White Skin

[I’ve wondered if i should write anything at all. Do i actually have anything to say that hasn’t already been said? I doubt it. But i am somehow compelled to write anyway. Should i post this half-baked, stream-of-consciousness, working-it-out-as-i-go thing? I don’t know. But i apparently am anyway.]

White skin. One of the greatest privileges on earth. I have it, and it follows me everywhere. I cannot imagine what my life would be like without it. Or, rather, i can only imagine – and what i imagine isn’t pretty. Substandard housing. Underfunded and underperforming schools. Poor health. Bad healthcare. Terror of law enforcement. Friends, family, loved ones arrested, charged, convicted, jailed, and possibly executed. Seeing the police so frequently in my community that they are as much a part of the landscape as trees and grass. An early death from poor health or murder.

Not that i think that being a person of color in a white supremacist system is all about horrifying victimhood; far from it. But in the context at hand, that oppression, that marginalization, that life-endingness are what is most on my mind.

I carry this unearned race and class privilege with me wherever i go. I was raised in an upper-middle class white household in white neighborhoods surrounded by white teachers, white administrators, and white classmates. We read about white people in textbooks. I turned on the TV or watched movies and saw whites as heroes and presented as attractive. Characters in the books that i read could always be assumed to be white unless expressly described otherwise. The plays i was in were dominated by white actors playing white characters to white audiences. I went into stores managed by white people who never looked askance at me while i was browsing their aisles.

I have never feared the police while driving – heck, i’ve never even been stopped for “driving while short.” The one time i did get a traffic ticket, about a year ago, it never needed to occur to me that my interaction with the police officer would be anything other than civil. Today, i walked into a 99% African American elementary school for a work site visit, said who i was there to see, and was immediately sent unaccompanied and with no further questions to the gym to find the group that i was looking for – a courtesy a person of color, especially a man, would have been extremely unlikely to have received.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to experience the world as a person of color. Especially after the most recent miscarriages of justice in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Truly. I can’t imagine how i would be feeling.

I know how i do feel, as a white person who tries to be justice-oriented. Angry. Furious. Ashamed. Shocked but not shocked. Horrified but not shocked. Irate but not shocked. The continued miscarriages of justice are no surprise: they have happened over and over again in US history – and recently, not just “back in the day.”

When, i wonder, will this end? When will Black lives really matter? I hope against hope that this is a moment that will be seized to make change – real change – come about. Because let’s be clear: this is about way, way more than Michael Brown or Eric Garner. May this be a defining moment in US history. May we use the anger spurred by these two most recent decisions to do something.

I look back at the Montgomery Bus Boycott – 381 days of folks refusing to take the bus to work. In a day and in a group where cars were not nearly as common as they are today. 381 days of walking mile upon mile to & from work, where you might have cleaned house for your white employers. 381 days of inconvenient and long carpools and shared gas purchases with funds that you really couldn’t spare. 381 days of heat and rain and humidity through the miles. 381 days of shoes worn down, worn out, worn through with no money to buy another pair.

Am i willing to do something like that today, whatever the 2014 equivalent in that moment would be? How much inconvenience am i willing to put up with for a principle? For a cause? Because let’s also be clear about this point: my life does not rest on this much-needed, long-overdue, much hoped-for movement. I have the choice to walk away. I can choose solidarity – and i can choose not to stand in solidarity. What am i willing to give up? What am i willing to contribute to ending white supremacy?

These are the questions that have been rolling around in my head over the last week. I don’t know the answers. I only hope that the right moment has finally arrived for some serious change to be demanded. And for those changes to be realized. And i hope that i will be on the right side, the side of action and agitation and solidarity and sacrifice, as this movement for racial and ethnic justice takes another giant step forward. We have let the system go on too, too long as it is. Posting on Facebook is not enough; reading books is not enough. The time has come – has long since come. Change is long overdue.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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Statement in support of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in Hyattsville elections

December 1, 2014

[In absentia, in front of the City Council Meeting; City Building, 4310 Gallatin Street]

Good evening. First, i would like to thank Edouard Haba for reading this statement since I am stuck home with the flu.

My name is Shannon Wyss. I’m a homeowner in Ward 4 and would like to speak strongly in favor of extending the vote to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in Hyattsville. As a forty-two-year-old who would have dearly loved to vote at that age, I’m excited by the possibility of extending the franchise to younger residents.

Youth have opinions and views on the world that we adults rarely take seriously. Allowing them to vote would be a way of remedying one of the instances of adultism that permeates our world. And as others have said, getting individuals involved at younger ages will help establish a lifetime of civic engagement, from which we will all benefit for generations.

For those who are concerned that teenagers are “too immature”to vote, I would like to posit that we adults don’t exactly have a great track record. In deciding whom to support at the polls, some adults make decisions based upon any number of ill-informed factors:

  • how many yard signs we see,
  • whether we believe those horrible ads on TV and the radio,
  • because our parents always voted for a particular party,
  • because our religious leaders told us to support a certain person or issue, or
  • who has the easiest-to-pronounce name.

Surely teenagers cannot do any worse than that! And, indeed, with the idealism that so often accompanies youth, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds may make more informed and more passionate choices than many of their elders.

