Archive for June, 2012

Review: Speakeasy! Warning: Queer Porn

A quick note before we start: I am aware that usually film reviews come out when the film comes out!  That doesn’t mean that the conversation ends there.  In fact, it’s enriched by access to previous readings of the film!  So before you say, “Dude, Stephen, you are way behind the curve, Speakeasy came out in 2009,” accept that I am indeed as a person profoundly behind all curves, but that’s irrelevant for the moment.

Now, I wasn’t a porn-watcher until T.  I was a porn fan, mind you, but I looked at mostly drawn stuff–plenty from 4chan’s /y/ and /d/–to store up in my mind, so to speak, and replay later, while jerking off.  And there is much to say for porn about superheroes posted on LiveJournal.  But since going on T about a year back, I’ve taken a sharp turn–I am all about people fucking on video these days, and to my surprise it’s not what I’d consider “good porn.”  It’s all the middle-school-gay-boy-in-Richmond-VA classics: YouPorn Gay, Pornhub Gay.  When I get bored of gay porn’s cookie cutter body types and scenes, I move on to self-shot grainy DIY vids.  What I’m trying to say is that to my regret, until Courtney Trouble offered me a review copy of the full-length porn film Speakeasy, which she co-directed with Morty Diamond, I had never utilized one of her films for its intended purpose.  However, I am a man undaunted by the new, and since then I have utilized Speakeasy liberally.  But–and I’m telling you this to set the scene–I figured that as a Film Critic, I better View The Film, so I called over some of the chosen family for a wholesome night of bad Chinese takeout, bourbon, and queer indie porn.

I’ve never watched porn with anyone before.  My ex and I would sometimes send stuff we liked to each other, but that was a brainstorming process, not a communal event.  As my friends and I watched together–all clothes stayed on, no one touched their own genitals or anyone else’s, because this was me trying to be Porn Roger Ebert–I started thinking about porn’s “purpose.”  Since I got into porn vids, I’ve thought of them as strictly masturbation aids, to be watched while in the act.  As it turns out, though, watching porn without jerking off and while chatting about it with your friends is just as valid a “use” of porn as rubbing one out.  The sexuality in the room became free-floating, without a goal.  There was no pressure to perform well, because we weren’t engaging in a sexual act.  We all knew we were turned on, and we all were pleased that our loved one was turned on, but none of us are romantically or sexually into the others.  Our horniness just floated among us, a pleasant and tingly energy.  And from what I can see, lots of folks experience queer porn this way–look at the #pornparty hashtag on twitter, for example!  It’s one example of how queer porn troubles boundaries–where and how we watch porn, with whom, and why.  The team, for those of you interested, was me, a gay trans man; M., a relatively het cis lady; and P., a queer cis woman. I tell you because I suppose if you have one of those identities it’s relevant, because I can tell you that from the first scene of Speakeasy, there’s something for each of us–but, as I’m about to discuss, I’m not so sure if our identities and your identity are relevant to whether you’re likely to get off to this porn.

We open on a shot of Billy Castro, who plays a Chandler-esque private eye in Speakeasy‘s fantasy 1920s setting.  He’s writing in a notebook with a–Uniball gel pen?  Rest assured, I’m not making a dig at Speakeasy‘s production value; rather, I think the placement of this pen is intentional and important.  Keep it in mind, and I promise I’ll talk about it later.  Me and my brave fam are barely into our chow mein and Solo cups of bourbon and ginger ale when Tomcat starts fucking Lorelei Lee, and she is red-faced and begging and squeaking beautifully and Tomcat keeps telling her to shut up and we all start shifting in our seats a little.  This brings in a question for me: what’s the relationship between porn and sexual identity?  Why am I, though totally uninterested in sex with women, so hot and bothered watching Lorelei Lee get ravaged? Tomcat, a trans guy, is hot too, but right now I’m staring at Lorelei.  Tomcat ravages her, pushes her into all manner of objects and spanks her over them–God, how nice to watch porn in which you know consent has been carefully negotiated!  And I’m riveted.  I know immediately that I’ll return to this scene when my fam is gone.

What does this mean for my homosexuality?  Should I be reevaluating my gay identity?  And both of the subject positions in this scene look good to me–that is, I’d just as soon be Tomcat and ravage Lorelei as be Lorelei with Tomcat ravaging me.  Does this mean my gender is implicated?  What does this porn mean for my identity?  That’s the question conventional wisdom would have me ask, but instead, I’d like to ask a different question: What does my identity mean for this porn?

