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.

Statement in support of Hyattsville becoming a sanctuary city

March 1, 2017, 7:30pm

City Council hearing on proposed sanctuary city bill

Hyattsville Municipal Building, 4310 Gallatin Street

 

Good evening, Mayor Hollingsworth and members of the City Council.

My name is Shannon Wyss, and i live at [redacted].  As a US citizen, i would like to speak strongly in favor of Hyattsville becoming a sanctuary city.

I won’t rehash arguments i’ve made for this bill in other venues; no one wants to hear something again for the third or fourth time!  What i will say here is that i do not believe it’s the job of Hyattsville police officers to do the work of ICE.  I’m sure the folks in HPD have plenty of other things to focus on without taking on the additional task of immigration enforcement.

I’m grateful that our police officers don’t ask anyone about citizenship status, nationality, or religion.  I hope this practice can be enshrined into city law so that it remains HPD policy in the future.

To those in this chamber who are opposed to this proposal, i want to assure you that, if other municipalities’ experiences are any guide, this change would not make Hyattsville a magnet for undocumented immigrants or Muslims (although i honestly don’t see why that would be a problem).

I also want to caution us against making generalizations that all – or even many – undocumented immigrants are criminals who don’t contribute to our community and that all of the undocumented folks in Hyattsville are Latinx.  Most undocumented people in the US have overstayed their visas, fewer of them commit crimes than citizens, they come from a variety of countries, they are our taxpaying neighbors, and many have partners or children who are citizens from whom they would be torn away if they were deported.

But regardless of where they came from or how they got here, folks without papers deserve all the dignity and respect that we give both to those who immigrated legally and to citizens.  That includes not being terrified of deportation should they run a stop sign on Hamilton Street or be caught smoking pot on Route 1.

I want all of my neighbors to feel safe in our wonderful city.  So i strongly urge members of the Council and the Mayor to support the proposed sanctuary city legislation.

Thank you for your time.

Hyattsville Should Protect Muslims

[Slightly edited version published in the January 2017 Hyattsville Life & Times.]

[The differing statistics used in the piece below and in the one here speak to the difficulty of knowing the full extent of the very secretive NSEERS system.]

Many groups are working to fight the incoming Trump administration, including some of us here in Hyattsville.

Ward 3 councilmember Patrick Paschall will introduce a bill this month to make Hyattsville a sanctuary city – a place where the police don’t ask about immigration status and where the city won’t assist the federal government in the deportation of undocumented immigrants. These proposals are critical in our new political climate.

I hope, however, the city council would support an additional statement in this bill: that Hyattsville welcomes Muslims and will not aid in the (re)creation of a Muslim/Arab registry.

One of Donald Trump’s most terrifying plans is to revive just such a registry. While the details aren’t clear, it would certainly include some subset of Muslims and Arabs registering their names, addresses, workplaces, and activities with the federal government so they can be surveilled for anything that might be construed as “terrorism.”

Unfortunately, this idea is hardly new. George W. Bush created such a registry after September 11th: the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). From 2002-2011, over 100,000 Muslim and Arab teen boys and men had to register their whereabouts with the federal government. They had their photos taken; they were fingerprinted and interrogated. Included in those registering were non-citizen high school and college students, tourists, and non-citizens with jobs here.

While NSEERS was in effect, 14,000 Muslim and Arab men and boys were deported. Many of those who registered were held in captivity in the US for months, often with no outside contact. Families were torn apart. Communities were irreparably changed. And yet no registered individual was ever found guilty of terrorism.

Unfortunately, both NSEERS and Trump’s blatant Islamophobia have created an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate crimes, incidents that have recently included tearing off women’s hijabs and threatening letters sent to mosques and Islamic centers. Slightly over one-quarter of the anti-Muslim incidents reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center in November and December were perpetrated by those who made a specific reference to Trump, and many others were undoubtedly also motivated by his Islamophobic rhetoric.

As an agnostic, white, queer, US citizen, i don’t want to see this horrific practice revived. So i would love Hyattsville to be on record opposing a Muslim/Arab registry, supporting our Muslim and Arab neighbors, and saying that we will do nothing to aid the federal government in its profiling of Muslims and Arabs – or Latino/as or any other group.

When the President-Elect takes office, we must respond strongly whenever he mentions such a registry. It is only through the consistent, uncompromising action of individuals over the next 4-8 years that the great abuses he promises will be beaten back. One of those actions can be the passage of Paschall’s amended bill.

Regardless of your religious faith, a registry of Muslims and Arabs has no place in the US. I hope that the residents of our wonderful city will agree and support the council in passing this important bill.

