Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology

In the published 1988 book the Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology coordinating editor Will Roscoe puts together a collection of modern writings from gay and lesbian Native Americans – poetry, short stories, essays – and historical studies of alternate sexuality in some of the tribes. A time when gays and lesbians were starting to be heard and experimented with their own sexuality and identity. This book begins with this empowering quote I found mesmerizing:

The day I saw a poster declaring the existence of an organization of Gay American Indians, I put my face into my hands and sobbed with relief. A huge burden, the burden of isolation and of being defined only by one’s enemies, left me on that enlightening day.
I understood that being Gay is a universal quality , like cooking, like decorating the body, like singing, like predicting the weather. Moreover, after learning about the social positions and special offices fulfilled by Indians whose tribes once picked them for the tasks of naming, healing, prediction, leadership, and teaching precisely because the displayed characteristics we call gay, I knew that Gayness goes far beyond simple sexual/emotional activity. What Americans call Gayness not only has distinct cultural characteristics, its participants have long held positions of social power in history and ritual among people all over the globe
.”- Judy Grahn,

Another Mother Tongue

In the second story “Tinselled Bucks: a Historical Study of Indian Homosexuality” by Maurice Kenny discusses the problems of lack of sources for original material, as well as deliberates between the berdaches – men who lived as women and women who lived as men – and men and women living their gender roles who preferred to be sexually and emotionally involved with others of their gender and gender roles. He discusses the different terms and customs of berdaches in various tribes, as well as the levels of importance that many berdaches held in certain cultures, where they were often respected as people of great magic.

Toleration of the berdache varied from tribe to tribe. Some tribes, such as the Illinois, actually trained young men to become homosexuals and concubines of men. The Cheyenne and the Sioux of the plains may not have purposely trained young men to become berdaches but certainly accepted homosexuals more readily than perhaps other tribes(Maurice Kenny, page 26).

This type of behavior also relates to our class discussion on Ancient Greece, and their pederasty affiliations. Relations in ancient Greece was between adult men and pubescent or adolescent boys, as well as homosexual relationships between adult men did existed. The age limit for the younger member of a pederastic relationship seems to have extended from 12 to about 17 years of age. This was a normal practice among men and was not frowned upon by anyone. In particular the Zuni tribe children were not referred to as girl or boy until around the age of five, before coming of that age, they were perceived as “child”. But as these young children began to grow older a “third gender” would soon be created as adolescents. The 130 North American Indians created a third gender defining as:

“If a cultures sex/gender system makes it possible for a biological female to become a social man, then “he” is not engaging in “cross dressing” when dressing as a male, or in “ross gender” behavior by assuming the culturally defined male role. Neither is “he” engaging in lesbian behavior by having sexual relations with women. Because he is a socially recognized man, such relations would be defined as “normal”(Anishnawbe, page 35).

(page 200)

As I read this poem by Anishnawbe, I felt his pain as a two spirit being afraid to embrace himself, this picture is so beautifully drawn and resembles a perfect unity in one person.

To reiterate discussion on Sigmund Freud, I would put the “two spirits” under the category of “superego”. Not only did these Native American tribes believe the two spirits had a duty to the village, but opened up a new civilization where they were welcomed and praised by past and future generations to come. I chose to write about this topic for the main fact that not much primary source material has been found nor discussed at larger scale even though it is incorporated in the LGBTQ scale. It is important in the Native American culture and should continue to be known In our Americanized culture today. It paved the way for gender identity, reforming outlooks on past history, and acceptance of the “third gender”. It belongs in queer culture as an inspirational embodiment to not only for the organization GAI (Gay American Indians) today, but to people of all ages and races nationwide.

Vanity Fair’s Not So Relatable Special Edition Issue

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This “special edition” magazine was created by GQ, the New Yorker, Vogue, Glamour, and Vanity Fair and published on August 18, 2015. The issue of this magazine features a bunch of transgender women and some transgender men. There are a ton of different pieces on transitioning, the struggles of being transgender, gender identity and expression, even the murder of Brandon Teena (which the movie “Boys Don’t Cry” is based off of), and many more things. It is interesting insight from each writer and their article. This issue was making an effort to help people understand the lives of transgender people.

