Monday, September 25, 2006

What if It’s (Sort of) a Boy and (Sort of) a Girl?

September 24, 2006

What if It’s (Sort of) a Boy and (Sort of) a Girl?
When Brian Sullivan — the baby who would before age 2 become Bonnie Sullivan and 36 years later become Cheryl Chase — was born in New Jersey on Aug. 14, 1956, doctors kept his mother, a Catholic housewife, sedated for three days until they could decide what to tell her. Sullivan was born with ambiguous genitals, or as Chase now describes them, with genitals that looked “like a little parkerhouse roll with a cleft in the middle and a little nubbin forward.” Sullivan lived as a boy for 18 months, until doctors at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan performed exploratory surgery, found a uterus and ovotestes (gonads containing both ovarian and testicular tissue) and told the Sullivans they’d made a mistake: Brian, a true hermaphrodite in the medical terminology of the day, was actually a girl. Brian was renamed Bonnie, her “nubbin” (which was either a small penis or a large clitoris) was entirely removed and doctors counseled the family to throw away all pictures of Brian, move to a new town and get on with their lives. The Sullivans did that as best they could. They eventually relocated, had three more children and didn’t speak of the circumstances around their eldest child’s birth for many years. As Chase told me recently, “The doctors promised my parents if they did that” — shielded her from her medical history — “that I’d grow up normal, happy, heterosexual and give them grandchildren.”
Sullivan spent most of her childhood and young-adult life extremely unhappy, feeling different from her peers though unsure how. Around age 10, her parents told her that she had had an operation to remove a very large clitoris. They didn’t tell her what a clitoris was but said that now things were fine. At 19, filled with rage and feeling suicidal, she started trying to access her medical records and finally succeeded when she was 22. As a means of recovery, she threw herself into her work. She graduated from M.I.T. with a degree in math and then went on to study Japanese at Harvard. Soon after, she moved to Japan and helped found a successful tech company, assuming she’d work really hard for now and be happy later. At 35, realizing that being happy later was not going to happen, she flew to Florida with a list of questions to ask her mother, to whom she was never close. According to Chase’s notes from that conversation (both of her parents have since died), her mother maintained that the clitoridectomy had not impacted her daughter’s life. “When you came home,” Cathleen Sullivan told Chase about her return from the hospital after surgery, “there seemed to be no effect at all. Oh, yes, wait a minute. Yes, there was one thing. You stopped speaking. I guess you didn’t speak for about six months. Then one day you started talking again. You had known quite a lot of words at 17 months, but you forgot them all.”
After that conversation, Chase, an extremely ambitious, focused and analytical individual, decided it was time to heal herself, and she gave herself a year. As part of that project, she moved to San Francisco and started calling and writing to doctors, academics and gender activists — anybody who might have something concrete to say about the predicament of being born part male, part female, or who might be able to tell her why it had been necessary to have her clitoris removed and if she’d be able to get any sexual function back. Along the way, in 1993, Sullivan called Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor of biology and gender studies at Brown, who had published several papers on intersex (the term that has come to replace “hermaphrodite”) and who was about to publish an article in a magazine called The Sciences. Sullivan wrote a letter that was published in the next issue calling for people with intersex conditions to get in touch with her, and she signed it Cheryl Chase, the Intersex Society of North America, though neither a person named Cheryl Chase nor an organization called the Intersex Society of North America yet existed.
Thirteen years later, Chase, as Sullivan began calling herself, is now known throughout the urology and endocrinology establishment as a passionate advocate for the rights of those born with ambiguous genitals, and she has succeeded in stirring a contentious debate among those doctors over how intersex babies should be treated. At the heart of the controversy is the question of whether intersex children should have surgery to make their genitals look more normal. Chase has talked to thousands of doctors and others in the medical profession, making the case that being born intersex should not be treated as shameful and require early surgery. In doing so, she has assembled an impressive intellectual arsenal, drawing on everything from the Nuremberg Code and its prohibition against experimental medical procedures without patient consent to the concept of “monster ethics” — the idea that we perform questionable medical procedures on certain patients, like intersex people and conjoined twins, when we consider those patients to be less than human. Reports on the frequency of intersex births vary widely: Chase claims 1 in 2,000; more conservative estimates from experts put it at 1 in 4,500. Whatever the case, intersex is roughly as common as cystic fibrosis, and while the outcome of the debate Chase has stirred is directly pertinent to a limited number of families, her arguments force all of us to confront some basic issues about sexual identity, birth anomalies and what rights parents have in physically shaping their kids. Will a child grow up to enjoy a better life if he or she is saved from the trials of maturing in a funny-looking body? Or will that child be better off if he or she is loved and accepted, at least at home, exactly as he or she is?
The old protocol for dealing with an intersex birth, the protocol Chase was subjected to as a child, was based on the belief that children should be saved from the anguish of looking weird, or of even knowing they were born looking weird. This would come to be known as the “optimal gender of rearing” protocol and was put forth by John Money, a psychologist who in 1965 founded the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic, which specializes in transgender surgery. Money’s protocol guided doctors to perform genital surgery on intersex babies and then discourage families from discussing the child’s ambiguity, for fear that the child would grow up questioning his or her sexual identity.
This protocol held for 40 years, until Chase began agitating against it in the mid-1990’s. For a dozen years, she chipped away at its logical underpinnings, and last month Money’s protocol officially fell. The journal Pediatrics published a paper signed by 50 international experts, primarily doctors but including Chase, titled “Consensus Statement on the Management of Intersex Disorders.” The consensus promotes the traditional idea that every child should be assigned a gender as soon as possible after birth, and that this should be done by doctors examining the baby’s genes, hormones, genitalia, internal organs (via ultrasound), electrolytes, gonads and urine. These doctors then make their best guess as to whether that child will want to live his or her adult life as a man or a woman. Where the consensus departs from tradition is that it also instructs doctors to discourage families from rushing into surgery. The paper is a bit vague on this point; it doesn’t directly tell doctors not to operate but does state that no good scientific studies prove infant cosmetic genital surgery improves quality of life.
Chase says she believes that every child should be assigned a gender at birth but that the assignment should not be “surgically reinforced” and that parents and doctors should remain open to the idea that they may have assigned the wrong sex. She contends that the most important thing is for a child to feel loved by her parents, despite her difference. An operation, she says, should not be done to assuage parental embarrassment or anxiety; it should be chosen, if it is chosen at all, by an intersex individual who is old enough to make her own decision and give proper consent.
The consensus is a major victory for Chase. Yet making progress from here may prove extremely difficult. Chase now must take her arguments not just to medical professionals but also to parents of intersex children, almost all of whom will be feeling intensely stressed and almost none of whom will have considered the complexity of raising an intersex child. One doctor, who didn’t want to be named, put her chances of persuading parents not to choose surgery for their intersex children at “honestly, zero.” From the parents’ perspective, the argument for surgery is almost impervious to reason. As one mother of an intersex girl wrote on a message board: “How can anyone possibly think that a child can grow up and feel confident of her sexuality looking down at her genitals that look like a penis? Come on.”
One day last spring, Chase traveled from her home in Sonoma County, Calif., to Chicago to tell her story to a group of genetic counselors and to distribute the Intersex Society’s latest handbooks, one for medical professionals and one for parents. On this morning, Chase, who is 50, has short white hair, fashionable glasses, intelligent eyes and a strong build, was wearing a wide-necked sweater meant to fall off her shoulders, exposing a black bra. She lives as a woman and as a lesbian, and while she imagines she doesn’t look or feel exactly as other women do — for instance, she can’t find any gloves made for women that fit — she has no desire to be a man.
Chase had been invited to speak by Rebecca Burr, a genetic counselor who several years ago found herself dealing with a 26-year-old woman who’d never menstruated, knew she’d had multiple operations as a child but didn’t know that she was intersex. Burr felt ill prepared to handle the case and tracked down the Intersex Society. In Chicago, Chase stood in front of 30 members of the Genetic Task Force of Illinois, telling them about the parkerhouse roll, the trashing of her baby pictures, the hospital stay at age 8, when she was told doctors would be helping her stomachaches but when she really had the testicular part of her gonads removed.
When Chase began her activism, more than a decade ago, few doctors were open to her ideas about the way intersex babies should be treated. “When I first started doing this, it took some extreme kinds of conversation to get people to listen up,” she told me. She also organized a picket of a pediatric convention; she sneaked into medical conferences and buttonholed attendees. In 2000, however, the esteemed Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society finally invited her to speak, and since then Chase’s technique has evolved. She now receives and solicits speaking engagements from groups of all kinds. She addresses nurses’ associations, doctors, medical students, anybody who will listen.
Among the Intersex Society’s primary goals is ending the shame and secrecy surrounding being intersex, and toward that end, upon founding the society in 1996, Chase organized an intersex retreat. She wanted to help people, herself included, become more comfortable speaking openly about their condition. So she invited the 62 intersex people she had made contact with for a weekend at her farm in Sonoma. Eleven came. Chase made a raw and moving documentary of their time together, titled “Hermaphrodites Speak!” Ten people directly address the camera. Nine tell stories of surgery and lives nearly wrecked. One man refers to himself as a monster. Another says she’s “damaged goods.” One person, however, did not have an operation, and she alone looks fit and confident, sitting with great posture and seeming at home in her body. She grew up in a Catholic family, and when she first saw another naked woman up close, at age 12, her initial thought was, What’s wrong with her? She modeled her sexuality on Grace Jones and David Bowie. Her story, though just one account, is consistent with the findings of Sarah Creighton and Catherine Minto, two London gynecologists. The two have reported, albeit with small samples, that genital surgery is likely to have a negative impact on sexual function and quality of life.
In the last several years, the Intersex Society has formed an active speakers’ bureau, and at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, after Chase addressed the genetic counselors, a young woman stood up to speak. A 20-year-old DePaul student, she was very pretty, in a chunky necklace, floral shirt and hiphugger jeans. “I found out last year I was intersex; I was in my freshman women’s studies class,” the young woman, who asked not to be identified in this article, said. Her professor was lecturing about various intersex conditions and started describing the symptoms — “No periods, can’t have children, ambiguous genitals. I called my mom, and I said: ‘What’s it called? What do I have?’ ” It turned out she has partial-androgen-insensitivity syndrome, a phenomenon in which fetuses with male chromosomes (XY) can’t properly metabolize male hormones and are born looking mostly like girls. “When she said the name I threw the phone across the room and started crying. I cried for like a week.”
A few weeks after hearing this news, at the urging of Lynnell Stephani Long, a member of society’s speakers’ bureau who happened to be giving a talk around that time to the women’s studies class, the young woman retrieved her medical records from Chicago Children’s Hospital. “They photocopied them for me and I got them hot,” she told the group of counselors. “The first page said ‘pseudo male hermaphrodite.’ Just the words ‘male’ and ‘hermaphrodite’ made me want to throw up.” Chase has since lobbied doctors to stop using the word “hermaphrodite.” Intersex, she contends, is a medical condition, not an identity, and the consensus suggests using the term “disorders of sex development.”
The young woman continued speaking, her story raw and captivating. “I grew up a girl. I was always a tomboy, I wrestled, I played softball. I had bladder problems when I was a kid, and when I went in to have my urethra fixed” — at age 3 — “they decided to give me a vaginoplasty and also a clitoridectomy,” that is, surgically reshape the vagina and reduce the size of her clitoris. “When I finally learned all this, I spent a lot of time staring in the mirror” — she pressed her hands flat against her cheeks and stretched her skin of her face back toward her ears — “going: ‘Do I look like a boy? Do I look like a boy?’ Now I think being intersex is pretty weird but kind of sweet. I just wish someone had given me the tools to be able to talk about it.”
