Guest Blog: Building Me A Home: Safe Space, the Dress Code and the Politics of Visibility

Building Me A Home: Safe Space, the Dress Code and the Politics of Visibility

“When you hear me shouting!  I’m building me a home…”

by Che Gossett

When I co-founded Morehouse College’s Safe Space organization in 2002, it was in response to an act of homophobic hate violence in which another student was brutally beaten.  Safe Space hosted community forums and called for the creation of an LGBTQ center on campus.  When I graduated in 2003, Safe Space remained and now is self sustaining.  In terms of the politics of visibility this is a powerful accomplishment.  I never imagined that Safe Space would be invited to the White House (literally – George W. Bush was in office – and symbolically – homonationalism, DADT and gay marriage weren’t’ media spectacularized to the same extent) host a gay pride week or have B. Scott come to speak to all the “love muffins” at “the House.”  Yet the politics of visibility also entail the illusion of change.  While Safe Space members were vulnerable to homophobic violence, to the extent to which we identified as masculine and cisgendered men, we were also shielded from the violence directed at trans women, gender-non-conforming and femme fabulous members of our community in general.  The violence of the dress code is only the most recent manifestation of embedded transphobia.  When poet Saul Williams was asked to leave campus by security for wearing a skirt in solidarity in 2009, he dramatized the situation that genderqueer, trans and gender-non-conforming students have had to live with and leave the college to avoid.  The dress code codified an already transphobic social norm.  As a 2003 graduate of Morehouse who identifies as a gender queer and gender non-conforming femme, what does it mean that I am banned from the campus of the very same college I not only graduated from but also struggled to change?

Also in terms of the politics of visibility, what kind of sexist, criminalizing and transphobic message is the president of any university sending when outlawing gender non conforming presentation — “dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc” – within the student body and then trivializing the needs and identities of those students as somehow invalid, inauthentic and dismissible?  President Franklin’s institution of and avid support for transphobic and bougie dress code unfortunately perpetuates a culture of trans exclusion, criminalization and discrimination.  It is this very culture of institutionalized and racialized homo and transphobia that sends the message to queer and trans people of color that they are worthless, that both fosters and ignores suicide, that reinforces criminalization of trans women of color via the prison industrial complex, that upholds discrimination against trans people of color seeking employment, or benefits.  The non-trans men of Safe Space should stand with gender-non-conforming and trans students at Morehouse, not against them.  I hope that Safe Space will challenge the dress code and fight against synchronized oppressions of homophobia, transphobia, sexism and classism, gender regulation and for gender self determination because its going to take that type of radical empowerment to actually create “safety” in our communities.

Che Gossett is a femme fabulous writer and activist.  They are currently working on a book project about black radicalism, queer and trans resistance and the politics of history, loss and struggles for collective liberation.

Unpacking Lt. Dan Choi’s Tricky Race & Class Talk on Democracy Now!

So finally Amy Goodman and producers at Democracy Now! got it together to have a real debate about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, as opposed to doing what they did in 2009, which is to let Lt. Dan Choi, the poster boy of ending the DADT policy, to go on and on without any opposing voice (that, and Goodman has written pieces on Choi for Truthdig not once, but twice! and I would ask any progressive and radical people who listen to or watch her show as a left alternative to mainstream media to think critically about what this suggests about her political concerns and commitments, and to me, the ways in which the Left, in its attempts to be LGBT friendly have so little concern or even a notion that there are queer critiques of a lot of this mainstream bullshit. Sycamore wrote about this in a piece on Bilerico this past August.)

Yesterday, Goodman and co-host Juan Gonzalez hosted a debate between Choi and queer activist and writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. What’s interesting here with Choi’s counter debate to Mattilda, we see the way bad and shallow race and class politics get thrown about by liberal and conservative queers (including people of color) to defend the push to expand the opportunities for LGBT people to serve openly in the military.  To try and position Sycamore as part of some elite group of queers who have the luxury of questioning LGBT involvement in the military, Choi starts his response to Sycamore by race and class baiting, where he suggests that the LGBT young people he meets around the country do not have the opportunity to be on television, get book deals, model or to know that they have any other job or career options other than serving in the military.

