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Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

H. Bradford

5/18/17

Each month, Pandemonium meets up for a discussion and pizza.  Pandemonium is a bi+ group in Duluth/Superior.  Past topics include bisexuality and domestic violence, different bisexual identities, bisexual poets, and other topics related to sexuality and gender such as homophobia and the plight of transgender prisoners.  This month, the topic is Frida Kahlo.  Frida Kahlo is an artist who captures the imagination of many women.  Like many people, I became familiar with her from the 2002 film starring Selma Hayek.  Perhaps she captures the imagination of women and feminists because of her iconic fashion, her relationship struggles, her rebellion against social norms, the personal nature of self-portraits, her physical and emotional pain, etc.  She captures my imagination because she was bisexual and a communist.  Because of my interests, the presentation will focus on her political, gender, and sexual identities.  The presentation itself draws heavily from Hayden Herrera’s (1983) biography “Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo.”  The nature of Pandemonium is to educate one another on a topic for the purpose of growing as a bi+ community and in these identities.  These presentations are peer to peer in nature and none of us our experts on the topics that we explore.  Hopefully the following provides some insights, but should be treated as an informal community presentation.  With that said, Frida Kahlo was a very political and sexual person and these two facets of her identity were both deeply intertwined, sometimes inconsistent, and often revolutionary.

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Frida was born and died in the Blue House, a house build by her father in 1904.  Her father was a photographer who was a Jewish Hungarian born in Romania, but who grew up in Germany.  Her mother, Matilde, was a devoutly Catholic Mexican woman from Oaxaca.  Frida was born in 1907, but changed her birth date to 1910 so that she could shared her birth date with the year that the Mexican revolution began (Herrera, 1983).  The fact that she changed her official birth date indicates her nationalism, or love of Mexico, which was evident in her artwork and fashion sense.  Frida wanted to be associated with the Mexican Revolution.  The revolution itself stemmed from various classes who were upset with the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  Diaz came to power in 1876 after decades of foreign intervention and warfare in Mexico.  He is credited with creating a powerful centralized government in Mexico and ushering in an era of capitalist development.  Mexican exports increased by six times under his rule, the country went from around 600 km of railroad tracks to over 20,000, and the money in circulation in the Mexican economy increased by twelve times.  Mining industries, oil exports, and banking saw explosive expansion during this time period.  At the same time, middle class Mexicans were frustrated by corruption, cronyism, and lack of opportunities.  While Mexico became much more developed under Diaz, 70% of the population was engaged in agricultural work.  The countryside was heavily taxed, denied regional or local autonomy, and often subject to corrupt governance which arbitrarily fined and punished the population, often with forced labor.  In 1883, a law was passed with allowed landed elites to easily buy commonly held lands or lands without official titles.  This denied peasants the ability to support themselves, turning many into renters, servants to landlords, resident laborers, and sharecroppers.  At the same time, the working class grew with the development of the country, but like all workers, suffered harsh conditions.  The workers were often paid in scrip and also suffered the same harsh taxes and arbitrary law enforcement that peasants did (Easterling, 2009).  The full history of the Mexican revolution is too complicated and lengthy to explore in depth, but basically, Portofino Diaz re-election in 1910 but was challenged by Francisco Madero, a reformist candidate from a wealthy landowning family who won the support of the liberal middle class.  Diaz feared Madero would win the election, so he had him arrested and went on to win the election.  Madero was sprung from prison and escaped to San Antonio, where he promoted a more revolutionary message that promised land reform with the hope of inciting an uprising against Diaz.  The call for revolution was taken up by rebels such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who organized peasant farmers to fight the regime.  In May 1911, Diaz resigned and later that year, Madero was elected.  This did not end the revolution, as Madero quickly befriended members of the old regime and expanded the military in the interest in maintaining the status quo and curtailing rebellion for land reform.  Later, he ordered the destruction of land through scorched earth policies and war against the Zapatistas, or followers of Emiliano Zapata.  The U.S. actively supported anyone who rebelled against Madero, hoping to return some semblance of order to the country.  A 1913 coup against Madero thrust General Huerta into power, but his regime was short lived.  He was ousted from power in 1914, while various rebel factions continued to fight each other.  The next six years consisted of fighting between Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Obregon Zapata.  Carranza was elected president in 1917, created a constitution which tried to appeal to peasant demands, but was assassinated by Obregon in 1920.  Pancho Villa agreed to stop fighting after 1920, but fighting continued in various parts of Mexico until 1934.  In short, the world in which Frida spent her childhood was tumultuous and politically charged as various rebels and social classes vied for power.  This would have informed her early political views and shaped the opportunities available to her as a woman and artist.

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Painting of Zapata by Diego Rivera


Frida Kahlo grew up in a very political world, but had the privilege of growing up in a middle class family which encouraged her personal growth.  According to Herrera (1983) Frida enjoyed a close relationship with her father, who lent her books, taught her painting and photography, and encouraged her to learn about nature and archaeology.  Frida contracted polio at age six, so her father encouraged her to play sports such as boxing and soccer to strengthen her leg.  Her father had no sons, so it is possible that he looked to Frida to fulfill the role of a son.  Thus, she benefited from her father’s non-traditional expectations regarding gender, which allowed her to express herself through education and art.  Perhaps because of he lacked a son, Frida’s father encouraged her to attend the National Preparatory School.  At the same time, Frida benefited from opportunities in art and education that arose after the Mexican revolution.  Under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, Mexican intellectuals and leaders looked to Europe for cultural and economic inspiration and disdained indigenous Mexican culture.  The Mexican revolution sought to return Mexico to Mexicans through land reforms, nationalization of natural resources, and embracing native culture.  Frida attended the National Preparatory School just a few years after girls were first admitted.  While studying there, she was a member of The Cachuchas, a very loosely Marxist organization (Haynes, 2006).  This was her first introduction to socialism.  Interestingly, it was not art that she pursued as a student.  Rather, she studied natural sciences with the intention of becoming a doctor (Mataev, n.d).  While at school, she was described by her friends at the school as tomboyish.  Her closest friends were members of the Cachuchas, seven boys and two girls, who were interested in socialism.  However, they were better known for causing pranks at the school, such as bringing a donkey into a classroom and setting off firecrackers during a lecture.  The students were also voracious readers who discussed Hegel, Kant, Russian literature, and Mexican fiction.  This indicates that at a young age, she expressed her gender in non-traditional ways and was politically minded.  Her love life as a student also indicates the political nature of her early life.  While she was in school, she dated Alejandro Gomez Arias, the leader of the Cachuchas.  At the same time, according to her mythology, she was immediately smitten with Diego Rivera when he came to paint the amphitheater of her school.  Although she was a young teen, she told her friends that she would have his child and reportedly tried to trip him by putting soap on the stairs and stole a sandwich from his lunchbox (Herrera, 1983).  Rivera himself was a product of the time, a muralist who created political scenes of Mexican history, social movements, and workers.  If the mythology is true, Frida became infatuated with Diego Rivera when she was 15 years old and he was 36 (Collins, 2013).


In Herrera’s (1983) account Frida’s first relationship was with Alejandro Gomez Arias, but this biography offered scant details about her bisexuality.  Collin’s (2013) posited that Frida’s first sexual relationship was when she was 13 years old and unable to participate in phy-ed due to her earlier bout with polio.  Her health teacher, Sara Zenil, initiated a relationship with her, which was ended when Frida’s mother found her letters and transferred her to a different school (Collins, 2013).  This affair may have been true, as indeed Frida was suddenly transferred from a teacher preparation school to the National Preparatory School.  The letters indicate that Frida believed she loved the teacher and she was exited from the school.   Originally, her mother wanted her to attend the school as she wanted Frida to become a teacher, as it was a traditional job for women (Ankori, 2013).  According to an account from Alejandro, Frida was later seduced by a woman who worked at a library for the Ministry of Education.  Frida was looking for a library job to support her family, who had fallen onto harder times due to her father’s inability to find photography work.  Her parents found out about this and Frida reportedly told a friend that the experience was traumatic (Herrera, 1983).  It is possible that she was involved with two older women, both of which were discovered by her parents.  In both cases, her introduction to same sex relationships was embarrassing, traumatic, and unequal in power.  This history therefore isn’t a positive example of bisexuality, but an example of older women taking advantage of a financially and physically disadvantaged youth.


Trauma and suffering are prevailing themes in Frida’s life.  On September 17th, 1925, Frida was involved in a bus accident.  She was impaled in the pelvis with an iron rod and her spinal column was broken in three places.  She also broke her pelvis, some ribs, and fractured her foot and hand (Herrera, 1983).  She took up painting after the accident and said that she chose self-portraits because she felt so alone during that time period and because it was a subject she knew best (Haynes, 2016).  In reference to the trauma of the accident, she said she lost her virginity to the handrail.  She spent a month in the hospital and several months at home recovering.  During this time, she continued her relationship with Alejandro, but it grew strained as he accused her of being “loose.” In her letters, she admitted to kissing and dating others (Herrera, 1983).  This is an early indication of her flexibility concerning traditional monogamy.  During this time she dropped out of school due to her health and medical costs.  She began painting after the accident and her first painting was a gift for Alejandro entitled Self Portrait.  The two parted ways when Alejandro continued school and traveled to Europe.  Frida was briefly involved in a relationship with German de Campo, who was an anti-militarism and anti-imperialist student organizer.  He was president of the National Student Confederation and fought for academic freedom, a new exam system, but was killed while giving a speech in support of presidential candidate Jose Vasconcelos.  Germain de Campo introduced Frida to some of his friends, including Julio Antonio Mella, an exiled Cuban communist.  She became friends with Tina Modotti, a photographer, model, and communist friend of Mella’s, who later introduced her to Diego Rivera.  Once again, Frida’s love interests were often deeply political individuals.


In the 2002 film Frida, Tina Modotti was portrayed by Ashley Judd.  Frida and Tina shared a dance in the film.  According to DeMirjynn (2011), the audience, along with Diego Rivera’s character, watch the dance in approval, locating her sexuality within the male gaze.  The dance followed a drinking contest, which could be seen as a way to dismiss the legitimacy of her sexuality, as it was alcohol fueled.  The film highlighted her affairs with men, with little attention to her female attraction.  Diego Rivera actually played a larger role in the 2002 film compared to the 1983 Mexican film, Frida, Naturaleza Viva.  In the 2002 film, Rivera reacted negatively to Frida’s affair with Trotsky, but not at all to her affairs with women, rendering her queerness invisible or unimportant according to DeMirjyn (2011).   Herrera’s (1983) biography of Frida supports that Rivera indeed acted either indifferently or supportive of Frida’s affairs with women, but the book gives little attention to these relationships, also rendering that history invisible.  Rivera himself was amused by Frida’s lesbianism, as he called it.  Diego believed in free love and had many affairs, but he did not tolerate Frida’s affairs with men.  He encouraged or was open about her affairs with women.   Nevertheless, Frida did sneak men into her home, warning them that Diego might kill them.  For instance, Frida had an affair with the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, but it ended when they plotted to get an apartment together for their rendezvous, but the bill for the furniture was accidentally delivered to Frida’s residence with Diego.  In Noguchi’s account, Diego threatened him twice with a gun and on one occasion he had to jump out of a window to avoid getting caught with Frida (Herrera, 1983).  Diego’s reaction Frida’s sexuality as well as how it is framed by some historians shows the trouble with how bisexuality is understood and treated in society.  Garner (2000) argued that men may not be threatened by female relationships because female sexuality is framed to exist for them or because women are inferior in society, they are not viewed as threats.  The relationships between women can therefore more easily be dismissed.

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The dance scene from the film, Frida


There is no denying the importance of Diego Rivera in Frida’s life.  Diego Rivera was a well known artist and communist when she met him.  Frida was a communist in her own right as well.  She was a member of the Young Communist League and while she is remembered for her feminine dresses, ribbons, flowers, ruffles, and indigenous styles, she actually had periods in her life when she wore more militant clothing.   After joining the Communist Party in the 1920s, she started wearing black or red shirts with hammer and sickle pins as well as blue jeans.  She also gave speeches, attended secret meetings, and attended rallies.  Diego actually depicted Frida as a communist militant in a panel of his mural Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution.  He portrayed her as a tomboy, with a man’s shirt with a red star on the pocket and short hair, handing out rifles and bayonets (Herrera, 1983).  This more masculine version of Frida demonstrates her flexibility in expressing her gender and openness about her political beliefs.  Her views of marriage were also less traditional.  Rather than a traditional ceremony, Frida married Diego in 1929 in a small civil ceremony in which she wore street clothes.  Her mother opposed the marriage, since Diego was an atheist communist and she was Catholic.  Her father supported the marriage, perhaps because Frida was his only single daughter, had massive medical bills, and the family could no longer afford their mortgage.  After the wedding. Frida moved into Diego’s mansion where two other communists lived.  Around this time, Diego had a strained relationship with the Communist Party over taking commissions for his artwork, relationship to government officials, his critique of communist trade unions, and his skepticism that countries would attack Russia.  His friend, Tina Modotti, who introduced the couple, remained a member of the Communist Party but denounced their friendship and called him a traitor (Herrera, 1983).   In a theatrical protest of his expulsion, Rivera attended the 1929 Communist Party convention, gave a dramatic speech, and smashed a clay pistol in a dramatic exit from the party (Morrison and Pietras, 2010).   Frida also left the party when Rivera was expelled.

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1929, the year that Diego and Frida married and left the Communist Party, was the same year that Stalin exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union.  Diego sided with Trotsky and pressured Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas into accepting Trotsky into the country after the revolutionary had been forced out of Norway and no other country would accept him (Tuck, 2008).   Rivera presented Mexican president Cardenas a petition for Trotsky to have sanctuary in Mexico, provided that he did not meddle with Mexican political affairs.  However, due to Rivera’s poor health at the time, it was Frida who met the Trotskys along with Max Shachtman and George Novak on November 21, 1936.  Trotsky reportedly refused to leave the boat until he saw friendly faces.  Trotsky and company took a secret train to Mexico City to avoid the GPU.  The arrival was complete with a fake welcome party at Rivera’s home.  Trotsky did not speak Spanish, nor did his wife, so Frida served as an advisor and escort.  Cristina, Frida’s sister, acted as a chauffeur.  Frida also had several of her trusted servants serve her guests.  Frida’s father had the impression that she esteemed Trotsky, as she described him as a companion of Lenin and a man who made the Russian revolution.  Time magazine reported that Natalia had malaria in January 1937 and Rivera had a kidney ailment (Herrera, 1983).  Perhaps these illnesses provided the opportunity for an affair to grow between Frida and Trotsky.  Revenge against Rivera for his affair with Frida’s sister may also have been a catalyst for the affair.

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Trotsky’s secretary Jean van Heijenoort noted that Frida and Trotsky’s relationship was obvious to many around them.  They would meet at Frida’s sister’s home and Trotsky exchanged letters to her through the books he loaned her.  They spoke in English to one another, excluding Trotsky’s wife from the conversation (Zamora, 1991).  Frida attended the Dewey Commission and sat closely with Trotsky as he defended himself against the accusations of the Moscow Trials.  Aside from this, the Riveras and Trotskys spent a lot of time together, doing picnics and excursions.  Trotsky began collecting cacti and horse riding.  Trotsky trusted Rivera, who was one of few people he saw without the company of another.  Trotsky and Frida likely began their affair after the Dewey Commission.  During this time, Frida was reportedly left out of theoretical discussions between Trotsky, Rivera, and the surrealist, Andre Breton.  This may indicate that she was not taken seriously as a socialist or dismissed as a woman.  She said that she didn’t care much for theory and that Trotsky didn’t like it when she smoked.  The affair ended in July 1937 and Trotsky moved out of the house.  He may have felt that the affair might discredit him and it certainly depressed his wife of 35 years.  Frida visited him at the new residents, which again hurt his wife, but Trotsky underplayed the visit in his letter to Natalia (Herrera, 1983).


Trotsky moved outside the city for a time in July 1937.   In recognition of the twenty year anniversary of the Russian revolution and Trotsky’s birthday, Frida gave Trotsky a portrait on November 7, 1937.  The title was Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky- Between the Curtains.  (Zamora, 1991).   Herrera (1983) believed that this portrait was a gift to Trotsky after the affair and represented a shift in Frida’s vision of herself.  The painting is seductive, mature, and confident.  In it, she is depicted in a butterfly printed robe.  She also completed a painting called I belong to my owner which depicts a rose and dry prickly flowers.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this painting may also represent the affair and how despite her flings, Diego owned her sexuality.  The affair with Trotsky marked a new period in her life, wherein she became more independent as an artist.  In 1938, coincidentally the year that the 4th International was founded, Frida came into her own as an artist.  She made her first significant art sales, selling four paintings for $200 each.  Upon making the sale, she said that she was happy that she could travel without Diego’s support.  In 1939, she traveled alone to New York for her first exhibition and began an affair with the photographer Nickolas Muray.  She also traveled to France, where she stayed with Andre Breton and became involved in the surrealist art community.  Despite the fact that she and Trotsky were no longer a couple and she never officially joined the 4th International, Frida attended Trotskyist meetings in Paris as a representative from Mexico.   She also had an affair with an unknown French Trotskyist.  It is also during her time in Paris that she met Trotsky’s future assassin, Raul Mercador (Herrera, 1983).