Plenty of identities are represented in Speakeasy, but we’re never given a rubric for which performer identifies as what.  Certain of them I recognize–for example, I know that Jiz Lee is genderqueer, and I can garner a little from performers’ presentation–but otherwise, queer porn liberates the viewer from mainstream porn’s tyranny of categories.  No kind of movie is more tyrannical about categories than porn, and in no other kind of movie are the stakes so high for the audience when they choose what genre to watch.  When my friend Jessica goes to see The Avengers three times (true story) it just means she’s a geek, but getting off to gay porn makes you gay and getting off to straight porn makes you straight.  Never mind how many straight women like dyke porn, or how many gay men appreciate it when James Deen fucks Ash Hollywood’s throat.  And obviously the queer women who dig gay male porn don’t undergo a magical transformation of their sexual and gender identities.  Where did we get this idea that who we like to watch fucking is the same as who we like to fuck?  Predictably, the only people who get a pass on this rule are straight men: no one ever questions a straight guy who likes to watch two girls fuck.  But even their pass isn’t total–if he’s walked in on spanking it to some glorious man on man sodomy, you can bet he’ll get some questions.

The movies of folks like Trouble, Diamond, and other queer pornographers like Tobi Hill-Meyer and Shine Louise Houston, fall under no category but “queer.”  So if you like this stuff, you may be queer, but beyond that good luck policing your own identity as you watch.  Speakeasy has many scenes, and though individual ones sometimes appear on her website NoFauxxx, films like this one are best enjoyed (in my opinion) all in one sitting.  Or lying down, or however you prefer to have your evenings of total boundary-destroying self-love.  Performers of different identities move through the piece without warning, and if you get turned on by someone who belongs to a category you thought you weren’t attracted to, well, there you go.  There’s no way to shut your eyes for fear of the gay–or of the straight, or of the pansexual, or anything else.  After Tomcat and Lorelei Lee, there’s a scene that features Dallas Fivestar suspending Jiz Lee and then giving them the hat Dallas was previously wearing, something I find both cute and hot to such a degree that something weird and hat-related must be going on with me.  And with a brief pause, we cut to two trans guys getting distracted from their bartending duties, and maybe I have a weird bartending thing, I don’t know.

This is queer doing the work that queer was conceived to do as a concept: to challenge all static or discrete categories of identity.  Queer porn is here to do that work, and Trouble’s porn does it.

Funnily enough, up to this point I’ve barely mentioned Billy Castro, star of the show.  He’s hot in an almost retro way–the way I got this gig, in fact, was by comparing his sex appeal to Marlon Brando’s.  As a queer femme, that titillates me.  I’ve always been into that base “straight boy hot blow job in locker room” kind of thing.  The other week, I watched this straight blond guy play frisbee on the college lawn for like thirty minutes, you get it?  Not in that boring masc4same way, but in the way where I know I’m looking at something I can’t have and thus don’t actually have to you know, deal with.  I made out with the het guy who played Rocky in my Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast.  You get what I mean.  With Billy Castro, there’s another level for me: the guy is straight and queer at once.  Heaven.  Despite my crushes on straight boys, I’m most attracted to subversion, and a classically butch straight man who’s also trans is pretty much my perfect fantasy.

Not everyone is on my wavelength, though, and as a matter of fact Castro’s specific performance of masculinity has brought Speakeasy under fire from some folks on charges of misogyny.  After all, Castro’s scenes with his leading lady–in fact, pretty much all of Lorelei Lee’s scenes–feature treating women badly.  I’ll level with you: I simply do not know about all that.  As a man, I can’t and shouldn’t dictate the terms here, but I think I can ask some good questions: what if reading this film as misogynistic denies its auteur, Courtney Trouble, her agency, and sells short the complexity of her deceptively simple fuck flick?  What if this reading uses dominant ideas that are at bottom patriarchal to deny a woman permission to satisfy her kinks?

