Just as my fellow Sagittarius Jim Morrison was finally excused for waving his schlong in public years ago, I have gone the inevitable way of fire signs (Britney Spears, Bill Clinton) and been called out for indecent exposure. Well, kind of.
So last night, I was scheduled to read via DVD with a group of other finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards (the big queer lit. awards). Since I'm too disabled to travel to readings, I put together a series of video readings from my novel, Origami Striptease, and have given readings by DVD. Last night's event was at the San Francisco Public Library
My publisher, Greg, was the first to report on the scandal. "You were censored by Lambda Literary Foundation!" his header said. Greg and his partner/co-publisher Ian had been at the reading, proud literary parents, eagerly waiting my video. A string of writers – including a transman with a female partner and the straight spouse from an anthology – presented work, but mine was conspicuously absent. No mention was made of the video, even though my name had been included in the press and the DVD player was sitting out. The reading ended abruptly with no explanation. Greg sniffed around for an answer and became tangled in a meandering series of excuses from the library organizer and Lambda representative that finally culminated in a bizarre rationale. My reading was apparently censored because it had been deemed "straight."
The Lambda Literary Foundation threw me the S-bomb! It's pretty weird from a canonical perspective. Was Gertrude Stein straight when she wrote, "As a wife has a cow, a love story"? Were the great female lyricists of the Blues straight when they crooned about bulldaggers in the Harlem Renaissance? Was Dorothy Allison straight for putting straight characters in Bastard Out of Carolina?
What troubles me is not just the gender-phobia in the conclusion that my work – which is so genderfucked – is "straight," but the ableism of silencing someone too disabled to represent her own work. When asked about making a unilateral decision to censor my work, the Lambda representative simply said, "Peggy wasn't there," and also briefly argued that my work was too sexual. Greg pointed out that two readers had straight affiliations and that another read a piece with intense sexual content. He also pointed out that the organizers had ample time to call him (or me) after the DVD arrived to address their concerns.
Since it appears the straight and sexy arguments were partly diversionary, I want to talk a moment about my lack of there-ness. I have to delve into the organizer's tautological reasoning for a second. S/he (Take that! Pronoun-obscuring!) decided to make my video invisible because I wasn't "there": I wasn't "there" because s/he made a decision to make my video invisible. For me, this really underscores the perpetuity of invisible realities. Those pushed to the margins are pushed further to the margins by nudges of exclusion, and absence makes the heart grow more distorted. To quote the homophobe-turned-Elton-John-fan Eminem, "I am whatever you say I am. If I wasn't, why would you say I am?" It really is a tree-falls-in-the-forest koan, isn't it? It's not that hard to call an absent person whatever you want.
If I had been able to present my work live, I can't imagine someone stopping me in mid-sentence, or asking to see the material beforehand to make sure it was appropriate (after all, they had selected my book as a finalist). One weird cultural assumption about the disabled is that they/we are okay with having privacy stripped away and decisions made without input. In institutionalized settings, for example, this may take the form of people assuming that disabled residents should not have a private space in which to have sex. All of the other Lambda finalists had the right to privacy and creative control. I didn't, because I wasn't "there."
The decision to exclude my work is characteristic of what goes on -- on a macro level -- in systemic oppression of the disabled. People speak for us, make misinformed assumptions about our intentions, shut us out, strip us of our agency, and make excuses for lack of inclusion. The same "he wasn't there" logic was used on a paraplegic man, for example, who refused to drag himself up the steps of an inaccessible courthouse with no elevators where he was supposed to appear in traffic court, and was arrested for "failing to appear in court." It's hard to explain the cumulative effects of such events, except to say that they quilt together into a systemic whole. Stealing someone's agency by making a decision without consulting her is a powerful, demeaning gesture. Not offering another means of accommodation, such as phone access, is an expression of privilege (of those who are "there"). It's a typical way people with disabilities -- due to being invisible and absent -- are rendered more invisible and absent.
It may not seem like a big deal, and in some ways it isn't – not this one thing. This moment is simply a useful springboard to talk about the repetitiveness of such events (and the Lambda Literary Foundation, for the record, sent me an apology). Oppression is a summation of phrases and gestures over a lifetime. Random exclusionary gestures mirror a collective consciousness of systemic oppression and violence, and this is what all marginalized people feel so palpably. This is what I'm talking about. And it is, of course, an ideology any queer organization should be actively fighting against in all of its forms.
Systemic oppression applies to transpeople and genderqueer folk as well, of course, and it's disheartening that my book was assumed to be "straight" because of pronoun scrambling. It's so powerful in Boys Don't Cry when the murderers, feeling duped, want to "know" for sure what's in Brandon Teena's pants. Isn't it interesting how often the question is about what's "there," what isn't "there," and what assumptions are made around that? These are not small questions: they are questions that nullify people, or get people killed.