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Frida’s aversion to Trotskyism may have been more practical than political.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this is because the Trotskyist movement in Mexico was small, poor, and active in trade unions.  No one joined it unless committed to working for it full time.  Rivera joined the movement, but this may have actually strained his relationship with Trotsky.  There are several accounts of how Trotsky and Rivera had a falling out.  According to an account from Alfred Bildner, who stayed with Frida when she was hosting Trotsky and did some translation work for him, Diego and Frida had violent arguments with Trotsky in 1939, as they had adopted Stalinism.  Trotsky left their residence and moved a few blocks away (Bildner, 2004).   In another account, Rivera worked with Trotsky and in February 1938 signed a manifesto for the creation of an International Federation of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, for the purpose of resisting Stalinist domination of the arts.  In this version of the history, the political disagreements between Rivera and Trotsky were over the 1940 presidential election in Mexico.  Rivera supported Juan Almazon, a right wing candidate backed by Mexican fascists.  Rivera denounced Cardenas as an accomplice to Stalinists, which upset Trotsky, who did not want to antagonize the president who had offered him asylum.  The argument caused Trotsky to move out.  Yet, Trotsky described Rivera as fair minded and artistically genius, despite his political shortcomings (Tuck, 2008).  In Herrera’s (1983) version of their falling out, Trotsky sent a private letter to Frida asking for her help.  He said that Rivera was upset with him because he had suggested that he focus on his art rather than politics.  Trotsky had suggested this because Rivera wanted more responsibilities as an organizer, but did not answer letters or other mundane responsibilities needed in party life.  In the letter to Frida, he asked her for help in mending the relationship as he felt that Diego was an important part of the movement.  It is plausible that Rivera, who had a big personality and ego was personally offended by Trotsky’s lack of faith in his political abilities.  Whatever the case, Rivera’s relationship with Trotsky deteriorated.  He even gave Trotsky a sugar skull with Stalin’s name on it.

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Rivera and Frida’s marriage deteriorated not long after.  In November 1939, the two of them divorced.  This may have been due to Frida’s affair with Muray or any number of their affairs.  Frida returned to Mexico, painted prolifically, but also suffered from bad health.  In May 1940, Trotsky was attacked in an attempted assassination.  Following the attack, Rivera fled the country with the help of some friends, moving to San Fransisco.  On August 21, 1940, Trotsky was assassinated and Frida spent two days in jail with her sister Cristina.  They were believed to be suspects in his assassination.  Indeed, Frida had met Raul Mercader twice, but police did not find evidence of her involvement in the assassination (Herrera, 1983).  Following the assassination, she phoned Diego and said, “They killed old Trotsky this morning,” she cried. “Estupido! It’s your fault that they killed him. Why did you bring him?”  (Rogers, 2014)   A month later, Frida traveled to San Fransisco for medical treatment.  She later moved to New York and began an affair with a twenty five year old art dealer named Heinz Berggruen.  The two spent two months living together in a hotel.  Meanwhile, Diego Rivera proposed to Frida several times, wanting to remarry her.  In December 1940, she married him and returned to Mexico, as both of them had been cleared as suspects in the assassination of Leon Trotsky (Herrera, 1983).


Despite her initial upset over Trotsky’s death, Frida became increasingly pro-Soviet as World War II progressed.  At the same time, Stalinists shunned Rivera for his previous association with Trotsky.  Rivera tried numerous times to rejoin the Communist Party.  He applied again with Frida in 1948.  Frida was accepted and Rivera was rejected.  Rivera remained embittered against Trotsky and even asked Frida to sign her membership paperwork with a pen she had given Trotsky.  Frida refused to do this.  In her diary, she said that denouncing Trotsky was unthinkable, but she denounced him publicly anyway.  She called him a coward and a thief.  Diego even boasted that he only invited Trotsky to Mexico so he could be assassinated (Herrera, 1983).   Rivera’s connection to the assassination as been a matter of some controversy.  Rivera was friends with David Siqueiros, a fellow muralist who attempted to kill Trotksy in 1940.  It is also suspicious that Diego Rivera went into hiding following the attack.  He framed it as though he feared for his own life.  Rivera may have been a collaborator with the United States, according to research by Professor William Chase of Pittsburgh University.  According to FBI and State Department documents, while identifying as a Trotskyist, Rivera provided the United States with lists of communists and communist activities.   It is unknown if Diego actually collaborated with the FBI, but it is known that he was wire tapped by them while he was staying in San Francisco (Davidson, 1993).   In any event, the shadow of suspicion hangs over Diego Rivera, though Frida has not been identified with historians as complicit in Trotsky’s murder.


The remaining years of Frida’s life were marked with profound illness and a stronger association with communism.  Frida began teaching art and leftist theory to students of the Ministry of Public Education’s School of Painting and Sculpture.  She was said to treat her students as equal and recommend Marxist texts to them.  Some of her students were called Fridos and went on to found the Young Revolutionary Artists.  In 1944, her health continued to erode and she was diagnosed with syphilis.  In 1945, she wore a variety of medical corsets and could not sit down or lay down in them.  In 1950, she spent a year in the hospital.  As she grew more closely connected to the Communist Party, her art style changed.  She began painting still lifes and adopting realism.  She said she wanted her art to be useful and even boasted that she was a better communist than Diego, as she had been in the party longer and always paid her dues (Herrera, 1983).   In 1953, Frida had her first solo exhibition in Mexico, but was so sick that she had to be taken there in her bed.  Her leg was amputated later that year, which brought her tremendous despair.  She attempted suicide numerous times after her amputation.  Diego continued to have affairs with other women, including Raquel Tibol, whom Frida tried to kiss when she visited her bed.  Tibol was shocked enough to push Frida away.  At the same time, she developed a very close relationship with her nurse, Judith Ferreto.  Judith would sleep in her room, lay beside her in bed, hold her cigarettes for her, and sing her to sleep.  While the relationship may not have been sexual, it was one of her closest relationships during the time period, since her mental health, suicide attempts, pain, anger, and abuse of others alienated her loved ones (Herrera, 1983).   Frida created a painting called Marxism will give health to the sick, which was one of her last paintings and never fully completed.  The painting depicts her in her leather corset, near two large hands, an image of Karl Marx, a dove, and a hand around the neck of Uncle Sam.  Towards the end of her life, she tried to be more overt in the political content of her paintings.  The painting is meant to represent the healing power of Marxism, as she is holding a red book instead of crutches and healed by two large hands.  The original title of the painting was Peace on Earth so the Marxist Science may Save the Sick and Those Oppressed by Criminal Yankee Capitalism.   (Marxism will give health to the sick, n.d.).  Frida also painted a portrait of Joseph Stalin and became distraught when he died in 1953.  On July 2nd 1954, Frida attended a protest of 10,000 people against the U.S. supported coup against Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala.  Diego pushed her in her wheelchair through the crowd, where for four hours, she shouted “Yankee assassins, get out!”  She said that she wanted three things in life: Diego, to be a communist, and to paint.  The demonstration taxed her health and she died on July 13th (Herrera, 1983).

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When Kahlo died, her coffin was covered with a red flag with a hammer and sickle imposed on a star (Helland, 1992).  The International was sung at her funeral along with The Young Guard, the song played at Lenin’s funeral (Herrera, 1983).   Her life and death leave many questions.  She is remembered for her femininity, but she also wore her hair short and dressed up in suits and the clothes of workers.  After her divorce with Rivera and after he cheated on her with her sister, she cropped her hair (Herrera, 1983).  At the same time, her masculinity should not be attributed simply to the emotional states caused by Rivera.  After all, she had been remembered as a tomboyish child.  She was a girl who wanted to be a doctor and who enjoyed politics and her father’s company.  She wore men’s clothes in a 1926 family photo.  Thus, her gender expression was more than shadow puppetry in the darkness Diego created in her life.  While she is more well known for her affairs with men, she also loved women.   In her diary she wrote a love letter to the painter Jacqueline Lambda (Haynes, 2006).   Frida also had relationships with actresses Dolores del Rio and Paulette Goddard.  Frida flirted with Georgia O’Keefe at Stieglitz’s gallery.  Diego Rivera reportedly supported Frida’s affairs with women, but felt threatened by those with men.  Garber (2000) suggests that this may have been because he was turned on by the idea of two women together or because he was insecure that he was twenty years older than her and could not satisfy her sexual appetite.  Whatever the case, her sexuality is always understood in the context of men.  In her own words she said, “Men are kings.  They direct the world (Herrera, 1983, p. 250).”  Trotsky and Rivera were certainly give more attention in this research.  They were masters of the world of politics and art.  Further, Frida’s relationships with women are less known.  They are left out of the narrative of her life for lack of information.  After Frida died, her friends edited and destroyed parts of her diaries.  It is possible that this aspect of her life was destroyed or edited out of history or because of biphobia and homophobia, for decades it was underplayed and under researched.  Beyond sexuality and gender, is her troublesome association with Stalinism and her affair with Trotsky.  She denounced a man who she both slept with and offered safety to.  While it seems that her political decisions were certainly connected to Diego, she was a communist before she met him and it insults her intelligence to suppose that she blindly followed him politically.  Surely he influenced her political life, but she had enough agency to declare herself a better communist and paint Stalin from her deathbed.

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Haynes (2016) noted that one theme from Frida’s life was duality, which is seen in both her art and her life.  An example in her art is the painting, The Two Fridas wherein she depicts two versions of herself, each sharing a heart.  They are dressed differently and in different poses to represent her European identity and the other her Mexican identity, as she was the daughter of a German/Hungarian Jew and a part Native American catholic mother.  The image also represents her emotional side and rational side.  Frida’s gender expression and sexuality may also be described as “in between.”  While her clothes are often feminine dresses, her unibrow, facial hair, and stern expression may be seen as masculine.  As a young adult, she wore suits and after a split with Rivera, she cropped her hair and resumed wearing suits (Haynes, 2016).  Frida actually depicted herself as more masculine during the 1940s, darkening her mustache in portraits of that era (Garber, 2000).  Another duality is her bisexuality, or betweenness in regard to her attraction to men and women.  Bisexual themes have been interpreted in Frida’s art.  For instance, Two Nudes in the Forest, depicts two naked women in the forest.  A darker skinned woman has her hand on the neck of a lighter skinned woman, as a monkey watches from the forest.   The painting was created for Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican actress, around the time she was going through a divorce with Rivera (Collins, 2013).  Delores Del Rio, like many of the women in Frida’s life, was powerful, beautiful, non-conventional, and pioneering.  She was the first Latina actress to become famous in Hollywood, though less political than many of Frida’s other love interests.  Josephine Baker was another love interest, and again, a pioneering woman.  She was the first Black woman to become a world famous entertainer.  She had communist sympathies and performed in Cuba on the 7th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and later in Albania and Yugoslavia.  She also was a leader in the NAACP and an organizer in the Civil Rights movement.  Certainly, Baker more politically interesting and historically important than Diego Rivera.  But, specific details regarding their relationship is harder to find, likely owing to the fact that they lived in a world that was hostile to same sex relationships.  Finally, in a way, Frida’s relationship to Diego might be seen as a relationship between two gender non-conforming individuals. Diego Rivera was woman-like in Frida’s eyes.  He was a large man and Frida said that he would have been welcome on the island of Lesbos.  She said she loved his large breasts and pink, oversized underwear, which he wore due to his enormous girth (Herrera, 1983).

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Politically, Frida’s life was full of duality.  Not only was she at varying times pulled between Trotskyism and Stalinism, according to Helland (1992) she was pulled between Marxism and nationalism.  Frida lived in a time where Marxism and Mexican nationalism were both popular.  Mexican nationalism consisted of an idealization of Aztec culture, an interest in Mexican history, mixed with anti-Spanish and anti-imperialism.   Kahlo used Aztec inspired images in her artwork, such as hearts and skeletons.  Unlike Rivera, she did not identify with the internationalism of Trotskyism and did not create as many traditionally socialist styled pieces of art.  Nationalism may have been why she identified with Stalinism.  Many of her paintings critique the United States, such as her Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States, wherein the United States is depicted as highly industrial and robotic, and Mexico is depicted as agricultural and and pre-industrial.  Frida died with an unfinished portrait of Stalin on her easel and near her bed were pictures of Marx, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, and Engels (Helland, 1992).  While she did not overtly call herself a feminist, feminists admire Kahlo because of the themes of female experience in her paintings, such as birth, miscarriage, and unhappiness in love.  Frida might be looked upon as a feminist for her experiences with abortion.  While she later described the incident as a miscarriage, in 1932, she wrote in her diary of a self-induced abortion using quinine.  She also sought a medical abortion due to concerns for her reproductive health after her accident and experienced a miscarriage.  She was denied an abortion, so she sought to self-perform one.  Dr. Pratt informed her that she could have a child and deliver it through c-section.  Interestingly, her abortions have been reframed by historians as miscarriages.  While she is believed to have regret not having children, she may have cultivated this belief in order to conform to social norms of the day and because motherhood was central to Mexican woman identity at the time.  Her poor health may have been used to legitimize this decision.  Abortion was illegal in the United States and Mexico at the time (Zetterman, 2006).  A duality was her longing for reproduction, her love of children, but her inability to have them.  Finally, she is quoted as saying that she detested surrealism as bourgeoisie art, but she also rejected the socialist realism sanctioned by the Soviet Union  (Helland, 1992).  Thus, her art is another duality.  She was embraced by surrealists, but also had elements of realism.  Finally, her art itself contrasts with her politics, as she was a socialist who was deeply interested in herself or own individuality.


Frida Kahlo was a complicated and fascinating person.  The magnetism and mystery that drew people to her in her own time continues to attract audiences to her art and history.  There are so many facets of her life and personality to uncover.  This piece barely explores her political life, faintly reviews her sexual life, and only hints at her gender.  Like others, this research makes the mistake of focusing too heavily on her relationships with men.   Of course, bisexuality does not necessarily mean equal attraction to men and women.  The emphasis on her male relationships is not a problem with Frida’s sexuality or does not in anyway diminish her bisexuality.  Rather, it is a problem with the male focus of society and by extension, historians.  As a bisexual Trotskyist, I was certainly interested in that aspect of her life.   But, this focus runs the risk of creating a narrative that relationships with women or women themselves are unimportant.  Despite these shortcomings, it is my hope that it offers a few tidbits of insight to those who attended our monthly meeting and raises new questions about her.


Sources:

Ankori, G., & A. (2013). Frida Kahlo. London: Reaktion Books.

Bildner, A. (2004). Diego, Frida, and Trotsky. Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies.

 

Collins, A. F. (2013, September 17). Frida Kahlo’s Diary: A Glimpse Inside Her Tortured, Scribble-Happy World. Retrieved April 06, 2017, from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/1995/09/frida-kahlo-diego-rivera-art-diary

 

Davison, Phil. “Diego Rivera’s Dirty Little Secret.” Independent 25 Nov. 1993

 

DeMirjyn, M. (2011). “The Queer Filming of Frida”: Creating a Cinematic Latina Lesbian Icon. Praxis, 23(1).

 

Easterling, S. (2013, March). Mexico’s revolution 1910–1920. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://isreview.org/issue/74/mexicos-revolution-1910-1920

 

Haynes, A. (2006). Frida Kahlo: An Artist’In Between’. In Conference Proceedings–Thinking Gender–The NEXT generation.

 

Helland, J. (1992). Culture, politics, and identity in the paintings of Frida Kahlo. The expanding discourse: Feminism and art history, 397-408.

 

Herrera, H. (1983). Frida, a biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Perennial.

 

Garber, M. B. (2000). Bisexuality and the eroticism of everyday life. New York: Routledge.

 

Mataev, O. (n.d.). Frida Kahlo Biography. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.abcgallery.com/K/kahlo/kahlobio.html

 

“Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick – by Frida Kahlo.” Frida Kahlo.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. <http://www.fridakahlo.org/marxism-will-give-health-to-the-sick.jsp&gt;

 

Morrison, J., & Pietras, J. (2010). Frida Kahlo. New York: Chelsea House.

 

Motian-Meadows, M. (n.d.). Kahlo As Artist, Woman, Rebel. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/2782

 

Rogers, L. (2014, April 30). Frida’s Red Hot Lover. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://lisawallerrogers.com/2009/06/10/fridas-red-hot-lover/

 

Tuck, J. (2008, October). Rebel without a pause: the tempestuous life of Diego Rivera. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/306-rebel-without-a-pause-the-tempestuous-life-of-diego-rivera

 

Two Nudes in the Forest. (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.fridakahlo.org/two-nudes-in-the-forest.jsp

 

Zamora, M. (1991). Frida Kahlo: the brush of anguish. Tokyo: Libroport.

 

Zetterman, E. (2006). Frida Kahlo’s abortions: With reflections from a gender perspective on sexual education in Mexico. Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, 75(4), 230-243.

 

The March for Science Under the Anti-Capitalist Microscope

 

The March for Science Under the Anti-Capitalist Microscope

The title of this blog post, unlike the signs at the March for Science, is a little uninspired.  To tell you the truth, I regret that did not attend the March for Science this past Saturday.  This is not because I am against science, but because I had worked the night shift the night before and didn’t want to short change my sleep.  I support the march and was glad to see that Duluth had a great turnout.  It was wonderful that individuals who do not normally attend marches went to the science march. I was also glad to see that there was a great turnout across the country.  Science is important for society and should be defended.  The fact that it was defended with a march is important, since it normalizes protest which is an essential organizing tool as it is the public, mass, visible sharing of ideas and demands.  Thus, I am elated that another protest has happened and that it was attended by hundreds of thousands of people.  However, I couldn’t help but notice that the media treated the science march very differently than the women’s march.  I think that this is because science is less of a threat to the functioning of capitalism than the liberation of women.