We Must Fight Trump’s Muslim Registry

[As published in the Washington Blade on January 6, 2017]

[The differing statistics used in the piece below and in the one here speak to the difficulty of knowing the full extent of the very secretive NSEERS system.]

We sit on the precipice of a Donald Trump presidency. In the run-up to the election and the long weeks afterwards, the president-elect has made too many frightening proposals to list.

One of the most terrifying is his plan to revive a Muslim/Arab registry. While the details aren’t clear (something that’s true of many of his proposals), we can be certain that it would include some subset of Muslims and Arabs – perhaps all of them – registering their names, addresses, workplaces, activities, and/or places of worship with the federal government so they can be surveilled for anything that might be vaguely construed as “terrorism.”

Unfortunately, this idea is hardly new. George W. Bush created such a registry after Sept. 11: the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). From 2002-2011, 83,000 Muslim and Arab teen boys and men had to register their whereabouts and activities with the federal government. They had their photos taken; they were fingerprinted and interrogated. Included in those registering were non-citizen high school and college students, tourists and non-citizens with jobs here.

While NSEERS was in effect, 13,000 Muslim and Arab men and boys were deported. Many of those who registered were held in captivity in the U.S. for months, often with no outside contact. Families were torn apart, communities were irreparably changed, and the fear for many was palpable. And yet not one man or boy who registered was ever found guilty of terrorism.

Fortunately, President Obama dismantled NSEERS in December. So Trump will have to go through the regulatory process of having the registry reinstated before it could become active.

Unfortunately, irreparable damage has already been done. Both NSEERS and Trump’s blatant Islamophobia have led to an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate crimes. For instance, the Southern Poverty Law Center received reports of 112 anti-Muslim attacks from Nov. 9 to Dec. 12, just outpacing the number of reported anti-LGBT incidents (109) in the same period. In one month, that’s over one-third of the total number of incidents reported to the FBI in the entirety of 2015.

These anti-Muslim incidents have included tearing off women’s hijabs, burning or defacing mosques, and threatening letters sent to Islamic centers. Slightly over one-quarter of the anti-Muslim incidents reported to the SPLC were perpetrated by individuals or groups who made a specific reference to Trump, and many others were undoubtedly also motivated by his Islamophobic rhetoric.

So why should LGBTQ people care? Several reasons.

If you’re a decent human being, the blatant, systemic profiling of any group of individuals should give you pause, especially if that profiling has significant, negative impacts on the targeted group.

LGBTQ Muslims and Arabs would be doubly impacted. Not only will they be put under surveillance for their faith and/or nationality, but they would be forced into contact with a system that is notoriously homophobic and transphobic. LGBTQ individuals caught up in the criminal injustice system often suffer greater abuse and trauma than their straight/cisgender peers. Do we want to put Muslims and Arabs who are members of our family at that risk? And how would a registry of men and boys impact folks who are trans or non-binary?

LGBTQ Muslims will have to face not only homophobia and transphobia among certain Muslim leaders (as well as from our culture at large) but increased Islamophobia outside of their faith.

LGBTQ people who aren’t Muslim or Arab know what it’s like to be marginalized and oppressed.  But i doubt that most of us have any idea what having to register with and be watched by the federal government feels like. If the thought of having that additional burden strikes fear in your heart, imagine how it must make LGBTQ Muslims and Arabs feel.

As an agnostic, white queer who is a U.S. citizen, I do not want to see this horrific practice revived under a Trump administration.

When the president-elect takes office, we must respond strongly whenever he mentions such a registry. It is only through the consistent, uncompromising action of individuals over the next four-eight years that the great abuses he promises will be beaten back.

Regardless of your sexual orientation, gender identity or religious faith, a registry of Muslims and Arabs has no place in the U.S. Will you join me in that fight?

On the Precipice of 2017

Usually, New Year’s Eve is a time to anticipate starting anew. For the second time in my life, however, i’m not looking forward to tomorrow.

The first was December 31, 2001, when we were pretty sure that my dad’s cancer was terminal, something that was confirmed mere days into the new year. And sure enough, he died about five weeks later, on February 7, 2002 – fifteen years ago this coming winter.

This time, going into 2017, i’m dreading something entirely different: a Donald Trump presidency.

I’ve always dreaded Republican presidential administrations. But this kind of dread is completely different. This is a deep, abiding fear about the terrible, unprecedented changes that he will bring about.

