Identifying With Characters Across Gender and Sexuality

492069I just had an article pitch accepted to Brooklyn Magazine‘s Book section!

I’m writing a personal essay on identifying with fictional characters across gender and sexuality. Felix Harrowgate, the protagonist of Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series, is a gay wizard who navigates his relationships through sex and sexuality. As an asexual woman, I never thought I would identify with him. But it is through identifying with him, that I was able to come out as homo-romantic.

The problem is the last book in The Doctrine of Labyrinths series was published back in 2009. The editor from Brooklyn Magazine is asking me to find a hook to make this article more timely. I’ve considered that the author wrote a well-received stand-alone novel in 2014 (The Goblin Emperor), and co-authored a book with Elizabeth Bear, published in 2015 (An Apprentice to Elves), but even that is not particularly relevant. For context, my piece will be published roughly December/January.

Especially as this coming week is Asexuality Awareness Week (!!!) I’m hoping other aces or people within the queer community (or anyone really) might be able to pitch in some thoughts and suggestions. How can I make this essay relevant to 2016/2017 specifically?

Queerness and literature are the timeless parts of my essay; I’m still searching for the timely pitch. Please let me know if you have any thoughts or ideas.

happy-asexual-awareness-week

 

 

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L’Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year!)

L’Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year to all who celebrate Rosh Hashanah!

It was the Jewish New Year on Monday October 3rd, but it hasn’t felt like a celebration to me in years. I grew up in a Conservative Synagogue and I associate synagogues and Hebrew services with solemnity and pretending to be Jewish enough for these holy days.

But this year I attended services through Mishkan Chicago. Mishkan believes:

“that when we gather together, where ever we are on our journeys as Jews and as citizens of the world, we create meaningful connections- with ourselves, with others, with Jewish wisdom and with God. That’s what Mishkan is all about.”

300x300This is Judaism in the world, as I’ve never experienced before. There were people of all ages, and different races, and a multitude of other invisible aspects of diversity in attendance. For the first time I felt I could own my Jewish identity, and not just because there was a rainbow flag on the wall. Nobody had to say “you’re included”; it was all through peoples’ actions.

I think a lot about the Jewish narrative that says Jews are victims. My Hebrew School education and family education taught me that Jews must always live in fear and watch our backs because we are Other no matter where we live and therefore unsafe. On one level, history has shown centuries of pogroms, and massacres and torture and conversion of Jews. But Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent) must also content with our current history as oppressors of Palestinians as well as discrimination and erasure of Jews of color. Previous synagogues I attended would discuss standing with Black Lives Matter (and take action to stand with Black Lives Matter), but would not even open the discussion of standing with Palestine. I struggle with my Jewish heritage and reconciling being both victim and perpetrator while having no one to talk to about these issues.

The Rabbi at Mishkan put into words all my thoughts and contradictions about Judaism, victimhood and our place in standing for justice for all people. Her analysis of the Torah portion is that when Sarah gives birth to Isaac and demands Abraham discard his second wife, Hagar, and her son Ishmael, Sarah acts out of fear and insecurity. Sarah does not act justly and neither does Abraham in turning Hagar and Ishmael out. The Rabbi’s interpretation of the text is that this insecurity is the same insecurity that allows Jews today to create an apartheid state in Israel. It is our fear of being victims that drive us to victimize others. It wasn’t right with Sarah and Abraham and it isn’t right today.

Yes, Jewish history is full of persecution. Our main narratives are “we were slaves in Egypt” and “we are survivors of the Holocaust.” Yet, we are so much more. We are people in the world with varying degrees of power and privilege, but a responsibility to lift others up. We’re not responsible because we’re Jews, but because we’re humans. For me, being a Jew means standing for justice. It means have been victimized (and some of us still are) but I will do what I can to ensure no one else goes through the same experiences.

Attending services at Mishkan reminded me that when I joke about one day becoming a Rabbi, it’s not actually such a joke. I hope to one day stand on the bema and be that welcoming, that inclusive and that truthful about Judaism and all its contradictions.

 

Reading Queer Work with Students Part II

Thank you to everyone who has read and commented on my post about reading queer work with students.

I chose to read the essay, “Origin of Dress” by Christina Quintana, published in Nimrod International Journal 59.2 Spring/Summer 2016 (please check out my literary magazine review of Nimrod for New Pages).