Until we adults clean up our act, we have no room to criticize young people for the ill-informed votes that they may make at some hypothetical point in the future. And if that ends up happening, there is one easy way for adults to counteract such votes: make sure that you vote yourself!

Our democracy will only benefit from having the franchise extended by two years. I look forward to the City Council passing this important measure and to seeing an increase in voter turnout and voter engagement in upcoming city elections. I welcome the voices of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds at the polls.

Thank you for your time and attention to this important issue.

Statement in Support of the Hyattsville Human Rights Act

December 2, 2013

In front of the City Council Meeting; City Building, 4310 Gallatin Street

Good evening, Council Members, Mayor, and community members! My name is Shannon Wyss. I am a voter and homeowner in West Hyattsville, and i’m speaking this evening in support of the Hyattsville Human Rights Act. I am proud to call “home” this city that so clearly respects diversity in all of its forms.

I identify as genderqueer. For me, this means that i am neither a man nor a woman and neither masculine nor feminine. If this seems radical to you, consider that it seems radical to me that we expect almost 7 billion, incredibly diverse people to fit into one of just two sex and gender boxes.

In any case, as part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community, i am pleased to live in one of the few Maryland jurisdictions where i might be protected based upon my gender identity and expression. As the law currently stands, i can be refused service in one of our neighborhood restaurants, denied a job within the city limits, turned down for a mortgage by a Hyattsville-based lender, or have one of our Realtors refuse to work with me either because of how i identify or because of how i look.

However, this is far from just about me. According to a national study by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for TransgenderEquality*, 63% of the 7,000 trans and gender non-conforming survey respondents had experienced a serious act of discrimination. These figures include:

  • 19% who had been denied housing;
  • An unemployment rate of twice the national average;
  • 22% who had been denied equal treatment by a government agency or official; and
  • 53% who had been verbally harassed in a place of public accommodation.

So the need for trans and gender non-conforming community members to be protected from discrimination is both undeniable and at a crisis level. And tonight, you can address this deep need.

By passing this bill, the Council will also reinforce a commitment to fighting racism, ageism, xenophobia, ableism, sexism,homophobia, and prejudice on the basis of religion or marital status. These values are just a few of the many things that attracted my life partner, Katie, and me here. And as is commonly acknowledged in activist circles, we cannot end one “-ism” without ending all of them. Katie and i love being part of a diverse, progressive, and accepting community and desire to be here for many years to come.

I hope that, after tonight, the state legislature will follow our Council’s example and pass a similar law. Until that time, the Human Rights Act will further solidify our city’s reputation as a forward-thinking and accepting community. By acting now, the Council can offer those like me protections that are taken for granted by individuals who are not in the transgender and gender non-conforming community.

I thank each of you for your attention and your vote for the Hyattsville Human Rights Act.

*Source: Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison,Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. 2011. Injustice at EveryTurn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington, DC: National Center forTransgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Ten Years, No Less

February 7, 2012

Ten years.

Ten years ago today Dad died.

I set my alarm and got up at 3:55am this morning so i’d be awake (more or less) at 4am ET/3am CT, which is around the time he’d died.  (My journal from the night after his death says only “around 3am.” Nothing more specific.)

I can’t believe it’s been that long.  An entire decade.  As Mom has said recently, it really does feel far away.  Not sure when that happened.  Probably sometime over the last couple years, slowly and imperceptibly.

But not a day goes by when i don’t think of him, although usually the thoughts are brief and fleeting.  Hearing a train.  Catching a glimpse of a picture of him at home or in my office.  Seeing a man with a baby.  A man babying his dog.  A man with thin lips like Dad had.

A decade.

The time that’s gone by makes me sad.  It makes me sad because all of our lives have gone on.  Not without grief and sadness and loss and pain.  But gone on nonetheless.  We’ve met new people, moved new places, started new jobs, adopted new pets, opened Facebook accounts, seen new movies and read new books, heard new music, cried and laughed and loved and lived.  All of this he has not been a part of.

And that makes me sad for me, too, that when i die someday, the lives of my loved ones will just go on, too.  Not that i would have it any other way.  But still….  It is the inexorable moving forward of time, the inevitable leaving-behind of the one who has died that seems so…hard, sad, tragic, inevitable.

People say, “May your memories comfort you,” things along those lines.   But memories cannot undo everything that he has missed – and will continue to miss.  My memories, while mostly wonderful, are also merely a symbol of my Dad’s gone-ness, his being a part of the past.  Memories are about the past, and their past-ness is tragic and horrible.  Memories are not now; memories are not the future.  Memories are about things that are over, done with, never-to-be-repeated.

There are no more memories of my Dad to be had.  What i have is what i have; that is it.  No more.  I will, in fact, only lose them as i start to “age.”  Which is why i spent so much time after Dad died typing up pages of memories of him.  No more experiences.  No more arguing and agreeing.  No more hugs and kisses.  No more, “I love you.”  No more smiles and tears.  No more rolling eyes and laughter.  No more exasperation and encouragement.  No more airport pick-ups and drop-offs.  No more weekly phone calls with him and Mom.  No more relationship growth as i get older and more mature.