I’m incredibly concerned about freedom of the press under Trump, about how the Republicans already seem to be rolling over to do whatever he wants, about how he will impact the Supreme Court for a generation or more to come, about his denial of climate change and the benefits of vaccines, about his pugilistic approach to everything from warring on Twitter with individuals who have criticized him to criticizing leaders from other countries, about his total lack of self-control, about his blatant misogyny and racism, about…everything.

And Mike Pence being there doesn’t make things any better. As a homophobic bigot who believes in reparative therapy, denying both abortion access and general reproductive health care to people who can get pregnant, reducing funding for HIV/AIDS prevention, and a host of other things, his presence in the administration will hardly be a salve to anyone in any of the communities that i care about.

I’m even more concerned about how all of this will impact individuals. People will literally die over the next 4-8 years as both a direct and indirect result of Trump’s presidency. People who are deported, especially LGBTQ people, will be killed in their countries of origin. People will lose health care, which will mean in some cases literally losing their lives. Those who are denied entry into the US, like Muslims, will be killed in their home countries. People abroad will be killed in the wars that he will start. A host of individuals – LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, cisgender women, disabled folks, working class people, and many, many others – will be harassed, assaulted, raped, and killed by those who are newly emboldened by Trump’s blatant hatred of all those groups.

How many of those impacted will I know? How many of them will be ones i love? How many of my neighbors who are undocumented will be torn away from their homes and families? Will the Muslims i know be forced to register their whereabouts with the US government? Will any of them be deported on baseless suspicion of “terrorism”? Will my queer friends who don’t have my race and/or class privilege make it? What happens to the beautiful trans and gender non-conforming children with whom i volunteer, especially in school? What new diseases will run rampant, as HIV/AIDS did under Ronald Reagan, with nary a word of concern from Trump and people dying left and right? How many funerals will i go to in the coming years?

We don’t have a good track record in this country of knowing or analyzing our history. We don’t learn in school how to be good citizens, how to analyze the media, how to be critical thinkers regarding the actions and words of our leaders, how to think for ourselves. The immediate calls after the election to “unite” behind Trump and “give him a chance” show just how little we have learned from US and world history, how easily disasters in the past can be repeated, how self-righteous statements about “how could they have let that happen?” always apply to some other time and some other place.

I have little confidence that this time will be any different – or, at least, that it will be any different before it’s too late for way, way too many people, whose lives will have already been destroyed or literally ended.

How many of you reading this will get involved – like, really, get out there and do something? Repeatedly? Over and over again? For years? Will you call your representatives in your local, state, and federal legislatures? Will you read and watch things that will teach you about where we’ve been, how we got here, what Trump is doing, and how we can challenge him? Will you get out of your comfort zone? Will you support “the other” when Trump comes for them?

WHAT WILL YOU DO? Signing petitions is not enough!

If you cannot answer those questions, please stop right now and begin the process of coming up with some answers. WE NEED YOU! We cannot succeed without every single one of us being involved.

It is hard to feel optimistic about the new year on any more but the most micro level. Today, especially, i’m feeling very pessimistic about the ability of individuals in the US cultural context to organize to counteract a Trump administration successfully – or, at least, to be successful in any more than a piecemeal, patchy fashion.

Which doesn’t mean that i won’t be trying. I’ve already made more calls to my Senators and Representative (as well as entities like the DOJ) in the past 7-8 weeks than i have in my previous 44 years. My lack of job gives me the time to attend things like marches, rallies, and teach-ins without sacrificing the “me time” that i need as an introvert to feel emotionally healthy (a sacrifice that i will probably eventually need to make). I have two opinion columns in the works and hope to write more.

I commit to doing more to get involved and stay involved. Trump cannot go unchallenged.

But, oh, it feels so hopeless and useless in a US cultural context of apathy, lack of engagement, and pervasive fear and hatred of those who are different.

Tonight will not be a time of celebration. While the only thing i’ll miss about 2016 is that it wasn’t 2015, i’m not at all looking forward to the disaster that 2017 and the following years will be.

May we weather the Trump years and their aftermath in the least painful way possible. May every single one of my loved ones make it through unscathed. May their loved ones, and their loved ones, and their loved ones…do the same. May we find a national will to act against our government, which we haven’t had in the US since maybe forever. May Trump be dogged by opposition at every turn. And may that opposition SUCCEED.

May every single one of us remember that lives literally depend on our actions and involvement over the coming years.

Only then will 2017 (and 2018 and 2019 and 2020…) not be complete and total disasters for our country and for so many of the people who call it – or our earth – home.

WHAT WILL YOU DO TO MAKE THAT HAPPEN?