Chase’s position — that cosmetic genital operations on intersex children should be stopped and that children should be made to feel loved and accepted in their unusual bodies — is still considered radical. Most people believe, reflexively, that irregular-looking genitals would be extremely difficult to live with — for a child on a sports team, for an adult seeking love and sex — so why not try to make them look more normal? Katrina Karkazis, a medical anthropologist at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford, interviewed 19 clinicians and researchers of various specialties who treat intersex individuals, 15 intersex adults and 15 parents of intersex children, and she found that a majority of the doctors and parents felt surgery was a good idea. “We chose surgery for my daughter mainly because we did not want her to grow up questioning her sexual identity,” one mother explained about her baby, who was born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a genetic defect of the adrenal glands that causes girls’ genitals to appear masculinized at birth. “We felt that she should look like a female, so we chose the clitoroplasty and the vaginoplasty. We felt that she would have a better self-image if she did not have a ‘phallic structure’ and ‘scrotum.’ ”
Within the medical community, Chase has been successful in tempering the explicitness with which people publicly make this argument. As Chase has explained innumerable times, intersex babies are not having difficulty with sexual identity or self-image. The parents are, and parental anxiety about the appearance of a child’s genitals should be treated with counseling, not with surgery to the child. When I met Melvin Grumbach, one of the doctors who cared for Chase as an infant and who went on to become one of the most respected pediatric endocrinologists in the country, he’d clearly heard Chase’s line of reasoning many times. He participated in forming the consensus, and he also signed it. He knew what he was supposed to say. “We say, ‘Don’t do surgery unless it’s necessary, unless it’s important,’ ” he told me in early summer in his office at the University of California in San Francisco, where he’s now an emeritus professor. “But I think if the external genitals are really masculinized, you work it out with the family. I mean, good grief. What about the parents? The parents are raising the child. Don’t they have some say?”
A debate has emerged in recent years concerning if and when parents and doctors should medically shape children. Should very short children be treated with growth hormone and surgery? Should children have multiple cosmetic operations to try to erase all traces of a cleft lip? In these instances, no studies have shown that these medical interventions improve children’s quality of life. The same is true for operations on intersex children, though in truth, few well-controlled studies exist that prove much of anything, in part because the success of these treatments cannot be meaningfully assessed for at least 20 years, and by then most patients are lost to follow-up.
Among the arguments against genital surgery is the fact that sexual identity does not derive solely, or perhaps even primarily, from a person’s genitals. As Eric Vilain, professor of human genetics, pediatrics and urology at U.C.L.A., has shown, many genetic markers go into making a person male or female, and those markers affect many parts of the body. In studies of mice, he has found 54 genes that work differently in male and female brains just 10 days after conception. In humans, we’ve all been taught, and we’d like to believe, that being male or female is as a simple as having XY or XX chromosomes, but it is not. Even the International Olympic Committee acknowledged this when it suspended its practice of mandatory chromosomal testing for female athletes in 2000, reflecting current medical understanding that a female who tests positive for a Y chromosome can still be a woman. (Chase is XX, and the reason for her intersex condition has never been fully understood.)
Vilain has a clinic devoted to treating disorders of sex development, where he sees 40 to 50 new intersex patients a year. When he first left the lab and started seeing patients, he said he couldn’t believe that surgeons were performing genital reconstructions with so little data. “To me it was shocking, because where I come from, molecular genetics, we’re under extreme scrutiny,” Vilain told me on the phone in July. “If you want to show that a molecule causes something, you have to show it with a bunch of excruciatingly painful controls. And here I was looking at a lot of surgeons who were saying, ‘We think it’s good to do genital surgery early on because the children are doing better.’ So each time I would ask, ‘What’s the evidence that they’re doing better?’ And in fact the answer is there’s no real evidence. Then I’d ask: ‘What does it mean doing better? How do you measure it? Are you talking quality of life, or quality of sex life?’ And there was never any convincing answer.”
Other surgeons contend that not intervening presents its own risks. “There haven’t been any studies that would support doing nothing,” says Larry Baskin, Grumbach’s protégé and current chief of pediatric urology at the University of California, San Francisco. “That would be an experiment: don’t do anything and see what happens when the kid’s a teenager. That could be good, and that could also be worse than trying some intervention.” In Baskin’s view, being intersex is a congenital anomaly that deserves to be corrected like any other. “If you have a child born with a cleft lip or cleft palate or an extra digit or a webbed neck, I don’t know any family that wouldn’t want that repaired,” he told me. “Who would say, ‘You know what, let’s wait until Johnny is 20 years old and let him decide’? You probably get those fund-raising postcards from the Smile Train all the time. I can’t send those out, because you can’t put pictures of penises on postcards. But if you could, I think I’d be able to raise a lot of money.”
Still, Baskin acknowledges that intersex is different: genital surgery has the potential to diminish sexual function, and how do parents weigh that risk? Doubtless, surgical techniques have improved since Chase’s clitoridectomy — Baskin describes the old operations as being “like bloodletting,” when doctors were only able to excise the clitoris, not try and reduce it. Now, he says, “We have a pretty good handle on where all the nerves are.” But whom are these operations serving? Do parents have a right to take chances with a child’s future sexual function? And are we more willing to risk the sexual futures of intersex kids? The vast majority of adults — parents and doctors included — find intersex bodies, especially sexualized intersex bodies, unsettling. Karkazis, the medical anthropologist, heard from clinicians she interviewed of numerous cases of parents who initially decided against surgery but changed their minds when their children started to explore their own sex organs, often around the age of 2. “Masturbation in little girls with clitoromegaly” — abnormal enlargement of the clitoris — “is a situation I’ve encountered quite a few times, and that’s actually pushed many parents toward surgical intervention,” one doctor told Karkazis. “The little girl was masturbating, and the parents just fell apart and were back in the office the next week for surgery.”
Chase says that her own mother’s discomfort with and ignorance about sexuality contributed to the decision to have Chase’s clitoris amputated. When Chase flew from Japan to Florida to discuss her childhood with her mother, she also quizzed her mother about sex. “No, I don’t know what human genitals look like, exactly,” Chase’s mother told her. “I have never looked at myself, and I never looked closely at my children. The doctor said your clitoris had to go. Mine never meant anything to me, so I didn’t think it was wrong to remove yours.”
hase claims she wasn’t even a social human being before age 35, when she started trying to recover from being “extremely pathologically shy and withdrawn.” She has built her personality alongside her activism, both growing steadily more refined over the years. As we traveled from Chicago to New Jersey, where Chase was to address the New Jersey Psychological Association, she told me she was working very hard on presenting herself as “extremely moderate.”
To do this, Chase has been honing her arguments about who has the right to do what to other people’s bodies. Those arguments first took shape in 1998, when Chase wrote an amicus brief to the constitutional court of the country of Colombia. At the time, Colombia was considering the ethical and human rights implications of genital surgery, as it pertained to a case of a 6-year-old boy with a micropenis and the question of whether his penis should be reduced to the size of a clitoris, his testes removed and a vagina constructed out of a piece of his ileum. Medical convention has traditionally held that the phallic structure must be at least 2.5 centimeters long on baby boys and shorter than 1 centimeter for girls. And since it’s easier to surgically construct a vagina than to make a penis, children with anatomies that fell in the middle were almost always raised as girls.
Building on work on the Colombia case, in 2004, Chase and the Intersex Society were involved in persuading the San Francisco Human Rights Commission to hold a hearing and address the question of medical procedures on intersex infants in the United States. Over the course of three hours, dozens of intersex people and parents of intersex people testified. When it came time to ratify the report, Chase addressed the commission. “What the Human Rights Commission has done. . .is to recognize me as a human being,” she said. “You’ve stated. . .that just because I was born looking in a way that bothered other people doesn’t mean that I should be excluded from human rights protections that are afforded to other people.”
This is the one time Chase was seen crying in public. “She lost it crying, and I thought, What a perfect time to lose it,” Chase’s friend Alice Dreger, a bioethicist and medical historian at Northwestern University who writes about intersex and conjoined twins, told me. “I’ve never seen her cry in public since. She’s damaged in a way that she doesn’t get very emotional.”
One of Chase’s closest allies is William Reiner, a University of Oklahoma urologist who retrained as a child psychiatrist to better understand his intersex patients. Reiner, like Chase, says he thinks that a child transitioning from his or her initially assigned gender to the opposite gender should not necessarily be viewed as a medical failure. A baby who was born with a penis-size clitoris who had that penis removed and a vagina constructed out of a piece of her intestine but who ended up wanting to live as a man — that’s a failure. Yet transitioning from one sex to another, says Reiner, is something a child can often handle. Transitioning, Reiner maintains, is much more difficult for parents than for children, because parents have large and complex psychological and social landscapes, while children have relatively small and simple ones. Reiner told me about a family he worked with in which a mother told her 7-year-old daughter that she was actually born a boy. “And within an hour the child had chosen a boy name and announced he was a boy.” Reiner continued: “The youngest child that I’ve had that spontaneously changed sexes was 4ð. This was one of the most assertive human beings I’ve met in my life. She cut off all of her hair one afternoon while Mom was at work.” When asked to explain, the child said proudly, “Mom, I’ve been telling you: I’m a boy, and boys have short hair, so I cut off my hair.”
Over the same period that the Intersex Society became effective, Chase’s personal life bloomed. Chase married Robin Mathias, her partner of five years, in 2004, when gay marriage was legal in San Francisco, and the two live on a hobby farm in Sonoma. In recent years, Chase has also made some important professional connections, like David Sandberg, a psychologist at the University of Michigan whose work has been instrumental in raising questions about treating children with very short stature with growth hormone and who has now turned his attention to intersex. Sandberg joined Chase for her presentation to the New Jersey Psychological Association, and afterward they talked late into the night. Both Chase and Sandberg say that the first few days of an intersex child’s life can set a tone within a family that persists for many years. Both say that medical professionals, right from the start, should behave as they would with any healthy baby and encourage parents to do the same — name the child, fall in love and bond. “If we don’t care for the parents early on,” Sandberg said as we all sat around Chase’s hotel room, “we might lose the battles in terms of creating circumstances for a happy life for this child, and perhaps sacrifice the quality of life for siblings too.”
The next morning, Chase came down to breakfast reading “On Becoming a Person,” a book by the psychologist Carl Rogers. Her goal of appearing mainstream while publicly discussing fused labia and unusual gonads seems, at times, unattainable. Few would argue that her current message — that doctors and families should not rush into surgery — is nothing if not prudent. Nonetheless, her long-term goal remains the eradication of infant genital surgery for the sole purpose of altering appearance, and this continues to sound outlandish to many medical professionals and to most of the general public as well.
Over coffee, Sandberg told Chase that he, too, could not yet join her in taking the position that cosmetic genital surgery on infants is always wrong, and Chase was trying hard to understand why.
“But is there ever a good reason for reducing the size of a clitoris?” Chase pressed Sandberg.
“If the parent cannot tolerate it,” Sandberg replied.
Chase paused, struggling to empathize with a mother unable to raise a child because of the size of that child’s clitoris. Chase has spent her adult life explaining why such a position is unethical. The logic she has constructed is nearly unassailable. Yet for most of us, Chase’s thinking is emotionally difficult to embrace. For starters, we tend not to be very rational when it comes to our children and to our genitals. Complicating matters, in treating intersex, as opposed to, say, a heart condition, what feels best for the parent in the short term may not turn out to be what is best for the child over time. Finally, parents feel entitled to make decisions based on the (sometimes false) sense that they know what’s right for their families, and the reality is that in the case of intersex children, the right treatment for one child, or even the majority of children, will not be the right treatment for all. Even Sarah Creighton, one of the London gynecologists who reported that intersex patients who have not had surgical procedures tend to fare better, has noted that no treatment is guaranteed or even likely to make the lives of those babies born intersex pain-free. “These are not all happy people, either,” she has said. “Some of them have isolated, difficult lives. Some of the surgery patients are fine, and some of them are not, and it’s very hard to separate all the things out.”
Over time, the public may grow to accept Chase’s idea that we, as families and neighbors, have an obligation to shed our own biases and accept bodies that are neither neatly male nor neatly female. Or maybe we will not get there, and our discomfort with ambiguity will never fade.
Elizabeth Weil is a contributing writer for the magazine. Her last article was about a “wrongful birth” lawsuit.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The First Contact Zone: Space and Time

