The White, Queer, Feminist Gaze and “When They See Us”

[I write the reflections below as a white person watching a powerfully affecting series. I am not writing this for people of color to help me process my feelings; that is not your job, although you’re certainly welcome to read this. I’m writing mostly for myself but also partly for other white people to read. It is our job to help each other process things like this.]

The Central Park Five/Exonerated Five, and the actors who portrayed them in “When They See Us.” Courtesy of the New York Times at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/30/arts/television/when-they-see-us.html.

My book group, the Bridging Cultural Gaps Book Club, finished watching the  fourth episode of When They See Us tonight.

Outstanding and deeply affecting and filled with so much “real” that it’s unsurprisingly disturbing. Each episode left me in stunned silence at the end and/or in tears.

From the first episode, i was engrossed and simultaneously wanted to stop watching. So very hard to see these five boys be railroaded into confessing to a horrible crime that they didn’t commit and to see their ensuing years of pain and suffering. And yet, how dare i even consider looking away? If it was hard to watch, how much harder was it to live? If it was hard to watch as a white person, how much harder is it to watch as someone who is Black or Latinx? If it was hard to watch as a white person assigned female at birth, how much harder is it to watch as a Black or Latino man or the parent of a Black or Latino boy/man?

These men were finally exonerated in 2002 and were awarded a combined total of $41 million (likely before taxes) by the state of New York. But no amount of money can make up for their lost teenage years and early adulthoods. All of the things that they missed – dating, high school, partying with friends, hanging out, technology changes, having “normal” worries about growing up as an African American or Latino boy and into Black/Latino manhood in the US….

And no amount of money can make up for the trauma of being incarcerated. Especially Korey, who was in prison with adults. He was beaten multiple times, with some implications in the film that he was raped. The years he spent in solitary confinement, trying to escape those assaults, with the consequent mental health problems, like hallucinations. There is no justice during or after such a deep injustice, especially when it’s times five.

Also, you want to talk about strength of character and integrity? Korey. What must it have taken for him to repeatedly go before a parole board and refuse to admit to something he didn’t do, even though just saying “yes” would have gotten him out of the hell of his incarcerated life? I cannot even imagine.

The stories in When They See Us are horrible in & of their own right. But part of what increases the horror is that this kind of thing happens repeatedly and all over in the United States. And that just makes it all the worse. The Central Park Five were “lucky” in that they were finally exonerated. How many other people of color, especially Black men, are unjustly incarcerated and will never get out or get exonerated?

(And to highlight the one tiny LGBTQ angle in the series – Korey’s older sibling was a trans woman. I don’t remember her being in the first episode, although there was a flashback to a scene with her and Korey that could well have been shown in the first episode. Regardless, i was so pleased to see that her truth (assuming that was her truth) was shown in this series, even if just for a few fleeting minutes. She was seen.)

I wondered from the first episode what rehearsing and filming this was like for the African American and Latinx actors. Because they are not only actors; they live as Black/Latinx adults and teens in the real world, and this isn’t fiction, nor is it the past. This still goes on today. And they surely knew that. What was it like for them to act out these scenes, to portray someone else’s deep trauma, and to know that something like this could still so easily happen to them – and might have already happened to someone they know and love. I hope there was a therapist on set, perhaps especially for the youth.

And, of course, another aspect of watching this film. I watched it not only as someone who is white but as someone who was assigned female at birth. There are hundreds of years of history there, of Black men being brutalized for raping/assaulting/looking at/whistling at white women. Or for having done none of those things but being accused of doing so anyway, even without a shred of evidence. And those accusations so often ended in death for the African American men involved – and sometimes death for entire households or communities. I’m not saying that anything like that has been done in my name; very few prosecutors would care about my queer self enough to want to reinforce my “honor” in that way. But things like this have been done in the name of people with my same genitals and skin color over and over and over and over again throughout US history. That history is part of my history.

So my watching is not just raced; it is also sexed and gendered. As is my life. As is the life of each of the Central Park Five. As is the life of every other white person and person of color in this country.

I sit here not knowing what else to write after this deeply affecting series. But i still feel too emotionally stunned and wrung-out to just return to my usual Thursday night activities. So i sit and feel and write and feel and write a little more.

