Monday, August 15, 2011


Recently, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Jennifer Boylan which contended that trans people always come last when it comes to LGBT rights. The article participates in a longer discussion that I can't recapitulate here. Suffice it to say, that conversation is about the use of gender normativity to grease the wheels of gay and lesbian assimilation into middle America -- only faintly tomboyish women marrying each other, while muscled, still-manly men do the same. Since trans people can't be gender normative, their struggles are necessarily marginalized when campaigns for gay equality emphasize gender normativity. Many indignant commenters insist that gays and lesbians cannot be opposed to trans people, that only the straight majority can do that. Unfortunately, that's just not the case, as people opposed on one topic can share ideas on another. I like to think of such partners as strange bedfellows, indeed.

This article and the resulting backlash prompted me to think about my own travels, relocations that often transformed my way of thinking about gender and sexuality. With that, here is "Translocations."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

When Police Are the Anarchists

When in grad school, I taught an SAT prep class to keep afloat financially. I remember going over some of Greek and Latin roots of words to help my students (mostly Korean, nonnative speakers) get better access to meanings. Drifting away from the pure rote memorization the program demanded, I instigated a discussion about "anarchy" -- a word that literally means "without a chief or head" but has also come to mean tumultuous disorder. Why, I asked them, does the absence of a ruling authority immediately convert into a picture of violent chaos? And what constituency was behind the drive to fuse the literal meaning (no leader) and the figurative meaning (orgiastic riot)?

If I were willing to lose that job, I would have sermonized about contradictions on the political right. They have a libertarian streak that says with less government, citizens would actually be more virtuous. Hence, businesses and property owners should be free to engage in any contractual activity they like (besides, of course, same-sex marriage contracts). However, at the same time, they support "tough on crime" policies against people whom they pre-emptively define out of the category of citizens. Those people, apparently--those poor people, the ones that are immigrants, or don't speak English, or those criminals who don't wear business suits--are inherently immoral.Ω  The story goes that the police are the only protection from the anarchy that these people aim--every moment of their lives--to impose. Therefore, the absence of police automatically means that chaos and disorder are rampant.

I find myself thinking of these slides (from libertarian to authoritarian styles, from the absence of a leader to the absence of social cohesion) with the guilty verdict handed down in the case of New Orleans officers convicted of shooting six citizens (and killing two) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I remember being furious with the stories that were coming out--not only from the 24-hour speculation channels but also from "old media" like the august New York Times: babies being raped in the Superdome, a gang of 400 armed black people crossing a bridge to loot, deranged black people shooting at military helicopters.

Anyone who has reflected on being targeted by police knew immediately that all of this was sheer nonsense.  We didn't need the later articles retracting the reports. The reason? We never believed black people (the poor ones who haven't made it into the middle class) are so savage that the instant the police presence is suspended they'd do every manner of evil--hell, improvise new types of evil like it was a jazz solo or a freestyle rap. We were smarter than that. But, unfortunately, law and order/tough on crime talk has been so effective that even people in targeted groups repeat it. When the police cat is away, the negroes unleash anarchy.

•People displaced by the storm provided some of the sensationalized stories. Perhaps they thought heightening the amount of danger they were in would get them help. After all, the hurricane and flood were not enough to arouse many people's charity for those people.

• Police Superintendent Edwin Compass offered "babies getting raped" on Oprah. To be clear, he's black. But his skin color helps prove my point about the success of "law and order" talk. Being black doesn't make one immune from parroting that discourse. In fact, he might have felt he had to master it to rise in the ranks of the police department. By being so fully indoctrinated in police thinking, he is as fluent in "those people are animals" as anyone else and clearly believed that a "thin blue line" separated good law-abiding folks from near-animals waiting to be uncaged.

• Tiger Woods said (I'll never forget this and he's unlikely to ask for forgiveness for it):
"It's just unbelievable. Not only the devastation, but how people are behaving, with the shootings and now with the gang rapes and the gang violence and shooting at helicopters who are trying to help people out, trying to rescue people, I just don't understand that whole concept. You figure if anything, they would all come together and try to help one another out, but they are doing the exact opposite. From that standpoint, I just can't see how the community is doing that to themselves."
Doing that to themselves?!?!  Two words on the broken levee ("the devastation") and then sentence upon sentence of paranoid fantasies of Negroes Gone Wild: Hurricane Edition?!?! Better, I think, for Mr. Woods to have remained silent.

How much of those nightmares turned out to be true in the light of day? Well, no 7-year old was found raped and with her throat slit--much less a whole group of babies.† And considering that the National guard was sent to New Orleans with guns before water or medical supplies arrived, how would a citizen know whether a helicopter was being sent to help them or kill them? If you thought the latter, you had good reason and may well have shot at a plane.  Or maybe the shot was fired in an attempt to get attention to be rescued--or even arrested. The accommodations in prison beat dying of thirst on your roof, I'm sure.

The point is that the presumption that it must have been lawless, looting, gang-raping, gang-banging insanity is the least likely explanation. After all, these were people who had no food, no water, no medication. They were unsure of where their loved ones were and if they were alive, unsure of whether or not they would have homes to go back to. What person, in the midst of that, decides to rape a baby--much less participate in a gang-rape of a baby? Can you imagine the unfortunate victims of any of the tsunamis being described this way? Or the tornados that ripped through the Midwest this year? I can't. Those New Orleans blacks must be super-negroes, because even without food and water, they can still commit unimaginably, heinous crimes. So why send food and water?