Now, what makes this “special edition” so special? Well as people who are familiar with the transgender community, it should be known that there isn’t much transgender representation in popular media. Although the representation has increased in recent years, it is still not where it “should” be. GQ, the New Yorker, Vogue, Glamour, and Vanity Fair are all really big magazines and the representation that was given here was much appreciated. Yes this issue has some flaws, which I plan to talk about later in this piece, but any attempt to teach cisgender people things about life as a transgender person is very much appreciated by the community. One of the pieces is about a transgender boy named Skylar. The piece, About A Boy, talks about Skylar’s social/internal transition (his feeling like he wasn’t a girl when he was younger) as well as his medical transition. This is what makes this edition so special.

How does this relate to our class? Today we were talking about Caitlyn Jenner’s ability to relate to the average transgender person or lack thereof. This whole magazine is full of transgender people most of us other transfolk cannot relate to. Laverne Cox is the only one that has a relatable story behind her. Now, back to the not relatable people. Each transgender person has a different level of difficulty to relate to. The ones on the “maybe some can relate to” side are Jazz and Skylar. It is difficult to relate to both of them because most transgender children, teens, and even adults struggle with families not accepting that. That’s just how it goes. Also, unlike Jazz, most transgender children don’t have a reality television show. Just saying.

Then on the far side that is “this is not relatable whatsoever to 99% of the transgender community” set of folks. The main person in that category would be Caitlyn Jenner. Really, how many transgender people come out and in less than 6 months look flawless in the body they’re supposed to be in? Not many. Most transgender people are in a lower socio-economic class because there is nothing protecting them in the workplace. Inside the magazine on one of the first five pages it says, “90% of transgender people have faced disrespect, discrimination, or violence in some critical aspect of their life including in employment, housing, and healthcare simply for being who they are”. That really does make it hard to relate to her and to get the “Caitlyn Jenner effect” of transitioning quickly and flawlessly. With that said, however, each transgender person is somewhat relatable. This is only because they all have the struggle and pain of being born in the wrong body. I am not trying to undermine anybody’s struggle; it’s just that, in the words of Nicky Nichols from Orange is the New Black, “some shit stinks worse than other shit”.

Some Assembly Required

Some Assembly Required is a memoir by seventeen-year-old Arin Andrews. Published in September 2014, it shares the many experiences Arin had growing up transgender. Beginning with stories about his early childhood (like loathing performing in dance recitals) and leading up to high school milestones (like going to prom), Arin discusses his gender reassignment and the struggles he faced while transitioning.

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This memoir does more than just speak to transgender teens. It resonates with readers of all ages and genders and informs them on what being transgender is really like in today’s society by providing a modern, honest and vulnerable journey for readers to relate to and does an excellent job on educating readers of the difficulties faced while growing up transgender, as well as on the transition process itself.

One of the most significant points in the memoir is when Arin begins his hormone replacement therapy. A reoccurring idea made throughout the text is that it’s extremely difficult to feel complete and comfortable with yourself if “the outside does not match the inside”. Arin refers to the day he started taking testosterone supplments as his “second birthday”, and notes that even one day after the first injection there were changes in how oily his skin was, how fervent his appetite was and how cracked his voice was. Arin said, “It was all happening – just one more step to becoming the person I was meant to be.” Casey Plett, the author of “Balls Out: A Column on Being Transgendered”, also recounts in one of her articles the stretching ritual that became a part of her daily life. She said that likes to stretch out before and after she goes to sleep in order to feel the difference in her body that was due to her hormone pills. “It’s an added pleasure to the bookends of my day now,” she says. Moments like these, coming from real-life people in the transgender community, help best explain to anyone their simply joys and desire to feel perfectly comfortable in their own bodies.

Arin has a story that is not uncommon. The transgender community continues to grow and has been getting a lot of coverage for some time now. Arin and his ex-girlfriend Katie Hill received a ton of media attention for being a trans couple (more specifically a trans couple that was “safe for the masses – white, telegenic and heteronormative”). Arin noted that it bothered him that no one was interested in filming any of the other trans teens in his community, but at least they were getting the conversation started on a larger scale. It’s important to reflect on the fact that Arin is neither a fictional character nor a prominent member in society. As discussed in class, Caitlyn Jenner has nearly become the face of the trans community, and her story is one that is difficult to relate to being that she has lived her life in the spotlight. Although Arin and Katie’s lives were certainly glamourized, it’s important to recognize them as more suitable advocate for the trans community simply because of how relatable and raw their journeys have been.