This is the most dangerous thing about the DADT debate. While I agree that there are a lot of poor and working class queers, and queers of color, people in rural communities, etc., who don’t know that they have other a lot of other options, or who see the military as one of a few viable options. But let’s be clear, Choi also gets to be on TV and travel the country talking to queer youth from poor backgrounds, and he is not offering them other options.  He is actually instead supporting this choice, which he says they see as their only career option. Furthermore, just because the US Armed Forces is by the default the largest jobs program for the country, does not mean we should accept that as an ethically defensible truth, despite the many people who, given the current structure of our economy, might not have other stable employment choices (although the rate of homelessness among returning veterans ought to tell you that that job stability may last only so long as you’re employed by the military.).  People have tried to use this argument with me, given that I work for Queers for Economic Justice, and knowing my race politics, that the fact that Black women are disproportionately discharged through DADT should make me want to support lifting the ban on race, class and gender terms. This is a false racial, gender and economic justice argument that should be constantly called into question by queers on the left and our allies.

“War is the force that gives us meaning, war is the force that teaches us the lesson of humanity, and allows us to realize something about our society, and teaches us the lessons we probably should have learned before we went to war”

This is also really as much a part of the issue at hand, that many in the anti-war movement have really yet to articulate a response to. Despite the material reasons why many poor people (including people of color, queers and queer people of color) choose to join the military, the reality is many also join because they buy into notions of patriotism, or notions of war and violence as just or necessary, as long as one’s country says it is so.


THANK GOD!: Pilot Refuses Body Scan and Questions TSA Surveillance Policies In General

I have been hoping, wishing and praying someone would finally stand up to this, because the Transportation Security Administration is out of control.

I was watching CNN just moments ago, when ExpressJet pilot Michael Roberts was interviewed by Kiran Chetry, about his refusal to go thru the new body scan machines at airport he was flying through, and then was subjected to the invasive body pat-down. I hope CNN posts the video because he said a lot of interesting things.

What I liked most about his interview was that he didn’t make this about his personal issue to be free from the increased surveillance as a pilot. Chetry tried to suggest in her questioning that “Isn’t the security there to protect the safety of the passengers?” He framed his response about the TSA surveillance system as an abuse of power by the state, and as an issue of protecting interests that have nothing to do with travelers, not as an issue of “security for passengers.” Roberts went so far as to compare TSA security to bank security guards: They’re there to protect the bank’s interest, not your safety.

He was kind of dismissed by Chetry and co-anchor (whom I despise) John Roberts in the post interview banter (Which is what I pay close attention to–this chatter between stories to fill time or build transitions is where the political views and comittments of so-called objective journalists often is the most exposed.).

I usually find it hard to find a place to support issues like this as they are often framed in the media from a libertarian “the state should leave people alone, but by people we mean white men” perspective. With all of the anti-Washington, anti-government spending, anti-government intrusion in personal liberties rhetoric of the Tea Party movement, that the issue of the increased militarism and police state practices now ubiquitous in American society has not been taken up by this movement, is interesting. I guess it speaks to the centrality of racialized notions of “crime prevention,” “security,” and “war on terror” for maintaining the military and prison industrial complexes in such a way that keeps most people invested in these things you’d assume would be the first thing they’d protest, even in there narrow and often obnoxious worldview. Anyhoo, here’s a link to a much more boring story about this from the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Guest Post: An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey concerning the “Down Low”

The following was originally posted as a note on facebook by my friend and much respected colleague, Dr. David Malebranche. I watched the Oprah episode in question, and had many of the same concerns. There was some debate and responses to David written, which I may come back and answer this week.