So knee-jerk reactions to gender pronouns are no small event when transpeople are heckled, battered, abused, and murdered for daring to ride the subway or go into a bathroom. I interact with so many people with socially-queer bodies: some are straight people with disabilities whose bodies are treated as queer. Some are butches who have put off pap smears for ten years. Some, transitioning or not, prefer to use "he" after being called "she" or vice-versa. Some are queer femmes who like to suck strap-on dicks. Some want to fuck pronouns altogether.
One thing I love about my publisher, Suspect Thoughts, is that their author questionnaire asks authors to talk about all the myriad aspects of their queerness. In the world of publishing, it is rare to be embraced for all of ones literary and personal idiosyncrasies. In the larger sphere of literature, I don't think it's a good idea to let any rigid notions about identity go unnoticed, because it's a threat to so many writers doing innovative (even revolutionary) work.
Ironically, the DVD reading that was censored was from a section of the book called "What Made Jack Run" that contains short pieces examining "Boys" and "Girls" and is intended to explore the inherent violence in restricting and naming gender in strict binary terms. It's partly a deconstruction of gender insignia and stereotyping told through a surreal, dreamy, magical realist universe where dolls are ripped, apart, girls jumping from cakes are smeared in their frosting, and a genderqueer boy (whose gender identity is not specifically named in the book) dissolves into paper. One of the censored sections begins: "My hands on Jack were like a potter's hands on clay. My hands were firing bricks then lining wells so I could drink before I parched. I grabbed him by the balls that could detach. I grabbed him by the neck that I could shepherd with my crook." Wait a second: balls that could detach? Is that queer or straight?
Call me a utopian-child-raised-on-Free-To-Be-You-And-Me, but I really believe it's time to build ramps of all kinds and embrace difference. This is a pretty gay thing to say, right? Or is it just so gay it's straight?
And what's this about being too sexual?
Sure, the physical landscape over here is as muddy as the dirt road leading to my house. Before I read the e-mail from Greg, I listened to a message from my straight girl friend about her ex-boyfriend's dick. I checked to make sure my erotica story about a lesbian Amish teenager had gotten into the mail in time for an anthology submission. I read a raunchy e-mail from a straight guy friend who likes to try and one-up me with dirty haiku. And I talked to my doctor on the phone about a new cardiac drug after making a nutritional shake out of goats' milk. Then I found out someone from the queer literary organization that named my book a finalist in the Lesbian Debut Fiction category called me the S-word.
My friends think this is hilarious. "You are so gay. Maybe too gay for them," wrote one. "Come here & suck my boner, you hetero whore," joked another. I may write a dirty haiku about it later. Right now, I'm going to re-read Audre Lorde, who wrote her seminal essay,"The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action" after her cancer diagnosis. Lorde knew intimately how the fight against physical reductionism intertwines with a fight against censorship. "For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it," she wrote. "For others, it is to share and spread those words that are meaningful to us. But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive."
If those words aren't queer, I don't know what is. If those words don't transcend queerness, I don't know what does.
I have gotten huge support from the literary world and from amazing people around this incident, and my publishers have too. I'm hoping more than anything that the dialogue around issues of inclusion and censorship will continue. Lambda has apologized, and they are taking actions around inclusion – not just for my DVD but also in general. This is just the beginning of a dialogue and process of change that I hope will continue, with concrete action and work toward greater inclusion.
Lambda plans to show my DVD in other readings now, which you can find out about here. Also, there are links to some of the specific venues where the readings are being held: if you have specific accommodation needs that are not being considered, please write to the event organizers or directly to Lambda and let them know.
If you want to voice your thoughts to Lambda about any of these issues, please do by e-mailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
My publishers have been working overtime to make sure none of this has gone unnoticed, and they have been so killer supportive of me and my work that I don't even know what to say. Please read Greg Wharton's account of the San Francisco debacle on the Suspect Thoughts blog here.
And also check out these blogs:
Susan Stinson's blog:
"Peggy Munson and Origami Striptease: readings and censorship"
Max Wolf Valerio's blog:
"Lambda Reading - California salutes us and also -- a femme is censored"
Charlie Anders/Other Magazine Blog:
"Erasure: Not Just A Crappy ABBA Cover Band"
Rachel Kramer Bussel's Blog:
Tonight's Lambda Literary Award finalist reading and Peggy Munson's Origami Striptease
And for more blog discussion on the subject, click here!.
I had to do it: the gag order photo.