As I mentioned before, in one of Speakeasy‘s first shots Castro is writing in his notebook with a plainly anachronistic pen.  It’s un-20s, and not by accident.  The shot is a close one, the pen right in the frame–there’s no pretense here that the viewer will really think the film takes place in the past.  The audience of Speakeasy must willingly suspend their disbelief, just like I did when I went to see The Avengers, except then my only motive was geeky fun.  For Speakeasy‘s viewer, the motive is much stronger: getting off.  Suspension of disbelief–and/or Jiz Lee–is integral to sexuality.  The costumes and props in this film aren’t high end.  They recall what a lover and I might pull together for a spot of retro hanky-panky.  (If you read me regularly, you may have guessed that I kink hard for history.)  Rest assured, the hotness of each actor is shown off to distraction, but this ain’t Masterpiece Theatre–and it’s better that way.

We know that in the 20s shitty misogynistic treatment, like the kind Castro and Tomcat give Lee in the film, went unquestioned in heterosexual romances, and queerness happened in silence more often than out loud.  (I’m not saying the 20s were The Dark Ages, so for the moment can we accept that I’m using certain values of “in silence” and “out loud” and “unquestioned”?  Cool.)  Trouble and Diamond choose to set their film in this period because the darkness of it is sexy.  Why is it sexy?  Patriarchy embeds things deeply in us, and even when we have unlearned such things a little, their vestiges remain.  The good news is that those vestiges can be plenty hot to play with.  I’m rereading Gender Trouble at the moment, for a project with Original Plumbing, and Butler speaks often of this.  If we accept that systems of power, like patriarchy and heterosexism, are productive in nature–that is, that they mold us as subjects–then we’re led to a more fun notion: we get to do what we want with what they’ve instilled in us.  In Speakeasy, the patriarchal atmosphere of the pornographers’ vision of the 20s serves to fetishize queer sexuality, and when there are clearly negotiated boundaries of consent and ethics, fetishization can be fun.

When I say that the film has clearly negotiated boundaries of consent, I mean that the directors constantly tip off their audience that this isn’t really the 20s, and that behavior like this is not ok.  Castro’s pen is just one example.  (So is the adorable fact that he clearly does not smoke, and handles his period appropriate cigarettes like a non-smoker.)  While the bartenders fuck behind the bar, numerous anachronistic bumper stickers are visible.  The performativity of the characters’ fucked up behavior is made explicit, and as you watch that happen, you also realize how upsetting it is that in most porn the performativity isn’t made explicit.  Watching Speakeasy with an eye to its intentionally obvious performativity, we realize that the performers are queers dressing up and playing in ways that turn them on.  That turns me on way more than a meticulously accurate 1920s, which in fact, given Castro’s character’s misogyny, would upset me.

Trouble enacts her kink for the ravaged femme, and she never lets the audience forget a femme holds the camera and shouts “Action!” and “Cut!” to whoever’s doing the ravaging.  You can practically hear her giggling with aroused and empowered glee when Lee looks up at Castro in a post-fuck haze.  Again, I’m not here to dictate what is misogyny and what isn’t, but what I can say is that the idea that this woman’s kinks have implications for her politics makes me feel weird in a not-fun way.  Again, we run into the dangerous and reductive idea that porn acts upon us–that we are changed by what turns us on.  Instead, why not work towards a model of porn and sexuality in which our agency is centered, and we realize that in fact porn is changed by us?

In some ways, Speakeasy recalls John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, because they’re both about titular clubs in which queers give free reign to their freaky sexual desires.  And as with Shortbus, there’s plenty to say in Speakeasy about what the space of the club means–how the characters enter it and either change or are changed, as when Jiz Lee and Dallas Fivestar switch gender presentations upon their entrance to the club.  Castro’s PI enters the club as a regulating heteropatriarchal literally policing force–until he’s seduced into human fuckage, at which point his own queerness is exposed.  He’s trans.  The equipment he’s fucking with isn’t what he’d be fucking with if he weren’t secretly a part of this clandestine queer world.

The narrative subversion of Castro’s hegemonic role echoes the film’s anachronism-based subversion of his character’s patriarchal behavior: in the end, it’s all in the service of Diamond, Trouble, and their audience, her kinks, his kinks, kinks and the kinks of the man-hatin’ heterophobic sexy queers such as myself who fap and schlick and otherwise rub out orgasms to her work.

This has been an awfully cerebral porn review, hasn’t it?  Here’s some more practical information: A++, would fap again.