An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey concerning the “Down Low”

Dear Oprah,

On a beautiful, sunny October 7th afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia, I sat down to enjoy a rare occasion where I could come home early from work to catch a new episode of your daily talk show that I have watched on and off for the better part of the past 3 decades.  Upon pressing the info button on my remote, I learned that your show would be discussing a woman who “sued her husband for 12 million and won,” after finding out he had given her the HIV virus.  To say I watched this episode unfold in horror is a profound understatement – I was uncomfortably riveted and disgusted for the entire hour.

To be quite clear, I wasn’t horrified or disgusted by the fact that this unfortunate Black woman had contracted HIV as a result of her husband’s secretive “Down Low” infidelities with other men.  As a Black gay male, physician and public health advocate who has dedicated the past 12 years of my life to the behavioral prevention and treatment of HIV in the Black community, I have heard stories like your guest’s on this day more times than I would like to admit.  To the contrary, the acidic taste of bile that coated the back of my throat as I heard her story was in response to the superficial and sensationalistic manner in which you handled the topic, and how it was apparent that you and your staff have learned absolutely nothing in the 6 years since you originally interviewed J.L. King on your “Down Low” episode in 2004.

Yes, you can claim that for this updated version of your “Down Low” show, you actually included the fact that publically “heterosexual” White men and men of other races are equally capable of having secretive homosexual affairs as their Black counterparts.  And yes, this new version of J.L. King who again opportunistically sashayed onto your stage to promote himself now uses the word “gay” to describe his sexual identity (partly as a consequence of the fame and fortune he attained from appearing on your show).  However, everything else about the show remained stuck in a metaphorical time warp in which Black women are portrayed as simple victims with no personal responsibility or accountability when it comes to their sexual behavior, and Black men are projected as nothing more than predatory liars, cheaters and “mosquito-like” vectors of disease when it comes to HIV.

I felt like I was like watching a train wreck or an car accident about to happen: it was so awful that despite wanting to turn it off, I found myself transfixed and could not bring myself to pick up the remote or change the channel.  From the ominous background music and blurred images on the screen when discussing Black men being intimate with one another (God forbid!), to your declaration that reading your guest’s husband’s sexually explicit emails and messages on gay websites “blew your mind,” the way in which your show was staged did nothing to forward the conversation on the current facts or the social context that currently drives secretive same sex behavior among Black men and the current HIV racial disparity in the United States.  Instead, what came across was a clear, fear-mongering and hyperbolic message: “Black women, look out for your husbands, they could be lying and cheating on you with other men and putting you at risk for HIV.”  It was bad enough that 6 years ago, after your original “Down Low” show, you single-handedly launched a major media and cultural hysteria where Black women across the country were now searching for signs of how they could tell if their men were “on the Down Low” through stereotypical signs and ridiculously offensive generalizations about how homosexual men think and act.  Your show also helped J.L. King and other self-proclaimed “HIV experts” make a lot of money off this capitalistic, fear-based industry to promote their books, movies and narcissistic products on the so-called “Down Low.”  It did nothing, however, but open new wounds and put salt in the old scars caused by centuries of sexual exploitation and calculated pathologizing of Black bodies in the United States and internationally.  The way you and your staff have handled this topic has done nothing but widen the already irreparable rifts between Black men and women, as well as between Black heterosexual and non-heterosexual peoples.

While I realize that this is your show’s “final season,” let me give you and your staff some suggestions on how you can better address this issue of the “Down Low” and HIV in the Black community if you ever wish to revisit this issue during this year:

