We are not connected by the truth or universality of our experiences because our experiences are not universal. Instead, we are connected by the systemic links between the oppressions that grind us down.
This was the brief presentation I gave on May 27 at "Queer is Community," an event organised by local Chicago queers to pro-actively address the issues of racism and homophobia that erupt every summer in Chicago's gay neighbourhood, Boystown (also known as Lakeview). I've only edited this slightly, so it does read like more of a talk/speech than my usual written work - I thought it best to preserve the spirit in which it was delivered. Embedded in this is a link to a piece that contextualises the recent issues that Gender JUST has had with the Center on Halsted, the city's largest LGBT center. Please read that as well and sign the related petition.
I would first like to thank those of you who put together this event. I know from experience how hard it is to pull off something like this.
I was asked to speak about my experiences and to, in effect, tell my story. I am grateful for that opportunity and I honour the stories of those who are here tonight. I recognise the importance of telling stories that are otherwise unheard or ignored, to our detriment, but I am here today to speak out against story-telling as a political strategy.
I don't, in general, use my experiences to advance change because, frankly, I know that no matter how horrific my story might be to some of you, there will always be others who denounce it as not important enough or insist that there is the far superior one, the one more deserving of attention, the one whose characters literally deserve life over death. More importantly, stories help us to forget the systemic forms of exploitation and oppression that surround us and in which we are all implicated. In recent years, however, story-telling has become a substitute for political analysis, especially amongst those who consider themselves to be on the left, and especially amongst people of colour.
Stories can always be counteracted with different stories, and different characters. I'm critical of the gay marriage movement, and one of my arguments is that no one should have to marry for health care in a country that, increasingly, coerces people into marrying for the same. I frequently write about living and facing death without health care, simply to illustrate that marriage would make no difference to me in that regard, or to countless others. I am simply told, over and over, that such is the cost of maturity. I am met with stories about people who “died because they could not get married and get health care.” In the rising din of the sound of tears and crying that such a story inevitably evokes, no one cares to hear the truth, the utterly simple truth: it's not the lack of marriage that will kill you, it's the lack of health care.
Stories provide cover, they hide the truth of imperialism and war and carnage. Dan Choi tells his story of being a Korean American born into a Baptist family where he never felt comfortable being out and gay, and of how proud he is of being an out and gay soldier and that war is a force that gives us meaning and that he simply wants to fight for this country and to use his language skills to keep imprisoning Iraqis and help them save their country and that war is a force that gives us meaning. His host, the famously anti-war Amy Goodman never once blinks or asks him: “Really, you think war is okay? And you said that on this program, my program, where I present stories critical of the war?” Instead, she goes on to write an op-ed, praising him for his service to his country and for being out. The story of his being gay and Asian American and sad and pathetic erases the fact of his being an imperialist war-mongerer who justifies the carnage of millions in the name of a just war.
Stories separate us into the good and the bad. In stories about the undocumented, queerness becomes yet another way to tug at our hearts. Today gay, lesbian, and queer undocumented students use the rhetoric of “coming out” and of being the good, young people who will go on to become the doctors and lawyers of tomorrow, the good ones. In claiming “coming out” as a strategy – disguised as a mere story and reinventing a history of gay liberation as if that history has remained immutably the same since the 1970s– they are able to call upon sympathy on two different grounds: they are the queer ones, and therefore deserving of support from a gay community that is otherwise, as we know, deeply conservative and often racist. As they gather around courthouses in their graduation robes and hats, They are, they implicitly argue, nothing like the bad kids, the slacker students. the ones who might just go on to nothing from high school, the one who can't muster up the energy to work three jobs, or the ones who refuse to parrot unqualified support for a country whose foreign policies they don't support.
In this retelling we forget or ignore the facts: that there are undocumented students who don't give a damn about being the good immigrants, who won't apologise for their anti-war slogans even as they find themselves on the fast track to deportation – these are the students not discussed in the pages of The Nation, not heralded as heroes, not saved by appeals on Change.org.
Stories can be lies. As some of you know, I was among those who did not want this event held at this venue. The Center on Halsted recently spoke of having Restorative Justice in place, in an interview with the Windy City Times. We in Gender JUST and some of the hard-working staff and youth organisers at the Center know that this is simply not true, that this is a blatant lie: we have been trying, since 2010, to get the Center to institute Restorative Justice in its methods of working with the youth it claims to serve. The story about Restorative Justice, the fiction that the Center has a just way of working with youth, is yet another way to pretend that the Center works for everyone.