Below is an interview Barcroft TV held with Arin and Katie about their transitions and relationship.

Valentina Thompson (theseoverusedwords)

For my last ever post on this blog, I am going to be writing about my best friend and poet, Valentina Thompson. A little backstory: I have known her since we were little 10/11 year olds competing for the most reading points in our English class. The competition made us bond and we became friends and she stuck by me all throughout high school and even through college even though I moved across the country. We are from a small city just outside of Los Angeles, California and she started writing sometime in high school—somewhere around our junior year—and our whole friend group knew her as “The Tomboy.” In October 2012 (our freshman year of college), she made a Facebook video coming out as bisexual. She explains how she feels about sexuality and clears up some misconceptions about who she is as a person. Nowadays, she identifies as a lesbian and she attends the Pride Parade in San Francisco every year.

She has grown as a poet since writing on her calculus homework in high school: she runs a poetry blog on Tumblr and she has even been published on Poetry.com; she is also looking into publishing her own book of poems. She is very much an open book and writes through a lot of her pain. Valentina share something in common: we were both told that we suffer from depression and poetry is her outlet. Everything she writes, you can feel in your soul.

One of the poems I want to bring attention to is one she published 10 months ago titled “A Facebook Post about Facebook Posting about Sexuality.”

A Facebook Post about Facebook Posting about Sexuality

The title is pretty straightforward—she vents about what it is like to be “different” in a heteronormative society. She talks about what it feels like to have stigmas have an effect on how she goes about her day. She explains how words make a difference and that she is not asking for much—she is just asking for equality and for people to listen and try to understand.  This poem speaks to how frustrated she is because she feels silenced. She feels the heteronormative pressure that keeps building no matter what she does. My favorite line in this whole poem, though, is “…every single one of us who is out and visible and vocal about what we’re being denied is brave. And special. And worthy.” This speaks so much to me because I know how hard it is for LGBTQ+ adolescents and adults to accept themselves, much less think they are worthy of basic human rights such as equality. It it frustrating to read how torn my friend is about her lack of equality, and that’s just dealing with one aspect of herself. That’s just the frustrating that comes with being out of sync with heteronormative society.

Another one of my favorite poems, that should have attention brought to it is “Broken Fuses and Bathtubs (LGBTQ/Suicide Awareness).” This poem hits so hard with me because the people she is speaking about in this poem are people that I also know. These are people that also understand her struggle and just need to feel worthy and special. This poem also highlights how important it is to recognize that their lives are not something to be sexualized but also looked down on because it is different. It deals with the very real reality that suicide is not just an idea. It deals with the very real reality that there are people that have to hide themselves for their own safety and for their own sanity. The people she lists at the end are people I know I love–they’re people I didn’t realize were struggling. These aren’t just people who identify as gay and lesbian. These are people who are often forgetten when equality is sought. These are people who also identify as bisexual, transgender, genderqueer, asexual, etc. These are people who should not feel forgotten.

The last poem that I will talk about is “Why Your Depressed Lover Keeps Saying Sorry.”

Why Your Depressed Lover Keeps Saying Sorry

 

This poem never fails to make me cry, and she even read this poem aloud at a poetry reading and I come back to it every once in awhile to remind myself that I am not alone in feeling the way I do. This poem speaks to the side of her that has to deal with another sect of misrepresentation and inequality: mental illness. I can tell you from my own experience that dealing with depression sucks. It’s awful. It feels like nothing could ever make you happy again. It feels like someone has turned off all the lights and left you alone in the dark. But then trying to explain this to other people is a nightmare. As soon as I saw this poem on my Facebook feed, I tagged my boyfriend in it and I read it to him that night because there were finally words for me to help me express these feelings to him. Her poetry is rarely gender-specific, so it is something you can identify with and apply to your own life. Being able to identify with the author is so important because you don’t feel like they’re feeding words to you that they think you would want to hear. She speaks from the heart and gives the reader every piece of her.