Over in the Queers and Theory class we are wrapping up our first "contact zone" this week with the final discussion of these three books: Gender in Real Time: Power and Transience in a Visual Age by Kath Weston, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives by Judith Halberstam, and Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology edited by E. Patrick Johnson and Mae Henderson.

My first inclination in approaching these books is to find the unifying them that holds them together. The magic key, if you will, that tells me the "answers" for what I need to know theoretically about space and time with regard to queers. I realize that is not the way that I should approach things; I realize that such a construct is antithetical to women's studies. In fact, I would reject such a construct if it were presented to me by others, but I realize it is still the basis of my desires in sitting down to read and understand this material. I want to know how it holds together; I want to learn the answers. I want to understand them and write about them in a way to synthesize them on this blog and therefore in my mind as though by doing that I will have that knowledge for my own.

Sigh. I don't know how these three books work together in a singular form. I imagine, of course, that they don't (because the alternative, that they do, but I have been unable to discern it gives me the shivers); rather I suspect that these three books are designed to open up the conversation and thinking about the space/time contact zone. Toward that end, I have the following reflections on each of the three books and their connections to one another.
Weston's project is to explore the moment in which gender becomes undone or is "zeroed." Weston reviews the history of zero and the theoretical underpinnings behind it. Interestingly, she finds the zero moment in a variety of situations that relate to globalization.