To be fair, I am very biased.  And, to be fair, this isn’t a very scientific analysis of the issue.  Nevertheless, I noted very positive media coverage of the science march.  For instance, an article in Forbes described the march as happy, delightful, and funny.  Various articles highlighted fun costumes and signs.  Fortune also called it fun and a “celeprotest” with signs that were more clever than other protests.  Many articles pointed out that it was non-partisan, though certainly a reaction to the Trump administration.  The coverage discussed the large crowds and hearty, fun protesters who braved the rain.  Now, there was certainly positive coverage of the Women’s March, but there was also negative coverage about the signs left behind, the lack of diversity, problematic pussy hats, partisanship, etc.  There was some critique from fellow scientists regarding the march, but this seemed centered upon the idea that science should be neutral and apolitical.  There was a lot less criticism about the lack of diversity or that the science march was a display of white privilege.  The science march was not called out in the same way for not supporting Black Lives Matter.  The lack of scrutiny worries me, as certainly the March for Science could have been more diverse and certainly science has played a role in the oppression of various groups in society.  This is not to let white feminism off the hook, but to note that many social movements struggle with their role in oppression.  To me, the glowing media coverage represents the fact that science does not represent a real threat to capitalism or the status quo.  At the same time, the Women’s March was covered more positively than Black Lives Matter and the Occupy Movement.  Black Lives Matter calls into question police authority, the entire criminal justice system, the state’s right to kill, and racism.  In reaction, politicians have scrambled to limit the right to protests that block traffic and have sought to impose fees on protesters.  The Occupy Movement called into question banking, finance, social inequality, the right to occupy public space.  The media portrayed protesters as frivolous, unruly, and even dirty.  While the BDS movement does not receive as much media coverage, Democratic and Republican senators in Minnesota worked together to pass restrictions against offering contracts to vendors who boycott Israel.  These movements are/were denigrated because they are very direct in their threat to the existing order.

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The reason why I don’t think that science is a direct threat to capitalism is that, on some level, capitalism needs science to operate.  While the capitalist economy is irrational in its destruction of the planet, focus on profits over human needs, and tendency towards crisis, it is very rational in other aspects.  The process of extracting profit from labor is pretty rational.  It is no wonder that the art of extracting more profit from labor was called “scientific management.”   Frederick Taylor realized that labor output could be treated scientifically.  Capitalism also seeks to generate more profits by increasing production.  Increasing production often requires the use of technology, again, a very rational aspect of capitalism.  Capitalism also requires wars, as this destroys competition, opens up new markets, and defends a country’s access to raw materials and cheap labor abroad.  Science is necessary for the creation of more powerful machines and weapons.  Research and development was actually been an all time high last November, as $499 billion was spent on R&D in the U.S. in 20015 (numbers released 2016).  Over half of that money went to defense alone.  Finally, where would capitalism be without science?  There would have been no industrial revolution and no subsequent imperialist conquest of the globe.  This does not make science bad, but, it should illustrate that science is actually pretty useful to capitalism.

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Despite the many ways that science serves capitalism, it remains controversial in society.  It seems odd that religiosity, irrationality, alternative facts, spirituality, etc. have any appeal in this system.  Why does this conflict arise?  Why are things like evolution and climate change at all controversial?  There are many reasons for this.  For one, Karl Marx observed that nothing is sacred in capitalism.  For instance, children are nothing more than future workers and soldiers.  If not for the efforts of the labor movement, the childhood enjoyed by many American children today would not exist at all.  A woman’s womb is a machine to produce more workers and soldiers.  A family is useful inasmuch as it reproduces labor and controls women’s sexuality and unpaid labor, but there is nothing good or virtuous about the family itself in the context of capitalism.  Capitalism actually stole holidays or holy days from the masses in the interest of creating a disciplined workforce with a reliable, year round, schedule.  I am sure many readers who have worked on Christmas or Thanksgiving can understand how nothing is sacred in the economy.  Time off is treated as a privilege.  Work divides families.  It keeps people away from their children and makes them decide whether to take an unpaid day off work to see a school concert or attend to a child’s illness or face the economic consequence.  In many ways, it would serve capitalism better if workers were nihilists with no love of their family, no joy in friendship and romance, no faith in religion, and no belief in any liberating ideology.  Yet, no only does religion persist, it often exists at odds with science.  Why?


Both science and religion play important roles in society.  Karl Marx famously called religion the opiate of the masses.  In Marx’s time, opium caused two wars between Western countries and China, meaning that like opium, religion is used by those with power to cause division and conflict in society.  At the same time, opium was used to soothe pain.  Religion therefore soothes the pains wrought by capitalist society by creating community and offering hope of a better world.  The first function of religion is particularly important in capitalism.  While science is generally pretty useful to capitalism, it can sometimes be pesky.  Environmental science is pretty irksome.  Climate change is very nettlesome.  Rabid religiosity that is anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-environment, anti-trans, etc. is wonderfully divisive.  It allows capitalism to chug along without unified opposition to the pillage of the planet.  It allows capitalism to chug along as workers do not recognize their common oppressions and blame social problems on liberal teachers, feminists, gays and lesbians, atheists, or other religions.  Religion is a useful tool in capitalism’s toolbox.  And, since most religious folks focus their dismay about science to decry climate science or evolution rather than say, nuclear physics or science used in the interest of the U.S. war machine, capitalism can allow some degree of anti-science sentiments.

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(I am not sure if this is a photo of a real event or fake, mockery of an anti-science protest)

Besides the fact that anti-science is helpful in dividing people and thwarting environmentalism, because of its role in capitalism, science has been used to oppress people.  Social Darwinism and scientific racism were used to justify the exploitation and colonization of people of color.  Eugenics used notions about genetics to justify segregation, forced sterilization, forced abortions, institutionalization, and euthanasia.   The knowledge and experiences of women, Native Americans, African Americans, poor people, immigrants, and other oppressed groups is routinely ignored as emotional, irrational, backwards, or foolish.  Science hasn’t been used in kind ways.  Psychologists have classified some groups as deviant or sick.  Until 2012, being transgender was considered a mental illness.  Today, only gender dysphoria is listed as an illness.  Homosexuality was viewed as a mental illness until 1973.  Members of those groups may feel a certain antagonism to the science that has classified them as sick.  African American men were lied to and denied treatment for syphilis so that the progression of the disease could be understood in the famous Tuskegee syphilis experiment.  Many marginalized groups such as racial minorities, prisoners, and the mentally ill, have been experimented upon.  In the 1800s, medical institutions arose and monopolized professions and knowledge that was once more democratically available.   If there is some hostility towards science, it is quite understandable considering this history.


To return to the March for Science, these sentiments should in no way diminish the importance of this march.  Scientists need to march.  They need to stand up for science that promotes social justice.  Science is not neutral.  It is very political.  Neutrality is political.  A better world is possible and science can help us achieve a better world.  Just as science has been a tool of capitalists, it can be a tool of the masses.  The sentiment of the march was that science should be used for creating a greener, safer, healthier, easier life for everyone.  To this end, I hope that scientists and supporters of science acknowledge the dark aspects of science’s role in capitalism.  I hope that oppressed groups can feel welcomed by future events and that their experiences and knowledge contribute to a full understanding of our world.  If “scienceism” emerges as a social movement, I hope that it is called to task in the same way that the Women’s March and feminist movement has.  I also hope that protest continues to be viewed as a legitimate response to social problems.  At the same time, I do not think that science itself will liberate us.  It would be helpful if everyone believed in climate change, as this would shift the discourse from “is it real” to “what can be done?”  However, the “what can be done” that is promoted by mainstream institutions will always serve capitalism.  It will never take us beyond market and individual solutions.  We could collectively buy electric cars or green lightbulbs.  We can compost and recycle as the world continues on its path towards the next mass extinction.  The warm response to the protest indicates to me that the powers that be are not particularly afraid of science.  They are mildly afraid of millions of women in pussy hats and extremely afraid of militant Black people.  Protests should be fun.  There should be snappy slogans.  I am up for whatever it takes to make it appealing and normal to the broadest and most diverse segments of society.  This should be done with the hope of pushing for bigger, better, more intersectional, more revolutionary actions.  In the end, the goal of any social movement should be to create fear of the unyielding power of the masses.   This may or may not involve hats.

Image result for pussy hat at science march

photo taken from: https://longreads.com/2017/04/25/pussy-hats-and-brain-hats-the-revolution-will-be-handmade/

 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/haroldstark/2017/04/23/the-march-for-science-in-dc-and-around-the-world/#32eed3395d65http://fortune.com/2017/04/24/science-march-worked/http://reason.com/blog/2017/04/24/march-for-science-rd-funding-is-not-fall

March Activist Notes

March Activist Notes

H. Bradford

3/31/17

March was another busy month!  I can’t believe that it is already over.  Now, I didn’t attend every event that happened this month.  That would be impossible.  I also didn’t attend every event that I could have attended this month.  That would require a revolutionary zeal that I simply don’t possess.  I took time to bird watch, paint bird houses, edit a book I have been working on, and attend the ballet.  I also took walks, wasted time, and socialized.  So, this sample is not all of the events that happened in the Northland this month.  It is not even the most important events that happened this month!  It is a sample of a few things that transpired so that those who missed them can get an idea of what they missed out on.

Berta Vive in Duluth: March 5th

Berta Caceres was assassinated on March 2nd, 2016.  She was an indigenous environmental activist who stood up against the neoliberal plot to build a hydroelectric dam in Rio Blanco, Honduras.   Following the 2009 coup which Hilary Clinton’s state department legitimized if not supported, violence against activists has increased.  Caceres, a critic of Clinton, was one of many victims of this violence.  Witness for Peace is taking a delegation to Honduras this spring, so in honor of Berta, but also to promote the upcoming trip, they hosted this event.  The event featured a panel of previous Witness for Peace delegates.  This was a great way to start International Women’s Day week, since it connected the struggles of women in other countries to our own brutal foreign policy.  Feminism should be for everyone, not just American women.  Our foreign policy is anathema to feminism.

Berta Caceres 2015 Goldman Environmental Award Recipient


International Women’s Day: March 8th

On March 8th, the Feminist Justice League hosted a 78 minute symbolic strike in solidarity with International Women’s Day events around the world.  The strike was meant to highlight the wage gap between men and women.  If one compares the median income of a man versus a woman, women make about 80% of the income that men make on average in a year (80% is the newest statistic, but 78 is still often quoted).   There are many reasons for this.  For one, women are not valued, so their labor is less valued.  Careers which attract women tend to be lower paid and less esteemed.  Because the United States is one of the few countries in the world which does not provide paid maternity leave, women must leave the labor force when they have children.  This also diminishes wages.   Women are more likely to do unpaid labor and care for children as single parents.  This too, diminishes their economic power.   It was extremely cold and windy on March 8th, but a few dozen intrepid protestors braved the cold for the whole 78 minutes.  At various intervals, we banged on a pot and announced the wage gap between various racial minorities and white men.  The banging on the pot was met with “boos!” as we expressed our outrage over the racist, ageist, and sexist wage gap.  Black women make about 63% of the median income of white men and Hispanic women make 54%.  Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders make 60% of the income of white men and Native Americans make 58%.  Women over the age of 55 make about 74% of the income of white men the same age.   Wage parity is important since it highlights the economic foundations of sexism (and for that matter racism).   The event was followed by a panel discussion, which explored other facets of labor.  I especially enjoyed when Ariel spoke about sex work and stripping.  She provided a balanced view of the pros and cons of the industry, her struggles and successes as a stripper (especially with stigma), and a call to legitimize all the work women do.    Kristi provided great information about Earned Safe and Sick Time in Duluth and Katie Humphrey spoke about how women benefit from unions.  A great discussion followed.  On April 4th, there will be another wage parity event in Duluth, hosted by AAUW.

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Feminist Frolic:  Labor History Walk + Discussion

Once a month, the Feminist Justice League hosts a feminist frolic, which involves an outdoor activity and a discussion.  This month, Adam was going to present on the labor history of Superior while doing a short walk.   Only three people showed up, so we decided to table the event for a later time.  However, about an hour later, two more people showed up, so I did a presentation of socialist feminism at the Solidarity House.

 


13th Documentary: March 13

Superior Save the Kids hosted a documentary showing of 13th.   I enjoyed that the documentary was dense with history and information, yet easily digestible.  It wove a tight narrative of how the criminal justice system is fundamentally racist.  For instance, African Americans make up 6.5% of our population, but 40% of the prison population.  It is startling to think that there are more prisoners today then there were slaves during the Civil War.   The United States is 5% of the world’s population, but hosts 25% of the world’s prison population.   According to the film, the rise of the prison industry was a way to profit while oppressing racial minorities (and really everyone as we are all to varying degrees oppressed by a system that divides us, threatens us, and profits from our punishment).  To this end, the “scary black man” had to be invented.  Thus, around the turn of the last century,  a narrative that black men were rapists, out of control, and associated with criminality was concocted.  This narrative legitimized the KKK and racist mobs (such as the racist mob which hung Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie in Duluth).  The Civil Rights movement challenged outright violence against and segregation of black people, but violence and segregation have continued through the criminal justice system.  For instance, in 1970, the prison population was about 350,000 people.  Today, there are states with higher prison populations than that number!  By 1980, there were 500,000 people in prison.  The war on drug, which penalized crack cocaine harder than other drugs, as well as cuts to social programs, ushered in an era of explosive prison population growth.  By the mid 1980s, over 700,000 people were imprisoned.  By 1990, the number was over one million.  In 2000, the number reached 2 million.  The Clintons were complicit in this surge, as Bill Clinton wanted to be tough on crime.  Through his Crime Bill and other polices, he supported extra police, the militarization of the police, the construction of extra prisons, mandatory minimum sentences, truth in sentencing (which limits parole), etc.  Hillary called black youth “super preditors.”  I have no illusions with the Democratic party.  But, to be fair, Trump wanted the death penalty for youth.   The movie also pointed out that the mass incarceration of African Americans has resulted in a crisis of leadership or less ability to organize themselves for their own rights.  There was also information about ALEC, for profit prisons, and the movement of individualizing prison through GPS tracking/ankle bracelets.   I had to work that night, so I missed the discussion, but it was a powerful and informative film.  Save the Kids hopes to continue to show films on a monthly basis.  On April 10th, Selma will be shown.

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Bi with (Pizza) Pie:  Trans in Prison- March 20th

Each month, Pandemonium, the local Bi+ group gets together for a presentation on a topic.  This month, Lucas Dietsche led the discussion with a presentation on the challenges that trans individuals face in the criminal justice system.  He gave a very informed and engaging presentation on this topic.   Some of the challenges include getting sent to a prison that misgenders the individual (so typically transwomen end up in men’s prisons or transwomen in men’s prisons), lack of access to hormones or other treatments, sexual assault, solitary confinement, lack of access to gender specific items such as bras, solitary confinement, and use of a legal name rather than preferred name or pronouns.  When writing to trans prisoners, Lucas noted that the writer can not address the envelope or letter to the preferred name of the individual.  The DOC requires that senders must use the legal name of the prisoner.  He also noted that the DOC does not track trans individuals since it does not view them as trans.  Rather, it lists them as their legal or birth sex.  Thus, it is hard to know exactly how many trans individuals are in the prison system as the system renders them invisible.   Lucas also mentioned some examples of trans people in prison or who have been in prison, such as Cece McDonald and Chelsea Manning.   In the future, we would like to host an LGBTQ Letters to Prisoners Event.

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UMD Women and Gender Studies Presentation: March 21st

I was invited to speak at a Feminist Activism and Community Organizing Class at UMD.  This was a great experience.  I spent the hour speaking about how theory informs the organizational tools that I chose to utilize as a feminist.  I spoke about socialist feminism and my focus on building mass movements over electoral politics.   The coolest part was that one of the students had read one of my blog posts prior to my visit to the class!


Socialism and a Slice: March 27

One a month, Socialist Action hosts Socialism and a Slice.  This is an event for local activists to get together and enjoy pizza while discussing current events.  At this meeting, Henry Banks provided us with some information about Uber.  He made a strong argument against Uber on the basis that it is not regulated, it can drive up the price of taxis, and that taxis themselves are often utilized by people of color and low income individuals (contrasted with Uber which has more middle class white appeal).   Taxi companies are more likely to be unionized than Uber and Adam R. pointed out that during Trump’s immigration ban, Uber continued providing ride services while NY taxi drivers were on strike.   Later, Uber undercut taxi drivers who returned to work by turning off surge pricing (that is, when taxi demand goes up, prices tend to go up). This disgusting scabbing should be enough to turn a person off of Uber for good, as it seems that Uber only supports society’s “ubers” and uber profits.  Unfortunately, Duluth’s City Council passed a resolution in support of ride share companies later that night.