  1. Please do some research on the facts explaining why so many Black women in the United States are contracting HIV. I can guarantee you that what you find will surprise you, as the vast majority of cases are not due to so-called “Down Low” Black men.  Remember that in other countries like South Africa, India, Russia and China, there are millions of HIV cases attributable to heterosexual transmission.  Ask yourselves where is the proof, outside of anecdotal stories that are splashed on your show, BET and the pages of Essence magazine, that bisexual men are primarily accountable for this horrible disparity among Black women?
  2. If you are going to tell the story of HIV in the Black community, please give equal consideration to the social context and personal story/struggles of Black men who contract the virus, regardless of whether it is through IV drug use or sexual behavior.  I can tell you for certain that if you sit down and ask these men to tell their stories, you will undoubtedly have your eyes opened to the fact that there is much more to their lives than the “predator” labels you so easily ascribe to their actions.  And believe it or not, Black men can also be “victims” of this disease when exposed through their wives or female sexual partners who don’t tell them about the other people with whom THEY have been having sex.
  3. If you are going to talk about the so-called “Down Low,” then really talk about it.  That means, be prepared to discuss how Black men are socialized in this country to believe that our manhood solely exists in our athletic prowess, entertainment value, and the size and potency of the flap of skin that dangles between our legs.  Moreover, be prepared to talk about how these manhood expectations placed on Black man are in stark contrast to the stereotypical images and expectations of “gay” men we see in the media: White men who assume a gender performance of how women are traditionally expected to act.  And then talk about our society’s pervasive disdain, hatred and religious condemnation of anything that does not fall into a heterosexual “man-woman” norm of relationships and behavior, and how this puts pressure on men to deny who they truly are for fear of rejection and isolation.  Only when you begin to scratch the surface of these dynamics can you begin to rise above your current myopic and pathologic lens through which you view and project secret homosexuality and bisexuality as an “immoral act” on your show.
  4. Have your team do better research on the notion that just because men do not disclose that they have same sex relations to their female sexual partners DOES NOT automatically mean that they are irresponsible when it comes to condom use.  Simply put, “coming out of the closet” does not mean that a formerly “Down Low” brother will increase his condom use.  I can provide you team with numerous studies to support this statement if it goes against your preconceived notions of the so-called “benefits” of “coming out.”
  5. Withhold your judgment and disdain for explicit homosexual websites until you take time to explore websites like craigslist, nudeafrica.com, xtube.com and the many others that heterosexuals are just as freaky, raunchy and sex-crazed as homosexuals are.  If you really want to read  some conversations, pictures and videos that will “blow your mind,” check out these websites and do a show on how HUMAN BEINGS are sexual creatures – instead of suggesting that homosexually active people have a monopoly on that market.
  6. Finally, if you are going to have a discourse on homosexuality or bisexuality on your show in the future, please be bold and courageous enough to tell the various sides of men’s stories.  We are not all self-loathing, secretive, unprotected sex-having, disease ridden liars.  Surely in the work you have done in the entertainment field over the past 3 decades, you have interacted with enough same gender loving men to realize that sexuality is a fluid journey for anyone, and that there are many Black homosexual men who are well-adjusted, comfortable with who we are, and at peace with our lives.

Oprah, I was so disappointed with your show and treatment of this follow up to your “Down Low” episode 6 years ago that I don’t know if I really care to watch the remainder of this, your final season.  As a seasoned journalist, you have intricately described and explored the nuances of diverse topics such as eating disorders, mental health, spirituality, violence and criminality, cultural diversity and even the benevolent nature of human beings on numerous shows.  You have approached these topics with a sensitivity and attention to detail regarding the social contexts driving human behavior, that even the most skeptical viewer can understand why some people do the things they do.  So why is it with this topic (the so-called “Down Low”), particularly when it comes to the task of actually humanizing Black men, that you and your staff appear mentally, emotionally and intellectually incapable of creating a show that shows the rich, diverse and complex experience of being a Black male and homosexual in this country?   Is it really that difficult?

As one of the most powerful human beings this country has seen in the past 30 years, and someone whose show I grew up watching, it would be nice if you realized your influence and took more personal responsibility for the quality of your shows that address serious topics like HIV in the Black community.  The careless manner in which you continue to drive a wedge between relationships among Black men and women, between heterosexuals and homosexuals in this country through your one-sided analysis of Black sexuality in your shows is reprehensible.  And I for, one, refuse to sit by idly and say nothing while you spoon feed sensationalism and fear to our community who will all too willingly eat every last drop because it comes from your hand.  I need you to do better Oprah – the world is watching.