You’ll especially like it if you kink for history, rough sex, squirting (incredible enough squirting that my friends and I literally paused the movie to discuss how impressed we were), rope, and both the good old butch/femme dynamic and various twists thereof.  It also features my current favorite trans boy on trans boy scene, one between Syd and Moustache Malone, who sucks cock with the enthusiasm of a boy giving his first blow job and the skill of a seasoned sinner.  Both boys keep their shirts on, incidentally, something I appreciate–partial clothing is often a necessity for trans folks to feel comfortable during sex, and sex with shirts can still be quite the party.

I hope that I’ve been helpful, in my snot-nosed cultural studies way.  Go buy this porn, either on DVD or by download!  Support hot queers fucking how they want to fuck!  And a huge, huge thank you to Courtney, first for offering me a review copy and second for somehow accepting that I am the most neurotic about my writing who has ever lived–she sent me the movie months ago, and I have only now rendered my review into something I considered fit for human eyes.

And you have no idea how long I’ve considered adding “Billy Castro…call me, maybe?” to the end of this review.

Billy Castro…call me, maybe?

Sundry Updates: Ms. Magazine Roundtable & Allen Ginsberg Marathon

Remember that Ms. Magazine roundtable on trans feminism?  It happened!  It’s posted!  A million thanks to Avital Norman Nathman for making this happen (and for taking on fellow cis feminists in comments sections when they started in with the TERF stuff).

Part 1 – introductions

Part 2 – cis dominance of the feminist movement

Part 3 – how cis feminists can be allies to trans feminists

This thing was such an honor to be part of, and such a BLAST too.  I learned a lot.  I want to say one thing, which is that I’m currently in flux about whether or not men should claim the term “feminist.”  Right now, I’m “a queer femme guy who is trying to be an ally to trans feminists,” or more simply, “a no wave femmeinist.”  That’s not something I was thinking hard enough about at the time of the roundtable, but my thoughts on it have evolved.

 

Sundry updates, part 2, the revenge of the update:  I’m currently interning at SPLAB in Seattle, a center for poetry and spoken word.  We just had an event, the Allen Ginsberg Marathon, where we read poems until dawn in honor of the great man’s birthday.  I read, and got to hear fabulous performers like the Band of Poets, Mickey O’Connor, and my current boss, Paul E. Nelson.  Here is VISUAL DAGUERREOTYPE DOCUMENTATION

 

That’s me with Paul, who I mentioned before, and Melet, the cellist of Band of Poets.  (They are a band who are all poets.)

PARDON CECE & REMEMBER THE WORLD

CeCe McDonald has just been sentenced.

This woman survived a racist, transphobic hate crime, and for that crime she’s being imprisoned.

Pay attention.  Please remember that this is the country you live in, if you live here.  This is what it looks like, this is what it does.  I’m not saying you should cry all the time, or explode, or limit your emotions to anger–I think you’ll find that if you try to live with facts, happiness will become more difficult for a while and then you’ll eventually explode into health, because you can’t be healthy without putting yourself in opposition to a country that imprisons a woman for daring to refuse to die.

CeCe is going to be imprisoned with men. The most chilling thing I have read in a while is the official statement regarding CeCe’s gender: “because he is being housed as a male with Hennepin County.  We will intake him as a male at St. Cloud prison.  We will assess him as any other offender would be assessed”  These people don’t see CeCe as a person, but as an “offender”–another black and gender-variant body that does not fit the white supremacist and transmisogynistic American project.

If you think for one minute, by the way, that this injustice is primarily about CeCe’s transness, think again–this is about race.  Be present in that fact, especially if it hurts.

I’ve been trying to be healthy and okay and resistant, trying to do decent things with decent people and be kind and remember.  Half my head is shaved and half is longer; you might know that.  As a gesture of solidarity and a way for me to remember the world, I’m leaving at least the longest lock of it uncut as long as CeCe remains imprisoned.  I encourage you to do something like this too; my particular praxis works for me, but they might not for you. What I’m doing is inspired by CAConrad’s WAR HAIR. (Read him! Know him!)  Do please try to find a praxis that works for you, that encourages rage, kindness, and health.  I’m leery of posting pictures of this progression because this is not about my body, but about remembering, holding yourself accountable for the violence in which you’re complicit, and trying to find a way of life that is both livable and honest in an unlivable, dishonest country.

This makes me think of Himanshu Suri’s song “Juveniles Detained At Guantanamo Bay,” in which he recites the names of the kids that the US is torturing, then says, “I want my loved ones to all stay right near me.”  We have to confront being alive and loving each other while confronting the horrors we perpetuate.