While Weston is seeking to identify the gender zero moment as a construct that addresses the gender situation in the contemporary world, Halberstam places the transgender body as the icon that unhinges gender. Halberstam covers the waterfront on the transgender body from representations of transgender people in films (including the interesting movie, By Hook or By Crook, which I haven't seen but now very much want to), in contemporary art, and in contemporary music. There are elements of Halberstam's reading of transgender people in contemporary society that I find very compelling, but I had the persistent feeling that she wasn't addressing the lived experience of transgender people. She pulls her sources from contemporary performative texts, but there is a disjuncture between these performative texts and the lives of transgender people. One of the things that I am consistently interested in are the interconnections between texts and people's lives.

As I said in class, the Weston and Halberstam books in my mind fit together as two parts of a whole--even though there are areas where the two diverge in their thinking. Both have their eye on the project of eludicating queer identity and theorizing the queer body in a contemporary context that is aware of and situated in relationship to time and space.

As an aside, these questions are quite compelling to me as a poet as well. The notion of time is central to any poem - how is time handled within the poem? Does the way that time is handled work in the poem? I always combine this with readings of place, too. What is the particular political moment in which the poem is written? How do space and time come together within a poem? These questions are particularly compelling to me as a narrative poet. (Narrative poetry is often distinguished these days from lyric poetry and language poetry--although like any good poet - or feminist - while I like knowing the nomenclature, I would insist that my work straddles all three areas and defies classification, but if pressed, I'll identify as a narrative poet.) In narrative poetry, getting at the issues of time and space within the poem is essential. The analysis that Weston and Halberstam do to performative texts is fascinating not only from the perspective of how critical work is done in the academy (something that I am interested in doing) but also from the perspective of how texts are generated and how artists generate meaning within their text.

This brings me to Black Queer Studies. These is a text that comes from a conference in 2000, Black Queer Studies At the Millennium. The overarching project of this book is to engage and theorize inclusion of black queers into queer studies. Individually, these essays are incredibly stimulating; I loved reading Jewelle Gomez on the absence of black lesbian fiction. Marlon Ross on the closet fascinated me in light of my recent article about the closet and the feedback that it has inspired. Where I struggled with this book is in caring about the project of institutionalization of queer studies and black queer studies. It is not that I don't care about these two areas for scholarly discourse. I do. Passionately. Investing in the academic dialogues, however, and watching them play out around identity politics is discouraging to me. My primary orientation is always to liberation. How do we expand the space in this time that queer people live? How do we expand queer people's rights? How do we stimulate equality for women and for queers? How do we include an analysis that is anti-racist in the work? How do we center the experiences of queers of color? How does this work, this scholarly work, impact the daily lives of people? Those are the questions for which I want to reserve my passion. Black Queer Studies is an important text for the work it does to answer these questions - particularly to center black queers in the academy. It engages the questions of space and time through individual essays, but as a whole it's engagement of these issues is in regard to the creation of a discipline, queer studies, and the inclusion of black queers. I remain hopeful that the next disciplinary emergence is one that is rooted in a new and liberatory milieu.

Boys Don't Cry

I watched Boys Don't Cry again this afternoon. (It was comforting to watch something that had a tangential relationship to school in the midst of my cold - which still is ranging as I type this.) In part, I watched Boys Don't Cry because Judith Halberstam gives it an extensive treatment in her book, In a Queer Time & Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives.

Boys Don't Cry was released in 1999. Hilary Swank won the Academy Award for a leading actress for her portrayal of Brandon Teena. Kimberly Pierce, the director, did an earlier version of the film that was released in 1995. This was later expanded using the same title into the award-winning film.

The story of Brandon Teena has received extensive treatment in film and print. In addition to Pierce's films, there is an earlier documentary from 1998, titled,
The Brandon Teena Story. In addition, in print, Donna Minkowitz covered the story for the Village Voice bringing it to national prominence, John Gregory Dunne covered it for the New Yorker; Dinitia Smith wrote a novelized version about it and Aphrodite Jones preserved it as a true crime story.

All of these movies and articles came out in a relatively quick time frame from the initial murder of Brandon Teena in 1993. Pierce, who most certainly learned about the story through the work of Donna Minkowitz, released her lower budget version of
Boys Don't Cry in 1995. This evolution of a story from the Village Voice to a major Hollywood motion picture is an interesting story in and of itself of cultural production. In addition, the production and performance of this story impacted the gay and lesbian movement profoundly. While inclusion of transgender people and issues were being discussed in 1993 and 1994, by the time the film was released, transgender issues were much more understood by the activist community, there were new, nascent organizations to serve transgender people from a service and advocacy perspective, and the nomenclature of the movement was more T inclusive than it had been in 1993. Thus, for me, two parts of the stories of Boys Don't Cry include the cultural production of the story and it's impact on the GLBT movement. Into this milieu enters Judith Halberstam to make her intervention in 2005.

Viewing the film today, I was struck not by the gender transgression. I don't remember being struck by it in my initial viewings of the film either. Perhaps that is because I was familiar with the story both from a narrative perspective as well as the determined significance that it had in the GLBT activist community at the time. What I was struck by in the film today were the class issues and the construction of masculinity, not by Brandon, but by the other women in the film.

While Halberstam argues that the film creates a "transgender gaze," I found the film much more about a female gaze of a transgendered body, known and unknown. Halberstam writes, "In deploying the transgender gaze and binding it to an empowered female gaze in Boys Don't Cry, director Pierce, for most of the film, keeps the viewer trained on the seriousness of Brandon's masculinity and the authenticity of his presentation as opposed to its elements of masquerade." (p. 89.) Halberstam continues with her argument that Pierce abandons the transgender gaze for a lesbian gaze in the final scenes of the film.

Let me begin with the female gaze of the other women in the film. The first woman viewing Brandon is Candace, who Brandon meets in a bar. Candace's interaction with Brandon is counterpointed wtih Candace's interaction with another, older man who approaches her at the bar. Brandon, who has already told his gay male cousin that women like him as a man because he cares for them, when held up next to the older, heterosexual man, is clearly winner from a desire perspective in the heterosexual female gaze. The ensuing scene the next morning with Candace and her child, Brandon again performs his masculinity, not from his perspective, but from the perspective of Candace and her desires for a male partner.

There is a moment in the film where Lana's Mom looks intense at Brandon. There is that sense of fear and dread that crept into me that Brandon would be discovered. He wasn't. The heterosexual female desire for a decent man who is kind and caring transcends generations in the film. It is wanted by both Candace and Lana as well as Lana's mom. Some of the scenes with Lana's mom during the discovery that Brandon is not the man that he presents invite speculation as to her responses, as an older woman, to the situation. Moreover, her inability to act to stop the violence against Brandon and Candace angered me. I expected Lana's mom to have some sort of agency in adulthood to intervene in the rage and confusion that her adolescent and post-adolescent children and their friends experienced. She did not have that agency in real life and Pierce emphasizes it in the film.

Finally, there is the heterosexual female gaze of Lana, which Halberstam argues is transmogrified into a lesbian gaze at the conclusion of the film. First, if that is the case, it is a powerful commentary on the state of lesbianism (the Brandon Teena story happened the very year that the happy lesbian couple graced the cover of Newsweek magazine) that lesbians are more acceptable for the gaze to revert. Second, I think that Lana is as conflicted about her gaze as the viewer. She first wants to swear to her family that Brandon is male. She says, I know what you are, as though she can see his real self. When she is forced to look at the naked Brandon she seems to respond more to the violence of the situation than to the revelation of Brandon's genitalia. Overall, I think that Lana's gaze is created by her as an adolescent female presumed to be heterosexual. Perhaps she wouldn't be; perhaps she was a lesbian; perhaps she was a heterosexual who would in the future partner with a metrosexual male. In the film, however, she is a young woman experiencing sex for the first time. Either way I think it is her gaze in which Piece invests for the film.

The other element of the film that struck me so powerfully today was its portrayal of working class people. particularly working class older adolescents. One element of the film is the constant discussions of how to make money and how to make a life that is outside of the lives of their parents in Nebraska. At one point, Lana says after noting that the only thing she likes to do is Karaoke, "Can you make money doing Karaoke?," and Brandon responds, "People make money doing all sorts of things." In addition to presenting a vision of masculinity that these young women connect to, Brandon presents a vision of economic self-sufficiency that is away from the economic dead-end of Nebraska. I think that gender and class are so intimately intertwined in
Boys Don't Cry; almost to the degree that I find it difficult to separate what is more significant to the women in the film--the tenderness of Brandon's masculinity or the possibilities that Brandon envisions for economic independence.