David J. Malebranche, MD, MPH

Assistant Professor

Emory University Division of General Medicine

49 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive

Suite 413

Atlanta, GA 30303

(404) 778-1630

(404) 778-1602 fax

dmalebr@emory.edu

Brazilian Men Sex Trafficked in Spain

Over the last year I have heard straight men who are very prominent in the intimate partner domestic violence movement state in public forums, before hundreds of people, that “men don’t have to get up and think about what ind of clothes they put on that say, and is it going to invite some kind of violence or assault,” or some form of the message “men don’t have to worry about sexual violence.”

Really? Because as a black gay man, I worry about that every day. The possibility of rape or sexual assault is not out of the realm of possibility for me.  In fact, there are statistics that show gay men have a disproportionate rate of child sexual abuse histories. And I think for a lot of men who are even straight, so much of the violence men perpetrate against each other has very gendered aspects of those interactions.

Today, the Associated Press reported on a story showing that in Spain, police have busted up a sex trafficking ring where Brazilian men (keep in mind Brazil has the largest number of Black people outside the continent of Africa–just to help provide some racial context for who may in fact constitute “Brazilian.”) were being forced to do sex work with other men. The AP writes:

The victims, men in their 20s and estimated to number between 60 and 80, were mainly recruited in northern Brazil and saddled with debts of up to euro4,000 ($5,000) as the cost of bringing them to Spain.

Some were duped into thinking legitimate jobs awaited them as go-go dancers or models; others knew they would be working in the sex industry, but not that they had to be prepared for sex around the clock and would be moved from one province to another depending on demand for their services, Nieto told a news conference.

The men had to give half their earnings to the gang, and pay for rent and food in the apartments where they worked.

To show the total racism of the Spanish authorities, the article also notes that on top of busting up this ring, 17 of the “prostitutes” were then also arrested for being in Spain illegally. Despite being held against their will.

I want to be clear that trafficking and coercive sex is different from people who willingly participate in sex work, even if the conditions are often dangerous or less than desirable, or the reasons which they chose it have to do with other structural problems.

I also don’t point this out to usurp any discussion about the impact of sex trafficking on women identified people, or sexual violence and rape against women. But it is to say, that I wish that the men who have made their careers and mission to educate other men about violence against women, don’t continue to make false assumptions about the “safety” that all men are supposed to have, when clearly many of us, because of our gender or sexual orientation, race and/or class,  may not in fact be so safe.

(Note: I put a lot of thought into what image to post with this piece. I didn’t want to find a picture of “Brazilian men” that further hypersexualizes them (They are hypersexualized enough), and that would further perpetuate a strange desire to consume their bodies, while trying to take seriously the situation of these men being forced to have sex and financially exploited precisely because of the way their bodies are desired. The Advocate.com, for instance, went in the other direction of their stock image choice.)

Antoine Dodson: Internet Star or Homophobic Joke?

I kinda love Antoine Dodson. The Huntsville, Alabama black gay (I mean he hasn’t said that, but can we just go with it?) man who has become an internet sensation because of a widely circulated local news story about an attempted rape made upon his sister with whom he lives in a housing project. The attempted rapist apparently climbed through the sister’s window and Antoine awakened to the sound of the ensuing scuffle, and helped chase the assailant out of their home.

So far there have been two news stories, and several remixes done by internet geeks of Antoine. I love that he’s so queer, clearly from a poor and /or working class community, and so visible–as someone who’s clearly somewhat femme in presentation if not identity, and not a victim. I have been, for the last several days, watched a lot of these videos and remixes with varying levels of pride, dismay, amusement, etc.