Valentina Thompson, what can I say. Her poetry is so beautiful and if you get the chance, you should really check out her poetry tag on Tumblr. (i love you val)

Gay New York by George Chauncey

It is often thought that before events such as the Stonewall Riots incited a gay movement there was no existing queer culture because people felt compelled to hide their identities. In George Chauncey’s 1995 book, Gay New York, he shows that this claim is misguided through a variety of collected evidence.  He instead explores a world in which the homosexuals between 1890 and the 1940s forged safe spaces for themselves throughout New York, and there was a web of complex relationships including sexual meet-ups, social connections, drag shows, and more.

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Gay New York refutes the widespread beliefs about pre-World War II queer culture. Chauncey not only proves that there was “gay” activity, but that these events “sustained and enhanced gay men’s communal ties and group identity.” In fact, before the 1930s, there was a certain openness two men could have regarding sex and romance. However, that is not to say that the two men could stroll down the street holding hands. Instead of coming out, the term we use today, the men “came in” to the homosexual society. This coming in process was almost a ritual of being introduced to cultural peers. Instead of coming out of the closet, which sounds hidden or isolated, this was being introduced to a society that shared feelings and interests. Walt Whitman was writing in the mid to late 1890s, but his story seems different. Perhaps the relationships and intimacy he describes in his poems were similarly rich to those in the New York gay culture, but he was one of the members that became involved in the night life, but hid his identity behind a veil of respectability and masculinity during the day. Chauncey’s book describes the life that many speculate Whitman to have led. He might have been a victim of the “crisis of masculinity” that Chauncey describes, in which men were challenged by the more fluid gender roles of the early 20th century, thus causing them to overcompensate with shows of strength and heterosexuality. This could be the cause of Whitman’s adamant negation of John Addington’s Symonds question regarding the poet’s relationships with men. He wanted to adhere to the masculinity of the time to maintain his image and popularity.

The homosexual culture described in Chauncey’s book had different norms than the heterosexual culture of the time. While looking at Gay New York, it is worthwhile to compare the acceptance of very “queer” and flexible norms to the emphasis on normalization in today’s queer culture. The largest fight of the current community is the fight for marriage equality. The way that this is often presented is through a lens of comparison to straight parents, because if queer couples can prove that they are not at all different from straight couples they will appear less threatening. Through this normalization, have we lost the rich culture that Chauncey writes about? Despite the strides we have made in a variety of areas, by claiming to be the same as the dominant culture the queer community has moved away from the richness of relationships that Chauncey describes. As we move out of the closet, we also seem to move away from one another. How can we maintain a sense of queer identity and accept our differences while still making strides towards deserved equality?

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The Price of Salt

Patricia Highsmith published The Price of Salt (or Carol) in 1952 during a period of popularity for lesbian pulp fiction novels. Because the characters were lesbians and the plots followed love connections between women, it was most common for the story to end with one of the women committing suicide, being murdered, or going insane. During this time in history homosexuality was not accepted, so the unfortunate endings seemed to be the only option for lesbian fiction. Patricia Highsmith changed that patterned with The Price of Salt. Because this novel pushed the boundaries of lesbian fiction, Patricia Highsmith used a pseudonym when the novel was first published. The Price of Salt was one of the first lesbian pulp fiction novels that depicted lesbians in a positive new light and gave them the opportunity for a happy ending.

The novel opens with Therese working seasonally at Frankenberg’s, a department store in Manhattan. Therese is a young struggling artist trying to make it in New York (sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?). She is juggling her job, set designing, and her boyfriend, Richard, when she meets Carol at Frankenberg’s. Carol is an elegant, classy married woman who catches Therese’s attention the second she steps onto Therese’s vision. Therese cannot get Carol out of her mind, so she sends her a Christmas card without knowing what to expect in return. Carol finds the card endearing and decides to meet with Therese. The two women spend the next few weeks spending time together and getting to know one another. As Therese becomes closer with Carol, she loses interest in her relationship with Richard, and he struggles with the growing bond between Therese and Carol, eventually ending the relationship. When Therese visits Carol’s home she learns that Carol is going through a terrible divorce and custody battle. As Carol waits for her dates in court, she decides to take a road trip and asks Therese to go with her. They head west, away from the drama that they have been facing at home. It is not until they get to Chicago when their relationship goes to the next level and they spend their first night together, as lovers. As their blissful travels continue, Carol’s best friend (and former lover) calls to inform Carol that her husband hired a detective to follow Carol and Therese on their trip. The mood of the novel immediately shifts to panic and the women’s paranoia is translated through the pages. Therese and Carol cannot lose the detective, so Carol decides to return home to face her divorce and custody battle. While Therese waits patiently for Carol’s return, she receives a letter from Carol informing her that she has lost custody of her daughter due to her relationships with Abby and Therese. In order to see her daughter, Carol must not see Therese anymore. The tragic news sends Therese on an emotional downward spiral and eventually, she heads back to New York. The lovers decide to meet one last time. When Carol invites Therese to move in with her, Therese refuses only to realize hours later that she cannot picture living her life with anyone but Carol. The anticipation of a happy ending builds through the last few pages ending with Therese walking towards Carol with an open heart ready for a new beginning.