Comment and share something you plan to do until CeCe is free.  Make sure it is something that you will do every day, that will constantly remind you what is important in the world.  Maybe before you pour your coffee, you say her name, to honor her.  Maybe before you go to bed, you write another sentence in a letter of support you plan to send her.  Maybe instead of buying the sandwich you normally buy at the corner near your job, you bring lunch from home, then sit and meditate on injustice for the duration of the time you’d ordinarily take in walking to the deli.

As CeCe has said in her blog, “We have to be the matriarchs of this society.”  We make the world.

Write CeCe a letter.

Send her a book.

Donate to her support fund, because not only are they imprisoning her for surviving, they are fining her.

Contact Governor Mark Dayton and his Lieutenant Governor, Yvonne Solon, and demand that they pardon CeCe.

Read what she has to say about herself.  It’s beautiful.

 

ETA: In a cleansing gesture, I shaved most of my head yesterday, instead of proceeding with what I had before.  Forward!

Cultural Criticism on the Empire Builder Trans-Continental Train

I sit in the observation car for a long time, because the scenery is fantastic.  I’ve been on this train for a day and a half–two days and a half if you count the trip from New York to Chicago.  Now I’m going from Chicago to Seattle and there are great stretches of land that look almost flooded, with spines of trees reaching up and what seem to be the remains of shacks or broken boats, but I realize that in fact these are bodies of water, probably the Great Lakes, because we’re coming up on Minneapolis.  It makes me aware of how coastal I am–I know the geography of California and New York, but confronted with Midwestern lakes and rivers I’m–excuse me–all at sea.  When we got onto the train there weren’t two seats open for me and my boyfriend, and I had to sit next to this terrifying piece of cissexuality who made me acutely anxious, but now everything’s ok.

An Amish family has overtaken one of the car’s tables; they play various card games and smile at everyone.  I have the image of the Amish that I guess most people have–quiet, insular, and unfriendly to outsiders–because I’ve seen them once or twice, plus the Harrison Ford movie Witness, so I expect them all to be ice queens of the Kelly McGillis type, but these are friendly and chatty.  They borrow phones, or ask others to talk on the phone for them, so they can communicate with drivers who’ll take them from the train station to their final destination.  There is apparently a large industry of people who drive the Amish.  The more you know.  This particular family has several small girls who traipse around the car smiling under their white bonnets.  The combination of white bonnet and dark-toned simple dresses makes the girls look more delicate than they might look in the jeans or sweats worn by the other little kids on the train.  A boy who I assume is their older brother looks around with the guarded expression of your average male adolescent, and I can’t help wondering about his sexuality, because he’s at the age where he’s just starting to have one, or know that he has one.  Plus I have the well read urban queer’s lust for the rural and straight, where you think about them squirming and gasping and rolling in hay.  This boy’s blond bowl cut unfortunately forestalls the fantasizing I’d normally do with such a Flannery O’Connor-ish ruddy and suspendered masculinity.

After a while, the kids go to bed, and a teenage girl is left sitting across from the bowl cut wearing boy.  They talk occasionally in very quiet voices, and at the table across from them a group of young men are playing cards.  The card playing men have names like Frank and Jim, curse often, and drink from little travel-sized liquor bottles.  They’re playing Texas Hold-‘Em because they figure everyone in the country knows how to play it.  I hear them say this and am acutely aware that I don’t know how to play Texas Hold-‘Em, so much so that I almost want to turn around and say so.  I’m writing a short story about a trans boy in a notebook, though, and our worlds don’t intersect at this time.  The juxtaposition of gambling and cussing and drinking with the Amish adolescents strikes me as funny, in the way that the world organizes itself into tableaux that seem to be establishing scenes in novels.  It’s like the Amish kids are having it explicitly modeled for them just how vain and sinful the world of “the English” is.  (I know from Witness that they call us the English, but on reflection it is very very probable that this is inaccurate.)

We’re late getting into Minneapolis, and I try to get off the train for some air.  The card players do too, and one of them at least is very drunk.  His name is Frank and he keeps trying to get the other one–Jim?  Tad?–into an argument about the 49ers vs. the Green Bay Packers.  We’re in close proximity, waiting for the train doors to open, so we start to talk and I try to make a joke about how little I know of sports–it’s all Greek to me! etc–but it gets subsumed in Frank’s drunken happiness.  He’s pleased, I think, that he’s managing to pass so much of this train ride drunk, playing cards, talking to people he vaguely knows.  This is a kind of happiness specific to the cross country train–just overjoyed not to be bored and insular.  For me, that’s a distillation of what happiness basically is–a loss of interiority, getting to watch lakes go by with other people instead of by yourself.  This might be why I like trains so much.