I think that part of Halberstam's project in
In a Queer Time and Place is to establish the transgender person as an answer to feminist critiques of gender; for Halberstam, the transgender body is the liberation of the person from the constraints of gender. She wants Pierce to take that view and present that vision through her film. However, I think that is too prescriptive for the film, and for the broader transgender community. While Halberstam's readings of the transgender bodies as interesting exceptions to the system of gender hegemony, they are also contextualized exceptions. Moreover, I think that there is a disconnect between Halberstam's reading of transgender bodies and presentations and the lives that transgender people live.

The experience of living as a transgendered person has changed in the intervening years between Brandon Teena's death and Halberstam's book. In many ways for the better, although clearly there is still an intense social anxiety about transgender people. Still there are more role models for transgender people. However, the lived experience of transgender people is, I believe, increasingly one of more entrenchment of gender binaries as opposed to breaking open the gender hegemony. I think that Halberstam's analysis does not take this into account. Yet it may the critique of hindsight as opposed to the work of creation.

I'm including three items below. First, the Village Voice review of Boys Don't Cry by Michael Musto. Then an action alert from GLAAD in which they encouraged people to contact The New Yorker about Dunne's article, "The Humboldt Murders" (not available online, but in the library on microfilm). Halberstam takes this article to talk mightily as well. Finally, I found online what I believe is the original article on Brandon Teena from Donna Minkowitz. It does not correspond to Halberstam's citiation, but her citation of Dunne's article was incomplete as well.

Copyright 1999 VV Publishing Corporation  
Village Voice (New York, NY)

October 5, 1999, Tuesday

SECTION: Film; Pg. 212

LENGTH: 883 words


BYLINE: michael musto

Murdered nonconformist
Brandon Teena has become a transgressive icon of daring and ambiguity, a poster person for the gender rebel as misunderstood victim. A biological female, Brandon not only passed as a boy, he (as Brandon's often called) wowed the ladies with tender lovemaking that made him a better straight man than the ''real'' ones. When his secret got out, the girls stayed true, the guys became violent, and the legend was cemented.

Kimberly Peirce, the director-coscreenwriter of the new
Teena flick Boys Don't Cry, is more of a clear-cut entity. She's an out lesbian and a total woman who talks in a rat-tat-tat style, with an inexhaustible clarity. She also runs a very tight ship, and admits, ''Absolute creative control is my number one goal because that's the only way to protect the movie.'' But on the set of an indie, she says, ''everything's changing in front of you. You say, 'Let's shoot the merry-go-round scene,' and someone says, 'But there's no merry-go-round!'''

I had a brief ride myself when I was warned that someone behind the scenes was worried I might do a ''crazy article.'' Peirce told me she never said that, only that she was afraid she'd have to tell me gossip. In our talk, she gracefully patched things up, ultimately giving me hints of gossip anyway.

Her movie--shot in 30 days in and around Dallas--zeroes in on the relationship between
Brandon (Hilary Swank) and Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny), who fell for the idealistic drifter, only to have the local thugs mess with their fairy tale. The pace is at times deliberate, but the attention to detail pays off when the dark story kicks in and the film emerges as a distinctively acted powerhouse. In contrast to the acclaimed '98 documentary The Brandon Teena Story, Peirce says, ''I got to have a real character. Instead of repeating the facts, I got to understand why he lived as he did, then bring the audience inside this adventure. I don't think a documentary could do that.'' With typical assurance, she feels her version is realer than the nonfiction one.

Peirce had been working on a thesis about a woman who posed as a man during the Civil War when she read about
Brandon's tragedy in '93. Fixated, she went to Falls City, Nebraska, where she attended the murder trial and, along with transsexual author Kate Bornstein, visited the farmhouse where Brandon was killed. ''This was a trailer-park girl who didn't have role models or economic means,'' says Peirce, ''but created a fantastic vision of herself.'' Bonding with his own future murderers, Brandon was a hit until he moved in on their turf--nabbing Lana--thereby upsetting the clique's macho stasis. Finding out that Brandon had a vagina was the last straw for these Cornhusker State ex-cons, who proceeded to strip him of his masculinity, his pride, and his being. ''I think Brandon was destined to die, given the way he was living his life,'' says Peirce, sadly.

Peirce hails from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ''which is not unlike Falls City.'' An animator-photographer, she quit college and went to Japan for two years, ''where I had my brain split open by sensation--it's so beautiful.'' In '95, she filmed the
Brandon story as a short, having written the script as a Columbia film school graduate thesis. For the feature-film lead, she interviewed every butch lesbian and transgender actor she could find, but not men or male-to-females, insisting that the base person should be a biological woman, ''because that's what Brandon was.'' Alas, most females wanted no part of it in '96--one gay actress was afraid the sex scenes would reveal her as a lesbian--''but in '98, after Ellen, there was a proliferation of gay images and it wasn't a stigma anymore. We were flooded by the agencies--but it didn't help because none of these girls knew what it was to be a butch.''

In came an audition tape of a young woman in a cowboy hat, with a sock in her pants, a cut on her lip, ''and that face and those eyes,'' beams Peirce. Tori Spelling? ''No, Kate Winslet,'' she laughs. Actually, it was ex--Beverly Hills 90210--er Hilary Swank, who makes a stunningly cute boy and a charismatic enigma. Swank wore the same outfit to a live audition in New York, which she flew to at her own expense. ''I strapped and packed, as they call it,'' relates Swank, who came to know Peirce as ''a very smart woman, very articulate and passionate, with a strong vision.'' Swank's take on
Brandon? ''People are either magnetized or threatened by a person living their dream, and they the killers were threatened.'' Swank doesn't rule out that at least one of them was attracted to Brandon--as a woman, that is.

The film's crux is the rape/murder scene, which Peirce recut no less than seven times. ''I wanted it to be perfect,'' Peirce says. ''I wanted to show the mechanics of hatred--to see from all sides what was pushing into this retaliation of violence against difference. I'm sure that was frightening to the studio. I wrote 10-page memos trying to explain the importance of everything.'' How controlling--in a good way. As for that gossip, does Kimberly Peirce have a lover? No, she confides. ''Who can date a filmmaker? A couple of girls have tried, but I tell them, 'I'm unavailable.' I redefine unavailable.'' Clear enough?

GRAPHIC: Photo: "i wanted to show the mechanics of hate."

Credit: robin holland

LOAD-DATE: October 5, 1999

Brandon Teena Gets Dunne Wrong
take action > glaad alert > archive > 1997 > Brandon Teena Gets Dunne Wrong

January 24, 1997

In the January 13 New Yorker, crime writer John Gregory Dunne wrote "The Humboldt Murders," which examined the 1993 Nebraska murder of Brandon Teena and his two friends. Dunne does not understand Brandon's transgender identity, and describes him as a stereotypical "predatory" butch lesbian. The author insists on referring to Brandon as "her" for most of the piece. "That Teena Brandon (Brandon's birth name) had been able to pass herself off as a man to the officers was not that surprising," Dunne writes. "She was known as Brandon, and as Brandon, she, as he, had declared his love for and slept with a number of women in Falls City and Humboldt." Dunne also seems to point to Brandon's male-identification as "confusion," and "gender disorientation," though by all appearances, it was anything but confused. "She [Brandon] was undereducated, her ambition was limited, and, most important, she was without positive identity." Dunne also tries to speculate as to the source of Brandon's transgender identity: "Then there were stories about how she had been sexually molested by a male relative. It was as if somewhere in this litany of gender uncertainty, rejections by men and furtive molestation there might be an early clue, a first cause, a reason that would make Teena's subsequent ventures across the gender divide easier to accommodate." Dunne refers to many of the women Brandon pursued and dated as "nymphets," and despite the fact that Brandon always vehemently denied he was a lesbian, Dunne refers to him several times as "the butch."
Because Brandon Teena lived in a world where his access to support services and transgender discussions were essentially nonexistent, he was isolated as a transsexual. He repeatedly asserted that he was not a lesbian, which is disregarded. Dunne's labeling of Brandon's constant desire for women and his self-identification as a man a "sexual ambiguity," is nothing more than a rationalization for Dunne's own belief that Brandon was simply a butch lesbian who couldn't accept her sexual orientation. Additionally troublesome is the portrayal of Brandon as a smooth cassanova, a seducer who lured women to his bed and deceived them. This portrait is a hackneyed old stereotype of "predatory" butch lesbians who prey on "feminine" women.