The finite-ness of life, the totality of death (at least in an earthly sense).

The litany of things that i’ve done over the last decade that Dad has not seen:

  • Bought a condo and sold it;
  • Bought a row-house and am renting it out;
  • Bought a single-family home;
  • Moved to the suburbs twice and back to the city in between;
  • Lived in a 98% African American neighborhood, thereby being a proud traitor to my race and a defy-er of residential segregation;
  • Adopted two cats alone, two cats with someone else, a dog with someone else;
  • Seen one of those two first cats die;
  • Met my life partner;
  • Moved in with her;
  • Became a landlord with her (see previous comment about renting out our rowhouse);
  • Gotten engaged-for-lack-of-a-less-heterosexist-term;
  • Scheduled a commitment ceremony;
  • Been fired from two jobs;
  • Experienced personally how important unemployment compensation is – and also how fortunate/privileged i’ve been to be hired by someone else so relatively quickly both times;
  • Gotten promoted twice at my current job;
  • Finally reached a point where, while still continuing my very frugal life, i feel financially comfortable for my daily and usual expenses;
  • Had a book manuscript rejected by 13 publishers and about the same number of literary agents;
  • Had some smaller pieces published various  places, mostly op-eds;
  • Continued to do and improve my Trans 101 and LGBT 101 presentations;
  • Left the chorus that i sang with for 13 years;
  • Stopped volunteering for House of Ruth, which i’d done for 11 years;
  • Joined the DC Trans Coalition;
  • Started volunteering with a wonderful and amazing set of gender non-conforming children;
  • Got invited back to Vassar to be both on a panel and a session co-presenter during a conference for “LGBTIQA” alums;
  • Seen all my close friends who used to live in the DC area move away and experienced a kind of loneliness that i haven’t felt in a long time;
  • Tried, as yet unsuccessfully, to figure out how to make a new set of local friends to whom i am close;
  • Bought a camcorder;
  • Discovered a love of digital photography;
  • Discovered the joys and the time-suck of Facebook;
  • Bought a laptop and learned how wonderful wireless modems are;
  • Voted for the first African American president (because, frankly, i couldn’t bear to vote for the Green party candidate);
  • Watched, in person, and cried as that same president was inaugurated on the Mall;
  • And many, many other things that i’m either not thinking of right now or that are too insignificant to make this list.

All of these things Dad missed, did not experience or hear about.  A loss for him and all of us.  Because everyone else in his life has a list that is at least as long and varied.  Time marches on, life goes on, the earth stops for no one.

Not that i would have wanted that.  Most of the things in my list above are good, positive experiences.  All of them have contributed to who i am today.  I would not have wanted the world to stop in those horrible, gut-wrenching days right after he died.  Or in the horrible, gut-wrenching ones as he was dying.  And yet there is a certain sadness, horror, misery in how left behind he is now, how very much a part of the past that he is.   He is so far away from the “me” of today.   Or i am so far away from the “him” of early 2002.  Or both.  Or something.

 

**** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** ****

 

Two hours later. Just got through reading what i wrote from around the time Dad was diagnosed until i returned to DC after his death and funeral.  Between my journal and the things i typed up after the fact, i have a lot of stuff recorded, which is great.  This is the first time i’ve reread it since i finished writing it.  And i didn’t even read everything.  I have months-worth of other journal-type entries typed up, documenting my grieving process.  But it’s 11pm on a school night, and i’m hungry and have to go to bed at some point soon.

What a hellish experience it was.  So glad that it’s over.  So glad that i documented so much of it.  So glad that we’ve all made it to 10 years, even with all the ambivalence expressed above.

As John Donne says, “Death, be not proud….”