I’m used to happily drunk straight cis guys on trains, and I actually mind them a lot less than I mind straight cis guys in any other form.  On my last cross country ride, this pair sat across from me–one English guy and one American–and I didn’t even get mad when the American guy suggested I become a magician’s assistant.  “You’d just have to dress up in a cute little outfit,” he said.  This was before testosterone, and I said, “You don’t think I’m a girl, do you?  I’m just a really pretty guy,” and he said, “Can I take a picture of you?”  I said sure, for some reason.  Probably because I was charmed by him–he offered me drinks, though I declined, and his conversation was great–earlier he’d intimated to me that he will never in his life go hungry because of he is willing and able, if needed, to kill and eat deer, squirrels, and other animals.  So somewhere out there is a picture of me taken by that man on his disposable camera, because he was interested in something of what he saw of me from under the bill of his faded blue cap.  Still, at Union Station in LA I walked away from the train fast, made my dad practically run with me to the car, because I was worried he might follow me.  The cis straight guys I talk to on trains are a lot more threatening off trains then on them.  We all deal more easily with what’s liminal when we’re somewhere liminal ourselves, in flux, traveling.

Now, we step off the train into the Minneapolis chill.  Thank god for free air.  Train passengers exchange first names, hometowns, points of origin, destinations, always.  Frank is from Montana, and that’s where he’s traveling home to, to visit his hometown.  He goes to school in Wisconsin, where he’s coming from.  A mom is carrying a kid into the station, and the kid is looking out over her shoulder with the disturbed delight of the very small person.  He points out how cute the kid is, and I completely agree.  He says he’s a kid fanatic, which is a bit creepy until:

“What are you studying?” I ask.  He says, “Elementary education,” which makes it slightly less creepy, although he is still a very drunk man cursing copiously in front of kids, but who can judge upon first acquaintance, so take from all that what you will, I guess is the moral of that story.  “And Native American studies, because in Montana–” he hitches up his whole face and talk-laughs out, “We got a lot of Indians.”  I have no idea what my face did when I heard this remark, but I’m pretty sure I looked exactly as angry as I felt.  He was too drunk to notice.

It’s important to note that he’s also white, as far as I can tell, and working class, as far as I can tell, and I am very aware of my expensive blazer that I’m wearing, and of my expensive education which has helped me learn to feel weird about white guys studying Native American studies because of having “a whole lot of Indians around.”  And then I feel uncomfortable about my brain thinking that my social class has taught me how to interrogate my whiteness, because that plays into classist ideas about the racist “redneck,” and I basically fall into a black hole of thought, and before I know it Frank is talking about his tattoos, because he’s getting an owl tattooed on his side because “the Indians–it symbolizes wisdom, and for them that’s actually a female trait.”  He has more, religious stuff, Catholic, a cross on his arm that he shows me, and a big back piece featuring the Virgin which he doesn’t.  He’s getting half his back done in Catholic iconography and half Native American.  He says “Northeastern,” and that’s as specific as he gets.

After I ask what he studies I tell him I study poetry, and he says, “I fucking love poetry!” with lit up eyes and a huge smile.  It is very hard for a poetry student not to enjoy someone who reacting to their studies like that.  And at tattoos, I mention how much I enjoyed watching my ex-boyfriend get tatted with a tarantula.  I look away from him as I say it, not deliberately, but my unconscious motivation is I can only assume not to see his hypothetical flinch at the word “ex-boyfriend.”  The conversation continues and we talk about the tattoo my ex got and its meaning, and whether or not he flinched when I looked away he doesn’t seem discomfited.  Which leaves a variety of options, including but not limited to a) he is drunk, so my queerness didn’t, ahem, penetrate; b) he is totally down with queer stuff; c) he is homophobic and hiding it well out of tact, kindness, or one of the other many possible reasons.  My guess is it’s some combination of options b and c.