Homeless Bill of Rights:

The Homeless Bill of Rights meets each Thursday at 6:30 at Dorothy Day House.  I did not become involved with the group until October, but the organization has been tirelessly and relentlessly working on this issue since 2013.  Finally, after all this time, the Homeless Bill or Rights is finally moving forward.  Two important things happened this month.  Firstly, the Duluth City Council voted that they wanted to move forward or for action to occur related to the bill.  Although this doesn’t mean too much, it does mean that they are looking to see some sort of progress on this issue in the future and are committed to being a part of that.  Another hopeful turn of events is that the Human Rights Commission voted to support the language and eleven points of the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights.  They also support this as an ordinance or a template for moving forward with an ordinance.  This does not mean that this will be the ordinance that the City Council eventually vote on, as this requires further negotiation.  However, it is a nice step forward.

14702377_1240475885996242_1996750558988644607_n  This is a promotional photo taken by the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights Coalition.  The featured individual is an activist who is engaged in this campaign and who has spoken about her experiences (Shareeka), though many individuals had their photos taken to promote the ordinance.

Hotdish Militia:

The Hotdish Militia has continued to meet each Thursday at 5:30.  The big project that the group is working on is a Bowl-a-thon to raise funds in support of local abortion access at the Women’s Health Center.   The funds go directly to local, low income women (or possibly men/trans/gender non-binary) so they can afford an abortion or other reproductive health care.  Right now, we are working on raising funds, but also soliciting businesses for prizes to award the teams.  The bowling event will be held on April 29th.  Thus far, the fundraiser has raised over 2000 dollars.  The goal is $5000.  My own modest team, The Feminist Justice League, has raised over $400.  While we are not the biggest fundraisers, I am proud that we have raised anything at all and thankful to the donors who have supported us!

to support us:  https://bowl.nnaf.org/team/106832

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Doctrine of Discovery:  3/30/17

Peace United Church hosted a showing of the documentary, Doctrine of Discovery.  The film is about how Papal law from the late 1400s has been used to justify the denial of land rights and self-determination of Native Americans.   Catholic law has been the basis of U.S. policy regarding Native Americans throughout our entire history.  Basically, Catholics did not recognize the right of Native Americans to own their land.  Rather, as “heathens” they were viewed as subhumans who benefited from civilization and who did not have rights to the land because they were not making “productive use” of it.  As late as 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg no less) has upheld this archaic worldview.  In fact, this worldview is the foundation of the United State’s very existence.  To recognize the property rights of Native Americans would challenge capitalism and the taken for granted right of white people to inhabit/exploit this land.  The documentary was awesome and I enjoyed the thoughtful discussion that followed.   I also enjoyed learning the origins of some words.  For instance, colonization comes from the word colon.  To colonize is to digest.  What a powerful metaphor.  Europeans digested Native Americans by consuming their land, taking their lives, and destroying their culture.

Trans Visibility Day: 3/31/17


The month ended with a picket in support of Trans Visibility Day.   Trans Visibility Day was founded in 2009 in the United States to promote positive visibility of the trans community (as opposed to Trans Remembrance Day which is focused on violence against and victimization of trans individuals).  Locally, the event was sponsored by the Prism Community, though I believe that other groups such as Trans+ and UWS Gender Equity Resource Center were also involved.  The event which I attended was a picket, but the previous night there was a poster making session and later on Friday evening, Prism sponsored a film showing of National Geographic’s Gender Revolution.  I did not attend the film.  However, the picket was very well attended.  It was great to see so many young people, especially high school students.  I also liked all the glitter and colorful hair!  There was a lot of positive energy!  Many vehicles honked in support of the event and I only noticed a few pedestrians and one driver making rude gestures or comments.   This was my first time attending Trans Visibility Day and it was a great experience.  I also received a few compliments on my sign!

Self Care:

I am not a superhuman, so I did take time for myself.   I had a fabulous time attending the MN Ballet’s Firebird.  What is better than Stravinsky, Russian folk tales, and my favorite kick ass lich Koschei?!  I also visited St. Croix State Park.  I saw two fields of tundra swans near the park.  Today, I did some birding at WI Point and saw many common mergansers.  I also painted some bird houses and worked on editing one of the vampire novels I’ve written.  I wish there were more hours in the day.  I didn’t have enough time to read or pursue other hobbies.   Oh well.  It was a great month and I am looking forward to a fun filled, activist driven April!

Bi+ Identities: Past, Present, and Future

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Bi+ Identities: Past, Present, and Future

H. Bradford

2/16/17

Once a month, Pandemonium meets for “Bi with Pie.”  “Bi with Pie” is a discussion group wherein members discuss issues related to bisexuality and bi+ identities.  In the past, we have discussed our experiences as well as topics such as bisexuality and domestic violence, bi phobia, and the importance of bisexual organizing.  Usually, I try to facilitate the discussion by bringing an essay or article to share.  This month, I wanted to explore various bi+ identities.  Originally, I wanted to compare bisexuality and pan-sexuality, but this expanded to include other bi+ identities.  I am not an expert on sexuality, but it is an area of interest.  Certainly, there may be some errors in my definitions and analysis.  But, the point of our group is to grow and connect as a community.  Part of my own growth as an activist is my own growth through learning and sharing information.  With that said, hopefully this essay provides an overview of some of the identities within the Bi+ community.  It is far from comprehensive, but I think it helps to clarify some differences between identities while revealing a trend in LGBTQ identities.

Bisexuality:

Bisexuality was first coined in 1892 by Charles Gilbert Chaddock in his translation of Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis.  It is in the late 1800s and early 1900s that psychologists sought to classify sexuality.  As such, our modern sexual concepts emerge during this time period.  However, these understandings were medical understandings meant to delineate health from deviance.  For instance, Freud believed that humans were innately bisexual, but that normal individuals would become heterosexual unless exposed to trauma.  Unfortunately, many people still seem to believe that being gay, lesbian, bi, or anything but a cisgender heterosexuality stems from poor parenting or some kind of trauma.  Despite the relative newness of labels such as homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual, there has certainly been a wide array of sexual behavior across cultures and time periods.  Men in Ancient Greece entered relationships with older men as youth, but also married women.  In Ancient Japan, young men formed sexual relationships with older men in the context of Buddhist temples and among samurai warrior culture.  While these cultures aren’t precisely bisexual in the modern sense, and even then, this sexual expression was limited to men, it should at least demonstrate that attraction to more than one gender has deep historical roots.


Although the word has been around since the late 1800s, there are many misconceptions of what it means to be bisexual.  For instance, the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines bisexuality as a sexual or romantic attraction to both sexes.  It also defines it as something which possesses male and female reproductive structures.  This definition is confusing, since it implies that there are only two sexes and does not mention gender at all.  It is also confusing, since it defines bisexual as synonymous with hermaphrodite.  This use of the word might be appropriate in strictly scientific contexts, but it is potentially confusing and offensive in other contexts.  Finally, the definition implies that bisexuals are not attracted to trans or non-binary individuals.


Because of these limitations and misunderstandings in mainstream definitions of bisexuality, bisexual organizations have sought to create their own definitions.  For instance, BiNet defines bisexual as, “A person whose enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction is to other people of various sexes and/or gender identities. Individuals may experience this attraction in differing ways and degrees over their lifetime.”  This definition is notably inclusive of various sexes and gender identities.  Likewise, the American Institute of Bisexuality defines bisexual as, “A bi person has the capacity for romantic and/or sexual attraction to more than one gender.”  Once again, bisexuality is not limited to attraction to both men or women, but more than one gender, which could include many gender identities.  The Human Rights Campaign defines bisexuality as, “A person emotionally, romantically, sexually and relationally attracted to more than one sex and/or gender, though not necessarily simultaneously, in the same way or to the same degree.”  This definition acknowledges that bisexuality does not mean an even proportion of attraction to various gender.  It is clear by these definitions that bisexuals do not define themselves as simply being attracted to men or women, but simply more than one gender.  In fact, there have even been petitions to define bisexuality more accurately on online dictionaries.


While many people believe that the bi in bisexual means attraction to “two” and the two being male and female, according to the American Institute of Bisexuality, it is a scientific word that describes someone who is both heterosexual and homosexual.   Despite the efforts of bisexual activists to define themselves in a way that does not reinforce binary gender identities, the misconception persists that bisexuals are attracted to men and women.   Many bisexual individuals choose to identify as bisexual because it is the most commonly used word for someone who is attracted to more than one gender.  Some use bisexual in combination with other sexual identities.  Some use it because they are indeed only attracted to men or women or their sexuality is not inclusive of all gender identities.  Bisexuality is also used as a generic umbrella term for a variety of sexualities that involve attraction to more than one gender.  Personally, I choose to identify myself as bisexual since it is the most commonly understood word for attraction to more than one gender, it is a word that is associated with social movement organizations and history, and because I believe it is a word that should be reclaimed to be inclusive of all genders.


Although bisexuals have been part of the modern LGBT movement since the 1960s, it is still in many ways very new as a movement.  The bisexual pride flag was not invented until 1998.  BiNET USA, the first nationwide organization for bisexuals, was not founded until 1990.  The first Celebrate Bisexuality Day was on September, 23 1999.  The first books that specifically focused on bisexuality were written in the 1990s.  Thus, bisexuality as a distinct movement and community is only a few decades old.  Although it is new, there are many identities which have arisen since the 1990s.  This can make some bisexuals feel threatened or may raise the question of if bisexuality has become obsolete.  Hopefully, bisexuality is not obsolete as this would cut short its development as an identity and community and undermine its potential in the struggle against heterosexism.  It is my hope that bisexuality will remain relevant by collaborating with and making space for emergent identities.

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Pansexuality:

The 1990s saw a flourishing of bisexual identity with the emergence of national organizations, books, a flag, etc.  It was during this time period that Queer Theory emerged.  In a larger social and historical context, this period also marked the end of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War.  The apparent victory of capitalism, complete with its insidious institutions of globalization and finance, led to a crisis of faith in Marxist or even modernist understandings of society.  This has played a large role in sexuality is presently understood and the emphasis on identities.  Of course, identity politics is important to building movements as it helps individuals develop a sense of self, a sense of unity, and an understanding of their own oppression.  Yet, I think that this also explains the plethora of new sexual identities that have emerged since the 1990s.  We live in a society where politics are very identity driven and individualized.  This is not to discredit anyone’s identity.  It is simply to put these identities into a material and social context.


With that said, while pansexuality may seem like the new kid on the bi+ block, the term has been around since the early 1900s and was coined by Sigmund Freud.  At the time, it was a term that described how sexuality was the basis of all human interactions.  According to an analysis of google data, pansexual began to appear online in about 2007.  The concept arose or at least became more popular with the emergence of genderqueer and non-binary activism.   The word pansexual was invented to specifically include non-binary individuals.  The word pan means “all,” so someone who is pan-sexual could potentially be attracted to all genders or sexes.  There is a slight difference between bisexuality and pansexuality, as bisexuality is often defined as “more than one” and pansexuality as “all.” Thus, pansexuality does come across as more broad and potentially gender blind.  Adopting this label is an attempt to make clear that an individual is attracted to all genders.  Some bisexuals may feel upset with this term, since pansexuality may seem like it is trying to correct a failure of bisexuality to include trans and non-binary genders.  Some bisexuals may feel that this term is not necessary since bisexuality is inclusive or that the label may somehow shame, denigrate, or marginalize bisexuality.  I would hope that pansexuals are not seeking to differentiate themselves in such a manner.  At the same time, everyone should have the autonomy to define themselves how they like.  Pansexuality should be viewed as legitimate and important.


Since bisexuality is misunderstood and pansexuality is not a well-known sexual identity, one benefit of adopting this identity is that it may require an explanation and definition.  This is a way to specifically spotlight the gender component of bisexuality/pansexuality.    Unfortunately, it has added to the misconception that bisexuality is about binary gender and sexes.  Both bisexuals and pansexuals can be attracted to a variety of genders and sexes and both can be allies to these groups.  And, while bisexuals struggle with the rootword “bi” which by default sounds like binary, pansexuals must wrestle with the rootword “all” which to some people implies animals, inanimate objects, children, etc.  Thus, both identities struggle with defining themselves on their own terms.  At the same time, bisexuals have various organizations to advocate for their interests and development as a community.  Pansexuals do not have independent social movement organizations (or at least national or well-known organizations).  As such, they may be dismissed as an internet identity with no presence in the real world.  Pansexuals are lumped together with bisexual organizations.  Because the identity is fairly new, perhaps with time it will grow and separate from the bisexual movement.  For now, both are conjoined.


I am not certain what percentage of the Bi+ community identities as pansexual.  However, in a 2014 Needs Assessment Survey of the Bisexual, Fluid, and Pansexual Community of L.A., 26% of the respondents identified as pansexual.  61.8% identified as bisexual and 36% identified as queer.  Thus, pansexual was the third most prominent identity in the survey, consisting of over a quarter of respondents.  Despite the lack of pansexual specific publications and institutions, some celebrities have come out as pansexual such as the feminist sex educator, Laci Green, rapper Angel Haze, and Miley Cyrus.   The pansexual flag was invented in 2010.  The pink represents women, the blue stripe represents men, and the yellow stripe represents non-binary gender.   In conclusion, pansexuality as a distinct identity is much younger than bisexuality, but is quickly becoming a popular segment of the Bi+ community.   While pansexuality is similar to bisexuality, it emphasizes gender over sexuality.  It remains to be seen if pansexuality will separate from bisexuality and form an autonomous movement with its own organizations.  I suppose this depends upon how well both groups collaborate and identify common needs and demands.  Interestingly, the Bi+ group that I am a part of is called Pandemonium, which puts more emphasis on “pan” than “bi” identity.  An effective Bi+ organization should ensure that pansexuals feel like an equal partner in the struggle against heterosexism. 2000px-pansexuality_flag-svg

Fluid:

Another identity that may fit in the Bi+ umbrella is fluid.  Of course, since fluid is fluid, it may not fit from time to time.  I suppose how it fits in would be up to the individual and how that person wants to relate to the Bi+ umbrella.  A fluid individual is someone who may be attracted to multiple genders or may be attracted to one gender.  Someone who is fluid may reject labels.  Their sexuality may involve attraction to multiple genders at once, or a single gender at one time.   24% of the respondents to the 2014 Needs Assessment Survey of the Bisexual, Fluid, and Pansexual Community of L.A. identified as fluid, which made it the fourth most common response.  To those who identify as fluid, they may feel as though bisexuality or other labels do not adequately describe the variability in their sexuality.  Another word for fluid sexuality is abrosexuality.  Though, abrosexuality may mean rapidly changing, so I am not certain that it is perfectly synonymous with simply being fluid.  Most bisexuals and pansexuals likely recognize that sexuality is to some degree fluid.  It would be rare to find a bisexual person who is always exactly 33.3% attracted to men, 33.3% attracted to women, and 33.3% attracted to non-binary individuals without change or deviation.  However, identifying as fluid makes it very clear that sexuality is always changing and evolving. Abrosexual Pride Flag: Abrosexuality is defined as being fluid in sexuality. This means that a sexuality changes very often. This is different from novosexuality because abrosexuals can usually tell what sexuality they are at that moment.

Queer:

Queer is often used as catchall term for anyone who is not cisgender or heterosexual, so it is a term that is applied both to sexuality and gender.  Thus, it is commonly used to describe any sexual and gender minority or denotes any identity that is not heterosexual.  Importantly, it should not be applied to people who don’t self-identity as queer, as the word has historically been used negatively against sexual or gender minorities.  The word is multifaceted, so some individuals adopt the word to express their identity as someone who is attracted to men, women, trans, or non-binary individuals. The word is also employed to express that an individual is against the status quo or is a radical or revolutionary sexual or gender minority who is looking to challenge oppressive social norms and systems.


Although queer was once a derogatory word used against sexual or gender minorities, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, activists sought to reclaim the word queer.  An early example of the popularization of the word queer is Queer Nation, an organization that was founded in 1990, which used direct action, marches, education campaigns, and protest to challenge homophobia, violence, and promote LGBTQ visibility.  Queer Nation came out of ACT-UP, an group which used similar tactics to draw attention to the AIDS crisis during the 1980s.  The militancy of ACT-UP was in response to government inaction in response to AIDS and the deaths of thousands of people from the disease.  By 2000, almost 450,000 people in the United States had died of AIDS, though the rates of infection and death had decreased since the mid-1990s.  Because of this history, the word queer has been associated with LGBTQ militancy, though today, many mainstream organizations have adopted this word.