Love Hurts
Brandon Teena Was a Woman Who Lived and Loved As a Man 
By Donna Minkowitz
April 19, 1994
The Lincoln Journal reported that the deceased was "buried in men's clothing, wearing her favorite cowboy shirt and black cowboy hat." But a day later, a Brandon relative will prod the paper to print a correction stating that the corpse had, in fact, sported "a black-and-white striped shirt purchased in the women's section of a local store." The woman christened Teena Brandon caused even greater consternation when she reversed her own first and last names three years ago. "Keep the faith," [Father Paul] Witt encourages her survivors, "even though you have encountered something that doesn't seem to make any sense." It is unclear whether he's referring to Brandon's murder or her penchant for adopting a male persona and dating women.
Last November, Brandon Teena blitzed into Falls City, a dusty farming community in the southern tip of the state, asking to be introduced to the most attractive women in town—even leafing through a new friend's phone book and requesting that she point out the best-looking girls so Brandon could invite them to "his" birthday party.
Two days after Brandon arrived in Falls City, every teenage and young adult woman in town was after this pool player with the jawline of a Kennedy, who could often be seen in a White Sox jacket and slicked-back hair. To the girls he fancied, Brandon brought perfume, roses, and teddy bears, as well as the cards and love poems other boyfriends were too crude—or too repressed—to send. Sometimes he'd call a limousine to take a girl to work, or, with Elvis-esque extravagance, give a woman his entire paycheck. When it came to making out, Brandon was rated heavenly, and unlike most boys, he never pressured women for sex. (One of his favorite songs was "Shoop," in which women rappers Salt-n-Pepa instruct men to "get your lips wet.")
Every former girlfriend the Voice talked to says Brandon was the best boyfriend they had ever dated: the most alluring suitor and certainly the best lover. No wonder that, both in Falls City and back home in Lincoln, where Brandon had also passed as male, girls were always hanging on his arm. "But when she saw Lana Tisdel," swooned the Chicago Tribune, "Brandon focused exclusively on her."
After they spotted each other at the Kwik Shop, Brandon asked Lana, the most glamorous 19-year-old in this economically depressed town of 5000, out on dates to Hardee's and the movies (where they saw Addams Family Values), and they fell in love in about two weeks. "Brandon was nicer and looked better than any boy I'd ever been with," says Lana, a cool, shy, and soigné blond who met him one evening when she was singing karaoke country-western songs at the Oasis, Falls City's only nightclub. "With a lot of guys around here, it don't matter what the woman wants, but Brandon wouldn't tell a woman to do anything—he asked. He knew how a girl liked to be treated."
Even after Brandon's true gender became known—when she'd been jailed on check-forging charges in late December—Lana stood by her, not an easy thing to do in a town where gossip is the major form of recreation.,50th8695,69284,31.html

Friday, September 22, 2006

Queers and Theory: Kath Weston

Friday morning we were supposed to travel to Detroit to visit a friend who was supposed to get married, but she eloped this summer, and there was a gun at the airport so they cleared the deck and when we arrived at 7:30 am BWI was swarmed with people, so we left. So this evening, instead of being with my friends or being at services (L'Shana Tovah!), I am sick, sitting on my couch, and writing about Kath Weston and noodling around for my queers and theory class. May this work be inscribed into the book of life for the next year for me because it is work that I really love.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Letters to the Washington Blade

The column in the Washington Blade has generated some letters. I've reprinted them in their entirety below (although I have corrected the spelling of my last name which is ENSZER - without a second "n").

Coming out isn’ta one-time thing
To the Editors:
In the press tour leading up to her debut in the CBS anchor chair, Katie Couric has said repeatedly that she wants to put more humanity into the evening news because that is what people connect with.
Maybe you love Katie; or maybe you’re over her. Either way, she makes a strong point. Human stories, connection to real people’s faces, feelings and experiences are powerful and poignant.
The piece that ran in last week’s Blade (“Getting over coming out,” op-ed by Julie Enszer), seems to have forgotten that lesson.
To say that National Coming Out Day is only relevant to people just coming out is tantamount to saying that birthdays are only for babies turning 1. While the first coming out, and the first birthday, are important and set the tone for what’s to come, they are only the beginning of a lifelong process.
Research has shown that while most GLBT people would like to have more dialogue with their straight friends and family about what their lives are like, they hold back because they’re afraid of sounding shrill or seeming like “activists.”
At the same time, many straight friends and family of GLBT people have reported that they would like to ask more questions and learn more about the daily experience of their GLBT loved ones, but they refrain from asking because they are afraid of invading privacy and having things “get weird.”
Coming out is a first step. Learning to talk openly and naturally about your life, what it’s like to be GLBT or straight supportive and to bring those conversations to the family dinner table, to the doctor’s office, to the office, your place of worship or anywhere else you may find yourself — is something else entirely.
Editors’ note: The letter writer is director of HRC’s Coming Out Project.
And this one at
Getting it wrong
on coming out
Re “Getting over coming out” (op-ed by Julie Enszer, Sept. 8):
Julie Enszer has lost sight of what’s important. I agree that “coming out” isn’t enough by itself. But it remains the most potent weapon in our arsenal. She might be impatient with the pace of progress, but there is absolutely nothing wrong when someone achieves “the most liberating and truthful thing I’ve ever done.” I just began the process of coming out last year at age 24. It’s the most important decision of my life thus far. Isn’t the act of coming out, when repeated by thousands, the very definition of collective action?
So coming out of the closet won’t guarantee equality for us. Staying inside the closet will? Get real! Coming out is just one of several strategies we must use in our struggle, and it’s not about narcissism.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Lesbians and Economics and Physical Locations

This from the San Francisco Chronicle.

The cease of the publication of Girlfriends and On Our Backs has been on my mind as I think about Queer Culture. However, our culture is not tied exclusively to economic capacity as this article - and much of contemporary culture seems to suggest.

Nonetheless this article raises interesting issues.

Marketplace finds lesbians an attractive, but elusive, niche
Still, target group seems ripe for growth
- Wyatt Buchanan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, September 7, 2006