The main conflict of the novel, Carol’s custody battle, shows the harsh stigmas that were placed upon homosexuals at the time, the stigmas that may have caused Patricia Highsmith to use a pseudonym. The only factor that played into the court’s decision in Carol’s custody battle was her sexuality. She was forced to choose between her daughter and her lover. Her husband’s violation of privacy and spying proved to the court that Carol was a lesbian, and therefore an unfit mother. During this time period, if one parent was queer, custody was automatically given the to straight parent, regardless of parenting capability or attentiveness to the child. Carol’s pain was felt by many at the time.

Today, courts are not allowed to make custody decisions based on a parent’s sexual orientation. Rightfully, courts are making decisions based on what is best for the child. Feminist advocates helped make this change in our judicial system. These decisions that directly affect people’s lives should not be based on bias like they have in the past. Since The Price of Salt was written, the familial structure has reformed to incorporate the diversity of people. Marriage equality, adoption rights, and custody battles are evolving. This shift in “where to draw the line,” as Gayle Rubin says, is part of the reason these situations are changing. The idea that lesbians were not fit mothers has crossed the line and is now on the side along with all other acceptable things. Non-normative family structures are becoming common and accepted; therefore, if Carol was going through her custody battle today, it probably would have had a different outcome.

The Price of Salt is a beautifully written novel that explores sexuality and makes readers think about the evolution that has occurred since the novel was written. Catch it in theaters starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara soon!

Stone Butch Blues

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In March of 1993, transgender activist Leslie Feinberg published a coming of age novel titled Stone Butch Blues. It is the fictional story of a young woman named Jess Goldberg and the many problems she faces growing up as a butch in the late1960’s.

The entirety of the novel revolves around the butch-femme subculture. In short, butch and femme are terms used to describe individual gender identities within the lesbian, gay, transgender and cross-dressing culture. Butch refers to a woman with very masculine traits and behaviors while femme refers to a person (usually a female) with overly feminine characteristics. It has been argued that this concept is solely a lesbian dyadic system where one cannot exist without the other and ultimately gave lesbians a clear way to identify. In fact, many gay women in the mid- 20th century, identified as butch or femme instead of identifying as gay, or homosexual. This seems to be the case not only in the novel but for the 20th century as well.

Within the lesbian bar culture for the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s butch-femme was the norm while butch-butch and femme-femme relationships were not. This was very true for the novel as well. Jess from the beginning of the novel allows the reader to dive into her relationship issues with femmes and the many mentors she had (usually older butches) to teach her what was and was not acceptable in these relationships. It was also very common back then for lesbians to feel like role distinctions needed to be sharply drawn because not being one or the other meant strong disapproval from both sides. Deviance from these identities were stigmatized.

Today many young people would argue that the classification of butch and femme are inadequate ways of describing an individual. Now a days, gender fluidity has become much more acceptable. In other words, the modern day gay community recognizes that labels, like such, are limiting in themselves. If people do chose to identify as butch or femme they often say the label is more of a representation of their gender identity rather than the role they play in a relationship. This notion has made way for the acceptance of butch-butch and femme-femme relationships. So it is safe to say that these labels and their meanings, as well as restrictions, have evolved over time.

Likewise, the violence towards these people who identify as butch or femme has changed. At its core, Jess’ character is greatly shaped by the experiences of violence hence the term ‘Stone Butch’. Many lesbians in the mid-20th century who identified as butch acquired a personality  that yearned for love but at the same time did not want to be touched. In the novel Jess is raped, beaten up by cops, set up to be injured and spoken to by doctors like she was something other than human.