Wishing a Happy Mothers’ Day…

  • to mothers who love their children unconditionally and who set loving boundaries;
  • to mothers who accept their children where they’re at and as who they are instead of as who and where the mothers want them to be;
  • to cis mothers and trans mothers;
  • to genetic mothers and adoptive mothers and stepmothers and other-mothers;
  • to lesbian and bisexual mothers who are out to their children;
  • to mothers who never hit, spank, deride, or otherwise emotionally or physically abuse their children;
  • to mothers who break the cycle;
  • to mothers who respect their children as human beings with rights and desires as important as the mothers’ own;
  • to mothers who earn their children’s respect instead of demanding it of them;
  • to mothers who admit their challenges and who know they can’t do it all;
  • to mothers who like their children as well as love them;
  • to mothers who love and *celebrate* their LGBTQ and gender non-conforming children as much as their straight and cis children;
  • to mothers who honor and respect their disabled children as much as their able-bodied ones;
  • to mothers who raise strong children and children focused on social justice;
  • to mothers who teach their children to see and fight oppression in all its forms, especially when that oppression does not affect their children’s daily lives;
  • to mothers who expose their children to as much human diversity as possible – race, gender, class, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration and linguistic status, religious, and all the other ways we have of being human;
  • to mothers who use birth control and who have abortions when they know that having children is not right for them at the moment;
  • to mothers who openly and honestly teach their kids about sex, sexuality, and birth control;
  • to mothers who are not afraid to ask for help and to mothers who offer help;
  • to mothers who don’t let fathers get away with doing nothing to help raise their children or maintain the household;
  • to mothers who raise feminist sons and assertive, self-confident daughters;
  • to mothers who teach all their children that “no” means “no;”
  • to single mothers;
  • to mothers raising children with multiple co-parents;
  • to mothers who don’t dress their boy babies in blue and their girl babies in pink;
  • to mothers who let their boys wear dresses and their girls play with trucks;
  • to mothers who know that sex isn’t gender and that biology isn’t destiny;
  • to mothers who struggle and mothers who triumph;
  • to mothers who live with adult children who need as much parenting as young children;
  • to butch mothers and femme mothers, masculine mothers and feminine mothers;
  • to mothers who struggle to make ends meet but who still meet their children’s needs;
  • to mothers who parent in poverty, with disabilities, as immigrants, surrounded by racism;
  • to non-Christian mothers, feminist mothers, radical mothers;
  • to mothers who strive to have their children’s lives be better than their own;
  • to mothers who take time for and take care of themselves;
  • to mothers who have lives outside of parenthood and who don’t define their entire being based on their mothering;
  • to mothers who know that it truly takes a village;
  • to mothers who work with instead of against their children;
  • to mothers who encourage academic excellence, who buy their children books instead of violent toys, who expose their children to books and movies with good messages that other parents may fear;
  • to mothers who leave manipulative, exploitative, or abusive relationships;
  • to mothers who refuse to conform to sexist notions of motherhood and help redefine what it means to be a mother; and most importantly,
  • to my own Mom who is amazing in too many ways to name.

Letter to the Current Principal of My High School

[Written as part of the Write Your Principal project. Thanks to Katie for her wonderful editing suggestions on two drafts of this piece. This is getting mailed out to Viz tomorrow. So any of you who are connected with the school still are therefore probably seeing this before the principal does.]

November 15, 2010

Mary Ellen Schraeder, Upper School Principal

Visitation Academy of St. Louis

3020 North Ballas Road

Saint Louis, Missouri 63131

 

Dear Ms. Schraeder:

I am an alum of Visitation Academy, having attended the school from fifth grade through my senior year, graduating in 1991. I am also a proud part of the lesbian/ gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) community.

I have always been incredibly grateful to Viz for the caliber of education that I received there. Your top-notch faculty prepared me for college in a way that I would have been hard-pressed to get at most other high schools in the St. Louis area. I still have fond memories of many of the teachers I had during my years there – Susan Scarpinato, Laura McCord, Dan Monahan, Rita White, Sr. Isabel Clark, Sr. Mary Ann Aubin, Sr. Karen Mohan, Marilyn Fitzgerald, Janet Parsons, and, even though I never had her as a teacher, Mev Puleo. These faculty members gave me academic and critical thinking skills that still serve me today – and many gave me a degree of personal attention that showed how deeply they cared not only for me as an individual but for their students as a whole.

Since graduating from Viz, I have earned an undergraduate degree in International Studies from Vassar College and a Masters Degree in Women’s Studies from George Washington University. I now work as the Grants Manager for the National AIDS Fund in Washington, DC. I also have several published essays and op-eds and one scholarly journal article to my name and am working a book manuscript that I hope to publish in 2011 or 2012.

While the school helped prepare me for the rest of my academic and professional life, however, socially Viz was a much harder place. During my first year at the school, I had no friends at all and often ate lunch at a table alone in the cafeteria. It wasn’t until seventh grade, with the influx of new girls, that I had more than one friend. We were the unpopular students who loved classes, enjoyed learning, made good grades, didn’t drink or do drugs, and had no athletic skills to speak of. Even with this small group of friends, however, I felt somehow separate.

Such semi-isolation would have been easier to deal with if I wasn’t under the constant impression that most of my classmates hated me. I was definitely different from most of them in multiple ways: I was politically liberal, I started identifying openly as a feminist in sixth grade, I didn’t date boys or wear makeup, I was against the first Gulf War, and I stopped shaving my legs and armpits during my senior year. Luckily, I was never physically threatened while at Viz. But there were multiple times where my outsiderness made me the target of name-calling, derision, and ostracism. From my first days in Core 5, I felt separate from my peers, and that feeling continued through the time I graduated. Socially and, especially, emotionally, Viz was not a safe place for me.

I am writing to ask you to take proactive steps to protect the lesbian, bisexual, trans (transgendered), and questioning students who are at Viz today. I am sending this letter, first, in response to my own experiences. Actions such as those I describe below would have created a more open, accepting environment and would have helped me immeasurably.

The second, and much more compelling, reason that I am writing to you is my concern for your current students. As I’m sure you’re aware, the suicides this fall of over a half-dozen gay youth have received much mainstream media attention. The most recent was a boy in Pennsylvania who took his own life on November 5 by walking to an interstate thirteen miles from his home and throwing himself in front of a tractor trailer truck. These boys, who ranged in age from 13 to 19 years old, all killed themselves after repeated incidents of bullying by their schoolmates. In most of these instances, the schools had received multiple reports of the harassment against these students and either did nothing to protect them or denied that anyone had reported the harassment.

