Black Lesbian Excitement in Tejas

So … it seems two of my favorite people and/or their work will be featured in co-sponsored events by Allgo this week. For those who don’t know, Allgo is the place for queer people of color in Austin TX, a place I do not reside but Allgo often makes me wish I did. They sponsor artists in residence, film and discussion series, performances and activism, and just generally conscious-righteous stuff for the qoc.

This week they are featuring a poetic play by one of my favorite black lesbian authors, Sharon Bridgforth on Friday March 4 (TODAY PEOPLE):

8pm, The University of Texas at Austin, Winship Drama Building 2.180, 300 E. 23rd Street, Austin, TX

AND

Tomorrow after the amazing conference Performing Lesbian Archives, Allgo will be hosting an intimate dinner and discussion with  fellow blogger and newly minted PhD Alexis Pauline Gumbs (who I love and you should love too) and colleague in revolutionary black lesbian praxis Julia Wallace.

Bring a dish to share and get a chance to see footage from their amazing intergenerational project on black lesbian lives @ Out Youth 7:30pm 909 1/2 E. 49th Street, Austin TX 78751

And hey, if you can’t be in TX for these events, then consider getting your local college, women’s center, queer center, or feminist bookstore to invite these people out to your town.

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It Gets Better

Dan Savage and I are not often on the same page when it comes to issues of race and women (gay or straight), but where we agree is that the polarizing politics currently dominating the U.S. landscape is especially dangerous for the survival of queer youth. While adults fight over the meaning of marriage, diversity education programs, and even adoption, young people who are still figuring out life are subjected the backlash from these debates that vilify gender transgression, desire,love, and even people’s families. More than that, the national debate has led to a clear uptick in violence against both queer people and people “perceived to be gay or trans”. In this dangerous time, strides that we had made in helping youth feel comfortable about exploring their identities and their desires have fallen victim to policing, inaction, and despair. High profile child suicides are rocking the nation and many of them include stories of parents who tried to get the school to listen, children who tried to be stronger than the hate that surrounded them, and other kids whose lives are equally lost because they listened or were taught hate.

Dan Savage and his partner have started a youtube channel of people telling their stories to encourage young people to hang in during the bad times and know that as Radcliff Hall says “somewhere there is a place for us”. As expected, the people participating so far have been largely male, white, cis, and middle class. However, everybody’s story matters in the fight to save struggle children. If you are from a traditionally marginalized background in the queer community (person of color, immigrant, lesbian, bi, trans, etc.) please consider making a video and helping young children see the diversity of the community reflected as well as the promise that no matter who you are you can survive and ultimately thrive.

As you can see from some of the videos I have chosen, the project is open to people from all over the world who would like to weigh in, so if you are part of the 58% of my blog readers who come from outside the U.S. you can still help with the project by making a video or spreading the word!

Cheryl Dunye New Film on Lesbian Elders

Allgo is co-sponsoring a showing of Cheryl Dunye’s new film OWLS: Older Wiser Lesbians on September 11, 2010. Director Cheryl Dunye will also be on hand to discuss her motivation in making the film and her career as an out black lesbian director in the independent film scene.

At first glance, OWLS is a murder mystery in which two lesbian elders accidentally kill a much younger genderqueer lesbian and then try to cover it up. The real story however is about intergenerational conflict and competing visions of lesbian culture.

In keeping with her longstanding thread of connecting history and cinema, Dunye examines the lesbian utopian movements of the past that rejected the image of lesbians as doomed, failed women, and tragic spinsters and instead dared to dream “somewhere there is a place for us.” She asks us to think about what it meant to have lesbian only spaces and collectives in a time when same sex attracted women were incarcerated in prisons or mental health facilities or otherwise physically, sexually, economically or emotionally punished for daring to love and how those spaces shaped the optimism of lesbian movements in the 80s only to become a battleground between the women who sustained those movements and brought them into the modern era and younger women who grew up in a world in which nationally syndicated papers refer to “lesbian chic”, out lesbians host talk shows and news shows, and questions about who counts as a woman requires a radical rethink of the biological determinism that once defined not only lesbian utopia but feminism itself. The film questions why the lessons learned and the activism done by these women is undervalued by both straight people and younger lesbians. It questions why places and spaces are shrinking or seemingly shrinking for lesbians of a certain age even while younger women thrive on the privileges gained. And while it no doubt maintains the comic timing and humorous endings that typify Dunye’s work, it should and aught to open conversations about intergenerational community and activism that embraces both critical changes in perspective by younger lesbians and the knowledge and strength of those who came before amongst lesbians and within the larger social justice community.