“About an hour later the cops brought Mona back. My heart broke when I saw her. Two cops were dragging her; she could barely stand. Her hair was wet and stuck to her face. Her makeup was smeared. There was blood running down the back of her seamless stockings. They threw her in the cell next to mine. She stayed where she fell.”

 

As suspicion of communist and queers began to mount, violence was not uncommon during that time. Butch and femmes alike were commonly confronted with a need to defend their space.  Luckily, much of that has changed. With a rise in acceptance of the gay community, the extremely high rate of violence or dehumanization of gays has dropped significantly.

What has not changed over time is the desire. The lesbian community and gay community as a whole have always desired the same thing regardless of time, acceptance.

Like in Erica Jong’s poem Testament (Homage to Walt Whitman), there has been a long history of pain for the gay community.

“& three decades of pain

having cried for those that did not love me

those who loved me- but not enough

& those whom I did not love-“

Stone butches are notoriously known for not permitting themselves to be touched intimately, and consequently are also known for ‘being hard’. While many lesbians may not be that way today, both ways of identifying as a lesbian have yearned to “resolve now for joy.

“If that resolve means I must live alone,

I accept aloneness.”

Despite how much time passes, that is something that will never change. No one in the gay community will gave up a search for joy, happiness and acceptance. In the same manner, no lesbian, whether she be butch, femme or between the two, will stop believing in that notion or lose that hope.

“How to spin joy out of an empty heart?

The joy-egg germinates even in despair.

Orgasms of gloom convulse the world;

and the joy- seekers huddle together.”

 

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Audre Lorde and a Celebration Through Labels

Audre Lorde, born Audrey Geraldine Lorde, was born on February 18, 1934 in New York City to Caribbean immigrant parents. Her parents came to the United States from the West Indies. As the youngest of three children she was raised in Harlem and was born so tounge tied and nearsighted that she was considered to be legally blind. Growing up Lorde developed a love of poetry early on from her mother teaching her to read and talk around the age of four, and being influenced by her mother’s “special and secret relationship with words’ writing her first poem in the eighth grade. Lorde stated “words had an energy and power and I came to respect that power early. Pronouns, nouns, and verbs were citizens of different countries, who really got together to make a new world”. While in high school she became the literary editor of her schools art magazine and her first poem was published to Seventeen magazine before she graduated high school.

After high school Lorde attended Hunter College from 1954 to 1959 and graduated with a BA studying library science and a spent a year at the National University of Mexico, which Lorde described as a time of affirmation and renewal. She supported herself by working numerous odd jobs as a factory worker, ghost writer, social worker, x-ray technician, medical clerk, and arts and crafts supervisor. After graduating from Hunter College, Lorde went on to get her master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961. In 1962 lord met Edwin Rollins, to which she had two kids, Elizabeth and Johnathan, and the two would later divorce in 1970. Before divorcing her husband, in 1968 she became a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo University. There she met Frances Clayton, who would that became her long term partner.

Lorde self describes herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. Lorde embraces these labels and uses them as a form of expression and almost liberation. She writes in the Cancer Journals “imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness”. Lorde used these labels as inspiration and a platform in her poetry for writing to tell of the injustices against woman, African-Americans, individuals of sexual oppression and many others. She looked at these identities, though seemingly different and incompatible, as working together to form one unique identity that encompasses all of her complexities and fully embraces them. In her poem Martha, she eloquently came out as a lesbian through storytelling:

I need you need me

Je suis Martha I do not speak French kissing

oh Wow. Black and…Black and…beautiful?

Black and becoming

somebody else maybe Erica maybe who sat

in the fourth row behind us in high school

but I never took French with you Martha

and who is this Madame Erudite

who is not me?

And in her poem Coal she openly accepts and embraces her race and say it in a way that can be interpreted as uplifting

“I

Is the total black, being spoken

From the earth’s inside.

There are many kinds of open.

How a diamond comes into a knot of flame

How a sound comes into a word, coloured

By who pays what for speaking….

