Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The light is in us: Writings of Susan Griffin

One of the unpleasant things about coming out as transgender is that you have to wonder if your old friends will still like you. I've never met Susan Griffin but I enjoyed her books Woman and Nature and A Chorus of Stones. So it was with some trepidation that I looked her up on Facebook last year.

One reads one's old friend's posts . . . that one's not transphobic . . . that one's not transphobic . . . maybe that one was relatively trans-friendly. I don't remember the specifics now but I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to look at her books again.

Woman and Nature has a narrative force which is still powerful, but now I find the painful content to be too painful. Although there is joy there as well.

Last month I came across one of her newer books: The Book of the Courtesans. I remember looking at that book when it came out, in 2001, and deciding not to buy it. At that time it was too feminine for me. But now that I've stopped pretending to be female, things are different.

Courtesans are noteworthy for their beauty, charm, courage, and cleverness. The whole time I was reading this book I kept thinking about transgender women. Not all of them are glamorous, or want to be glamorous. Many of them hate the stereotype of trans women as sex workers. But they are transgressive - another essential attribute of the courtesan, according to Griffin - and they do value femininity, however they define it. They create their own femininity, which is also what courtesans do. It's not the body itself, however that body may be shaped, but the energy inside it which makes a person what they are.

Griffin describes how courtesans went out of fashion, and why they stopped being transgressive: those two things are the same. Women acquired more options: legal access to education, employment, contraception, and sexuality. They no longer had to cajole men for money. Most people now believe that women have the right to express their sexuality however they see fit. A sexual woman is no longer inherently transgressive (at least not officially) and therefore we do not need courtesans anymore. Where is the intersection of femaleness and transgression now located? I would argue that it is located in the transgender woman. She is now as daring as the courtesan used to be.

Of course, I wonder if any of these courtesans of history were trans. It could happen - just look at Fanny and Stella. Sadly, Griffin does not explore this possibility. She does give one example of a "courtesan type" who was not a cisgender woman: Nijinsky.

I may add that femininity is not an essential attribute of the courtesan. In a culture where women are defined as sexless, an interest in sex is itself unfeminine. Griffin also tells us about Ninon de Lenclos, who at the age of eleven wrote to her father: "I have decided to be a girl no longer, but to become a boy." Her father humored her, giving her male clothes and letting her learn to ride and fence.

Later on she was imprisoned in a convent for the crimes of "ridiculing marriage and suggesting that women should have the same rights as men." Queen Christina of Sweden (another famous cross-dresser) visited her there and obtained her release.

The story is also told that Ninon was still seducing men when she was seventy and eighty years old. Of course, she was exceptional: by that I mean, it's almost certain that these men who admired her wit and audacity would not like to encounter the same wit and audacity in all women. Once in a rare while it's stimulating.

I don't wish to idolize the courtesan. Even the most successful sex worker has to do things they don't want to do - plus their careers are as short-lived as that of any other professional athlete and don't offer much of a retirement plan. But if one has to choose between beauty and courage, however ephemeral, on the one hand; and on the other hand . . . well, for example, the triumph of toxic masculinity which currently exists in this country and represents a complete absence of beauty and courage . . . there is no doubt which I would choose. We are ephemeral, all of us. But some of us are brave.
Greta Garbo as Queen Christina. Source: flickr

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"The end of the republic has never looked better"

I find myself looking back on my life. I am registered Independent, not Democrat, because in my lifetime the Democrats have not been supportive of LGBT people until very recently. For half my life homosexuals were barely tolerated. For practically all of my life trans people were horrendous and unspeakable.

And now we're here.

"The end of the republic has never looked better" is something that President Obama said at the White House Correspondents' dinner. It's not much of a joke now, is it? I realize again just how amazing his accomplishment was, to be elected twice as a black President. The old saying goes "You have to be twice as good to get half a chance," and he must have been at least four times as good, to get a whole chance. Hillary was not four times as good.