 

Polysexual:

There are many other sexuality within the bi+ umbrella.   Another identity is polysexual.  Poly means many.  Thus, a person who identifies as polysexual may be attracted to many genders but not all genders.   This definition implies that there are some genders which a polysexual is not attracted to or potentially attracted to.  A challenge that polysexuals might face is that “poly” may sound like polyamorous.  Thus, they might be mistaken for polyamorous, or non-monogamous.  As you can see, each identity has some challenges on account of the root word.  Finally, polysexual is much more obscure than pansexual and bisexual, so it may require more explanation or confusion.  I am uncertain of the history of exact history of polysexuality, but judging by the historical trend of other identities, I imagine it was first articulated in the late 2000s.  There are few online resources related to this identity, but it seemed worth mentioning as it relates closely to pansexuality. pride-flag-polysexual

Skoliosexual:

In a similar vein to polysexual, there are some people who are only attracted to non-binary identified individuals.  These are skoliosexuals.  Skoliosexuality is not very well known.  I wasn’t even 100% sure which flag represented this sexual identity or if this identity had its own flag.  The prefix “skolio” may refer to the Greek word for bent, such as scoliosis, a curve of the spine.  The challenge of this sexuality is that it is not well known, it sounds like a spinal deformity, and individuals may be accused of fetishizing gender non-conforming people.  The history of this sexuality is unknown, though it may have appeared on the internet after 2010. 31196b3d048861504b6f04638edb70d8

Other Labels:

Omnisexual, Ambisexual, and Trisexual are other varieties of bi+ identities which I found online.  Of these, omnisexual is the most commonly referenced online.  Omnisexual seems to be used as a synonym for pansexual.  Ambisexual and Trisexual appear to be rather obscure labels at this moment of time.  While there may be individuals who identify as these labels, there are few resources regarding what the identity entails.   There are more common labels such as heteroflexible, homoflexible, and bi-curious, but it is beyond the scope of this particular essay to explore all of these labels.  As such, this essay provides an overview of some but not all Bi+ identities.   The big idea is that there are many ways to describe and experience attraction to more than one or multiple genders. Image result for bisexual organizing


Why So Many Labels?

A big question that a person may have after reading this essay is why are there so many labels?  This essay doesn’t even offer a comprehensive list of possible identities within the bi+ community!  I think that there are several reasons why there are so many labels.  First of all, there are some “old school” labels.  These came about in the late 1800s by scientists and medical professionals.  Labels like homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual were coined in the late 1800s.  There are many reasons for this.  Firstly, the mid 1800s saw the emergence of powerful medical institutions which replaced folk understandings of human bodies and health.  This time period also saw the emergence of new disciplines of understanding and organizing knowledge, such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology.  The esteemed position of scientific knowledge over religious or folk knowledge was not new, but it was accelerated by the industrial revolution, the subsequent growth of urban centers, and the global expansion of capitalism.  This trifecta of conditions called for new ways of studying human beings and articulating deviance/difference for better control of colonies and workers.  For instance, scientific racism emerged in this time period as a way to classify some humans as lesser.  This justified colonization projects and the exploitation of these people.  The veneer of science was used to define deviant from “normal” sexuality for the purpose of controlling the reproduction of workers, pitting some workers against others, and controlling workers themselves by ensuring the unequal position of some groups within the labor force and household.  Therefore, these original labels for sexuality were meant to control and divide people.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that scientific racism and sexual labels emerged during the same time time period.  There was a fear of demographic crisis.  Population is a resource within capitalism.  Anything that potentially threatens reproduction is automatically suspect.


While different words and labels were adopted and rejected over history, there seems to be a real flourishing of identities since the 1990s.  These labels are not coming from scientific institutions, but individuals and activists who want to define themselves.  The biggest boon in this process seems to have been reclaiming the word queer in the early 1990s.   This came out of militant LGBTQ organizing during the 1980s, which itself stood on the shoulders of the LGBT movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  Queer was adopted by activists themselves, but entered academia through queer theory.   Of course, the academia of the 1990s was somewhat demoralized by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the perceived failure Marxism.  Thus, it seems to me that LGBT theory and analysis has been very centered upon the use of language and the development of identity, as academia has been influenced by post-modernism and post-structuralism.    I find nothing wrong with exploring language, identity, or thought.  I also find nothing wrong with deconstructing gender and sexuality.  These things should be deconstructed.  The status quo should be challenged and social movements must promote new understandings.  But, I also think that larger economic forces should ground this analysis.


With that said, new identities have developed because identity is a focal point of understanding LGBTQ issues.  Identity is important to organizing, but it is a double edged sword because it can be atomizing, dividing, and self-focused.  The emergence of so many new identities since the mid to late 2000s can be attributed to social media and the increased ability of individuals to develop a sense of self through the internet.  It can also be attributed to American hyper individualism.   This is not to say that the emergence of new identities is wrong or bad.  It is simply to argue that we live in a society which values individuality (inasmuch as it can be subverted for consumer interests or as a distraction from class consciousness).  At the same time, these identities are subversive, since they do challenge heterosexism.  This may sound contradictory, but I am simply arguing that a society that allows us to define ourselves through thousands of styles of shoes, clothes, music, and food choices also creates the space for us to define ourselves through thousands of labels for sexuality.  And, to add to this, there truly ARE thousands of ways to express sexuality and gender.  Finally, there are more labels because there is increased social space to explore gender and sexuality.  Victories in the realm of marriage equality and trans bathroom access and trans acceptance (despite recent setbacks) create more space for individuals to think about and express gender and sexual identity.  It is my prediction that many more sexual identities will emerge.  That there will be many more new flags.  I think that this is because people are seeking to define themselves and social media provides a platform for connection and identity creation.  There is nothing wrong with this.  The question isn’t a matter of right or wrong or what identities should exist or should not exist.  It is a matter of organizing to fight heterosexism.  To that end, I believe that uniting towards common goals, articulating common interests, identifying economic and structural forces, mobilizing in real time and physical spaces, and building a collective movement that consists of affirmed individuals will further the cause of bi+ individuals as we move towards the future.

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This essay draws from the following sources:

https://bisexual.org/?qna=what-is-the-difference-between-bisexual-and-terms-like-pansexual-polysexual-omnisexual-ambisexual-and-fluid

http://binetusa.blogspot.com/2016/02/correct-definition-of-bisexuality-on.html

http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/bi-vs-pan/

http://www.outsaskatoon.ca/bi_pan_poly

http://genderqueerid.com/post/16339992032/skoliosexual-adj

http://www.labicenter.org/LABTF_2014_Bisexual_Needs_Assessment_of_Greater_LA.pdf

https://www.bustle.com/articles/40282-a-brief-history-of-bisexuality-from-ancient-greece-and-the-kinsey-scale-to-lindsay-lohan

http://everydayfeminism.com/2012/10/fluid-sexuality-lgbtq-spectrum/

http://www.advocate.com/health/love-and-sex/2014/02/11/exploring-umbrella-bisexuality-and-fluidity

http://www.uua.org/lgbtq/identity/queer

A Critique of “2017 Resolutions for Bi Girls, or How Not to be a Homophobe”

A Critique of “2017 Resolutions for Bi Girls, or How Not to be a Homophobe”

By H. Bradford

1/16/17


An unsettling list appeared on my Facebook feed recently.  It was entitled 2017 “Resolutions for Bi Girls, or How Not to be a Homophobe.”  I poured over it, not sure what to make of it.  The advice was how bisexual girls can avoid being homophobic.  Of course, everyone should aspire to fight against homophobia.  Thus, if there are some nuggets of useful advice in this top ten list, these should be embraced.  At the same time, there was something abrasive and offensive to the list.  I will examine this list, what could be learned from it, and what strikes me as unfair to bisexuals.

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The Title: 2017 Resolutions for Bi Girls, or How Not to be a Homophobe.

To me, the title seemed sexist and degrading.  For one, it was directed at bisexual girls.  The use of the word “girl” seems disrespectful.  Rather than addressing the piece to bisexual women, which sounds more respectful, the more dismissive and patronizing word “girl” was selected.  I am not sure who wrote it, but if anyone were to say, “hey girl, listen to this…”  I would feel as though I am being talked down to.  Granted, there are informal situations where being called “girl” is not offensive, but I can’t think of too many examples wherein it is acceptable for stranger seeking to explain something would use “girl” when addressing women.  Further, I wondered why the advice was directed at “girls” instead of all bisexuals.  This might imply that bisexual girls are more homophobic than bisexual men or bisexual trans people.  Couldn’t these resolutions be addressed to bisexual PEOPLE?!

 

 

1. Stop using the word queer.

I find this advice off-putting at the very least, since it is a command to avoid the use of commonly used language in the LGBTQ movement.  Of course, it is important to note that not everyone is comfortable with the word queer, especially someone who experienced that word through bullying.  Queer is taken for granted and has become fairly mainstream.  Even the Women’s March on Washington uses the word queer when raising demands for LGBT individuals.  Heck, even the USA Today ran an article about the use of the word queer.  I may be mistaken, but I don’t think that the USA Today is at the forefront of queer liberation.  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/06/01/lgbtq-questioning-queer-meaning/26925563/


Queer is meant to be inclusive.  It is meant to be a way to avoid the alphabet soup of LGBTQUIAH…identities and include people who may not neatly fit into gender or sexuality labels.  It is also a word that was meant to break down barriers between identities within the LGBTQ community to have a shared identity instead.  For some people, it is empowering to reclaim the word.  I will admit, I like the word.  It seems radical and cool.   The word itself means eccentric and unusual, which I would embrace over conventional and normal.  But, it has over a century of history of being a slur against LGBTQ individuals.  This history isn’t easily forgotten nor should it be flippantly dismissed.  Also, not everyone wants to be lumped into a queer community.  Gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, etc. identities have meaning and this meaning might get lost in the wanton lumping individuals into a generic queer community. I think it is prudent to use caution when employing the word queer, to recognize that it can be just as radical to reject the word, and to use different language in different contexts.  However, the command to stop using it entirely is counter productive, especially when many social movement organizations/non-profits specifically use the word queer and have adopted “q” as an official part of the LGBTQ acronym, such as Planned Parenthood, OutFront MN, and GLAAD.  At the very least, bisexuals would be unusual for abstaining from the use of the word queer.

2. Don’t claim bi-erasure when you won’t call yourself bi.  What is wrong with the word bisexual?

I label myself bisexual, when I am more accurately pansexual.  I do this because I feel that there is nothing wrong with the label bisexual, it is historically trans inclusive, it is recognizable, and bi seems more accurate than “pan” which generically means everything or all inclusive.  At the same time, there is nothing to be gained by label policing pansexuals and bisexuals.  Pansexuals may accused bisexuals of not being inclusive of transgender individuals.  This piece of advice seems to blame pansexuals on bi-erasure.  This kind of bickering and blaming is not conducive to building a united movement.


Pansexuals (or for that matter any other bi+ identity) have nothing to do with bi-erasure.  The average person can identify dozens of sports teams by their colors and mascot.  The average person can probably identify at least a dozen breeds of dogs.  The average person can identify dozens of varieties of fruit.  No one mistakes a strawberry for a banana or a bulldog for Afghan Hound.  Humans have an amazing ability to categorize vast amounts of information.  Therefore, I fully believe that almost everyone could easily differentiate and identify a least a dozen sexualities.  This ability is stifled by lack of quality sex education and a conservative education system that teaches next to nothing about gays and lesbians in history, much less bisexuals, asexuals, or any other sexual minority.  It is taboo to teach these things in most public schools.  These identities are absent from textbooks.  And while sex may be commonplace in the media, it is a very narrow sexuality which mostly consists of an oppressive and objectifying version of heterosexuality.  With that said, the average American should easily be able to differentiate between pansexual and bisexual.  The average American should easily be able to differentiate between bisexual and gay.  In part, the invisibility of bisexuality likely stems from the overall sexual ignorance of most Americans.  This ignorance of sexuality is a way to render sexual minorities invisible and deny them a place in society and history.


At deeper level, bisexuality itself is uncomfortable.  To some, it is a challenge to monogamy and  the notion of fixed sexuality rooted in biology.  Monogamy has been the cornerstone of private property for thousands of years.  Anything that remotely sniffs of a challenge to this, is a challenge to the basis of private property and the entitlement one person to the sexuality of another.  Bisexuality does not have to challenge these things.  But, I think many bisexuals feel like outsiders to the dominant narratives of sexuality.  This makes it dangerous.  At the same time, many bisexuals pass as heterosexuals.  This makes us seem less visible and less oppressed.  As a whole, fears and prejudices, combined with an uncertain position within the LGBTQ community also lends itself to invisibility.  Thus, the issue of bi-erasure is not because bisexuals are not embracing the label “bisexual,” but because of larger social forces.

3. Don’t call lesbians women loving women or queer.

Actually, there is nothing wrong with this advice.  I feel that people should respect the labels and identities that others choose for themselves.  To do otherwise imposes a worldview upon them and undermines their autonomy to define themselves.


 

4. Stop pretending that our attraction to men is in any way marginalized.

I don’t know that I have heard anyone complain that they are marginalized by their relationship with someone of the opposite sex.  The bisexuals whom I have spoken with have expressed that their sexuality seems invisible or that they wish we lived in a different society where there was more room for sexual freedom and exploration.  So, there is a certain degree of invisibility and defeat in these relationships, but there is also commitment, love, and compromise.


5. Recognize that biphobia is not a unique axis of oppression.  It exists for bi women as the intersection of homophobia and misogyny, if it exists at all.  There is no systematic biphobia.  The oppression we face is homophobia.

I struggled with this piece of advice the most.  To untangle this, I had to first consider the  nature of oppression.  There are many kinds of oppression in society.  For instance, women are presently oppressed by capitalist patriarchy, which devalues women, defines their roles, and historically treated them like property for the purpose of harnessing their unpaid labor and reproductive power in the interest of capitalism.   Racial minorities experience racism, which in the context of capitalism, divides the working class, deflates wages, and refocuses social attention.  Of course, various racial minorities experience racism differently.  For Native Americans, racism comes in the form of violation of treaty rights, denial of cultural practices, genocide and stealing of their land, and marginalization and exclusion from society.  For some Latinx Americans, racism might come in the form of English only language instruction in schools, anti-immigration sentiments, or the real threat of deportation.  Somali Americans might experience racism in the form of government surveillance, police coercion, Islamophobia, and harassment in the name of anti-terrorism.  While various racial/ethnic groups may experience racism uniquely, this does not mean that one group is more oppressed than the other or that the experience of one group should be discounted.  It would be absurd and offensive to tell an Asian person that they don’t experience racism or that they should be excluded from anti-racism activism because they are not oppressed enough.  In the same way, all sexual minorities experience heterosexism.  It is true that some groups experience it much more profoundly.  For instance, a low income, bisexual, transwoman of color is probably extremely oppressed by compounding oppressions she faces.  But, there is no oppression meter which can be pointed at bisexuals, lesbians, gays, asexuals, etc. to determine who is the most oppressed.  Even if there was, what purpose would it serve?  All of these people are in some way oppressed by a system that privileges heterosexuality over other sexualities.  Each of these groups is seen as abnormal to varying degrees.  While gays and lesbians might be more likely to experience homophobic violence, bisexuals are more likely to experience relationship violence.  Why keep score?  People are being hurt..or killed!  It is more productive to fight oppression than fight one another.  Heterosexism serves to preserve traditional gender roles and relationships.  The role of heterosexism in capitalism is that it preserves a family structure that conveniently creates more children at zero cost to capitalists.   The family offers free maintenance of workers through unpaid care work.  Is it any surprise that homophobes/transphobes often retreat to arguments about family, child safety, and child rearing?  Or, that for gays and lesbians to obtain any modicum of acceptance in society, they must present themselves as non-threatening, white, middle class, and traditionally family oriented?


While I don’t know that the oppression faced by bisexuals is something separate from the general heterosexism faced by all sexual minorities, I will argue that there are experiences that are unique to bisexuals.  Terms like biphobia and bi-erasure are used to describe these unique facets of heterosexism.  For any oppressed group, there is a need to both work together but also autonomously organize.  This is why I wanted to start up a group for bisexuals.  I wanted us to have our own group so that we could discuss ideas, educate one another, develop our identity, brainstorm demands, and engage in activism.  Ideally, by organizing as our own group, we would be better able to avail ourselves in the larger struggle against heterosexism.  I think that all groups should do the same.  There should be lesbian groups or gay groups.  There should be groups that unite to include everyone impacted by heterosexism.  There is nothing to lose by developing groups of people who are committed to dismantling oppression.  There is nothing to gain by excluding groups because they are not oppressed enough or do not have the same experiences of oppression.  No one experiences oppression exactly the same way.  Oppressions intersect.  A working class, bi woman with mental illness may very well be more oppressed than a middle class gay man without mental illness.  Again, why keep score?  Why further divide people who have a shared interest in ending heterosexism?


6. Recognize that straight passing privilege is real.

I agree and disagree with this.  I agree because passing as straight is a privilege.  It provides safety from anti-gay    violence.  In some parts of the world, it can help a person avoid arrest and imprisonment.  So, of course it is a privilege.  At the extreme, it can be a survival tactic.  But, is it truly a privilege when NOT passing is met with the threat of violence?  It is the privilege to successfully deceive and become invisible.  And to be fair, there are gays and lesbians who pass as straight or are believed to be straight until they correct the error.  Heterosexuality is viewed as normal and therefore assumed.  Nevertheless, anyone who is believed to be heterosexual and cisgender, can benefit from the privileges bestowed upon these groups at the expense of their authenticity and autonomy.  This doesn’t seem very privileged.  This advice seems to blame bisexuals for passing as straight rather than attacking a society wherein sexual identities are driven underground, ignored, hated, and misunderstood.  I don’t think anyone gains in a world where people “pass” or have to pass.