The essay was well received! Students who came to meet with me the week before saying nonfiction was boring, found Quintana’s essay not only engaging but relatable. I used this piece as an introduction to creative nonfiction and asked students to write some creative nonfiction of their own. Most students brought detailed understandings of themselves living in a gendered world.

When we put the piece away, one student asked, “So, will we read more stories like this?” She meant more nonfiction.

And while I was concerned to read work by queer authors and work featuring queer content and protagonists, I knew this was the right thing to do. Not only had some students expressed an interest in reading and learning about LGBTQ issues, but I also knew any fear I had was my own internalized homophobia. I didn’t want to read queer work for fear I was pushing the gay agenda, or flaunting my queer identity.

Students’ comfortability with queer content varied, but no one shut down or was visibly distressed. In some meetings the author’s sexuality never came up at all. In others, the student was the one to name Quintana’s sexuality as part of their discussion of the narrative.

What helped me the most in making the decision to read queer work with students, was putting this in perspective. If I had been an educator fifty years ago, I wouldn’t want to look back on my work and know that I avoided texts by people of color because I didn’t want to offend students or parents. I do not mean to make a comparison between the fight for racial equality and the fight for equality across sexualities and genders, but the same principle applies for this situation. To create an exclusive learning environment that only speaks to what is acceptable and won’t rock the boat is morally wrong. I would not be comfortable teaching a majority white-washed cis male heterosexual curriculum. Even if I my choice to read Quintana’s work had caused offense (and as far as I know it hasn’t) I still believe I made the right choice to read queer work with my students.

In the upcoming weeks, I might still read “Psalm in the Spirit of Amnesia” with a few students who are strong readers. I will keep everyone updated.

Thank you again for your support, encouragement and advice!

Reading Queer Work with Students

I’m not technically a teacher. I work in a high school, I read texts with high school students, but I’m not a teacher. I’m not bound by State or Federal curriculum requirements. I don’t give tests. I’m not employed by the high school and when choosing what to read with students, no one is checking in to see if what we read is “school appropriate”.

What we read is “student appropriate” instead–the right text for the right student (I meet with students one-on-one a few times a week, so I am able to read one book with four students and another book with a different four students etc). I recognize I am in a unique position to be able to make such choices.

I’m about to choose texts for this school year and I’m running into a question I never thought I would ask: how do I read queer texts with high school students?

The first texts we read of the semester I read with all students and I’m debating between two pieces:

  1. “Psalm in the Spirit of Amnesia” a poem by Julie Marie Wade published in PANK 11.1 Spring/Summer 2016
  2. “Origins of Dress” an essay by Christina Quintana, published in Nimrod International Journal 59.2 Spring/Summer 2016 (unavailable online, but keep an eye out for my upcoming literary magazine review of Nimrod for New Pages)

pank-726x293

Both pieces are by lesbian authors, although Quintana’s essay is more focused on sexuality and its presentation than Wade’s.

Quintana discusses being a lesbian and her relationship with wearing dresses through a series of vignettes. On the one hand, I think high school students will have no problem relating to a piece about how we are judged by what we wear. On the other hand, I’m asking students to relate to a lesbian protagonist and I’m concerned that this might shut down any conversation about the piece’s literary content.

For Wade’s poem it would be an insult to the author to discuss the content and not discuss why she expressly names her sexuality in the poem. I’m asking students to see themselves in a lesbian narrator.

Gay-agendaBut engaging students to empathize and see themselves in characters and situations that might be different than their own is my goal! So, why do I feel I’m promoting the “gay agenda”?

I know some of my students come from conservative and/or religious families, but I’m less concerned about offending someone, than I am about not being able to have a conversation. When I was in high school, I would shut down if an adult mentioned sex or sexuality in any way. I would literally be terrified to speak because I didn’t have the language to know I was ace, only that I found the whole idea of sex disgusting.

My students aren’t me and I know that. But I’m looking for advice on how to meet students where they are, even as I tell them that queer content is just another thing to read, another experience to understand.

Any thoughts on which piece I should read with my students? Does anyone have any advice on reading queer material with high school students? If you’ve done it, how did it go?

Thank you for your thoughts.

Suicide Squad: Deadshot and Morality

Suicide Squad, is perhaps the first movie I’ve ever walked away from saying, “That was not a good movie, but it was worth seeing.”