The bullying that these boys faced is far from isolated. For instance, according to the 2009 National School Climate Survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network:

  • 89% of the 7,200 participating LGBT student respondents heard “gay” used in a negative way;
  • 63% heard derisive remarks about their gender expression (not being “feminine enough” or “masculine enough”);
  • 85% were verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation and 64% because of their gender expression;
  • 53% were harassed or threatened by peers via electronic media;
  • 61% of students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 40% felt unsafe because of their gender expression;
  • 29% skipped at least one class in the month before the survey because they felt unsafe, and 30% missed at least one entire day for the same reason; and
  • LGBT students who were frequently harassed had GPAs almost half a grade lower than students who were harassed less frequently (2.7 vs. 3.1, respectively).

These numbers are backed up by my own research, and they demonstrate that many, many LGBT youth have a significantly worse time in school than I did. Such statistics bear shocking witness to the gravity of the problem facing LGBT students in US middle and high schools.

Although our culture has changed somewhat since I was a student, I have no doubt that there are lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning youth at Viz right now who are being harassed and ostracized by their peers and that occasionally such hatred takes physical forms. These bullied students are at very high risk for self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse, self-mutilation, cutting classes, skipping school, unsafe sex, unplanned pregnancy, and suicide – not because they are or may be lesbian, bisexual, or trans but because they are in a socially and emotionally unsafe environment that leaves them isolated, lonely, and depressed.

Therefore, I am writing to ask you to take proactive steps to protect your lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students. It is necessary for Viz to create an environment where all kinds of differences are respected. This includes not just differences of race, class, and religion (all of which were emphasized when I was there), but differences of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Passively hoping that such openness will happen by itself is not optimistic but is instead insufficient and ineffective.

Viz needs to promote actively this respect through assemblies, workshops, and course material. This does not mean teaching that the Catholic Church “promotes” homosexuality or bisexuality; we all know that that is far from the truth. What it does mean is activities such as the following:

  • Including overt mentions of lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgender in assemblies on diversity;
  • Talking about the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans individuals in classes such as history, art, drama, literature, and science;
  • Discussing how “abstinence only until marriage” sex education curricula affect students who can never get civilly or religiously married to their partners;
  • Including sexual orientation and gender identity in the school’s non-discrimination policy and making sure that all students, faculty members, and staff know of that inclusion;
  • Including uncensored information on Viz’s lesbian, bisexual, and trans alums in The Visitor;
  • Punishing students who are guilty of bullying and working with them to find better ways of dealing with the difficulties in their lives;
  • Protecting, nurturing, and helping the healing process of your bullied lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students; and
  • Supporting your students in the establishment of a Gay/Straight Alliance – not for the discussion of sex but so that the club members can help each other cope with the harassment and ostracism that they face.

Such actions have proven over and over again to be a tremendous help to LGBT and questioning students throughout the country. Although I was not out while I was there, such changes would have made the school environment much more comfortable for me and would have made my experience there so much happier than it was. Much more importantly, all of these actions will help your current lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students feel welcome and included in the Viz community. They can be couched in some of the basic Christian principles that you teach:

  • Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Let that person who is without sin cast the first stone.
  • Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers or sisters, that you do unto me.

Today, I am a happy, loving and well-loved individual who has a life partner and who tries to make the world a better place in both my personal and my professional lives. I still smart from some of my experiences at Viz, however, and am bitter that the school did not create a more inclusive, welcoming atmosphere during my years there. In fact, if I had to do it over again, I would choose to go to another school with a larger student body in the hopes that that school would be more diverse, inclusive, and progressive – even if that meant sacrificing some of the fantastic Viz education that I received.

I hope that Viz can create a plan to help its lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students. In fostering a more open, healthy environment for them, you will create a better school experience for all Vivettes.

Further resources on how to create such an environment can be found at any of the following websites:

I look forward to hearing how Viz plans to become a safe school for its lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students. I would be more than happy to talk with you in greater detail about my experiences at Viz and the ways that you can help other students have a better, happier experience there than I did. Feel free to contact me at any time via phone or e-mail.

On behalf of Viz’s current and former lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students, I thank you so much for your time and consideration.

 

Sincerely,

Shannon E. Wyss, ‘91

Thoughts on “Billy Elliot”

My partner Katie, my mom, my sister, and i went to see “Billy Elliot” on Broadway when we were up in New York City this week. It’s a show i’ve wanted to see since it opened – not only because i loved the movie back in 2000 but because i’ve been volunteering with gender non-conforming (hereinafter, GNC) kids for the last two-and-a-half years.

The play did not disappoint. The music is great. The plot is gripping (if somewhat predictable), and the dancing is out of this world. And, really, it is the dancing that makes “Billy Elliot” what it is and is the play’s raison d’être. It’s amazing to see adults be able to dance like that. But to see those sorts of movements come out of the body of a pre-teen is truly amazing. The boys who play Billy have more grace and coordination in their pinky fingers than i do in my entire body. The Billy whom we saw, Alex Ko, left me almost literally breathless sometimes. I would pay to watch him dance any day.