 

7. Recognize that if you are dating a boy, you are in a straight relationship.

A major theme in the discussions at Pandemonium, a bi+ group that I started a few    months ago, is the theme of invisibility.  Many of the members are in relationships with heterosexual partners.  While they cherish these relationships, it can make their sexuality seem invisible.  Commanding bisexuals to identify themselves as in “straight relationships” would only add to this sense of invisibility and marginalization.  I can understand how the author may feel upset with bisexual women who are dating men.  This might seem inauthentic.  It might seem like, “Woe is me, I am so oppressed!”  But, in my experience, there is a sense of longing for more.  I think many of us wish for a different society, where sexuality can be expressed more freely or with less social consequence.  It would be nice if the concept of “cheating” evaporated.  However, because most people have an expectation of monogamy, bisexuals are always forced to chose between what appears like a straight relationship or a gay relationship.  The exception might be a polyamorous relationship, but there are many barriers to obtaining this.  Namely, that the vast majority of people are not polyamorous.  Statistically speaking, it is far more likely that a bisexual will meet an individual partner who has an expectation of monogamy.  (Of course, many bisexuals are monogamous and desire this as well).   Bisexuals should have the ability to classify their relationship as they like.  Some might call it a straight relationship.  They might classify it as a bisexual in a relationship with a straight person.  Maybe their straight partner doesn’t even calls the relationship straight.  Maybe the have questions about their sexuality or are open to other options, but at the moment, consider themself straight.  They may be in an abusive relationship and FORCED to call themselves and their relationship straight.  Why does it matter what the relationship is called?  Why can’t bisexuals be trusted to identify their relationship in terms that they find empowering and affirming?  I believe that everyone benefits from anything that challenges heterosexism, even if it is just a name or a label.  Labels convey meaning.  New meanings can challenge dominant understandings about what is real, true, or good in the world.


8. Stop implying that gay is wrong got not being attracted to both sexes.  Cut it out with the “hearts not parts”

I never interpreted “hearts not parts” as a command to everyone in the universe that    bisexuality is the only correct sexuality.  I assumed that those who used that slogan were using it as a personal motto to convey their interest in someone’s emotions over their body parts.  Or, it is what is on the inside that matters.  I think if it is used as a personal motto to assert one’s opinion or preference, it should not matter.  If it is indeed a command or used to shame other sexualities, then of course it should be avoided.


 

9. Stop implying that everyone is bisexual by insisting that sexuality is fluid.

This one is one of my pet peeves and a mistake I have made in the past.  From a sociological perspective, all of our modern sexualities are socially constructed and fairly new.  Concepts related to sexuality differ across times and cultures.  In this sense, there is no such thing as gay, lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, etc. as they are all modern concepts developed in the industrialized Western world by psychologists and doctors.  There is a wide array of how humans can express their gender and sexuality.  In a world that did not privilege heterosexuality, where all genders/sexualities were equal, and there was no negative social sanction for gender and sexual expression, I am sure that people would express their sexuality in all sorts of novel ways.  Thus, to some degree, I believe that sexuality is fluid because of the ways that it is shaped by society.


On the other hand, sexuality is real to those who experience it.  Just as race is a social construct, it is pretty real to those who are incarcerated or beaten by police because of the color of their skin.  So, there are two kinds of reality.  There is the reality that these categories are socially constructed and the reality that it doesn’t really matter because they have very real consequences in our society.  When a person says, “everyone is bi” or “sexuality is fluid” this may speak to the abstract notion that it is possible that sexuality is a lot more flexible than we think.  However, it denies the lived reality of gays, lesbians, or heterosexuals who do not experience bisexuality or fluid sexuality.  Just as when a white person says, “We are all Africans” yes, this is technically correct.  All humans evolved in Africa.  But, we are not all dying of preventable diseases, colonized, or enslaved.  Thus, I do think it is a good idea to be very clear in what one means.  It is sloppy to say that all people are bisexual.  It is sloppy and offensive, because there are plenty of people who are not.  This is their lived reality.  Calling them bi makes their sexuality invisible and less legitimate.  I certainly want to be visible and legitimate.  And, while in an abstract perfect society, sexuality may be much more fluid, there may be people who have a strong preference for the same sex, opposite sex, or no one.  I would expect this to be true.  Though, since we have yet to create a perfect society, it is hard to know.  We can only speculate based upon how sexuality has changed over time and varies across cultures.


10. Know when our voice is necessary in a discussion.  Are there people more qualified to speak?

I would hope that anyone exercises prudence when they speak.  I am not sure what the    future holds for Pandemonium (the bi+ group).  My own hope is that I grow in my knowledge of bisexuality and can become a part of the LGBT movement.  I hope that I can be a voice that speaks on matters related to bisexuality and sexuality in general.  I would like to educate others as I educate myself.  I feel that bisexuals should be a part of the discussion on LGBTQ issues.  Of course, we should not be the only voice or the dominant voice.  But, I don’t see any reason why we can’t be an equal among many voices.  As for qualifications, I don’t know how one becomes qualified to speak on a topic.  I hope that through our discussion group, through activism, and through connecting with the larger community, we all become more qualified to speak.  But the concept of “qualified” should not be used to silence anyone.  I have often felt like I wasn’t qualified to speak about women’s issues, socialism, anti-war, foreign policy, education, or any number of things out of fear that I would make a mistake or that I was wrong.  I still feel that way!  Perhaps I am not even qualified to identify “how not to be a homophobe.”  However, I think that if I am willing to wrestle with ideas and thoughtfully express my opinion based off of what I know and have experienced, I am qualified enough!

Bringing Bisexuality and Domestic Violence Into Focus

Bringing Bisexuality and Domestic Violence Into Focus

H. Bradford

11/22/16

Last month, Pandemonium met for the first time.  Pandemonium is a modest bisexual/pansexual/ omnisexual/generally bi+ group that I am working to organize.  Our first meeting was chaotic, but lively.  A disturbing theme that came out of our first discussion was that many of the members had experienced violence of some kind.  Since October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month and LGBT history month, I thought that this theme deserved more attention.  As such, I wanted to investigate this topic further and bring my findings back to the group for our November meeting.  Indeed, being bisexual increases the likelihood that a person may be the victim of intimate partner violence.

The Statistics:


According to a 2010 report from the CDC, 61.1% of bisexual women have experienced either rape, stalking, or physical violence from an intimate partner (North, 2016).  If molestation is added to this list, the rare is 75% (Davidson, 2013).  In contrast to bisexuals, 35% of straight women and 43.8% of lesbian women have experienced stalking, rape, or physical violence (North, 2016).  If only rape is account for, 46.1% of bisexual women report having been raped, compared to 13.1% of lesbian and 14.7% of straight women.  Further, of the bisexual women who have reported domestic violence, 57.4% reported that they had experienced adverse effects such as PTSD or missed work, compared to 35.5% of lesbians and 28.2% of straight women.  This means that not only are bisexual women experiencing domestic violence at higher rates, they are suffering more adverse effects from this violence.  Finally, most bisexual victims of domestic violence had been abused by male partners, as men accounted for 89.5% of offenders (North, 2016).  As a whole, bisexual women are the number one target of domestic violence, followed by bisexual men who experience it at a rate of 47.4%.  This is followed by lesbian women, heterosexual women, gay men, and straight men (Davidson, 2013).  This is very startling, as bisexual men and women are both the targets of domestic violence.


In Canada, 28% of bisexuals reported being victims of spousal abuse versus 7% of heterosexuals.  According to the BC Adolescent Health Survey, Bisexual girls between ages 12 and 18 were twice as likely to report dating violence than heterosexual girls (Bielski, 2016).  In the UK, one in four bisexual women and lesbian women have experienced domestic violence.  Among these victims, ⅔ reported that their abuser was a woman, versus ⅓ reported a man.  Four in ten  bisexual and lesbian women with a disability reported domestic violence.  While the UK statistics lump bisexual and lesbian women into the same grouping, the findings shows the intersectionality of abuse (Stonewall Health Briefing, 2012).  In this case, disability and sexuality put the women at greater risk of abuse.  The statistics from the UK, U.S., and Canada each suggest that bisexuality can be connected to increased incidences of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and stalking.  This begs the question, why is this the case?

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The Media:


It is easy to blame the media for social problems, but it is a useful starting point.  Certainly, the media plays a role in shaping public perception by popularizing ideas, framing questions and ideas, focusing on some information over other information, and setting parameters of what is discussed and how it is discussed.  Davidson (2013) observed that the media, especially pornography, sends a message that bisexual women are depraved, immoral, promiscuous, and have commitment issues.  These portrayals of bisexual women actually victim blames them or justifies their abuse through negative portrayals.  This portrayal of bisexuals represents or contributes to biphobia, which often goes unnoticed or unaddressed in larger discussions of homophobia.  As a matter of example, consider the case of Amber Heard.  Before her divorce trial, many people may not have known that she was bisexual.  According to Bielski (2016), Amber Heard was painted as a gold digger in the media, even as evidence of the violence against her from her then husband Johnny Depp began to emerge.  Despite these accusations, Heard actually donated her divorce settlement money to charity.  She donated half of the settlement to the ACLU for the purpose of ending violence against women.  Aside from gold digging, her bisexuality was also used to discredit her, as tabloids portrayed her as promiscuous and that it was Depp’s jealousy that drove him to beat her.  Even in the face of grotesque evidence, such as a video of Depp kicking kitchen cupboards while shouting at her, photos of her bruised face and swollen lip, and a sexual slur scrawled on their mirror, she was blamed for making him jealous (Bielski, 2016).

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Dynamics of Domestic Violence:


While the media plays a role in shaping public perception about bisexuality, it does not explain why bisexuals are victimized to begin with.  Bisexuality may be used as an excuse by gay or straight abusers to exert control over their victim.  To the abuser, it may represent identity, power, and the possibility of sexual attraction to others.  Controlling behaviors include such things as surveillance, such as checking email or text messages and using isolation, such as not allowing bisexual victims to spend time with anyone of any gender.  To abusers, bisexuality itself may be viewed as something that needs to be controlled.  Farnsworth (2016) argued that bisexual people, along with people of color, disabled people, neurodivergent people are often treated as “others.”  “Othering” a group of people diminishes their humanity and legitimacy.  “Othered” people often have their consent ignored.  Bisexuals and other oppressed groups may be told that they deserve their abuse and that no one else would want them.  Many people in the LGBTQ community also face poverty, which is a barrier to leaving abusive relationships as these individuals may be financially dependent upon their partner. (Farnsworth, 2016).  In fact, bisexual women are twice as likely to live in poverty than lesbian women (Kristal, 2016).  Finally, in the larger society, bisexuals are demeaned, sexualized, and ignored.  Until this is changes, they will be at greater risk of violence (Farnsworth, 2016).


Beyond some of the dynamics of domestic violence, shelters may also bear some of the blame.  For instance, in testimonies gathered for a White House meeting on bisexuality, one woman reported that she was denied shelter at a Chicago domestic violence shelter because the shelter was for women with male abusers.  When she sought a resource for the gay community, she was told that because she was bi she did not qualify for their services.  Unfortunately, gender variant individuals and gay and bisexual men have few resources available to them (Hutchins, 2013).  While bisexual men are the group that is second most likely to experience domestic violence, there is only one shelter in the United States that is explicitly for male victims of domestic violence.  This shelter is located in Arkansas, has nine beds, and opened in 2015 (Markus, 2016).  Females are by far the majority of domestic violence victims, but it is important that men also have services, as well as transgender individuals.  Everyone of any sexuality and gender identity deserves to be safe from violence.


Another facet of domestic violence is mental health.  Bisexual women are at greater risk of depression and anxiety compared to gay or straight women.  This mental health risk could be because of the stigma of being bisexual (Buzzfeed).  However, if 75% of bisexual women have been stalked, raped, molested, or victims of domestic violence, this increased incidence of depression and anxiety may be related to trauma.  A study published by the University of Montreal found that among 1052 mothers who were studied over ten years, those who had experienced domestic violence were twice as likely to suffer from depression and had three times the risk of developing schizophrenia-like psychotic symptoms.  Among the women who had been abused by their partner, they were more likely to have substance abuse, early pregnancy, childhood abuse, and poverty (University of Montreal, 2015).  Factors such as mental health and substance abuse create a vicious feedback effect.  Abuse creates mental health problems, financial problems, pregnancy, and substance abuse.  In turn, all of these things makes a person more vulnerable to abuse.  As abusers target often vulnerable people, the previous abuse and mental health issues experienced by bisexuals may may play into the abuse (Bielski, 2016).  This is not meant to blame them, but to show that their previous victimization may make them more vulnerable to future abuse.

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Biphobia and Bi-Erasure:


All bisexuals experience biphobia and bi-erasure to some degree.  Biphobia is hatred and prejudice against bisexuals.  A 2015 study in the Journal of Bisexuality found that heterosexuals and gays and lesbians had almost identical prejudices against bisexuals.  According to the reported experiences of the surveyed bisexuals, both heterosexuals and homosexuals treated bisexuals as if they were more likely cheat and were sexually confused.  Both group also excluded bisexuals from their social networks (Allen, 2016).  While bisexuals may be viewed negatively as promiscuous, wild, immoral, and disloyal, their voices, histories, identities, and experiences are ignored.  This is called bi-erasure.  Biphobia and bi-erasure can make coming out harder for bisexuals.  Their partners may not understand or think that a bi person is not satisfied (Farnsworth, 2016).  For individuals who are not “out”, they may face challenges when leaving their abuser.  For instance, in the book, Violence against Queer People: Race, Class, Gender, and the Persistence of Anti-LBGT Descrimination, a woman named Dorothy reported facing an additional barrier when she left her husband since she left him to enter her first same-sex relationship (it should be noted that in this example she identified as a lesbian).  Thus, leaving the relationship made harder by the fact that this would “out” her to others.  A woman named Leslie reported that her bisexuality was used to legitimize the abuse and control her.  The abuse worsened after she was married.  She was accused of flirting with both men and women.  After she was pregnant, he accused her of wanting to sleep with their waitress when they went out to dinner together (Meyer, 2015).  Once again, her bisexuality was something threatening to her partner.  In a 2012 Human Rights Campaign survey, bisexual teen girls reported that they were called “whores” or forced to make out with other girls for their partner (Kristal, 2016).  Again, negative stereotypes about bisexuals resulted in slut shaming and coercive sexual acts.  Because bisexual women are believed to be promiscuous and sexually adventurous, consent is assumed (Bielski, 2016).  Thus, it is no wonder why bisexuals are victims of sexual assault at a greater rate per their population than individuals with other sexual identities.

bisexual_erasure_image


 

Relationship/Sexual Norms:


At some level, bisexuality challenges sexual norms.  While this is not true of all bisexuals, a study that appeared in Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity found that bisexuals reported that monogamy was a sacrifice at greater rates than straights and gays.  An equal amount of bisexuals found monogamy to be a sacrifice as there were bisexuals who found it rewarding.  Nevertheless, gays and straights both reported monogamy as more rewarding than bisexuals.  Thus, while viewing monogamy as a sacrifice does not indicate that the respondents were polyamorous and promiscuous, it does indicate that they were less likely than their straight and gay counterparts to find monogamy rewarding (Vrangalova, 2014).  Many bisexuals that I have spoken with are perfectly capable of monogamy, myself included.  However, to those whom I spoken with, there is often a sense of sacrifice or duty involved with this monogamy.  It is often framed as a sacrifice made for the sake of companionship or a stable relationship with a particular individual.  At some level, bisexuality does threaten monosexual partners.  It does play into their insecurities and jealousies.  This is no excuse for abuse, but this represents a flaw with our relationships.  Society normalizes jealousy and insecurity.  Countless films and television shows feature couples who show their love through jealous behaviors.  An individual who is not jealous, is not viewed as emotional.  Taken to the extreme, jealousy can be abusive.  But, all monogamous relationships involve some level of control over the sexuality of another human being.  So, while bisexuals are capable of monogamous relationship, they are at the same time more apt to question monogamy.  This is very threatening to patriarchy and capitalism, which has treated women as the sexual property of men.


It is only recently, and with that advent of the feminist movement, that women have begun to be seen as having rights to their sexuality.  Today, some states continue to treat marital rape as something different than rape outside of marriage.  It was only in the 1990s that laws began to change so that rape within marriage was considered the same kind of crime, with the same punishments, as rape.  Prior to this, men were viewed as having a right to sex from their wives and implicit consent as part of their marriage.  Since the majority of women have traditionally married, rape is built into the tradition of marriage.  Marriage itself is institutionalized monogamy.  By extension, marriage was institutionalized rape.  Now, certainly there are people who have loving relationships and consensual sex within the context of marriage.  And, bisexuals certainly fought for and benefited from the legalization of same sex marriage.  But, I cannot shake my disgust at the notion that marriage granted men the right to sex without consequence, consent, or criminality.  While consent is considered a part of healthy relationships today, control will always be a part of relationships so long as people attach their self-esteem and happiness to the sexual loyalty of their partner.  In the popular imagination, there is sympathy for “crimes of passion.”  A man who kills his wife after she cheats on him has a legitimate defense.  These circumstances can result in lesser charges or a lower sentence.  A woman who cheats on her husband may be denied alimony.  To some degree, even non-abusive people accept the legitimacy of violence and control for the sake of monogamy.  Control and abuse are enshrined in the law. 47ade34b8769d8976fe72916ab19f89a


What is to be done?


There are many reasons why bisexuals are abused at higher rates than other groups.  Bisexuals are more likely to experience mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and poverty, which both puts them at risk of abuse, but also results from abuse.  Bisexuals experience bi-phobia and bi-erasure.  Their abuse is justified because it is considered a means to control them, out them, that they were sexually confused to begin with, and their consent is ignored.  Bisexuality itself is seen as something that must be controlled.  It is misunderstood.  At some level, it challenges some aspects of monogamy.