And that conclusion, dear readers, is the reason for this whole law and order/tough on crime mantra. It's not meant for unique cases like Katrina. It is meant to paint a general portrait of a certain segment of the population in effect at all times. It doesn't need proof. It already predicts this behavior because it knows those people.

So, let's be clear: Katrina didn't unleash black anarchy, it unleashed the authoritarian imagination--the same imagination that confuses the absence of an uninhibited police force with an anti-social paradise for crime. (More on the "liberal media's" participation in paranoid racial fantasies below...)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Queer Auntie for the Straight Black Family: A quick follow-up on Tyler Perry

For AJC and DLM

It has often been said that Tyler Perry's films are homophobic. But what if that's not the case?

Could it be that Tyler Perry is trying to find the oddly gendered person a stable and necessary place in the "family" that is the black race? We know that some families beat, disown, or try to correct gender-inappropriate family members. Could Perry really be saying that his wild, transvestite character Madea--warts and all--is actually the most important aspect of her extended family, even if she does not have a hetero/nuclear family of her own? Could this actually be a blow in favor of new family formations, instead of the insipid, worn-out, impossible gender oppositions his films claim to sell?

Certainly this is the effect of the films. Whether Perry knows that this is what he has done, I'm not sure. And, even if he does, the cost is high: Madea gets to stay in the family, it seems, because of her perpetual offer of service to help them meet their hetero dreams. It's not clear what she gets out of it... any more than I could ever figure out what the guys on _Queer Eye_ got out of being straight guys' fairy godmothers... or what Lisa Turtle (yes, I went there!) got out of being everyone's matchmaking confidante on _Saved by the Bell_ .(For those of you who are too young to get the reference, take lonely Mercedes from _Glee_, subtract her singing voice and about 80 lbs, and you've got Lisa).

Apparently, it easier to imagine all these black feminine figures as lacking desire -- the more so that they can help you get what you want. Or, put another way, their only desire is that you get what you desire. It's a beautiful fantasy for the one getting. But it seems a bad trade for the person giving: you won't banish or annihilate me as long as I promise to spend all my time helping you get what you want. Umm, ok. I guess that's the assimilation two-step. Glad to know who's leading that dance.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Madea Is Her own Baby's Daddy: Thoughts on Tyler Perry's latest

So, here's an unexpected confession: I didn't find Tyler Perry's latest (Madea's Big Happy Family) that bad at all. Up to this point, I had avoided all the Madea movies, thinking that his work with stronger actors would be better. Not so: his misuse of Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard (in the incoherent Family that Preys) and his utter failure to translate Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls were tear-out-my-hair infuriating.

The most recent Madea film (my first) was actually pretty pleasant.† I smiled often. I laughed a few times and seldom grimaced. I could see that some aspects of his film-making are improving. He seems to do a better job of mixing the genres that influenced him: the gospel stage-plays were present in his ad-libbing and prominent musical numbers; Eddie Murphy's Klumps clearly inspired Perry to attempt multiple characters, each requiring mounds of makeup and prosthetics; and the talk-show influence actually surfaced in the person of none other than Maury Povich. To top it off, Madea also briefly mentioned that Oprah doesn't want her to text and drive--a brief nod to Perry's real-life friend.

While typing that last sentence, I nearly wrote "him" for Madea. This impulse has nothing to do with wanting to make fun of transvestism by playing with pronouns. I want to account for the array of things that are out-of-place about this character. In a certain sense, Madea is well-acted. Perry is very credible in the role. I never get the sense that he is out of character, losing his accent or posture. Interestingly, he is equally consistent as an elderly male (Uncle Joe, if I recall). His only unconvincing performances are actually when he plays a fairly young, heterosexual male: in films like The Family that Preys... or when speaking as a young heterosexual male (i.e., himself) in interviews.

This film ends ** SPOILER ALERT ** with a trip to Maury Povich. Madea and Mr. Brown are there to find out the paternity of Madea's light-skinned adult child (whose name I forget). From what I could gather, Madea had only recently told her  daughter that Brown was the father. But, in this film, a trip to the hospital (first) and a full-on DNA test (on Povich) prove that this is not the case. I am sure the series will resolve it another way, but I would like to contend that Madea is her own baby's daddy.

I'm asking you to think of Madea as the "phallic mother." If I remember my Freud, the father of psychoanalysis said that the infant thinks of the mother as an all-sufficient figure. She provides both the nursing breast and physical protection (because she is so much larger than the baby). In that sense, she fulfills social duties that Freud's  Victorian contemporaries divided between men and women. As the story progresses, children age and discover that this phallic mother is umm--missing something. She has been castrated. To explain with a less hyperbolic metaphor, one could say that society typically does not authorize the mother to display aggression and lay down the law in the way that a father figure can. This proper white Victorian woman doesn't have balls. But Tyler Perry's Madea does.

Madea is part of a long line of black female characters who take on both roles. In the infamous Moynihan Report, this strong black matriarch was considered The Problem with black American family structure. But in the Perry films, she seems to be the solution--or, at least, an instrument for rescuing the only version of stable families the films can imagine: two-parent, nuclear families, with a strong man at the helm and a submissive woman under him. But why is the instrument of correction--the one who is supposed to stabilize black families by creating respectful children, responsible fathers, and dutiful wives--why is this figure so gender (and age) inappropriate? And how can such a supposedly mis-gendered person bring about gender normalcy?