. I can space out and let my mind continue with its obsessions because my body is carrying on, and carrying on without me. Exercise becomes an opportunity for sanctioned dissociation, and swimming is such a graceful way of moving that it seems okay to let my brain do whatever it wants. I’m sealed off from the rest of the world in the womb-like space of the pool.”
My friend cheyanne, who I’ve had the joy of swimming with in lakes, pools, and quarries, has written of swimming in a similar way. Hers is also a love story, charming because it’s so simple—sort of like swimming:
“I once fell in love with a person from Hawaii, a child born into water and who, to this day, is happiest there. In an attempt to conjure their love for me, I taught myself to swim, experimenting with how to orchestrate my breath and my body in tandem. It has been a while now since then, and I am still in love, and these days we swim together. Something beautiful happens in the space between taking breath in and bubbling it out underwater. It’s simple and yet it requires all my attention. In that precise focus, my mind is still. This is how I keep my head and heart well.”