I'm not blaming the Democrats. (Although I do remember that Obama was very coy about his position on same-sex marriage.) I look back at my life and I remember when we were unspeakable. Which has been pretty much this whole time. But we were here and we are still here.

When this country was founded, white men were in charge. Yesterday . . . a significant number of Americans voted to keep white men in charge. Not a majority. If this is the meaning of America then . . . those of us who are disadvantaged under that system have to survive. That's all we can do.

I'm white. I don't identify as female. White male supremacy gives me some privilege but not enough to make it worthwhile. I know which side I'm on. We were here and we are still here.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Frances E.W. Harper: Black, Feminist, UU

This has all happened before and it will all happen again. --Battlestar Galactica 
[I delivered this sermon on September 4, 2016, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.]


In May 1866 Frances Ellen Watkins Harper addressed the Eleventh National Women's Rights Convention in New York City, where she sat on the platform with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Today’s reading is some excerpts from that speech.

I FEEL I AM SOMETHING of a novice upon this platform. Born of a race whose inheritance has been outrage and wrong, most of my life had been spent in battling against those wrongs. But I did not feel as keenly as others, that I had these rights, in common with other women, which are now demanded. About two years ago, I stood within the shadows of my home. A great sorrow had fallen upon my life. My husband had died suddenly, leaving me a widow, with four children, one my own, and the others stepchildren. I tried to keep my children together. But my husband died in debt; and before he had been in his grave three months, the administrator had swept the very milk-crocks and wash tubs from my hands. I was a farmer's wife and made butter for the Columbus market; but what could I do, when they had swept all away? They left me one thing--and that was a looking glass! Had I died instead of my husband, how different would have been the result! By this time he would have had another wife, it is likely; and no administrator would have gone into his house, broken up his home, and sold his bed, and taken away his means of support. . . . I say, then, that justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law.

We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members. . . .

This grand and glorious revolution which has commenced, will fail to reach its climax of success, until throughout the length and breadth of the American Republic, the nation shall be so color-blind, as to know no man by the color of his skin or the curl of his hair. It will then have no privileged class, trampling upon and outraging the unprivileged classes, but will be then one great privileged nation, whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain.

I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by prejudice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party.

You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man's hand against me. Let me go to-morrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars--I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia--and the conductor will put up his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride. . . . Today I am puzzled where to make my home. I would like to make it in Philadelphia, near my own friends and relations. But if I want to ride [a streetcar] in the streets of Philadelphia, they send me to ride on the platform with the driver. Have women nothing to do with this?

Here ends the reading.

The story goes, “In the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the year 1858, a young black woman entered a streetcar and sat down. The conductor came to her and insisted she leave, but she stayed quietly in her seat. A passenger intervened, asking if the woman in question might be permitted to sit in a corner. She did not move. When she reached her destination, the woman got up and tried to pay the fare, but the conductor refused to take her money. She threw it down on the floor and left.”

At that time her name was Frances Ellen Watkins. Two years later she married a man named Fenton Harper. Six years after that, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper gave that speech at the Eleventh National Women's Rights Convention from which you have just heard some excerpts.

In fact, she goes on at length – longer than what I quoted – about her experience of not being allowed to ride the streetcar and being segregated in the train. She also says that Harriet Tubman, who was still alive in 1866, was not allowed to ride the streetcars in the city where she lived. Harriet Tubman.

In 1858 black people were not allowed to use public transportation. In 1958, they had to sit in the back of the bus. Rosa Parks famously refused to do that, 100 years after Frances Watkins insisted on her right to ride the streetcar.

And here we are, not even one hundred years later. To us it seems perfectly obvious that black people should be able to pay their fare, and ride the streetcar, and sit next to white people. What’s the problem with that? How could that be a big deal?

I’m bringing this up because when we look back at history, we tend to assume that things were always simple. But when you’re right in the middle of it, it’s not simple at all, and change seems scary and impossible.