The list of hubs of gay male culture is familiar: the Castro in San Francisco, Chelsea and Fire Island in New York, and West Hollywood and Palm Springs in Southern California, among others.
Those places have high concentrations of both gay men and businesses that cater to them.
For lesbians, no equally high-profile neighborhoods exist, and the businesses that do are disappearing.
In Alameda County, where Oakland has more lesbian couples per capita than any other major city in the United States, two bookstores that catered to women and lesbians have shut their doors in the past few years. This spring, two lesbian magazines headquartered in San Francisco ceased publication; the final sale of their assets was announced last week. There are only two bars in the city that cater to lesbian clientele.
"In the 1970s and '80s, there were seven active women's bars in the city; that's what we used for socializing," said Maureen McEvoy, a board member of the Golden Gate Business Association, the Bay Area's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender chamber of commerce.
"Ultimately what happened was we couldn't support them financially, and one by one they went out of business," said McEvoy. Speaking of her organization's 480 member businesses, she said, "A lot are certainly lesbian-owned, but they just can't afford to be that exclusive."
Women who lead the country's major lesbian-focused businesses believe the national market is ripe for major growth, although the demographics of the lesbian community may preclude establishing neighborhoods like the Castro, where bars, clothing stores, furniture stores, restaurants and a host of other shops cater to gay men. Lesbian couples tend to make less money than gay couples, they are more than four times more likely to have children, and they are more geographically dispersed, according to U.S. Census and marketing agency data.
More than their gay male counterparts, lesbians tend to live outside metropolitan areas, according to Gary Gates, a UCLA researcher who authored "The Gay and Lesbian Atlas," a report on gay and lesbian couples nationwide based on the 2000 census. Lesbians don't tend to cluster -- either in urban neighborhoods or in suburban and rural areas -- as gay men do.
Still, if there is a core to the nation's lesbian business and social community, it remains in San Francisco. The annual fundraising dinner for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, headquartered here, drew 2,800 people and is offhandedly called the "lesbian prom." It generated nearly $800,000 this year.
That kind of money -- the combined buying power of gay and lesbian consumers is estimated at $641 billion this year -- is beginning to attract marketers to the lesbian niche.
"The lesbian community is probably where the gay male community was 10 years ago. Companies are just getting an idea now about the marketplace," said Frances Stevens, founder and publisher of Curve magazine, the sole remaining lesbian magazine in San Francisco, which circulates to 230,000 people each month.
Stevens' staff often offers advice to companies that place advertisements in the magazine that they think are lesbian-friendly, but instead show images of male couples.
"Is that the 'LGBT market' or just the 'G' market? Advertisers need to learn that it's not a cohesive market, just like anything else," she said.
The business that has most successfully captured, defined and profited from the lesbian market is Olivia, the San Francisco travel company that started 33 years ago as a record label for women. The company began chartering cruises in 1990, and its revenues have quadrupled over the past four years as it has expanded to offer more cruises and other vacations, said Amy Errett, chief executive officer at Olivia. The company is planning another major expansion next year, including a magazine and an enhanced Web site.
"Olivia will be the gateway to offer everything women need to be a visible lesbian in any way they choose," Errett said.
The expansion will come after three decades of slow growth in a hard-to-reach market that requires diligence and patience, she said. The market can be hard to measure, too, with census data only tracking couples. Nobody knows for sure the actual number of lesbians or gay men in the country.
Judy Dlugacz, Olivia's president and founder, said the company brought together -- through music and travel -- women who otherwise might never have met.
"We helped create the community, and the community helped create the company," Dlugacz said.
Unique aspects of that community, however, have played a part in the decline in lesbian-specific businesses.
Lesbians are more likely to have children than gay men -- 32 percent of lesbians are parents, compared with 7 percent of gay men, according to Simmons Market Research Bureau, which conducts an annual survey of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender consumers.
Part of the issue may be that they're spending their limited funds on housing for their families. For Olivia's customers, according to company research, home ownership is a high priority. The average California lesbian couple's household income is $65,000, compared to $73,600 for gay men, according to census data. So lesbians are more likely to need to leave high-cost urban areas to find affordable housing.
Another factor in business decline is that bookstores and cafes that catered to lesbians often had strong ties to feminism, which has been less visible since the 1970s and '80s. Mama Bears bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland closed in 2003.
On Our Backs, a lesbian sex magazine that premiered in 1984, was a response to the "sex wars" that dominated lesbian feminist politics during that era, when prominent lesbians argued that pornography was a social evil.
On Our Backs ceased publication this spring, along with the magazine Girlfriends. The magazines were sold to an online company that plans to move them to the Web, but has yet to do so.
"I always felt like I was a small fish with another medium-size fish in a very small pond," said Heather Findlay, whose publishing company sold the magazines.
Sociologically, a complication in targeting lesbians lies in how women identify their sexuality and thus determine what community they belong to. Surveys consistently show more women identifying as bisexual than as lesbian, according to UCLA's Gates. Others reject any label, defining themselves foremost as women.
"I think the word 'lesbian' itself is problematic. It's an old word loaded up with baggage from the '70s," said Betty Sullivan, whose Betty's List Web site is a resource for gay and lesbian events in the city. She said she prefers the label "women" to the "L" word.
The Dyke March, which usually draws tens of thousands of participants during Gay Pride Week, also avoids the lesbian label.
Several women who do identify as lesbians say they see a need for more businesses that target their specific needs.
"I think of myself as someone interested in fashion, but I don't feel like anyone is making clothes in my style," said Elizabeth Falkner, executive chef and owner of Citizen Cake restaurant in San Francisco. "I'm not going out and buying Fendi shoes, I'm not buying floral-print dresses and I'm not going to dress like a guy."
San Francisco has two remaining bars for lesbians -- Wild Side West in Bernal Heights and the Lexington in the Mission District -- and some venues host special nights for lesbians. But in this gay and lesbian mecca, where gay men fill bars every night of the week, women are aware of their lack of options.
"Friends call when they have visitors and ask where they should go at night," said Sherri Franklin, who lives on Potrero Hill and shared a drink with her partner at Wild Side West recently. "I always have to stop and think, well, which night is it?"

E-mail Wyatt Buchanan at

Lesbian-oriented businesses face challenges

-- Same-Sex Couples*

Lesbian couples are almost as numerous as gay couples but
are more dispersed through California and have lower incomes.

In San Francisco

Lesbian: 2,353
Gay: 8,902

In The Bay Area

Lesbian: 12,406
Gay: 15,002

In California

Lesbian: 42,524
Gay: 49,614

* - The most reliable data on lesbian and gay people counts couples, not individuals.

-- Same-sex couples as a percentage of California unmarried-partner households

Lesbians: 6%
Gay men: 7%

-- Percentage of couples that have children

Lesbian couples: 32%
Gay couples: 7%

-- Median income


Gay couples: $65,000
Lesbian couples: $54,970


Gay couples:$73,600
Lesbian couples: $61,030

Sources: Data from 2000 U.S. Census, except proportion of couples
with children, which is from Simmons Market Research Bureau.

Page B - 1

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

How Feminists Still Perform the Personal

This correction came in today's Women's eNews email:

Correction: In our story, "Anti-Unpaid-Work Polemicist Riles Full-Time Moms," published on Sept. 8, we incorrectly reported that author Linda Hirshman sent her children to daycare. Hirshman informed us that a child care provider worked inside her home.

I thought that it was a very interesting window into how significant the personal is to feminists. What are we to make of this correction? Is it significant that Hirshman's children had in home child care as opposed to going to day care? Are we to feel better about her choice to work that her children were in the home and not in a public space? Are we to feel that she had more money than most working women and could employ someone to care for her children in the home? Are we to wonder if she paid taxes for that child care? Why did Hirshman inform Women's eNews of this error? What was the significance to her?

It's an interesting example of the feminist performance of the personal as well as the notions of public and private spaces.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Womon-only Spaces

Over at Queering the Apparatus, Damion is asking important questions about womon-only spaces. Here are the beginnings of my responses.

First, what is the function of the space that the Womyn's Music Festival creates? Is the space the ideal that womyn are seeking? That is, every summer, are womyn practicing for life after the revolution when they will live communally only with womyn? Or is it a space that is constructed in a particular place and time and bound by the seven days (or for workers six to eight weeks) in August? I think that how we see the space and the function it has is critical to the question of who is let in and who is kept out.

If, indeed, the Womyn's Music Festival is a rehearsal for the "end game"--the environment that we want to create post-revolution, the anxiety about exclusion of anyone is not only an anxiety about what will people do for seven days in August, but also an anxiety about what is the space for men after the revolution. Is there a space for men? If not, where will they go? If not, who is constituted as a man? And more importantly, who is constituted as a woman and gets to be inside - the land of the Womyn's Music Festival for those seven days in August AND the land of the future, post-revolution.

If the Womyn's Music Festival is not the space of the future but a space bounded by time - seven days in August - recurring each year when there is enough time and energy and money to plan and execute it and enough womyn to attend, and it is not a space of the future but a retreat in which womyn can reenergize to engage in a society that is gender integrated, then why is there anxiety about exclusion? Such retreats, whether they are womyn's music festivals, or gatherings of religious sects at various camps or resorts, or beaches that are directly or indirectly designated for gays or families or nudists or bikers, are commonplace in America.

I think that the first location of the anxiety is in liberalism. Liberalism which tells us that while we may affiliate in ways that bring a preponderance of one type of people together, we may not codify our affiliation to exclude a particular group of people or all groups of people but what we mark as our type. I reject this liberalism because I think that it has inherent flaws. It doesn't recognize and respect that sometimes groups of folks, whether defined by identity or interest or biology, like to hang out together in a time defined and space defined way. It asserts that its value of inclusion is to be valued above all other values.

I think that the second location of the anxiety is in the sandbox. Literally the three and four and five and six year old minds in which some people are getting together and having fun and playing with toys without us. They are. But so are we. This anxiety is not intellectual as liberalism is; it is emotional. It is also immediate and compelling. It is true in the way that our feelings are true, but it is also not the full story.

I think that the third location of the anxiety is fear that the location becomes not a space bound by time, but becomes a future location in the present with its exclusionary practices. Yet, most women at the Womyn's Music Festival do not want that. The policy toward male children is instructive to that end. Male children under five are able to camp with their mothers and participate in everything. The underlying value is that during that period of development; children need to be with their mothers. After the age of five, as the children develop more independence, they go to the boys camp during the day and camp with their mothers at night. There is still dependence but greater autonomy. After age ten, the independence is enough such that mothers can take a week vacation without their children. Each returns, however. It is in these guidelines that I think that the notion of the festival space as one created by time and place is most clear and evident. For mothers, especially mothers of boys, the life of the lesbian separatist is not one that they will live, but it is one that they can choose to participate in for three or four or five or six or seven days each year. Then they return. To the space and time outside of Hart, Michigan.