What surprised me, though, is exactly how GNC Billy is not. I’m sure it’s the same in the movie, but i don’t remember the details of the film that much, nine or so years after i saw it. Yes, Billy loves ballet and clearly isn’t into boxing. But that’s about it. Other than that, he’s pretty much a “normal” boy. He lacks the characteristics of many of the GNC natal males whom i volunteer with – the lisp, talking with his hands, being obsessed with princesses or frills or pink, the desire to wear girls’ clothes, overt gentleness, being very quiet, etc. Billy is clearly a boy who loves to dance, not a GNC kid who may or may not be trans. There is, in fact, not a hint of transness about him at all.

This isn’t a bad thing, of course, especially since his character helps open up a space for otherwise “normal” boys to be ballet or tap dancers. But i expected something different, being “surrounded” by the kids that i’m with now. Their selves have obscured my memories of Billy in the film.

There is, of course, Billy’s best friend, Michael, who has a smaller but still important role in the play than in the movie. Michael is most likely gay (it’s not stated but very, very strongly implied that, if he’s not gay, he’s bisexual or questioning) and overtly cross-dresses. In fact, Michael has an entire song about the joys of cross-dressing for boys – including dressing up himself, getting Billy dressed up, and both of them dancing with oversized dresses and skirts. This is quite likely the only song in any musical that truly celebrates male children cross-dressing. It’s quite remarkable.

Also contributing to Billy’s gender conformity is his reaction to discovering Michael cross-dressed. While Billy isn’t disgusted, he’s quite clearly shocked and taken aback. And when Michael starts dressing Billy, Billy is initially quite reluctant to partake. Eventually, however, Billy himself comes to see the fun in wearing girls’ clothes and seems to enjoy it as much as Michael does. This one number serves to affirm boys’ cross-dressing in a way that perhaps nothing else on Broadway does and left Katie and me literally cheering for “my” GNC boys and others like them.

Michael himself does not cross-dress in public and, when around other characters, presents as a “normal,” gender-conforming boy with none of the other overtly GNC characteristics of some of the boys whom i know. This aspect of Michael’s character, however, is certainly very true to the experiences of some GNC boys who keep their gender non-conformity at home and confined merely to clothes, not letting it (or not wanting it to) leak out into other aspects of their person.

“Billy Elliot” is, in some ways, a great commentary on masculinity. Billy comes from a working class family of miners in England. His mother died before the play starts, and he lives with his grandmother, older brother, and father. The latter two both work in the mines and are on strike against Margaret Thatcher’s anti-mining union policies. Billy’s father and brother conform unquestioningly to traditional, working class notions of what it means to be a man. Billy’s desire to – and tremendous talent in – dancing throws into question what “masculinity” means for them. Both father and brother have a very difficult time initially accepting Billy’s dancing and do everything they can to thwart Billy’s talents and desires, wanting him to grow up into what they consider “real” men. (There is, in fact, one very funny scene in Act II when Billy’s father meets an adult male ballet dancer and notices how big the dancer’s penis, seen through his tights, is compared to his own.) Both father and brother eventually come to embrace Billy’s love of dance and support him in his quest to pursue his passion. Billy’s lack of other feminine characteristics makes it easier, undoubtedly, for them to accept him as both a dancer and a boy/man. If Billy would be a flaming gay child, things would likely have gone not nearly so well for him. But the struggle of Billy’s father and brother to accept him mirrors that of many, many (especially male) relatives of GNC and trans natal males.

In some ways, the biggest problem with “Billy Elliot” is that it is yet another example of hero-izing boys and men who do things that girls and women do all the time. Yes, boys and men certainly aren’t supposed to dance, which is exactly what makes Billy so unique and forms the central tension of the plot. But when girls and women dance as well as Billy does, they do not receive the same level of recognition that boys and men do. And this pattern repeats itself over and over again in our culture – with cooking, painting, nursing, teaching, etc. All of these are supposed to be “women’s” fields. But it is generally only the excelling men who get extra recognition. “Cooks” are assumed to be women, but “chefs” are men. Women and girls “do art,” but the image of “sculptors” and “painters” is more often than not an accomplished adult man. Women teach elementary school; college professors are assumed to be men until proven otherwise. So “Billy Elliot” fits quite nicely into the realm of lionizing men who enter a “woman’s” profession and excel in a way that a woman is assumed to be unable to do. As a feminist, this is troubling, to say the least.

But as a queer feminist, “Billy Elliot” is also fantastic. That can’t be denied. Despite its few problems, this is a wonderful musical that may help, in whatever small way, open us the world just a little more to boys out there.

I would highly recommend “Billy Elliot.” Even if it doesn’t present an image of feminine boyhood, its lessons of acceptance of a (slightly) different way of being a boy is laudable, especially in this age of backlash against LGBT rights and against the loosening of childhood gender norms. If you can’t make it to London, Broadway, or Chicago, keep an eye out for a roadshow to come to your area.

One note of caution: while the play has no violence and no sexual content, it is full of language. It very truthfully reproduces the way that people speak, especially in a “non-refined” community of miners and their families who don’t buy into upper-class notions of “appropriate” language. If you can think of a bad word that’s commonplace, you’re going to hear it in this play – and probably multiple times, both spoken and sung, and used by adults and children, boys and girls. There is a sign on the box office recommending that no one under the age of 8 be taken to see the play for this reason. Each parent needs to decide for hirself when this may be appropriate for hir child(ren). But needless to say, your child is not going to go “Billy Elliot” `and hear “Sesame Street”-type vocabulary.