I am black because I come from the earth’s inside

Take my word for jewel in your open light”

Lorde’s perspectives on labels is quite the opposite to some people’s views of labels today. Over the course of the semester, especially during the history unit when looking at Walt Whitman labels were seen as something that is no longer important or of use. It seems that one of the main consensuses was that people are starting to move away from these labels and push them aside in order to define themselves. There is very much a “you do you” attitude amongst the younger generations. The common belief may be that labels put the individual into a box and restricts them from being the complex being that they are. This rejection or unwillingness to accept a label has been around for years, and a prime example of this lack of labeling is Walt Whitman. Within Whitman’s poetry he commonly alludes to relationships between individuals sometimes without giving them a gender and has described these intimate relationships between men but refers to them as “friend” or “comrade”.  In the Calamus Cluster several of Whitman’s poems describe these intimate relationships between two men. In the poems A Glimpse and This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful, Whitman develops and describes relationships between men that could be interpreted as much more than a simple friendship

“A GLIMPSE through an interstice caught,

Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the 

         stove late of a winter night, and I unremark’d seated in a
corner,

Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approaching
and seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand,

A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drinking
and oath and smutty jest,

There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, 

 perhaps not a word. “

 

“THIS moment yearning and thoughtful sitting alone,

It seems to me there are other men in other lands yearning and
thoughtful,
 

It seems to me I can look over and behold them in Germany,
Italy, France, Spain,

Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or Japan, talking other
dialects,

And it seems to me if I could know those men I should become
attached to them as I do to men in my own lands,

O I know we should be brethren and lovers,

I know I should be happy with them.”

Even when questioned about his sexuality and his poems, Whitman denies and runs from full disclosure, while Lorde seemingly does the opposite. Lorde can be cited as saying “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”. While possibly in today’s standard these labels may be seen as confining and restricting, and that labels do nothing more than divide us and don’t explain how complex we are, Lorde would challenge otherwise. She wouldn’t look at the labels and think that she is being pushed into a box, she would look at these label and see a celebration and argue that we don’t have to pick just one aspect of ourselves to focus on or pick just one label to define ourselves. We are in control of how we define ourselves and these labels allow us to show our difference while also learning to live in harmony with the complexities within ourselves and other. Labels don’t have to be a source of confinement or a box; they can be whatever we want them to be.

“it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”

“The Platonic Blow” – A 20th Century Response to Whitman

W.H Auden was one the the greatest and most intelligent writers of the 20th century and one of my favorite poets of all time. Much of Auden’s work is influenced by politics, religion, philosophy, and love. Auden was gay and fairly open about that fact. He often traveled to Berlin before WWII broke out to enjoy the gay scene in the city and to visit his close friend Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood, whom we briefly discussed in class, traveled with Auden to China, Spain, and eventually to America. They collaborated together on books about the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war in Spain.

I will leave it to you to read Auden’s more famous poems (which is something you really should do) and instead focus on a particular poem that is not as well known. Auden wrote this particular poem to his lover Chester Kallman to be playful and never meant it to be published. It is titled “A Platonic Blow” and you can read it here. It’s worth the read.

Not only is the poem about a guy cruising a man, bringing him back to his apartment, blowing him and rimming him, but it is a finely structured poem on top of that. Auden uses internal rhyme, an end rhyme scheme of ABAB, and each line is metered so that there are five stressed syllables. “A Platonic Blow” is unique in Auden’s work because of the explicit and raw eroticism of it.

Auden and Chester Kallman

I chose to look at Auden and this particular poem in contrast to Walt Whitman. We spent a significant amount of time in class talking about Whitman and his poetry. Whitman is in ways regarded as one of the father’s of queer culture and literature, despite the fact words like queer or gay were not labels he applied to himself. It was the 19th century and these terms were not in play yet; however, Whitman still laid the groundwork for the queer literature to come. As you know from Whitman’s poems we read in class, much of his work was centered around the intersection and combination of the American nation and sex.

Auden and Isherwood

Auden, too, wrote about the nation and sex, but he chose to keep the two separate. His poem “Spain” is one of his greatest works and deals with the idea of the nation. He wrote it while in Spain with Isherwood, and it describes the country in its past, its present, and in its future. Much like Whitman, he had an idea of what he thought the nation should be, although they were writing about different nations. Whereas Whitman saw love and sexual relations between men as a reconstruction of the nation’s relations, Auden never mentions the two in conjunction. He, who was out in a way Whitman couldn’t be, chose to keep his ideas of the nation separate from his ideas of same-sex relations.