Without any spoilers, the plot had no structure and we spent time getting to know the characters through useless (and excessive) flashbacks. There were characters who had no purpose in the film, except to haphazardly flesh out the sprinting world of the DC Cinematic Universe. I swear Captain Boomerang was only there for laughable appearance by the Flash.

But what did work?

indexDeadshot. Will Smith’s Deadshot is the moral center of this film. Arguably, as a hit-man, he is the most villainous of the main characters by profession. He has not reformed nor makes any pretenses that he will give up the assassin’s game anytime soon.

Suicide Squad focuses on the character development of only a few characters: Harley Quinn, el Diablo, and Deadshot. Deadshot is the center piece. It is his story and his relationship with his daughter that grounds the character. Deadshot is the one talking about honor among thieves and the importance of the team’s survival.

To make it clear: a movie starring a black man featured said black man as a complicated protagonist and loving father who is the moral center of the film.

And in a media culture that only upholds the stories of white men (straight, cis, able bodied white men), this is huge. Every day people quote the racist (and downright false) argument that “there are more black men in prison than in college” as if there is a moral deficiency in black men naturally. As if black men do not want to be there for their families and for their children.

Yes, Deadshot is a criminal. He is a comic book villain. He kills people for money. But he is also a black character who is a loving father and a moral compass in a movie that desperately needs a moral center. He stands out in a media industry that needs  representations of black men who live to see the ending credits.

 

 

How to Say No

About a month ago I walked into a bread shop and got offered a job. They needed someone in their kitchen and I bake bread far more often than I need to (there are three loaves of bread in my freezer right now and my fridge is half populated by bagels, rolls and the end of a challah). How could I say no?

Except, they needed someone from 11pm to 4am and I work full time from 8am to 4pm. I said, “Can I have time to think about it?”

I’ve thought about it. I keep thinking about it. But I haven’t responded to their email about whether I will take the job. The answer is no, I can’t take the job. But on some level, I can take the job.

I get off work at 4 and get home by 4:30. I could sleep until 10:30pm or so, get up and go to the bakery until 4am, get writing done until 6am then get ready for my day job.

I’m not going to do this. I need to remind myself every day that I’m not going to do this.

But it’s an impossible task to admit I can’t add something new to my plate. It’s an impossible task to say  no. I work full time and hold 4 different writing positions. I’m manage the blog for Luna Station Quarterly, write literary magazine reviews each month for New Pages, read fiction for Five on the Fifth, and am an editor for Polychrome Ink.

I can’t say no. As women, we must work twice as hard to earn half the recognition as men, and saying no to a professional opportunity is a stupid move. You’re backing out before you’ve even tried! You’re selling yourself short! You are admitting defeat.

My goal is always excellence. My goal is to be the best. But my goal must also be to be kind to myself.

And saying no, in any and every context, is a matter of consent. Being a feminist is not about competing with the boys to show you’re just as capable. It’s about trusting yourself and listening to your voice, even when no one else will notice you’re speaking. It’s about learning to say no and taking control of your life.

Saying no, even to an opportunity, is a feminist decision.

Advice for White Allies

I don’t know what to say about the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. I don’t know what to say that will not be repeating platitudes that their deaths must be mourned, that these are not isolated incidents. Castille was the 561st death at the hands of police this year, according to The Guardian’s “The Counted” project.

And because I am not part of the black community, there is only so much I can say as an ally. It’s important to be an ally to the black community, even if there are no black people in the room. Allyship is not a part-time position. You are an ally 100% of the time, or you are not an ally at all.

Advice for White allies:

  1. Saying someone is black or African American is not an insult. Growing up in CT, my hometown would speak about black people by speeding up our speech and avoiding even saying the word black. Black was coded to mean less-than. But we can change our speech patterns and remove our ingrained racism when we pay enough attention. When speaking about Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, or any of the black people murdered by police, race cannot be removed from the discussion.
  2. Recognize that you don’t understand what your black friends/co-workers etc are going through. This doesn’t mean you don’t care, but do not compare your own experience, even if you hold other marginalized identities. You still hold white privilege.
  3. Attend protests and vigils, but understand this is not your place to speak. Listen instead. Be silent and listen.
  4. Know you won’t always say the right thing. Be willing to apologize.