Also, the heroes of this play are striking mineworkers. Before you take your kids to see this show, definitely explain to them the basics of unions and strikes. They also need to understand what a “scab” is and what difficult decisions strikebreakers face as they choose to cross a picket line. You may also want to explain who Margaret Thatcher was since she figures prominently in the play, especially in the opening to Act II. “Billy Elliot” doesn’t occur in a political, class, or economic vacuum. And to understand both the action of the musical and the motivations of various characters, some basic understanding of unions, strikes, and scabs is critical.

Oh, and among the most often-used British-isms in the play is “poof.” Make sure your kids know that this means “gay.”

So, in short, “Billy Elliot” was great. I’m incredibly glad that we saw it and would easily see it again someday. I look forward to the time when there are flaming gay boys and macho-butch lesbian girls on stage in New York City. But until that time, “Billy Elliot” can help tide us over.

On Jury Duty, Justice, and Jails

“What is justice?” The jury duty that i finished this week has raised this question once again for me. Often, the answer is pretty clear in my mind. In this instance, however, it is much less so.

The basics of the case (last names only used in the following description). Two white police officers, Jordan and Callahan, are driving along a street in Northeast Washington, DC. They see an African American man, Harvey, whom one of them, Jordan, knows has a warrant out for his arrest. Jordan checks his police laptop just to be sure. He and Callahan get out of their car, approach Harvey, and call him over to them. Harvey may or may not have been trying to walk away from them. But because of how the walkways and fences are set up outside of his apartment complex, he pretty much isn’t going to be getting away, and Callahan quickly catches up with him. Callahan leads a compliant Harvey back to Jordan.

All this time, Harvey is asking what’s going on and why they’re bothering him, and the officers have both repeatedly told him that it’s no big deal and they just want to talk to him. They knew perfectly well, of course, that they were going to arrest him. But they often don’t tell people this in advance for fear that they might run or the situation may escalate. And i don’t like their duplicity in this, but i can also understand it.

This is where things get murky. One of the two officers tells Harvey to put his hands on the fence that they were all standing by. Harvey puts one – maybe two – on the fence. One of the officers tells him to put his hands behind his back. Harvey puts one hand – maybe two – behind his back. Jordan and Callahan both grab Harvey’s arms in order to handcuff him. Harvey, either intentionally or as a gut reaction to being unexpectedly grabbed, throws an elbow back and hits Callahan in the chest. Harvey then may or may not have turned around and pushed one or both officers.

Regardless, things now escalate. Jordan and Callahan go into “take-down” mode, trying to get Harvey on the ground since he’s not complying. They have a hard time doing this because, even though there are two of them, he’s taller than they are. At this point, we really have no idea what’s going on second-by-second. Part of this may or may not have involved them pushing or trying to push Harvey down into the mud near the sidewalk. At some point, Jordan warns Harvey – twice – that Jordan is going to mace Harvey if he doesn’t comply. Harvey keeps fighting, so Jordan sprays him twice in the face. According to both officers, Harvey still doesn’t stop fighting, although this is not what two defense witnesses testified. Eventually, Jordan and Callahan manage to get Harvey seated on the curb by his building – and they may or may not have handcuffed him, depending on who was testifying. At some point, they have told him that he’s under arrest, but their accounts differed as to when that was during all of this. The officers call EMS, standard procedure when the police mace someone.

Someone brings some water out of the building for Harvey’s face, which was red and burning according to some witnesses and not according to the officers. (Similarly, the officers claim that Harvey never complained about his eyes or face burning, whereas the two major defense witnesses both said they heard him saying that he was in pain.) Accounts differ on who brought out the water and on who – the local resident or one of the officers – splashed the water on Harvey’s face. Someone also went inside to get a t-shirt for Harvey, who was shirtless and was going to need a shirt to go into the cellblock – either because it’s cold or because it’s cellblock regulations – again, depending on who is testifying. Someone tried to help Harvey with the t-shirt. But accounts differ on who helped, if Harvey put it on himself or needed assistance, and how far he managed to get it on, depending on whether the testifier thought that Harvey was handcuffed or not. While putting on the t-shirt, Harvey stood up. And he may or may not have been pushed against a police car or hit by one of the officers at that point.

Regardless, he then started to run, made a left onto the next street, and then another left into the alley behind his building – with Callahan following him on foot and Jordan following in their squad car. Jordan called for backup, and another officer who happened to be driving by after leaving another scene got to the alley first and drove in right alongside Harvey, at which point Harvey stopped, was apprehended, either put in or kept in handcuffs, and sat in the squad car. EMS finally came but had to be redirected to the alley, and Harvey was eventually taken down to the jail, where he was charged with four counts: one count each for assault on an officer, one count of escaping from police custody, and one count of escaping from police custody while on release (parole, probation, bail, or somesuch).