But some things are being lost here.  In my first viewing of this news story, I was less amused as the rest of America seems to be. A Black woman was nearly raped. And what disturbed me about the original video was that while Antoine and Kelly were angry, there was a way that it also seemed so normalized.  Maybe it was Kelly’s stoic way of dealing with it–I don’t want to tell anyone they need to perform their trauma  for the American media or public to feel they’re “properly hysterical”–but I hope that she has access to some support to deal with this. Is anyone helping her there or offering support? I totally commend her for being willing to come forward, which must not be easy, and could open her, and Antoine, up for retaliation. Maybe it was the way the story was produced that gave it a “this is what happens in the projects everyday” kind of tone.

Also, the news station intentionally included more footage of Antoine than Kelly, who was the actual survivor–were they going for ratings here? Did they stick this on Youtube? This just feels like exploitation of her situation by the press. You can tell the news station is responding to critism they received about the original story in the follow-up piece (no doubt some of the critique from bourgie black people who don’t think poor black people should ever be in public view at all, but that’s another blog post).

Secondly, like reality television, I am afraid that the joke is really on Antoine. Who, despite doing the right thing in this situation, is being made a mockery of, I think. If you really look at this phenomenon, this is really America making fun of this poor, black, and presumably gay man in a moment where he was clearly pissed off and angry about his home being invaded and his sister being subjected to violence. When I look at most reality TV shows like I Love New York/Flavor of Love, Jersey Shore, Real Housewives of ATL/NJ, etc, I really see how much the reality TV culture exploits poor and working class people, our struggles, and or culture, especially people of color. The (often black) gay sidekicks on these shows adds to the circus-like atmosphere of it all, but at after 20 years of being invisible in American visiual culture (including black visual culture), one can’t help but be glad we’re even visible.

So while we applaud Antoine, let’s not make a mockery of him, nor lose Kelly Dodson, and the horrific event that made us know who they were in the first place.

Black in Bed-Stuy: Another Kind of Non-Citizen

While all eyes are turned to Arizona for the (now partial) implementation of SB 1070, I found an interesting article in City Limits (a NYC-based public policy and urban affairs news site and magazine, which has gotten really good in the last year!) about a public meeting last night, where residents of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood voiced their concerns about policing, and the “stop and frisk” policies of the New York Police Department.

What’s interesting about this, or sad perhaps, is the ways in which Black people have to deal with law enforcement every day, and unless you’re shot dead, with very little public outcry. The testimonies from this town hall meeting recounted in the City Limits piece are heartbreaking:

Anger rattled his voice when he came to the microphone to tell a tale that has become all too familiar in his Brooklyn neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. The police have been harassing him, he told the crowd, because he is a young, black male. In his hand, he held a baseball cap. His hair was cropped close to his head. He wore a long, white t-shirt and oversized jeans. He’s done nothing wrong, he said, but police have issued him 50 tickets he can’t afford to pay, accusing him of loitering, engaging in disorderly conduct and other minor crimes. “I’ve got fifty tickets in my house and I ain’t got fifty dollars,” he said…

…A woman said that she “would never call the police for any reason—if I was assaulted,” she said, “they would be the last people I would call.”…

…An older woman, a grandmother, said that she was beaten by police officers in 2008 when she could not produce identification. Both of her wrists were broken during the incident, she said…

…David Miller, who directs a hip hop TV show, said that his son was arrested on the streets of Bed-Stuy for lack of identification and was sent to central booking for 22 hours. “It’s like the South Africa pass laws,” he said. “We are simply not respected.”

I am not interested in an argument with the Left about all the organizing around SB 1070 because it is a disgusting and indefensible law by the legislature of Arizona, but I am here to suggest that the argument that the Arizona situation is one step towards a police state, is actually one step too late. These kinds of human indignities are already enshrined in law in cities all over the nation (including the half Black and 1/3 of NYC stop and frisks that happen to Latinos–largely of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent), and there are no calls for boycotting  New York City, for example.