Thank you, Ava Duvernay, for your spectacular work, both here and in 13th. And Selma. And for her other films that i haven’t yet seen. Thank you for being such a powerful truth-teller. Thank you for using your art to uncover stories that have not been told – or that haven’t been told in just this way before. We need you. Deeply and desperately.

#SayTheirNames:

#KevinRichardson, 14

#RaymondSantana, 14

#AntronMcCray, 15

#YusefSalaam, 15

#KoreyWise, 16

 

Stonewall at 50

There truly aren’t words sufficient to thank and honor everyone whose riot at Stonewall began 50 years ago tonight.

The drag queens.
The trans women.
The trans men.
The homeless LGBT youth.
The LGBT people of color.
Those who were working class.
Those who were economically exploited into poverty.
Those who had everything to lose and those who had nothing to lose (who were often the same).
And, yes, the cisgender, white LGB adults.

They fought for three days and nights. They threw bricks and trash cans. They sang and chanted. They taunted the police. They felt the beating of police batons. They were carried away in paddy wagons but came back to riot some more. They turned the police’s game on them, trapping law enforcement in the Stonewall Inn and threatening to burn it down. They endured cuts and bruises and broken bones. They were maligned by an openly homophobic, transphobic press. But they pressed on.

Stonewall wasn’t the first LGBT riot; that honor goes to San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria riot — also led by trans women of color and drag queens of color.

But something about Stonewall touched off a movement, a movement that would change the world. That riot lead, eventually, to my proud queerness and my genderqueer identity. That riot changed my life.

Stonewall created a group of radical, proud GBQ men and trans women (and their LBQ cisgender women and trans masculine allies) who were ready to organize and fight for their lives when the ravages of “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” (GRID, eventually renamed AIDS) started taking them en masse 12 years later.

ACT-UP at 15 YearsThat riot helped create queerness, queer identity, radical queer politics. Queer Nation and the Lesbian Avengers and the Transexual Menace. And, yes, ACT-UP. (Act up, fight back, fight AIDS!)

From those rioters eventually sprung the trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary children and tweens with whom i’ve volunteered for the last 13 years.

To Marsha and Sylvia and Stormé. To the others whose names we don’t know. To those who wouldn’t take the shit of the corrupt, abusive, homophobic, transphobic, racist NYPD anymore. To those who refused to be ashamed any longer. To those who jettisoned the shame-based politics of pleading for pity, in favor of the politics of radical self-acceptance and love. To those who tossed “homosexual” out the window in favor of “gay” and “lesbian” and “bisexual.” To those who could never have imagined, on so many levels and for both better and worse, the world we live in today. To those who literally shed blood for themselves and for the future.

I was born just three years later. Three years, three months, and a handful of days. I am part of that future. Almost all of us in the LGBTQ2SA community today are.

It is 11:58pm ET on June 28, 2019. In 1969, they were rioting right now. Right now.

May we be worthy of even 10% of your legacy, of your strength, of your pride.

Thank you.

Time for New Pronouns

In Providence, RI, December 4, 2017
In Providence, RI, December 4, 2017

[Posted to Facebook on March 3, 2018]

Shannon Wyss wants to say CONGRATULATIONS that you’re seeing hir status! ‘Cause this is important. (But, frankly, putting a form of “congratulations” in the first line – see, ze did it again – is just a way to try to get Facebook to show this status to more people.)

Shannon wants to announce to the world (or, at least, to the World of Facebook) that, henceforth, ze wishes you to refer to hir with the pronouns “they,” “them,” and “theirs.”

Why are they doing this? A few reasons. But first, Shannon wishes to say that if you have grammatical objections, they recommend you read any of the resources that they will post in the first comments below this status update. They are willing to talk about any aspect of this change except grammar; there are tons of resources out there along those lines that you can avail yourselves of that will save Shannon a lot of time and energy.

Shannon has been trying to use “ze,” “hir,” and “hirs” for their pronouns for well over fifteen years – before some of the community’s “non-binary babies” were even born. That was before there was a movement to formalize 99% of US English speakers’ use of they/them/theirs as singular pronouns. (Yes, you almost certainly do it. For instance, if someone cuts in front of you on the road, you likely say something like, “What the [fill in your expletive of choice] do they think they’re doing?,” even though you know perfectly well there’s only one driver in that car.)