Please note, I have not yet seen this film in its entirety and cannot vouch for how it handles gender or younger lesbian characters. If you have seen the film, please weigh in in the comment section.

If you would like to see the screening:

When: Saturday, September 11, 2010, at 11:30 am
General Admission $10, Students & Seniors $5
Where: Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival at the Alamo Drafthouse South (1120 S. Lamar Blvd Austin TX)

The Real L World but Not the Real L A

post still in progress – images added tonight

Let me start by saying I watched the entire run of the L World on Showtime, wrote essays about both its import and its failings, and teach it in my popular media course. Despite the many things I enjoyed about the show, from both an academic and viewer standpoint, the promises Chaiken made to be a multicultural show written from the perspective of biracial lesbians and lesbians of color, as well as white lesbians seldom panned out in the ways she promised. So I admit it, I was cynical about the racial politics of the “reality” show version of the L Word from the minute I heard it was in the proposal stage.

Like many of you, I watched 6 seasons of the L Word where overall the characters and storylines were compelling but black women, butch women and trans men (the latter of which were often collapsed into a single category) were largely absent and/or almost always depicted in profoundly offensive ways: Kit starts out as a drunk and bad mother whose parents and children hate her. Though she improves over the series she is also the outspoken gender and transphobe whose only white counterpart is the always inappropriate Jenny. As the only consistent black female presence on the show, she also acts as a subtle reinforcement of the idea that black people are more homophobic than white people (the visibly white, tho multiculti cast is all lesbian, the visibly black woman is straight with offensive gender politics) even as she subverts this idea by being openly supportive of not only her sister but the entire community. Yolanda, the only black woman in Bette’s lamaze class, is perpetually angry and constantly attacking Bette for passing. The audience is invited to judge her anger and be repulsed by her politics and beliefs even in the one scene where she is not yelling or on the verge of yelling. More than that, this first season encounter establishes the narrative of whiteness that often undermined attempts at diversity on the show, ie that if you can pass for white, live a life in which you are largely or completely treated as white, then you should and so should the show. As Better put it in response to Yolanda’s accusation that she had failed to embrace her entire cultural heritage and become white, “why shouldn’t I?” And her list of all the privileges and advantages that passing affords her are stated without irony nor complexity as if to further affirm the politics of privilege. The only offset to this mantra is that Bette makes an effort to have a biracial baby with her white partner and that her search is intentionally juxtaposed with her decries about the rightness and goodness of whiteness or lightness.

Latinas faired slightly better in the L Word partially because Papi, who was the quintessential “hot tamale” stereotype, was brought in for a plot twist and then quickly edited back out. Yet like Chaiken’s promises of multiculturalism in the promos for the first season of the show, quite a bit of media buzz surrounded Papi’s entrance into the L Word as a Latina lesbian character. Promotion promised us a character that had largely been missing from the show, what they delivered was a character who helped white lesbian Alice get her groove back and then was largely missing from the show.