It may have been because Auden lived in a strange period where same-sex relations were not so taboo that he did not feel the connection between the homoerotic and politics that Whitman felt. The Weimar Republic was fading and war was approaching, but there seemed to be this bubble in time that allowed for queer culture to flourish for a few years. “The Platonic Blow” highlights the sexual climate of the time, which was becoming much more open than the the one Whitman knew. The poem is blunt, crass and beautifully written, and it seems to say that sex does not need the nation. It can exist outside the confines of politics and borders. Whitman saw sex and the nation as being intertwined, but Auden saw them as separate entities. “The Platonic Blow” is one step further into the explicit erotic that Whitman couldn’t take, and it show so clearly how Auden chose to keep his sexual feelings separate from his published work.

Here are some great Auden links:

Biography

Auden Reading His Own Poems

My Favorite Auden Poem

 

Renée Vivien 19th Century Poet

Renée Vivien was born in 1877 in England and shortly after moved to Paris where she and her sister attended school. When Renée was nine her father died and she was forced to move back to England until 1898 when she became of age and could return to Paris on her own. Renée published her first two books under a masculine pseudonym in 1901 and 1902 then published her third book, Evocations, under her own name in 1903. In all her writing Renée wrote unabashedly about being a lesbian. Many of her poems where about Natalie Barney a wealthy American who she had an on again off again relationship with. Another significant relationship was with Baroness Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt, whom Renée spent several years with until she got back together with Natalie Barney. Renée wrote many poems and stories over her lifetime, most revolving around her romances with other women and others featuring tragic heroines fighting against nature and oppressive men. Because of the homoerotic nature of her work it was unsellable in England and the United States and as such none of her poetry was translated in to English until the 1970s. To read more about Renée Vivien click here.

Roses Rising

My brunette with the golden eyes, your ivory body, your amber
Has left bright reflections in the room
Above the garden.

The clear midnight sky, under my closed lids,
Still shines….I am drunk from so many roses
Redder than wine.

Leaving their garden, the roses have followed me….
I drink their brief breath, I breathe their life.
All of them are here.

It’s a miracle….The stars have risen,
Hastily, across the wide windows
Where the melted gold pours.

Now, among the roses and the stars,
You, here in my room, loosening your robe,
And your nakedness glistens

Your unspeakable gaze rests on my eyes….
Without stars and without flowers, I dream the impossible
In the cold night.

Renée writes Roses Rising using nature and flower to represent the beauty of women. She starts out describing a particular women and then moves in to describing roses. Which I think represent all the women she has been with. She describes being drunk from many roses and how the roses follow her. She states, “I drink their brief breath, I breathe their life.” The rose is a common symbol for love, and in this poem Renée uses them to symbolize her past lovers, which is why she drinks their breath and breathes their life. All of her past lovers are in the garden of roses and that’s the miracle. The next few lines come back to the original girl and their interactions. The last line speaks to how Renée would feel without all her roses.
The Touch

The trees have kept some lingering sun in their branches,
Veiled like a woman, evoking another time,
The twilight passes, weeping. My fingers climb,
Trembling, provocative, the line of your haunches.

My ingenious fingers wait when they have found
The petal flesh beneath the robe they part.
How curious, complex, the touch, this subtle art–
As the dream of fragrance, the miracle of sound.

I follow slowly the graceful contours of your hips,
The curves of your shoulders, your neck, your upappeased breasts.
In your white voluptuousness my desire rests,
Swooning, refusing itself the kisses of your lips.

The Touch is a poem by Renée that is full of homoerotic text. The poem starts out with a tree and how it looks like a vailed women. Like her other poem Roses Rising the poem brings in nature to her description of an intimate relationship. Renée moves in to describing sex with her lover using the common symbol of petals to describe female anatomy. In the last part she describes the rest of her lover’s body.

Renée Vivien uses nature to help her describe the beauty of the female form much like Whitmen did to describe the beauty of the every human body. Vivien also compares to Whitmen in her use of the pronoun you to describe her lovers. Yes in Vivien’s poems she is unabashed about her lover’s sex and often puts in description indicators to show that she is talking about a women and not a man. She is also openly homosexual unlike Whitmen whose sexuality is still debated. In addition Vivien predates Whitmen and her poems are written in an even earlier style then what was popular in her time.

Read more of Renée Vivien here.