Back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, people weren’t thinking this way, at least not on a large scale. So Shannon found “ze,” “hir,” and “hirs,” initially in Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors, and the words seemed perfect. A set of gender-neutral, third-person singular pronouns.

Unfortunately, almost no one else thought so. And despite Shannon’s request, 99% of people continued to refer to them with singular female pronouns. (They don’t want to hear about that being “hard,” even if those pronouns are hard to use. Try living in the world as non-binary for eighteen years and being invisible almost everywhere. That’s hard.)

Then, maybe ten years ago, Millennials came along and said, “Heck, no. We already have perfectly good words we use every day. Why should we try these other pronouns that we know no one is going to use?” Millennials started demanding to be referred to with “they,” “them,” and “theirs.” And they weren’t taking, “It’s hard,” or “That’s not grammatically correct,” for excuses. (Go, Millennials!)

Shannon saw all this going on but wasn’t willing to give up their pronouns. After all, they’d been (trying to) go by “ze,” “hir,” and “hirs” for many years, and those really, truly felt like Shannon’s pronouns. But more and more Millennials were being heard, and Gen Xers started following suit. And at some point, Shannon knew more genderqueer/non-binary people using they/them/theirs than any other pronoun. Those folks were having their identities recognized, at least some of the time, while Shannon’s identity was recognized almost none of the time.

So they decided to run an experiment when they started back at AIDS United last May. AU is a pretty trans-friendly workplace, and everyone declares their pronouns in their email signatures. So Shannon decided to try out using they/them/theirs and see what it felt like. Almost everyone at work has been consistently using those pronouns for Shannon since. And, frankly, it initially felt almost wrong, like there was something not right about Shannon having their identity recognized. Like it was a huge imposition for them to ask that others reflect back to them the way they see themselves. Shannon felt badly about every single time someone used their pronouns for months. This is what can happen when you get used to living an invisible, marginalized existence: recognition seems like something you don’t deserve, like something you should feel guilty for asking for.

Once Shannon started to adjust, however, they revisited the question about ze/hir/hirs, which still felt more like their pronouns than they/them/theirs. They realized that they had a choice. They could either continue to stick with their pronouns and never get their identity recognized, or they could change their pronouns and have a chance of at least some people recognizing who they were. Neither was perfect, and both options were a compromise.

They also realized that, by going with they/them/theirs, they would be pushing further the linguistic change already going on in US English to more widely recognize non-binary genders. In this case, jumping on the bandwagon actually was an act of resistance to the dominant linguistic paradigm of seeing only two genders. If joining the movement started at least partly by Millennials would further that goal, then why not?

After mulling over these things for months, Shannon decided that, if they were going to have to compromise, they might as well do it in a way that would lead to at least some recognition. They realized that, after years of being ignored and invisibilized, they owed themself visibility, recognition, and affirmation.

So here they are. Yes, they/them/theirs remains something of a compromise. But it’s a compromise that they intend to hold everyone to. Since almost none of you can claim never to use those words as singular pronouns already, Shannon expects you to honor them and their identity by showing them the respect that you most likely didn’t when they wanted to go by ze/hir/hirs. (If you were one of the few people who did use those pronouns, THANK YOU! You have no idea how much it meant to Shannon. They noticed it every time – just like they noticed it every time the rest of you didn’t.)

Mistakes are okay. Shannon knows how complicated it can be to switch pronouns for someone. They won’t correct you every time, but they will speak up and ask to be seen and respected. They thank you in advance for your efforts in that regard.

And to this end, Shannon is now also switching email addresses, after about 20 years with hugdyke as their username under various email services (Compuserve, AOL, Earthlink, and then Gmail). You can henceforth reach them at [new personal email address]. Yes, this is a way of making you remember those pronouns every time you send them an email. And, no, it’s not actually case-sensitive; that’s just a way of making the address easier to read, the same way that #ShannonInsistsOnMakingHashtagsEasierToRead.

How long are they going to continue to write Facebook status updates in the third person? Until they’re pretty sure that 90% of you are using the correct pronouns. 🙂

Questions? Comments? Let them know – as long as it’s not about grammar; you can have those debates with the authors of the resources linked immediately below.

And if you’ve made it this far in this long post, thank you. They appreciate the time and effort you’ve put in to learning about their identity and how you can respect it.

Shannon looks forward to decades of having their genderqueer identity recognized every time you talk about them. Onward!