At the same time the L Word did give us more interesting secondary characters of color. Candace Jewell, Bette”s fling, though tight-lipped was decidedly not a Saphire character, instead she offered us one of the only positive depictions of working class, [soft] butch identity on the show. She was intelligent, passionate, and hard working. Though some of have criticized the character for the jail house love scene which for them tapped into certain stereotypes of blackness. Tasha also went a long way in fixing some of the earlier missteps of the show with regards to gender politics and class identity. While her character was also more fleshed out than others, it still tapped into certain, more subtle stereotypes, about black women as angry, aloof, and conservative (vis-a-vis white liberal feminists). Carmen, as femme, also complicated an alarming equation of butchness and working classness or hickness that seemed to permeate the show, especially when Moira arrived before transition but also with Kelly. She was perhaps the most well-rounded and integrated character of color in the series. She was tied to a main character so that she was hard to marginalize and the scenes involving her family dealt with both Latinos who are opposed to homosexuality and those who embrace it in ways that avoided stereotypes about people of color and homophobia. At the same time neither of the Latina characters were played by Latina actresses bring the sum total of prominent Latinas employed by the L Word to ZERO. The absence of Asian women, which can only be countered by the casting of South Asian women to play Latinas, was also glaring in a show set in LA.

Given the racial and gender politics of the fictional version, I doubted the unreality of the proposed reality show would veer much further from Chaiken’s seeming preference for feminine, white or light characters; the previews for the Real L Word seemed to confirm my suspicions. There are no black women on the Real L Word and the emphasis on upper class identity in the show seems to imply that black women are poor and therefore not running in the same circles as these “top 10% ” lesbians (to borrow one cast member’s self-description). While I doubt the class-race connections were intentional, the failure to provide wide shots during Rose’s class discussion which would have shown an array of visibly brown and black women leaves the viewer with a particular message even as Rose’s own presence complicates it. More than that, the tight shots in these first scenes may have been an issue of consent and production but also serve to further erase darker women of color from even the background of the show.

Both Latinas in the Real L Word are white by Latina standards and at least one can likely pass by U.S. ones. In fact, I did not know she was Latina until she makes a Spanish language phone call to her mother in an anglicized accent. Interestingly, Rose, the more outspoken of the two could not pass.

At the same time, Chaiken has made an effort to include both butch women and her oh-so-light woc lesbians as equals in the show. Two of the main characters are women who self-identify as not feeling comfortable in a dress. One makes sure to tell us she is “a top” (though her make up artist girlfriend promptly says otherwise) and the other one says “There are heels and boots” and she is definitely “boots”.  A lot of time is spent on Miss Boots storyline in the first episode, so perhaps the producers are discovering something we already knew, ie women of all gender presentations are interesting not just us girlie girls.

The show also spends a considerable amount of time with both Latinas. Unlike the Papi character, Rose’s loud-mouthed womanizing is offset by her time with her family, discussions of growing older and getting out of bad relationships, and her negotiations with her live-in partner who I think is also Latina. Thus, she is transformed from a stereotypical version of Latina womanhood into a well-rounded character who likes to party. Since this is reality tv and bad girls sell, Chaiken’s decision to depict Rose’s complexity is particularly important and a key sign of the growth in racial representations begun in the later seasons of the L Word. Rose’s time with her family is also a critical counterpoint to Tracy’s conversation with and about her mother. While Rose has a supportive family who actively discusses her love life, Tracy’s mother has simply refused to address it and Tracy has had to make the difficult and familiar choice of cutting her emotional-sexual life out of her relationship with her parents. Again the two women’s experiences give us a much wider view of Latina women than we might otherwise get from someone invested in uncomplicated racial stereotypes and sensationalist tv.

Ultimately, I found the first episode of the Real L Word compelling. Not only does it expand the discourse of gender and race beyond that of the fictional show but it offers us a wide range of interesting characters with recognizable issues and lives. It humanizes the experience of lesbians across the lifecycle and thus offers another opportunity for people to see the gay community as normal or to see a snippet of themselves reflected on tv. However, that snippet continues to erase black and Asian women and to privilege a preference for lipstick whiteness and/or lightness that makes me wish Chaiken would deal with her own biracial issues and come into her racial own (instead of emulating Bette’s “why shouldn’t I [pass for white]”). As one biracial girl to another, I can tell her that life is much better on the other side of racial confusion and fear of blackness (all though I cannot say I ever shared those two issues with her). So I will keep watching the Real L Word while rooting for Chaiken to live up to some of the promises she has made over the years and let go of some of the baggage she has defended. And truthfully, the show is interesting, often compelling, and literally hard to turn away from even in the midst of the worst dyke drama.

What did you all think?