It's not as if stories don't have their place; they can serve as counter-narratives to the dominant fictions that structure our lives and which would otherwise paper over the lies people tell. I'm reminded of the stories we don't hear or the ones we refuse to listen to. I could tell you the story of a neighbour complaining that the tattoo parlour down the street from us was attracting the Latin Kings, and that his condo complex had been burglarised by the Latinos who came into the neighbourhood, and how adamant he was that the owner of our neighbourhood bathhouse was to blame because he rented out the space to the tattoo parlour, and that the Latin Kings and, by inference, Latinos, were to blame for the robberies. Weeks later, as I came home in the early hours of the morning, I saw him emerging from behind my building's dumpster, in the alley between our houses, drunkenly but surreptitiously giving money to a young Latino for … a blowjob? Drugs? Both? It was hard to tell.
Some stories need to be told because without them we would forget the sadness and the strength in the places we never care to think about. There is the story of Victoria Arellano, a transgender, undocumented HIV-positive woman who died shackled to her bed in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) prison, from neglect and a lack of HIV medications, while prison doctors refused to prescribe anything but amoxicillin, Tylenol, and water for her. She died of opportunistic conditions, pneumonia and meningitis, on July 20, 2007; she died of the deep neglect fostered by an immigrant imprisonment system.1
There is the lesser known story, of around eighty of her fellow prisoners who banded around her in her last weeks, chanting and shouting at the guards to take her to the hospital until the prison finally complied, of her fellow prisoners dampening their towels to reduce her fever and helping her to walk to the bathroom. After her death, and after they spoke to reporters about her, many or most of them were punished by having their telephone privileges taken away or by being placed in solitary confinement; those who needed them were denied HIV medications for as long as two weeks. In recounting these details, Michelle C. Potts writes, “I want to remember Victoria Arellano and her story. I want to remember eighty detainees demanding her right to live...I don't want to romanticize her death or the ones who were there for those final eight weeks, but I do want to take seriously the solidarity and the care with which they treated her and extend those forms of resistances to the larger project of prison abolition.”1
Stories, the best kind, the kind that speak to whatever we might call truth should evoke context and the politics of the times in which they exist. We are inside the Center on Halsted, in the heart of Boystown, on the North Side of a city that has been documented as the most segregated in the country. If we don't already, let us acknowledge the hard truth hidden by that word, “segregated,” and let us admit, once and for all, that Chicago has now been documented as the most racist city in the country. If you are a person of colour who lives here, you know the psychological cost of living in a city where your every move and clothing and, yes, hair, is scrutinised and deemed improper and as not belonging.
As we move forward with this evening, please, let us not balk from that harsh truth. As we move forward today in our attempts to understand why this neighbourhood and this city explodes every summer with hatred and intolerance and fear, let us remember and keep in mind that much of what galvanises all of this is a pure and violent form of plantation racism, an anger that some of us – the wrong colour, the wrong gender, the wrong sex, the wrong class, the ones who just don't look right for a million reasons – simply don't know our place.
Until and unless we acknowledge the truth of what surrounds us here, there can be no moving forward. The notion of a queer community may itself be a fiction. In a world where to be “queer” is no longer to hold or adhere to a stable, unchanging identity, I frequently ask myself why I still use the word to describe myself – as I do. I don't see “queer” as world-changing in itself, as inherently liberatory, as inherently more capable of making change and creating havoc, as we should. But I do see it as one form of resistance.
None of this is to argue that we should not tell our stories and speak of our experiences. But I implore all of us here tonight to think of the contexts and systemic oppressions that surround our stories. We are not connected by the truth or universality of our experiences because our experiences are not universal. Instead, we are connected by the systemic links between the oppressions that grind us down. I also ask us to remember that we are often knowing or unknowing agents of the same oppressions we claim to resist.
Is resistance queer? I don't know. But if I am to be queer, I'm damn well going to be resistant.
1Michelle C. Potts, “Regulatory Sites: Management, Confinement, and HIV/AIDS,” Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, edited by Eric Stanley and Nat Smith
If you like this blog, please consider a donation.