This was the case that i heard over the last week and a half. The jury finished late Wednesday morning. We found Harvey guilty of both escape charges (pretty much, if you found him guilty of the first one, he was automatically guilty of the second). But we were hung on the two assault charges. It’s clear there was a scuffle between him and the officers. But the real questions where a) what actually happened?, b) were the officers’ actions excessive?, and c) was Harvey then justified in his resistance to arrest? And i don’t have an easy answer to any of those questions. There were way too many inconsistencies between and sometimes within people’s testimony for many of us on the jury to feel that we had a really clear idea of what had happened. After listening to six witnesses – three for each side – we still didn’t have a clear idea of what actually went on that evening.

What i’m more interested in here, though, is that initial question at the start of this piece. What is justice? I’m pretty comfortable with how (most) of the jury debate process happened. We were a group of three African American women, one African American man, four white women, three white men, and one white Shannon. Most of us were in our thirties. But we had one man who i think was in his twenties and a few women in their 50s and 60s. So we were a pretty age-, race-, and gender-diverse group. (Interestingly, the judge, court reporter, all but one of our court clerks, and both attorneys were also African American.) Most of the debate happened in a very civil and deliberate manner, although there were strong opinions on both sides – which is what helped to hang us on the two assault charges.

I’m about as comfortable as i could be with the two charges on which we did convict him. None of us on the jury was convinced that Harvey was either hit or pushed when he stood up for the t-shirt. And we consequently felt that, with the “cooling off period” on the curb, he could easily have chosen not to run since he was no longer in the heat of the moment and feeling in imminent danger. (Harvey did not testify in his own defense. So we don’t really know how he felt or how he perceived things at any point throughout this whole ordeal.) So while he may have been justified in fighting back earlier, by the time he was on the curb, he knew he was under arrest and he was no longer in any imminent physical danger.

But, again, what is justice? Harvey will get 1-5 years for each of the two counts for which we convicted him. (This is one of many details that we found out after the case was over, in talking with both of the attorneys.) One to five years for a situation where neither officer was seriously hurt – one was completely unhurt, the other only had a few minor scratches on one arm. Granted, his sentence won’t be for assault but for his attempt to escape. Ironically, the two assault charges, which are the much harder charges to prove and were the much harder charges for us as a jury to deal with, would “only” have gotten him 18 months each since neither officer was seriously hurt.

So Harvey will now go to jail for the escape charges, and the police can feel at least partly vindicated. But what happens with Harvey? We learned almost nothing about him throughout the course of the trial, aside from the fact that he was out on release, had a bench warrant out for his arrest, and knew Jordan from another neighborhood and had had no problems with him in the past.

But as a youngish African American man, i would speculate that at the time of the incident, he was also unemployed and likely doesn’t have a college degree. He may not have even graduated from high school. According to DC Public Schools only 72% of public school students in the city graduate. And according to the Washington Post only 9% of DC 9th graders will graduate from college within five years of high school graduation.

What does Harvey get out of this? Will the prison in which he’s going to spend however long – a prison that will most likely be outside of the immediate DC area – help him get a college degree (or even a GED) through distance education? Is the DC superior court system going to make sure that he gets intensive job training when his sentence is up? Will he get comprehensive HIV and hepatitis C prevention education and access to condoms and clean needles while he’s “on the inside” to make sure that he comes out, at the very least, no less healthy than he is now? The answer to all of those questions is most likely a resounding, “No.”

So, yes, i have helped sentence someone to be “punished” for his crime – and that is undeniably what our criminal “justice” system is focused on: punishing and warehousing people. But in my mind, that is far from justice. “Justice” would be making sure that Harvey has the skills and resources to improve his life once he gets out of prison, to make sure that he doesn’t end up back in a situation where the police are out looking for him to bring him in on a warrant.

So i am far from convinced that “justice” has been brought to bear in this case. I wondered when i went in if i could convict yet another African American man to prison. I have now helped to do that. But i’m even less convinced that i could ever do it again. It would be so much easier if there was actually some social consciousness involved in the system. But the inequities in who comes into contact with the police, who is brought to trial, who is convicted, and who is sentenced to long prison terms (see, e.g., the Sentencing Project) mean that the incredibly tall deck is stacked incredibly high against African American men in this country. And for them, there is little justice, either individually or collectively, in sending one more to prison.

The US attorney’s opening and closing statements both focused on the fact (which was at least partly true) that Harvey had made multiple bad decisions in the incident around which this case centered. What he did not talk about, however, was that people make decisions within particular contexts, that no one has unfettered choice or unfettered freedom to be whomever they want to be or to do whatever they want to do. Until those “choices” are truly choices, until people can make decisions about how to act and react in the world without being limited by their race, class, language, physical or mental ability, immigration or employment status, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, body size, educational attainment, religion — until that day, putting someone in prison may seem like it brings justice to the victims. But it will not help our society, nor will it right the wrongs experienced by the alleged or proven perpetrators, nor will it bring justice to our culture and our selves. Sending yet more African American men (and others) to prison will not usher in a country free of crime, racism, classism, or other injustices. In order for that to happen, we will all need to examine our cultural over-reliance on jail as a fix for injustices that need much deeper, much more expensive, and much longer-term solutions.