I came out to a woman on my last cross country train, while we stood in the dusk somewhere in Indiana, and she assured me everyone in my life would come around.  She was middle-aged and kind and had long dirty blonde hair; she was moving back West to live with her well-monied daughter because she had lost her own job, and she could help take care of her sisters’ kids.  She also served as a buffer between me and the more rambunctious able-to-kill-and-eat-deer photographer guy.  I have done her a great disservice in forgetting her name.

I get back onto the train when Frank goes in to buy chips at the station.  It’s dark inside; they’ve shut down power so as to connect with another car, and my boyfriend is asleep.  I sit down next to him for a while and write.  During my layover in Chicago, where I have just left, I got to see Jamie, who mentioned that he loves watching movies with cultural studies people.  I would like to tell Jamie–and probably will, when I see him again on the Chicago layover on the way back–that taking trains is Candyland if you’re into cultural studies.  People just open out to be dissected, like Frank, with his appropriative tattoo plans and affection for poetry and willingness to accept the fact that I have an ex-boyfriend; like the guy who wanted to photograph my body because he’d misread it and luxuriated in that misreading.

Or–here, I’ll tell you a really good one–one time, there was the guy I talked to for like an hour and a half, and his daughter.  He was in agriculture, and disparaged me for spending all my time on the coasts.  “See the middle of the country!  All that stuff you call flyover,” he said.  He’d been in some vaguely colonial line of work in South Africa which he did not explain to me fully, but when I told him how I was reading Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi he went into a long diatribe about how Africans didn’t know anything about agriculture and how that was the reason for famine in postcolonial countries.  I was fresh out of my first real education on postcolonial discourse, and I lit into him for that, but his daughter–probably about fifteen, and interested in studying sustainable agriculture–wanted to talk about the Vampire Chronicles.  This guy, splendidly enough, turned out to be way into Anne Rice, and his favorite was The Vampire Lestat, and he had only the first knuckle of his left middle finger.  I cannot recommend trains over airplanes highly enough, if you are into people.  Everyone has these infinitely complex lives, and a lot of them are incredibly fucked up, but on trains you end up talking to them about Lestat of all things, and as I remember it all three of us found common ground in talking shit about Twilight, which might actually be in this day and age the great equalizer.

I know that not everyone has the privilege to let this stuff roll off their back.  I am white; Frank’s talk of his tattoo does not make me unsafe.  Some of it does not roll off my back–the people who are looking at my body and staring at my gender, for instance, but a lot of it does.  I try to be Isherwood-esque about it–a camera, because these privileges enable me to see and record certain things–I’m trying to give you some idea of the lens of this camera, and where the photographer’s privileges enable him to place it.  I guess it’s worth noting how disability works with trains, too–they’re way better for my anxiety than planes are.  Although as far as I can tell trains aren’t accessible to people who use wheelchairs, a guy who uses a cane and deals with seizures tells me that his disability prohibits him from taking planes, and he’s grateful for Amtrak in this regard.

It’s possible that Frank will go out to Alaska, where he tells me they’ll pay for his college if he goes to teach, and have some revelatory educational experience with something he reads or someone he meets, and get a clue about why saying “I love Native Americanism” is a problem.  Hopefully he won’t get the tattoo.  It’s possible that the sustainability-loving daughter of the agriculture worker who loves Lestat will read Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance and start huge fights with her dad over the Thanksgiving dinner about his bullshit racist colonial ideals.  It’s possible that the guy I ran away from at Union Station will have a niece or nephew or brother or sister come out as trans, and will go to an ally workshop and really internalize it, and will join Trans Youth Family Allies and spend time saying to other cis people, “Hey, how the hell do you think that person felt when you told them they were in the wrong bathroom? Have some respect.”

And I will keep going, doing this, whatever it is: noting the people around me, careful to be critical of what I see and what I think and feel.  I will remember that the train I ride today, will ride tomorrow and the next day, is called the Empire Builder, and as I look at the beautiful country I travel through I will remember by what violence I came to look at it.  I like living at the intersection of literature and social justice; after all, I’m in damn good company here, and I get that cool understanding of everyone as an infinitely complex human being that I think literature offers like nothing else.  I think that this is probably what I am supposed to be doing, meeting people and talking to them.  I didn’t talk to Frank about his tattoo or his ideas this evening, because he was awfully drunk and awfully cis, but we will be on this train for two days more.  I don’t think I can change those ideas, to be honest, but I can keep on talking to people, so I will.



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