Hopefully, this piece offers some insight to why bisexuals may experience greater rates of abuse.  Certainly, more research on this topic should be done.  For instance, I could not find research pertaining to how many bisexuals actually identify as poly-amorous or monogamous.  Besides continued research, more work should be done to end bi-phobia and bi-erasure.  To this end, I hope that Pandemonium can work to create a community of bi+ activists, while fostering discussion, awareness of issues, a sense of identity and history, and action.  As for advocates within the field of domestic violence, I hope that more can be done to become aware of LGBT issues and become more responsive to their needs.  I am a domestic violence advocate myself, and I believe that this very rudimentary research has given me some food for thought in how I approach my work and frame problems.  Finally, if nothing else, this demonstrates the connections between fighting for LGBT rights and the fight for feminism, but also other fights, such as the fight to end poverty and the fight for more mental health services.

fence-sitter-shirt

Reflections on Working at a Domestic Violence Shelter

This is my two year anniversary of working at a domestic violence shelter.  It is also the tail end of Domestic Violence Awareness month (October).  As such, I thought I would write about some observations that I have made about domestic violence since I began working at a shelter.

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Race: Perhaps one of the most striking features of the shelter is the racial composition of the clients that we serve.  While I do not have official statistics from the shelter, as a general observation, at any given time, 60-80% of our shelter residents are women of color.  This rate is based upon my own calculation of a sample of data, so it should not be taken as official data.  Around 2.5% of Duluth residents are Native American and 2.3% of our residents are African American.  Consider that for a moment.  These groups make up under 5% of our general population (not including other minorities and mixed race individuals).  At the same time, they make up over 60% of the women in shelter (and often over 75% of the shelter).  To me, this highlights the extreme vulnerability of women of color in our community.  Nationally, rates of physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner are 30-50% higher among women who are African American, Native American, and multiracial than white and Hispanic women.  So, it comes as little surprise that the shelter would have a higher percent of women of color than white women, as this is consistent with the national statistics.  However, not all women who are victims of domestic violence go to shelters.  In my observation, women who come to the shelter tend to have fewer social networkers, greater poverty, and more community stresses around them.  Whereas a white, middle class woman might have family and friends to stay with, or perhaps some money to stay at a hotel, this is not the case for low-income minority women whose networks are so entrenched in poverty, homelessness, historical trauma, substance abuse, and violence that there really is nowhere else to go.  I believe this accounts for our high number of minority women in shelter.


Gender:

Intimate partner violence can happen to people of any gender.   Certainly, male teens and children are victimized by domestic violence and find themselves at the shelter with their mothers.  Yet, most victims are women.  Nationally, 85% of intimate partner violence victims are women.  So, it is a women’s issue.  Nevertheless, perhaps every other month, there is a call from a male victim.  This is challenging because there are no male specific domestic violence shelters in our state.  Really, there are only a handful of non-gendered domestic violence shelters in the country.   I have taken a few calls from gay men in abusive relationships, but also a few heterosexual men.  I absolutely believe there should be resources for everyone.  I am also supportive of our hiring of a male advocate.  Men can be victims, but also should be part of the solution.  When men call, we do our best to connect them to homeless shelters, our resource center, or do a safety plan.  I fully acknowledge and want to help male victims.  HOWEVER, domestic violence is by and large a gender based problem faced by primarily by women.  I think this is important to point out, since when something impacts one group disproportionately to another, it represents an important piece of information about the functioning of society.  Everyone can be a victim, but why are women more often victims?  This is a long question with many answers.  Women have been viewed as property, without rights, and inferior to men.  For much of history, the physical discipline of women was acceptable and legal.  Women continue to be politically, economically, and socially subordinate to men.  Therefore, it is hardly incidental that women are more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence.


Sexuality:   Thus far this year, I have done about 32 intakes.  An intake is a packet of paperwork that we complete with victims when they arrive at the shelter.  In these intakes, we collect a lot of information, including demographic data.  During the intake, we ask women which sexuality they identify as.  Over half the time, women reply “female” or do not know what I mean.  This is interesting, since it demonstrates a confusion in society about the difference between gender and sexuality.  It also shows that many people do not know how to label their sexuality.


That aside, working at the shelter has given me the opportunity to observe black female sexual identity.  I probably would not have this opportunity in my segregated white world.  In my limited observation, I have observed some fluidity in black sexuality.  I don’t want to “other” this group, but simply point out that they may not fit within the labels and stereotypes of white sexuality.  For instance, the majority of lesbian identifying black women in the shelter have a children from one or more male partners.  They also often have black male abusers.  Despite their sexual history with black men, they identify as lesbian, at least in the intake.  Also, within this population, there have been fewer individuals who would be stereotyped as “butch.”  I find this interesting, since to me, it means that they construct gender and sexuality differently.  In my own observation of white homosexuals or bisexuals, a narrative of continuity is important for establishing legitimacy.  For instance, someone who switches sexual identities or did not “discover” their homosexuality or bisexuality until later in life, might be viewed with more skepticism.  I have not sensed this same anxiety over continuity and labels among the residents at the shelter.  Of course, this is a small sample size and I did not specifically ask the residents about these issues.


Finally, the majority of women who use the shelter identify as straight or heterosexual (when presented the list of sexualities to choose from).   The majority of residents have abusers who are their opposite gender.  Nevertheless, it is important to note that 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women have experienced physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner, compared to 35% of heterosexual women.   The 61% of bisexual women is particularly startling, as this would indicate that bisexual women particularly vulnerable.  In my own experiences, I have only done one or two intakes this year wherein a woman identified as bisexual.  However, I think that sexuality is rather personal.  I am a complete stranger when I meet the women.  As such, they might not want to divulge their sexuality.


Ability and Health:

One of the biggest challenges of working in the shelter is that the women who come here usually have one or more health issues.  Statistically,  women with disabilities are 40% more likely to be the victims of domestic violence.  The challenge is not that they have a disability or major health issue, but that when we are full, we are serving over 39 residents.  In the summer of 2015, there were some nights when we had as many as 58 residents.  Most shifts have three staff.  The night shift used to have one staff, but has gone to two.  Thus, staff are spread thinly and can not always meet the needs of the residents.  Aside from arriving with injuries from the abuse, women arrive with substance abuse problems, mental health issues, and physical health issues.  This means that the residents need a lot of support and resources.  It is hard to even describe the level of need and the lack of ability to always meet it.  This is probably the number one stressor at the job.  On my own shift, I probably call 911 at least once a month or once every other month due to medical emergencies.  These emergencies have ranged from going into labor, allergic reactions, difficulty breathing, heart problems, and head trauma.  More frequently, residents need to be brought to the ER for non-emergencies such as colds, flu, toothaches, vomiting, infections, UTI, gallbladder issues, etc.  On the mental health spectrum, women often have anxiety attacks, nightmares, manic episodes, depression, or just need someone to talk to.  On the extreme mental health spectrum, there have been delusions and hallucinations.  Of course, there is a difference between disability and health issues, but speaking broadly, each day that I work here, there is one or more medical issues to attend to.


Because the population has been exposed to trauma, is stressed out, is low income, and minority, they have a full plate of health challenges.  And, if a person arrives in relatively good health, the environment itself lends itself to disease and stress.  The shelter is communal living.  Imagine living in a room full of strangers who have all gone through (sometimes a lifetime of) traumatic events.  There is stress and conflict.  There are babies crying in the middle of night.  There are women getting up early for work or going to bed late.   There are people who snore and fart through the night.  Communal living isn’t fun.  Stress and lack of sleep compromise the immune system.  And, communal living is messy!  Any space containing 39 to 50 people is a breeding ground for germs, especially when half of them are children.  Norovirus rampaged through the shelter four times last year.  In fact, I don’t think that it ever left the shelter.  Colds, flus, stomach bugs, and infections find fertile ground to multiple, moving room to room all year long.  It is a germaphobes nightmare.  I have a real fear of norovirus.  Like some junior, unofficial CDC fan-club member, I actually wrote down each time norovirus afflicted the shelter last year.  I found that it hit the shelter at about three month intervals, starting in September 2015, with the most recent outbreak in July 2016.  This is consistent with studies that immunity to norovirus lasts a few months.  Most of the staff had numerous bouts of vomiting last year.  Each night, I clean for a few hours.  I try to wipe down the surfaces with bleach.  It is a losing battle.


Young Victims:

Another interesting characteristic of the shelter is that the victims who come here tend to be young.  While we serve women of all ages, most of our residents tend to be under the age of 25.   These young residents also tend to have a number of small children.  Many of the women first became parents when they were in their teens and some are teen parents when they arrive.  Usually, this makes me feel old!  I am old!  And I am unusual, since I am a woman in my mid-30s without children.  Women who are a decade or more younger than me must shoulder the responsibility of having two or more children!  This is a daunting task, since rents are high, jobs are low paying, transportation is cumbersome, and day care almost impossible to find.  I feel that we are worlds apart.  I have such freedom.  I am enormously privileged.  Motherhood looks like carting crying, coughing, snotty nosed children to the freezing bus stop to get to a housing appointment or find clothes for a job interview.  In their frustration, it is easy to see all of the disgusting ways that society fails mothers.


Aside from young mothers, we usually have one or more women in shelter who are pregnant.  Based upon reports from the intake, these pregnant women were often subjected to greater abuses when they became pregnant than prior to it.  I actually had a woman go into labor on my shift (after earlier in the day she fled her abuser, who attacked her).  It was pretty intense.  She was screaming at me to help her.  Her water broke outside our office.  She actually gave birth on the stretcher as she was pushed into the hospital.  I like to regale my coworkers with the story of how I almost delivered a baby.  For vast majority of the women, the pregnancies were unplanned.  Some had hopes of a good relationship with their abuser.  Others were sexually coerced.  The presence of young mothers is consistent with national statistics.  The group with the highest incidence of domestic violence is 18-24.  This is also the age group with the highest rates of abortion.  Since 4 out of 10 unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, it makes sense that the group that is most vulnerable to relationships that deny them sexual autonomy also has the highest rate of abortion.


The Complicated Victim:

When I tell people that I work at a domestic violence shelter, usually they become quiet or tell me how nice it is that I do that work.  I read recently that 79% of Americans have never actually had anyone talk to them about domestic violence.  When Americans think about victims, we often think of mousey white women who live under the shadow of their abuser.  They are shrinking violets who endure abuse in silence.  This stereotype of a victim is useful, since because of the racism in society, it seems very hard for white people to sympathize with Native American and African American women.  It is hard for ordinary white people to sympathize with victims who have criminal backgrounds, who abuse children, who are themselves violent, or who are addicted to drugs.  In the popular mindset, a victim must be virtuous, long suffering, and “good.”  Victims who are not these things are blamed for the violence against them.


The truth of the matter is that the victims I work with are not the virtuous, saintly, white women who crumble like crushed lilies under the fist of their massive, angry, alcoholic abuser.  Many of the women struggle with severe substance abuse.  Many of the women do not treat their children kindly.  They can be neglectful or even outright abusive.  Many of them have criminal backgrounds.  Some visit the shelter between visits to jail.  Many of the women can be aggressive, insulting, rude, and selfish in their interactions with staff and other residents.  I am not listing these characteristics to put down the women.  Rather, I am being honest and want to create a portrait of the complicated people that stay at the shelter.


The complicated victim is a challenge, since as an advocate, we must challenge ourselves to show compassion and empathy to people who can be mean, rude, or disappointing.  A victim is a victim, even if they fight back or even if they were using drugs.  A victim deserves kindness, support, and unbiased service no matter what they have done or how they treat others.  The ideal of the saintly victim makes compassion easy.  The saintly victim is grateful and positive.  The complicated victim might swear and make a scene.  But, it challenges a person.  It challenges a person to be less biased.  It challenges a person to see substance abuse, homelessness, self-defense, and survival differently.  In the challenging victims, I see a lot of my own privilege.  I have the emotional resources to be calm and collected in the face of conflict.  I have the emotional resources to be patient when I don’t get my way, because I have faith in the long-game of life.  I have a lot of material, emotional, and psychological resources that help me cope with the challenges of life.  My behaviors are the outcome of my conditions and experiences.  So are theirs.

 

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It is hard to see black and blue, but it is also hard for society to see victims who are not white, thin, and able bodied.


Myth of Welfare Queens: As I have mentioned before, upon arrival at the shelter, I complete paperwork with the victims.  During this paperwork, I collect income information.  This is one of the most startling observations about victims: the majority are not getting any kind of public benefit, child support, or income.


Many people believe that low income mothers with many children are gaming the system by collecting child support from multiple fathers or getting large checks from the government.   This simply is not true of the women who come to the shelter.  While many of them apply for benefits once they are here, most do not arrive with health insurance or even MFIP.  Many of the women have severe health problems and disabilities, but are not collecting disability benefits.  I would say that there has not been a single intake that I have completed wherein the victim was receiving all of the benefits they would qualify for.  And, if the women do qualify for benefits, it extremely rare that it is over $1000 a month.  Most receive a few hundred dollars.


There are several reasons why the women do not have the benefits they  could qualify for.  One: Some were financially dependent upon their abuser as a form of abuse called  financial abuse.  Two: Many of the women have been chronically homeless, have moved across states, cities, or counties.  Applying for benefits requires residency in an area or living there long enough to collect the benefits.  This is not the case for women who have been moving a lot.  Three:  Applying for benefits can be difficult, especially because many of the women did not complete high school or may not be the best readers.  They may not know where to apply, the programs available, or the process of application.  Four: Because of mistakes in filling out paperwork, they may have been denied a benefit. In short, in my two years at the shelter, I have not met a single woman who was somehow cheating the system to gain benefits or child support.  It is more common that women have so little income that they cannot afford $1 co-pays on their medications. financial-abuse


Still Going On?  

When I was younger, I imagined that domestic violence was one of those things of the past.  If I heard about it, it seemed rare and shocking.  Doesn’t everyone think that women shouldn’t be beaten?!   Yet, over 4.7 million women experience domestic violence each year.  A few weeks ago, I protested the 15th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan.  Between 2001-2012, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took the lives of 6,488 U.S. soldiers.  During that same time period, 11,766 women were murdered by their male intimate partner or ex-partner.  That is astonishing and terrible!

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Yes, it is still a problem.  Each night, I update our available beds on a website that lists all of the shelters in Minnesota.  Each night, across the state, all of the beds are full.  Women come from across the state to our shelter because they cannot find space elsewhere.  We are regularly full.  There could be another shelter in Duluth and that would be also full.  The problem never goes away.  The shelters are always full.  Sometimes we have people sleeping on mattresses on the floor rather than turn them away.


Once a woman comes to shelter, she is safe, but moving forward is difficult.  Housing is expensive.  Low-income housing is competitive and in low supply.  Jobs pay poorly.  Our public transportation system is extremely inconvenient.  Our community, especially our schools, are hostile to minority women and children.  With consistent effort and enough time, some women succeed and move on to housing.  Even if a victim breaks the cycle of abuse, they are left to fend for themselves in a racist, classist, sexist, ableist society.

Impressions of MN Ballet’s Dracula

Last night, I went to the Minnesota Ballet’s performance of Dracula.  Firstly, I love vampires.  Secondly, I like ballet.  So, there was a lot to love.  Now, when I say I like ballet, I want to make clear that I am not an expert on ballet.  My enjoyment of ballet consists of off and on ballet lessons as an adult.  I am currently taking ballet lessons on Tuesdays, as a matter of fact.  And, as you might imagine, I am a graceless fool with the beauty and coordination of a buffalo.  I think this makes me appreciate it, as I can enjoy how wonderful the performances are compared to my own awfulness.  Anyway, on with the show.

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The ballet began with Harker leaving Mina for Romania.  Their dance together was quaint and not particularly memorable.  Their reserved dance is suits two stuffy Victorian heterosexuals.  Things became more interesting when Harker was attacked by a trio of werewolves.  Again, Harker’s dancing was not all that interesting, but the choreography seemed suitable for a character who is a boring legal functionary.  Harker was rescued from this peril by Dracula, who at that point was depicted wearing a long dark silky tunic reminiscent of Vlad the Impaler.  This version of Dracula has long white Legolas hair.  In other words, he looked awesome!  This contrasted well against Harker’s less charismatic choreography and brown suit.  I also wondered what these suits were made of.   All of the male characters wore suits, so I wonder how they were adapted for dancing.  The white haired Dracula later found a locket with Mina’s picture and subsequently locked Harker in the basement of the castle, where he was seduced by three vampire women.


The seduction scene was great and aligned well with Bram Stoker’s novel.  Harker, the brown suited solicitor, had been pretty buttoned up and proper until that point.  But, the vampire women literally undressed him as they danced with him.  The women writhed around him, extending their long legs over his torso.  To Victorians, their wild sexuality was a marker of their evil nature.  In the ballet, their dangerous sexuality and its influence over Harker seems more pronounced than in the novel.  Dracula again saved him, though he now appeared younger with the traditional slick black hair and suit.  Twice, Dracula saved him from perilous trios, demonstrating his mastery over nature (the werewolves) and women (the vampire trio).  Interestingly, when they dance together, Dracula lightly lifted Harker.  This demonstrated his supernatural strength as a vampire, but also Dracula’s own gender bending sexual magnetism.