The Womyn's Music Festival is more than the space bound by time, which is why I think that the scuttle surrounding who is in and who is out is so powerful. It is a community that is intentional about how and why it comes together and who is engaged in that coming together. The flap about transgender inclusion is one of a long line of inclusion questions. While it is a moment of cultural anxiety now, for the organizers, the anxiety is usual, even expected. The feelings are the same. The issues, the language, is all that is changing.

Which brings me to perhaps the most challenging question of this: why do transgender womyn want to be included? Certainly, I understand the desire for inclusion. And I have observed that there are always people who want to be inside something most fervently when they are excluded. There is also the sense though that being included in the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is a form of validation as a female. The power and gender paradigms behind that deserve to be explored more fully. Why is the Womyn's Music Festival being positioned as the power broker or arbiter of who is female? Is it because the defined very carefully and very clearly language of who is included in their party? Aren't there more important arbiters of gender in our country? Why has this one been elevated?

A corollary to why do transgender womyn want to be included for me is what is the role of gender at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival? From my experience (now over a decade ago) while there is a reification of womyn and feminism at the festival, there is also an eschewing of hard and fast gender roles. Part of the power of being in an all womon space is that womyn do everything. In this paradox of embracing one gender and rejecting gender roles, enter transgender womyn, many of whom are entrenched in gender as a result of their experiences with transition. How does that fit with the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival?

Another question that I raise is about the Radical Faeries and the few other mehn's land movements, many of which exclude womyn. How do they fit into this situation? Why are womyn not protesting their right to be engaged in these communities? Does that matter? What does that tell us?

Finally, I am also struck in this debate by intensity of the critique of womyn's culture and separatism. In community, I observe that the consequence of intensive critique is not reform that brings about a watershed to a greater understanding and inclusion rather the consequence is the destruction of the thing that is being critiqued. Is that the goal of the transgender activists protesting the Womyn's Music Festivals? If it is not the explicit goal, is it an implicit goal? How do we respond to that?

If critique brings about destruction, what builds an alternative? In community, what I think builds greater understanding and inclusion is new and different formulations that are not oppositional or grounded in critique, but that are autonomous and visionary. If there is a desire and a need for a community that is like the Womyn's Music Festivals but embraces many-gendered people, then building that space and designating that time is I think an important and productive response. Ultimately, there may be room for both spaces or one may predominate, but until the alternative is built and the critique is set aside, we will not know what is the world that we want to live in for seven days each summer or what is our vision for the future.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Get To Work: Linda Hirshman's Manifesto

Women's eNews is an independent news agency that covers stories of interest to women. It has some of the best coverage on women in the Muslim world that I have read anywhere. I receive their daily news story as an email. On Friday, they did a story on Linda Hirshman, which I have clipped below with a link.
Anti-Unpaid-Work Polemicist Riles Full-Time Moms
Run Date: 09/08/06
By Jeanine Plant
WeNews correspondent
Linda Hirshman has offended plenty of stay-at-home mothers with her polemic in praise of paid work and against house chores. But many also credit her for pressing a subject neglected by "workplace feminism."

(WOMENSENEWS)--Let the dust accumulate! Don't empty the dishwasher! Stop driving the carpool and get to work!
In her slim, red-jacketed book, "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World," Linda Hirshman, a retired professor of philosophy at Brandeis University, former trial lawyer and mother, argues that "the real glass ceiling is at home."
It's not the workplace holding women back, she says, it's the family, with "its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks."

I hadn't heard or read about Hirshman, but her book, Get to Work, sounds fantastic. She has a great website and blog, which I've clipped part of below.

Linda Hirschman on Gay Pride:

Sunday is the LGBT (hereafter, gay) pride parade in New York.
I am not gay.
But I am a fellow traveler. On their moral journey. As I said in “Get to Work,” if there is a chance to revive real feminism, the answer is in following the lessons the gay movement has taught. Indeed, everything anyone needs to know about social activism in these conservative times they can learn from the gay movement. Here are the lessons.
1. Everyone deserves to make a public life. 
2. Everyone deserves to make a private life.
3. Everyone deserves to make a family life.
4. Sooner or later, tolerance must lead to real respect.

I think that the balance between work and family may be a regular fulcrum for feminists--it is great though to see someone tipping the scale in another direction.

Why Queers and Theory rather than Queer Theory?

My first essay for the "Queers and Theory" class. A short response to prompt questions from the professor. I have to post it at the class website by Thursday - any comments are welcome!

Why Queers and Theory rather than Queer Theory?

Perhaps because the ampersand is essential to any endeavor that is feminist. As essential, perhaps, as the hyphen. Where would we be without hyphenated identities? Without identities that are multiplicitous? Without identities that are intensive in thought, definitions, labels, and language? How could we speak as feminists, as queers, as subversives without the shifty characters of the keyboard? How could we speak without identities and ideas that require grammatical parsing and detailed explanation?
I don’t believe, though, that “Queers and Theory” as a title is an homage to how we construct our language—as much as I might like it to be from the perspective of my disciple. Rather, I think that the two words are unhinged, in part, for the epistemological reasons—so that we can understand and access the origin of each and then explore how they are and can be correlated. “Queer Theory” is unhinged into queers and theory not only to express and contain a multiplicity of both, but also to emphasize that there are different things with which each can be coupled, or tripled, or multiply partnered. “Queer Theory” suggests a point, a location of a particular way of thinking, or perhaps a line that connects two points, “queer” and “theory,” but the class, “Queers and Theory” is about more than points or lines; it is about planes or more accurately systems of thinking – a move from base ten to base six or base nine.
Let me begin with theory. I was struck by the definition of theory as “a place to sit” and consulted American Heritage. After the scientific definition, I learn that theory is “the branch of a science or art consisting of its explanatory statements, accepted principles, and methods of analysis, as opposed to practice.” It is that binary that trips me; perhaps because for the past fifteen years as I’ve been embroiled not in theory but in practice, I’ve thought of them not oppositionally but in a corollary relationship. Practice, or praxis, the “practical application or exercise of a branch of learning” (American Heritage.) Perhaps in daily use there is no difference between a corollary and an antonym, but it feels urgently important to me despite that the dictionary seems to indicate that theory and praxis are the antithesis of one another, that they are antonyms, but I don’t experience them that way. I think that there is theory and praxis is the necessary corollary, the natural consequence or result, although the equation would be punctuated by an equal sign and therefore could work exactly in reverse: praxis exists with its necessary corollary, theory. This explanation illuminates, in part, the significance of this decoupling of “Queer Theory” into “Queers and Theory.” There is something important in understanding the language with certain precision, which I think has a role in illuminating both elements of the course – queer and theory.
I was struck by Weston’s careful attention to using the words, space and time and her melding of the two into spacetime. Her construction in conjunction with the course title seems to be a window into the attention to language and constructs that we use to talk about knowledge and human experience in the creation and communication of theory. That for me is an essential element of why the words are decoupled for the course—to bring attention to the two words individually and then explore how and why and where they work together.
Let me think about queer or Queer. One of the areas that I am interested in exploring further is the relationship between Queers, as a group of people who have a set of behaviors, practices, and personal identity that are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender, and queering, as a verb, to make different from the norm. I’m interested in both parts of speech and I think that the distinction is one of the areas that the title, “Queers and Theory” opens. “Queer Theory” seems to obscure the distinction – as though an act of queering can be done without relation or regard to the group of people who created and identify with the word, Queer. My investment in praxis, from either way the equation is read – theory informing practice or practice informed by theory – is probably what interests me intensely in that question.
The unhinging of the two words also opens the possibilities of understanding theory from a variety of disciplines with a queer lens. “Queer Theory” suggests that there is an independent discipline of, say Queer Studies, and that this is the theoretical basis for it, whereas “Queers and Theory,” implies that there are a variety of disciplines that have queer engagement. This cross-disciplinary engagement is evident not only in the description of the course, but also in the selection of the texts for the course. “Queers and Theory” even opens the possibilities for anti-disciplinary or post-disciplinary dialogue which “Queer Theory” seems to eschew.
What am I most likely to use? I am most likely to use the language formulation that I understand and makes sense to me; I am most likely to use the combination that describes what I believe and how I understand things at the time. I want to use language with accuracy and precision, and also language that is accessible to people outside of the academy; language that honors my commitment to use and create knowledge that has meaning and applications to people in the world concerned about queer liberation and justice.