From then on, the story shifted to London.  Lucy began to fall under Dracula’s influence, while the mental patient Renfield acts erratically.  Renfield was amazing.  In the novel, he is a tortured, pathetic character.  In the ballet, he was the most dynamic and energetic dancer.  I don’t have a good enough memory to recall the various motions he performed, but at one point, he jumped high and did what I believe was a changement battu, wherein his feet were fluttering like a hummingbird.  Renfield’s sterile white costume, slippers, and erratic and energetic dancing made him stand out from the dull, black or brown suited assortment of male characters.  Like the novel, it was hard to keep track of Lord Arthur, Dr. Seward, and Quincy Morris as they danced.  Anyway, the ballet continued.  Lucy became a vampire, had a pretty cool dance scene after she arose from the grave, almost drank the blood of a little girl, and was staked.  The story then shifted to Mina, who was also falling under Dracula’s influence.

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As Mina fell under Dracula’s influence, the “men in suits” assembled with stakes.  They danced together, stakes in hand.  I thought that it was interesting that this Anglo-ensemble was off to save Mina from the clutches of a swarthy Eastern European.  It struck me that various guys I have met have expressed anxiety over the seductive power of “others” (Hispanics, blacks, Middle Easterners, Southern Europeans, etc.)  There is an anxiety that being Northern European isn’t attractive to women.  While the sun never sets on the British Empire, it is night just long enough to allow an outsider to seduce and transform their women.  In any event, the men with stakes faced the vampiress trio once again.  Once again, the women writhed and sprawled across the men.  The vampiresses managed to kill Renfield and carry him off.  It was neat to see the three petite ballerinas effortlessly pick up Renfield’s stiffened body.  The “suit men” had crosses and stakes.  They defeated the vampiresses and moved on to Dracula himself.  Dracula danced with all of them, lifting up at least one of the characters.  Again, this is pretty cool as it shows his strength as a vampire, but also as a dancer.  In the end, he is staked and the sun rises.  It should be noted that the final battle scene is far better than the novel.  It involved men dancing with stakes, men jumping backwards as Dracula throws them off, a dramatic caped pirouette, and real flames.  The novel’s final battle was very lackluster.  In the age of blockbuster movies and video games, a media consumer expects a drawn out and dramatic “boss battle.”  I like that the ballet delivered a “boss battle” worthy of Castlevania, complete with Toccata and Fugue and a Lacrymosa.

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Every ballet should have a boss battle.



As a whole, I enjoyed every moment of the ballet.  It was fun and offered food for thought.  For one, ballet is often thought of as very feminine.  However, this ballet, owing to the source material, really didn’t have many female characters.  Lucy and Mina pranced around in a world dominated by men.  The vampire trio were nameless seductresses who corrupted men and women and alike, but lacked individual motivation or characterization.  They danced in sync with each other and each wore the same white and red costume.  Like the novel, the ballet had a lot of masculine energy.  There were seven male characters, six of which wore suits.  In a way, the medium of ballet exaggerated the tropes of Victorian sexuality.  Since it relies on visual storytelling, the vampiresses must contort and extend to show their deviant sexual hunger.  Dracula must physically lift other men to show his strength.  He tries to drink their blood and seeks to control them.  Mina wears virginal white, but Lucy wears red when we falls under Dracula’s influence.  The novel was set in a time wherein sexualities were being scientifically categorized and understood.  The ambiguous romantic same sex friendships of the earlier part of the century were viewed with greater suspicion.  Dracula is dangerous because he challenges the masculinity of other men (by controlling them, saving them, threatening them, taking their women, and claiming ownership of Harker).  The male characters dance together and fight together in actions that are motivated by the female characters, but exclusive of them.  The fact that they are wearing tights and dancing around while they do this, highlights the otherwise subtle homoerotic subtext of the novel.

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Various scholars have argued that Dracula is full of homosexual metaphors.  If it is, the content is certainly subtle.

 


I like to think about gender and sexuality, so maybe I am assigning to much meaning to the ballet.  At the end of the day, it was fun.  There were werewolves and vampires.  The set lighting and pieces were dramatic.  The story was familiar and beloved.  So, of course I had a great time!

 

 

Activist Archives: Bi with Pie and the Importance of Bi+ Organizing

Yesterday, October 18th, marked the first meeting of Pandemonium, a local bi+ organization.  The first meeting lived up to the name, and really, that is my fault!  I thought it would be fun to have a “Bi with Pie” event, wherein we meet up and have some pie.  This SOUNDS fun in theory, but in practice, this meant being seated in the center of the room amidst a crowd of elderly diners at the local Perkins.  So, it was not exactly a comfortable discussion environment.  I asked to move and we were seated in booth that was off to itself, but were eventually joined by two nearby families with small children.  The world is a diverse place.  We have a right to be there and a right to discuss whatever we wish to.  But, most parents aren’t huge fans of subjecting their children to such interesting topics as bisexuality, polyamory, and transgender issues.  Thankfully, there were no complaints and we actually had a lively and interesting discussion.  However, I do take full responsibility for not thinking through the locale as well as I should have.  Next time we will meet at Pizza Luce for “Bi with Pizza Pie.”  We will also meet on Mondays as I was unaware that a local Trans group meets on Tuesdays.  These were honest mistakes, but geez, I feel terrible!


The Bi with Pie event attracted about five adults and one baby.   I was nervous that we would not have enough to talk about, so I brought questions and talking points to the group.  The meeting began with introductions and my own vision/mission of why I wanted to start the group.  This lent itself to some discussion throughout the two hour meeting.   As a little history about myself, I grew up in a small town and was pretty sheltered from various sexualities.  There was a time in high school wherein I thought I was a lesbian, but I kept this a secret from others.  I had a crush on a female at my school and told someone, which resulted in some very brief rumors about my sexuality.  At the time, I thought a person could only be straight or gay.   I eventually did have a boyfriend my senior year (I wasn’t exactly the sort of person who attracts a lot of romantic interest), which laid to rest my questions about my sexuality.  These questions did not surface again until college, when I learned that bisexuality was actually a possible sexuality.  This seems terribly naïve, but I seriously did not know much about different sexualities.  I finally came out as bisexual while studying in Ireland, as this was an environment where I was more free to express myself with less social consequence.  I have identified as bisexual since then.


My own catalyst for trying to start up a bi+ group was the events of this summer.  I was at a vigil for the Orland Nightclub Massacre this summer and was asked to be interviewed by the news.  I told them that they should interview someone else.  I did not feel that I was a good representative of the LGBT community.  After that interaction, I asked myself why?  Why do I feel like I am not a part of the LGBT community?  Why do I feel that my own opinion doesn’t matter?  Why do I feel like I am not queer enough?  As a bisexual, I have had the privilege of passing as a heterosexual.  At the same time, I have felt that perhaps I was not oppressed enough to fit into the LGBT community or that there might not be space for me.  This is not because anyone from that community has treated me poorly.  Rather, it is my own fears and insecurities.  As such, there are several reasons why I think that it is important to organize as bisexuals, which I shared at the meeting and which I will outline here:


  1. Visibility: One of the things that is most frustrating as a bisexual is the lack of visibility.  While bisexuals make up the largest portion of the LGBT community, they are not the most visible.  Opposite gender relationships result in invisibility when bi+ are assumed to be heterosexual.  Same gender relationships can result in invisibility when bi+ are assumed to be homosexual.  Historically, many cultures had sexual practices that might be considered bisexual by modern standards, but these instead get labelled homosexual.  This is all part of the larger issue of bisexual erasure.
  2. Legitimacy:  Several people who attended the group felt that their sexuality was treated as a phase, dismissed as something to appeal to men, or was somehow deviant.  I think that a bi+ group can work to assert ourselves as legitimate and dispel some of the myths associated with bisexuality.  For instance, some people in the group felt appalled that they had been stereotyped as promiscuous, kinky, or hypersexual (not that there is anything wrong with these things).
  3. Education: I was surprised to learn that bisexuals played an important role in the early LGBT movement.  The first campus LBGT group was founded by a bisexual man (Donnie the Punk) and the first Pride Festival was organized by a bisexual woman (Brenda Howard).  Getting together is a way to educate each other about history and learn together about sexual issues.  Part of our discussion involved educating each other on the differences between bisexual and pansexual, different sexualities in general, and the role of gender roles in patriarchy.  Additionally, the groups gives us an instrument through which we can organize educational community events.
  4. Community: Through education, discussion, activism, and support, we can grow in our identities and as a bisexual community.  Some of the members expressed that they felt alone or that they did not fit in.  Some felt that they had always been private about their sexuality because their sexuality had been used as weapon to discredit them.  Thus, a component of the meeting was offering support to one another.  Each person at the table had a struggle.  Themes of these struggles included past relationship violence, mental health, sexual trauma, etc.  The group provides an avenue for sharing and support.
  5. Social: It is fun to get together with people and discuss issues.  This is socially rewarding.  It builds friendships and networks to resources.  So, sexualities aside, having a group fulfils this role.
  6. Activism: Finally, having a group creates an opportunity for activism.  When things such as the Orlando massacre happen, we can mobilize to protest.  We can also participate in Pride, Bisexuality Visibility Day, National Coming Out Day, and other LGBT events.
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Conclusion:

Our discussion meandered over many topics and there was plenty to talk about.  In the end and despite the challenges of the locale, we decided that we would meet on Monday November 21st at Pizza Luce at 6:30 pm.  One of our major goals for the time being is simply to meet up once a month.  Based upon this we can expand into activism, community education, and connecting with the larger LGBT movement.   Although our beginning was a little rough and certainly modest, I am hopeful for the future and thankful to those who attended.

 

Sexuality and Socialism: Book Review

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Sexuality and Socialism by Sherry Wolf was candy.  I devoured the book in less than 24 hours.  I didn’t expect the book to be as good as it was.  Judging by the title, I thought that it would be a little dry.  Instead, it was engaging, accessible, and humorous.  The book was good in that it was a fast read that approached sexuality from a Marxist perspective.  Grounding sexuality with materialism is something that I don’t often encounter as the dominant discourses around sexuality tend towards matters of biology and identity.   The book offers a fascinating history with a critique of popular paradigms of sexuality.

One highlight of the book is a chapter on the Russian revolution and Marxist thought regarding sexuality.  I was previously unaware that following the Russian revolution, there are some medical records of rather primitive attempts at sex changes as well as instances of same sex marriages.  This is quite astonishing how a relatively backwards, peasant based, monarchy could in the advent of revolution come to frame sexuality as a matter of public health, privacy, and scientific inquiry, rather than morality and crime.  So, Wolf’s chapter “The Myth of Marxist Homophobia” was refreshing.  Wolf very clearly elucidated the idea that Marxists do not view sexuality as secondary to social class, but rather that solidarity between workers hinges upon ending sexual oppression as well.  In this perspective, homophobia is not vastly separated from class oppression, but a means by which workers are divided.  It is itself an outcome of the material conditions of capitalism which require a nuclear family and rigid gender roles for the reproduction of workers, division of laborers, gender based unpaid labor, and privatized responsibility for children.  This materialist perspective shows the connection between oppressions.  The same chapter is also useful as it speaks about the specific failures of various communist countries and movements.  For example, while Cuba has moved towards more just treatment of sexual minorities, it has a dark history of putting homosexuals into work camps and denying LGBT activists entry into the country.   I visited Cuba in 2008 and was impressed that the country offered sex changes for free and was very pleased with my visit to the CENESEX (the national center for sex education).  In fact, the year I visited was the first year that sex changes were offered for free and the first year that there was a Pride Festival.  I was not aware that the Pride Festival was shut down due to the participants asking for an acknowledgement of past wrongs.  Nevertheless, the book is a bit hard on Cuba, as Fidel Castro has called this history a terrible injustice and most people supportive of LGBT rights would view Cuba’s reforms over the last decade or so encouraging (even if there is debate or cynicism regarding the purpose of these reforms.)  Yet, it is important to acknowledge an entire history rather than some hopeful reforms.

Another highlight of the book was a chapter on how the Democratic Party has been an enemy at worst and fair weather friend at best, when it comes to LGBT rights.  High lights, or low lights, of this history include Clinton’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, Howard Dean promoting civil unions over marriage, Obama being pro-state rights on the question of same sex marriage, Dukakis advocating against a gay caucus within the democratic party, and other instances in a long history of betrayals.  These tidbits appealed to me out due to my deep and terrible disdain for democrats that comes from watching flames of social movements or the sparks of social movements burn out in the stifling, airless environment that is electoral politics.  Another interesting part of this chapter was about the marketization of gay identity, or how the media portrays the LGBT community as wealthy, leisurely, and white.  This creates an identity based upon consumerism (for people to aspire towards through buying), but also ignores the experiences of LGBT individuals who are working class or people of color.

The working class is something that the book pays special attention to.  Despite media myths, gay men actually have a lower annual income than straight men (though lesbians make more than straight females-perhaps because they may not leave the labor market to raise children).  The book also mentioned that some early LGBT rights activists were also involved in the labor movement, such as Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society and IWW organizer.  The connections between labor and LGBT history is important in building solidarity but also viewing sexuality based oppression as built into our economic system.  There is perhaps a stereotype that the average blue collar worker is a homophobic white man. Many workers may very well be homophobic.  Yet, the stereotype that workers are particularly homophobic blames workers for sexual oppression rather than grounding it in capitalism and ideologies that benefit the ruling class.  The liberation of working people hinges upon their ability to unite.  I liked reading about examples wherein workers saw the connection between oppressions, such as the book’s example of Teamster’s uniting with San Francisco’s LGBT community in a boycott against Coors. In a similar vein, African Americans are often stereotyped as being more homophobic than white people.  I appreciate that the book addresses this as a racist myth that ignores that most conservatives are white and that the majority of African Americans have voted in favor of same sex marriage and expanding rights to LGBT people.  Finally, I enjoyed the insight about same sex marriage.  Many leftist activists pointed out that same sex marriage was not really an accomplishment to celebrate, as it reinforces monogamy and marriage, which are cornerstones of capitalist patriarchy.  Another critique is that there is a conservativism in the demand to marry, as it is an attempt to be just like normal, heterosexual people.  However, a person can be against monogamy and marriage and still for the extension of rights to oppressed groups.  There is nothing to lose by extending these rights as it challenges discrimination and can be a springboard to more radical demands.  In this same way, a person should support voting rights for women even if a person doesn’t necessarily believe in the electoral system or the right to serve in the military for LGBT people even if they don’t believe in imperialist war.   A person can remain principled against monogamy, marriage, war, the two party system, etc. but also believe in extending basic democratic rights to oppressed groups.

The book spends some time picking apart Queer Theory, identity politics, and Postmodernism.  I feel that the attention given to this critique was a little bit overzealous.  While postmodernism can certainly be critiqued for its lack of solutions, academic jargon, pessimism, and over emphasis on language, I think it is also useful to see what can be salvaged from some of the insights offered by postmodernist thinkers.  Since social movements do use language to frame arguments and slogans, language should be viewed tactically and anything postmodernism offers on this front, a possible weapon for social change.  Likewise, discourse is distilled reality, so I find nothing wrong with trying to determine how to most powerfully express material conditions. But, language can be a tar pit.  Focusing too much on it or over emphasizing its power just leaves a movement stuck in the muck…left to slow, fossilization.  As for Queer Theory and identity politics, I think that these theories are meaningful to LGBT people and that it is wise to tread lightly when critiquing ideas that oppressed groups find valuable, meaningful, or important.  Identity is a pretty important part of the lives of people, even if identity is shaped by consumerism and capitalism.  But, the book’s critique is not so much about focusing on identity as it is the tactics of certain groups (which shunned mass movements).  Honestly, a group should have the autonomy to chose its own tactics.  While some tactics may not be traditionally as effective, they might be coupled with mass movements or used creatively to attract people to more massive actions.  As for queer theory, I cannot weigh in on the book’s criticisms as I am simply not knowledgeable enough.  I had a positive view of queer theory as an attempt to unite at LGBTQIAH…people under an umbrella of queerness and for trying to dismantle false dichotomies between gay and straight or queer and not queer.  Although the theory is not a class based analysis, in my limited understanding, I appreciate attempts to deconstruct what is taken for granted as truth about sexuality.

A more satisfying section on the book is about the dominance of biological determinism in the discussion of LGBT people.  This has been a personal pet peeve of my own.  Biological determinism has been useful to activists, since it legitimizes LGBT identities and experiences through the notion that people are born that way.  From my own experiences, I don’t feel that I was born bi, female, male, heterosexual, asexual, or any sexual/gender identity really.  I don’t view my life as a long narrative of unchanging desires or orientations.  In high school, I was uncertain about my sexual orientation and even at this moment, I am uncertain of my gender identity. To others, this might seem inauthentic.  Somehow biology makes something authentic, whereas choice does not.   The book emphasizes the social aspects of identity/desire/orientation and the interplay between biology and environment.  Even if some choice is involved in gender and sexuality and that the meaning of these things changes with changes in material conditions, this does not justify oppression.

As a whole, I enjoyed the book.  There are some things I didn’t agree with, but I largely enjoyed the book for its attempt to root LGBT issues and history within capitalism.  I can’t imagine a work on this topic, from a materialist perspective, that is more accessible and fascinating.  My review is far from comprehensive, but documents my impression of the book and some of the arguments therein.

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